Advice on Altitude

Trekking in the Himalayas gives you access to the most stunning mountain scenery on earth for relatively little cost, but unless you take the necessary precautions relating to altitude, there can be a hidden price to pay.

For everyone who ventures into the higher regions of the Himalayas, from experienced mountaineers tackling 8000m peaks, to those on short, leisurely treks, dealing with altitude should be given careful consideration. To help you in understanding something of the dangers of altitude and the possible approaches to managing this danger, today’s post provides a summary, along with a list of dos and don’ts for high altitude adventure.

Effects of altitude
At altitude, low pressure means that the concentration of oxygen in the air is reduced. The higher you go, the lower the pressure and the less oxygen you will take-in with each breath. The effect of this reduction on the body can lead to what is known as Altitude Sickness or Acute Mountain Sickness. The primary symptoms of altitude sickness are not uncommon amongst trekkers and climbers venturing over 2,500m (8,000ft). They include: headaches, shortness of breath, insomnia, fatigue and lack of appetite. You can view a full list of possible symptoms by visiting the NHS website.

If, during your trek, you recognise that you have developed some of these symptoms, it does not necessarily spell the end of your trip, but what it does tell you is that your body is having a hard time adjusting and that you should slow your ascent to allow sufficient time for acclimatisation. In the worst cases, altitude sickness can turn into the severe and life-threatening conditions of High Altitude Pulmonary or Cerebral Oedema, which result from people ascending too fast, ignoring their primary symptoms or spending prolonged periods at very high altitude.

Prevention of altitude sickness
While there are some drugs on the market that can help in speeding your acclimatisation (see section below), it is important that we adapt the way we live in the high-mountains to reduce the impact of altitude on our bodies. There are a few important things to remember, which will help give your body the best chance of staying in good shape and allowing you to enjoy your trek:

1. Drink plenty of water and drink regularly to keep your body hydrated.

2. Don’t drink alcohol as this will dehydrate your body. If you do, be very careful about the amount you consume as you will feel its effects much more readily than at sea-level.

3. Eat well and often. Very few people will put-on weight during a Himalayan trek, so forget about your waistline for a few weeks and keep those energy levels up.

4. If you have a choice, sleep at the lowest altitude possible, as the effects of altitude sickness are usually felt most strongly when sleeping high. Try and plan your trek so that you walk high in the day and sleep low.

5. Don’t go up too fast – this is the primary cause of altitude sickness. Try and plan so as not sleep more than 300m higher than you slept the previous night. This may not be possible on some Himalayan treks, but this should be your aim.

6. Take extra care if using vehicles to travel to altitude, as the speed of the ascent will be faster and your body will have less time to acclimatise.

7. If you’re somebody who is very competitive, forget about machismo while you’re up high. Fit, young men are the most common casualties of altitude due largely to over-exuberance. It’s important to remember that it is your attitude towards altitude that will ensure you stay healthy and not necessarily your physical fitness.

8. Each person reacts differently to altitude, so especially if it is your first time up high, take the time to understand your limits and don’t over-exert yourself.

Common medicines
Acetazolamide, commonly known as Diamox, is a drug usually used in the treatment of the eye condition, glaucoma and epilepsy, but is also commonly used by trekkers and climbers to prevent symptoms of altitude sickness occurring. It works by increasing the acidity of the blood, which helps compensate for the effect of altitude, which makes the body more alkaline. For a detailed description of the drug, you can visit the NHS website which has detailed medicine guides.

We would advise you to consult your GP before taking this drug and ensure that you buy it from a chemist at home, rather than cheaply in Himalayan mountain towns. For those who choose to take it, be sure to be clear about the recommended dosage and be aware that there can be side-effects from taking Diamox, most commonly numb feet and hands, pins and needles and the need to urinate more frequently. The latter being something of an annoyance at 4am, when it’s -10C outside and you’re tucked-up in your sleeping bag!

Swoop’s High Points
Of course, the essence of the Himalayas is not about things you shouldn’t do, it’s about what you should do! It’s about challenging yourself to go somewhere special and memorable (albeit by taking a sensible and considered approach to getting there!). So, with this in-mind, we’ve made a short list of our Himalayan high points, to give you a little inspiration. If you’ve already been lucky enough to experience these places and would like to have a conversation about finding some alternative altitude, don’t hesitate to contact us, as we have lots of good ideas!

1. Everest Summit (8,848m) – OK, strictly this is cheating, but you can book your flight around the summit of Everest through Swoop. Flying close to the highest peaks in the world is really not to be missed.

2. Mera Peak Summit (6474m) – Mera is the highest of the trekking peaks in Nepal and affords you spectacular views of five of the world’s 8,000m peaks. Mera is a non-technical snow climb and can be scaled in a 16 day round trip from Kathmandu.

3. Island Peak Summit (6,189m) – Usually preceded by an acclimatisation trek to the top of Kala Pattar, Island Peak is the most popular trekking peak in Nepal. As well as a stern physical test, Island Peak will provide some truly spectacular views across to the Everest massif in the north and Ama Dablam to the south.

4. Lobuche East Summit (6119m) – This less climbed peak sits on the divide between the Khumbu and Gokyo valleys, providing unforgettable views across the Everest region. Lobuche East is a slightly more technical peak than Island or Mera. It can be scaled as an extension to either the Gokyo Lakes or Everest Base Camp treks.

5. Gokyo Ri and Kala Pattar (5357m, 5545m) – Gokyo Ri and Kala Pattar provide the respective high points for the Gokyo Lakes and Everest Base Camp treks. These peaks are as high as the majority of the world’s trekkers will venture, while also being useful acclimatisation peaks for a hardy few.

If you’d like to have a conversation with us about any of the above trips, don’t hesitate to call on 01173 690196 or e-mail:

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