I have done numerous high altitude treks. My first was hiking the Inca Trail in Peru over ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’ at 4,200m (13,780ft). I have also summited Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia, Mount Toubkal in Morocco and last year I completed the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. My greatest achievement was summitting Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain at a massive 5,895m (19,340ft). Wow that was a real challenge.
One question that everyone asked me about all my hikes was ‘Did you suffer with altitude sickness?’ It’s a great question because hiking at altitude affects different people in different ways. And each trip I have learnt a bit more about how my body copes with it.
My biggest challenge was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. On the way to the summit I had a headache and felt pretty sick. This resulted in finding a big rock to throw up behind half way up. To be honest afterwards I felt much better and it didn’t stop me from smiling when I reached the top!
When does altitude sickness occur?
So before I talk about preventing altitude sickness, let me first explain what is classed as high altitude.
Up to 1,500m (4,900ft) = High
1,500m – 3,500m (4,900ft – 11,500ft) = High altitude
3,500m – 5,500m (11,500 – 18,000 ft) = Very high altitude
Above 5,500m (18,000ft) = Extreme high altitude
And just to give you an idea the highest mountain in the world, Mount Everest in the Himalayas is a staggering 8,848m (29,035ft). Who wants to climb that? Well not me, its way to high and far too expensive.
Because altitude sickness, (known as acute mountain sickness – AMS) affects everyone differently I have spoken to some adventurous travel bloggers about their experiences. Read about their epic adventures, how high altitude affected them and how they overcame altitude sickness to conquer their challenges around the world.
Cotopaxi Volcano, Ecuador 5,897m (19,347ft) from Ashlyn at The Lost Girl’s Guide to Finding the World
“One of the most difficult things I have ever accomplished was summiting the 5,897m (19,347ft) high Cotopaxi – an active volcano in Ecuador. It’s the second highest summit in the country and home to one of the few equatorial glaciers in the world. And it’s also notorious for hikers to suffer severe altitude sickness on the trek with less than 50% of those who try actually making it to the top.
The hike takes a day and a half, with the majority of the expedition occurring through the night when the snow and ice are most stable. I suffered from a major headache, lack of appetite and felt out of breath the entire journey. Each step was a shuffle as I put one crampon-covered boot in front of the other through the snow in the dark. The trick was to keep going, not stop in the cold and to force myself to eat.
I experienced an avalanche less than 100 metres away while climbing and watched another volcano erupt while at the summit just after sunrise. It took a lot of mental determination and physical tenacity to complete the trek but I’m proud to say I was able to battle past altitude sickness to achieve a personal goal.” Ashlyn
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Mauna Kea, Hawaii 4,205m (13,798ft) from Justine at Wanderer of the World
“When booking a trip to Hawaii, it is a must to visit “The Big Island”. There are amazing views from the top of the infamous Mauna Kea mountain. Home to the world’s largest astronomical observatory and more than a dozen industrial telescopes. At an incredible 4,205m (13,798ft), Mauna Kea may not have the highest summit but it’s actually the tallest mountain in the world. There is another 6,400m (19,700ft) worth of mountain below sea level!
Based on my experiences, it’s really quite difficult to avoid altitude sickness completely. Certainly at 3,962m (13,000ft) up Mauna Kea mountain, altitude sickness can take a hold of you very quickly. One member of our tour couldn’t make it past the visitor centre at 2,743m (9,000ft) as his altitude sickness was so bad. For me, the sickness was nothing more than feeling a little queasy, but others can experience really bad headaches and shortness of breath.
My top tips to limit the feeling of sickness when visiting Mauna Kea would be to acclimatise yourself at the visitor centre before venturing on to the summit. The best way to do that is to take a short walk and stay at this height for at least 1 hour, before returning down. I also find that you can speed up your acclimatisation by drinking hot chocolate – I have no idea what’s inside cocoa but trust me, it really works!” Justine
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Gokyo lakes, Nepal 4,700–5,000m (15,420-16,400Ft from Ellis at Backpack Adventures
“Nepal is like my second home country, I spent two years there as an expat. I love the mountains so my choice to live and work in Nepal was obvious. Whenever I had a holiday I went trekking in the mountains and I learned how unpredictable the effects of altitude can be.
