One of the biggest challenges which make the completion of your trek uncertain is the possibility of being struck by Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). I’ll start with a quick background on altitude sickness.
As one climbs above 8,000 feet, the atmospheric pressure starts to fall noticeably. With every breath you take, less oxygen reaches your blood. Your body copes by breathing harder and longer. When you are climbing uphill, this is more acute. Persistent increased breathing builds up carbon dioxide in the blood.
As you climb higher your body acclimatizes naturally to the decreasing oxygen. Your body builds up a ‘zone of tolerance’ – where it can function normally even with the decreased oxygen. This zone of tolerance moves up as your body acclimatizes to the higher altitudes. However, when the build up of carbon dioxide is beyond your zone of tolerance your body reacts and you fall sick. This is high altitude sickness.
It is accompanied with symptoms of feeling lightheaded, nausea and an unbearable headache. Acute Mountain Sickness can escalate quickly which can be fatal if not treated in time.
I have been trekking in the Himalayas for close to three decades. Yes, I am almost 50 years old now.
Having done the basic course in mountaineering from Himalayan Mountaineering Insititute and a course on emergency medicine from Red Cross, I have listed some ways in which I’ve learnt to fight the good fight against altitude sickness before it strikes you.
1. The Paradox about Acute Mountain Sickness
Statistically, it is observed that fitter trekkers are more likely to be affected by Acute Mountain Sickness. The bottom line is that physical fitness (cardio and muscle endurance) is critical to safely complete a trek while enjoying every moment of it. However, it also predisposes the person to gain altitude much faster than what can be tolerated by the body. While the general thumb rule is that you should not gain more than 1000 ft/day, with my experience, I have added a few more lines to it.
- Gain an average of only 100 ft per hour. Which means, if on a given day, the route demands a gain of 1000 ft, the total time between the campsites should be about 10 hours —including breaks along the way. Therefore start early.
- Take a 15 min break after gaining every 300 ft. The break should include deep breathing, hydration, as well as some high energy snack like dry fruits/energy bar/etc.
2. The pee color test
At higher altitudes, especially if the trek is on a cold and dry day, the body looses an enormous amount of water through perspiration (which does not show), and through breath. However, the cold inhibits the sensation of thirst. The resultant dehydration can trigger symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness. Therefore I came up with a very simple run-time test.
- On the trek, continuously monitor the color of your urine. If it is clear, you are fine. If it starts to turn yellow, the body is getting dehydrated. Immediately start a cycle of hydration. Remember that drinking two liters of water in one go is not a great idea.
- The hydration cycle that works for me is having one glass of water every 15-20 minutes spread over 1.5 – 2 hours. I have found that without exception, this gets the body adequately hydrated and back to normal.
3. The Englishman diet
The body is stressed at very high levels on multiple fronts on a high altitude trek. It is not the best of times to stress it by incorrect food choices. You should eat a proper breakfast, lunch evening snack and dinner- in addition to energy bars/dry fruits along the way.
Food should be low on fat, preferably bland and have easily digestible carbs. Avoid using chili– it improves taste and induces artificial perspiration which is dehydrating. What you can use instead are spices turmeric, asafoetida, and fennel seeds are hugely beneficial in keeping the body healthy. Our modern Englishman has been influenced by Indian Ayurveda.
4. A big fat NO to alcohol and smoking
Alcohol and smoking have the potential to induce both Acute Mountain Sickness as well as hypothermia. They are both potentially fatal conditions. The rule is that defer the cigar and the whisky to celebrate the end of a great trek (if you must), rather than celebrating the highest point of the climb.
5. Mineral Balance
Trekking is a strenuous activity that goes on for multiple days. Medical reports suggest a significant change in mineral levels in the body during an extended high altitude trek, which could trigger Acute Mountain Sickness.
My tasty solution has been to consume ORS every day. I have always carried Electral with me and I drink 1 liter of water spruced with Electral every day.
6. The golden pace rule
Every person has a natural rhythm and pace in their walk. I call this the golden pace. This is normally independent of their athletic ability. I have friends are marathon runners but when it comes to walking, their golden pace is a mere 5 km per hour. They can certainly walk faster as they are fit. However, any walking pace faster than the golden pace would tire the person out quickly. A tired body is predisposed to altitude sickness.
Therefore, I have found that trekking at the golden pace is best rather than competing with fellow trekkers. My wife is not an athlete. But she has done Roopkund and Kuari Pass without any issues. It is because I let her walk at her golden pace without insisting that she walk along with me at my pace.
If one walks at the golden pace, there should be no breathlessness, no feeling of exhaustion and only mild sweating. If any of these are felt, the pace is not good for that person.
Climbing and trekking are considered to be lonely sports. There are no prizes or victories. It is about the experience. Yet I have seen that trekkers very often get subconsciously psyched into meaningless races and timings.
7. Dry and warm on arrival at camp
Immediately after reaching the campsite, it is important to change from your sweaty clothes (including undergarments) into dry clothes. Sweaty clothes in cold campsites lead to hypothermia conditions, as well as a potentially upset stomach due to indigestion. Layer as appropriate to the temperature and wind conditions. This is among the first things to do and certainly before one takes the well-deserved break.
I have observed trekkers catch a serious respiratory infection which does a person no good in a situation of reduced atmospheric oxygen. My general rule has been to set up the tent, change, and then do anything else. One should perform deep breathing exercises after the relaxation and before going to sleep. It helps in boosting the oxygen saturation.
These are the rules I follow to keep Acute Mountain Sickness at bay. I hope you’ll find them useful on your next trek! If you think I have missed out on any point, do share in the comments below.