High Altitude Trekking: What to expect?

Having done many treks ourselves, we know that altitude is nothing to be scared of, but it is very important to be aware of and work hard to prevent where possible. Ultimately, altitude sickness can affect a participant’s whole experience of trekking and, obviously, our goal is to make this experience amazing. unfortunately we can’t control a person’s reaction when they trek above 2,500m).

Unfortunately, we can’t control a person’s reaction when they trek above 2,500m. What we can do, is make sure that all of our participants feel comfortable with the whats, whys, hows and whens of altitude- which hopefully can prevent any severities on the trek.

Disclaimer: We are not medical professionals, everything in this blog is either personal experience or taken from the NHS website. For further information on altitude, you can read NHS guidelines, or speak to your GP. 

First things first. What happens at altitude? and why do some people get sick? 

To get a little science-y: At sea level, our air is essentially the weight of 10 metres of sea. This weight makes the air a lot more compact, so we have a lot more molecules per volume of “air”. At higher altitude, the atmosphere thins, ultimately meaning we get less oxygen per gulp of air. Less oxygen per gulp means less oxygen for our muscles and organs that are working hard to keep us warm and moving on the trek. To cope with the changes in the atmosphere, our bodies must acclimatise, in some cases, our body takes a longer time to adjust and it can result in altitude sickness.

When we say “altitude sickness”, what do we mean?

Altitude sickness can appear in three forms:

  • Acute Mountain Sickness, or mild altitude sickness. This appears much like a hangover (a feeling I’m sure many students on our challenges are aware of). It tends to appear in the form of a headache, fatigue or nausea. Many people suffer from these mild symptoms, it’s important to be aware that you could experience these too.

The next two only occur in very rare cases, so do be aware that although it could happen, it is extremely unlikely and should not be a large concern on the trek.

  • HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema). Fluid can build up on the lungs, which can lead to confusion and clumsiness.

  • HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema). Fluid can build up on the lungs leading to symptoms such as feeling breathless when resting, or having a temperature.

You’re probably thinking: So, how can I prevent getting sick? 

There are no specific factors that seem to predispose people to getting altitude sickness. Not even age, sex or physical fitness level seem to predict the likelihood of suffering altitude sickness. Just because you haven’t had it before, doesn’t mean you won’t develop it on another trip, alternatively, if you’ve experienced it before, doesn’t mean you’ll get it again. With this in mind, there is some research that suggests certain things can help prevent altitude sickness:

It’s important to note that although even the best of athletes can suffer from altitude sickness, having a good level of physical fitness can help with illness resilience. So it doesn’t hurt to hit the gym a little before you go!

Slow ascent. Those of you lucky enough to be taking on Kilimanjaro this year will have the lovely guides constantly reminding you to “pole pole” (or “slowly slowly” for those not fluent in Swahili). Our in-country team will spend their time ensuring you are all taking an extremely slow ascent to allow your body to adjust. Throughout the trek, we have planned in acclimatisation days and treks. These acclimatisation days allow for you to increase altitude during the day, but then come back to a lower alttiude to rest, sleep and ultimately, acclimatise.

Drinking water is another big one, we recommend students to drink around 3 to 4 litres of water per day. In some places, you’ll be flying in to a city/town at high altitude (e.g. Cusco at 3,400m), so it’s important to be hydrated from the offset. Starting to get your body used to drinking that amount of water a few days beforehand can be quite helpful too. Not just because it is maintaining good hydration levels, but it also gets your body used to not needing to constantly pee.

So, if you feel unwell, what should you do? 

The number one first thing you need to be doing if you experience any signs, should be to speak to one of your trip guides. All are fully trained in recognising early signs of altitude sickness and the more they are aware of the situation the better informed they’ll be to make the correct decisions for your care.

Overall, altitude is a challenging aspect of your adventure this Summer. But as long as you take the necessary steps to prevent getting sick, and if you have an open dialogue with our in-county guides and support team, you should have a happy and healthy trek.  At the end of the day, your experience at altitude is just pot luck- as long as you listen to your guides & do as they say you’ll be absolutely fine.

Some final things to consider at altitude involve the weather. Alongside the thinness of air comes quite a harsh cold and a lot of sun. So as well as drinking plenty and having a slow ascent, do make sure to wrap up in plenty of layers, lap on the suncream and get a dodgy looking sun hat to finish off the look. With all that in place you should be well on your way to reaching your end goal- the summit of Kilimanjaro, Everest Base Camp or Machu Picchu.

You’ll be coming home to tell us, your friends & family all about this incredible trip at altitude (and you’ll probably think you’re an expert in the subject now too!)

As always, if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us via email at team@chooseachallenge.com

Lucy DalglishComment