High Altitude Health

Muleteer with pack horses Moount Salkantay Machu Pichu, Peru

Señor T, our muleteer on Mt. Salkantay near Machu Picchu

Here's the first thing you should know: how you perform at high altitude can have very little to do with your fitness level. So let yourself off the hook for that one. Of course, being fit and healthy always increases your resilience and helps you recover more quickly from challenges. So it doesn't hurt. Get fit. But don't beat yourself up if you've done all your stair training and still find yourself breathless in Iquitos.

Despite years of research in the field, what distinguishes star altitude performers from those who succumb is still mostly a mystery. And believe me, as a person who unfortunately falls into the latter category, I've looked into it. So since we can't ever know for sure how our bodies will respond to lower oxygen environments, the best thing we can do is to really prepare.

There are phenomenal resources out there in terms of preparations for high-altitude adventure, many of which go into great depth about physiology. Here we'll simply take a high level look at some easy tips to help you best survive (and thrive) the next time you decide to get high.

Machu Picchu, Peru, 7,970 feet above sea level

Machu Picchu, 7,970 feet above sea level

First: drink a lot--of water that is! (Alcohol, particularly in excess, can really slow you down at altitude. Not to mention that its intoxicating effects are intensified. Have you ever had a drink on an airplane?!) High altitude environments tend to be incredibly dry and if you aren't hydrating, you'll find your lips chapped and your energy flagging. A couple of substances that are often suggested as helpful with adjustment to altitude, like coca tea and Diamox pills, are unfortunately also diuretics. So if you're using either of these useful aids, you'll need to drink even more water.

Second: eat light. Heavy meals can be hard to digest when your body is already struggling to adapt to a lower oxygen environment. Do yourself a favor and avoid heavy, cream-based food until you're sure that your body has adapted to the new conditions. Go easy on the extra helpings, particularly in the evenings.

Third: move slowly. I can't emphasize this point enough. While you may feel good when you first land in Cusco at 11,200 feet, the altitude can sneak up on you. Don't race around the new city to see the sights until you have had at least a couple of nights under your belt. This will allow your body to acclimate.

summit of Mount. Salkantay 15,187 feet altitude in Quechua

Sabine and Steffi summit Mt. Salkantay at 15,187 feet

And finally: ask for help! At the first sign of feeling not quite right (headache, nausea, vomiting, fatigue or sleep disturbances) check in with an expert. For more serious symptoms, immediate descent to a lower altitude is advised. Some medications can be helpful either before or after you begin to experience symptoms. It's a great idea to visit a travel doctor before your journey to seek expert advice on what may work for you. Commonly prescribed medications for supporting you at altitude include acetazolamide (Diamox) or dexamethasone (Decadron, DexPak). Many high-altitude destinations also have locally available alternatives such as coca tea, or commercial products like the mountain sickness medication in the Andes, Sorojchi.

The sky looks clear from up high and the views are magnificent. Make sure you can take it all in and feel good while doing it by sticking to these simple tips. You won't regret it--and chances are, you'll come back for more.

7 Responses

  1. Andy Stout

    On Point!!

    • Heather

      Thanks Andy,
      Here’s to staying healthy up high!

  2. Austin Render Austin Render

    Wonderful advice, Heather. Altitude sickness is no joke! And to reiterate your first point, one’s fitness level has very little bearing on the effects of altitude, as I learned the hard way. After 3 months of cycling across Patagonia I was confident that my fitness would allow me to climb to over 19,000 feet with no problem on Peru’s Mt. Misti. Wrong! I’ve never felt so sick. Lesson learned: take the time to properly acclimatize! Do so by following your tips and spending adequate time allowing your body adjust to the elevation before climbing higher. Remember, “Climb high, sleep low.” If your hike takes you to a higher elevation than your body is accustomed, try sleeping at least 500 feet lower than the highest point of your hike.

    • Heather

      Thank you! Great points – and how exciting that you headed to Mt. Misti – clearly you’re a real adventurer. I appreciate the ‘climb high, sleep low’ point you make – excellent. Best of luck in your adventures 🙂

  3. Richard W.

    Great advice Heather! Altitude sickness doesn’t just mean over 10k elevation either as I experienced while camping at Lake Mary in the Eastern Sierra. I think it was around 8 or 9k elevation and I was fine during the day but got completely nauteous after I tried to go to bed at night and couldn’t sleep at all as a result.

    • Heather

      Thanks Richard!
      True points – altitude sickness certainly can strike lower down – sounds like it made for a sufferfest in the Sierras. I appreciate you sharing – and best of luck on your next high-up adventures.

      • Heather

        Thanks Ziggy, maybe next time 😉

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