In Langtang, when I walked for three days to Kyanjin Gompa at 3800m (12,468ft) I had no problems at all. But in the Annapurna’s the altitude always hits me with a slight head ache.
Last November, I went back as a tourist to Nepal to the Everest region. I was curious to know how the altitude would affect me there. To give my body enough time I walked in from Jiri and included enough acclimatisation days. The problems started in Tengboche where I developed the famous Kumbu cough. After witnessing the Mani Rimdu festival we headed up to the Gokyo lakes, situated 4,700–5,000m (15,420–16,400ft). The higher we got, the drier the air and my cough only got worse until I sounded like a seal.
One way your body adjusts to the height is by peeing, so my sleep was interrupted by frequent bathroom visits and vivid dreams. Apparently something that is common at high altitude. I was never this much affected by the altitude, but despite the discomforts I made it to the Gokyo lakes. Seeing the clear blue water amidst the peaks of the Himalayas was all worth it.” Ellis
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Jungle Inca Trail 4,300m (14,108ft) Peru from MegHan at The Traveling Teacher
“Before starting our trek to Machu Picchu, I knew altitude would be an issue for me. The highest point on the trek was 4,300m (14,108ft)! I had experienced altitude sickness before in Colorado, I knew what to expect and arranged medicine from my doctor in advance so was feeling good about the trek.
However, we only took small packs on the trek and left our big bags at the hotel we were staying at. This meant leaving some things behind. I accidentally had put my medicine for altitude sickness in my big pack so left for Machu Picchu without it.
As soon as I realised, at first it made me really worried – I needed it! Then I remembered all the research I had done about altitude sickness. I took some Advil, bought an extra bottle of water and had a lot of coca leaf tea.
Coca leaves are loved by the Peruvians. They are drank like coffee or other tea leaves. And are the preferred remedy of altitude sickness in the Andes. I took frequent breaks and went slow when I felt I needed to. By the second day, I forgot that I didn’t bring my medicine and felt just fine!
My biggest piece of advice is to listen to what your body is telling you and use as many remedies as you can. If you think you need to slow down, slow down. Don’t wait until you start to feel bad to tell someone there is a problem – be proactive and it will be fine!” Meghan
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Mount Fuji, Japan 3,776m (12,389ft) from Eemma at Always a Gringa
“Mount Fuji at 3,776m (12,389ft) is a quick hike in regards to high altitude trekking. It means taking altitude sickness precautions are much more critical. Most of the guides say that the ascent will take 5-7 hours and the descent around 3-5 hours. When I was looking at these numbers I naïvely thought that this hike was going to be easy and it really wasn’t.
The ascent took us about 9 hours and the descent took us about 4 hours. It is a steep climb and I would recommend taking the time to get acclimatised and to enjoy the hike. You can sleep at the 5th station before hiking or you can stay the night at a mountain hut along the trail.
Having a good night’s rest on the mountain makes all the difference when acclimatising. I would also recommend bringing a decent amount of water and snacks, or at least bringing a good amount of yen to pay for some along the way.
We trekked through the night along with the thousands of other hikers, in order to see the 4am sunrise from the top. However, if I was to do the hike again I would choose to hike it during the day to take advantage of the beautiful views.”
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8 Top Tips for altitude sickness
- Drink plenty of water. Keep hydrated. (No alcohol or caffeine).
- Take paracetamol (or equivalent) for mild headaches.
- Loss of appetite may occur but remember to keep energy levels up by eating regularly.
- Spend extra time (where possible) acclimatising so your body adjusts to the height.
- Try local remedies – (Coca tea in Peru, hot chocolate in Hawaii and Sea buckthorn juice in Nepal).
- Less oxygen can cause a sore throat so pack some cough sweets.
- Walk slowly to allow your body to acclimatise. (Even if you are super fit still walk slowly – AMS can affect everyone)
- Trust your instincts and keep your guide informed. Never risk your health.
Have you experienced altitude sickness? What are your tips for preventing it? Tell me about your experiences in the comments below: