The dangers of altitude sickness vary and are dangerous if not tended to. Make smart and well thought out decisions when climbing to high altitudes.
This is a story of choice. This is also a story of making the wrong choice. But a wrong choice can turn into to a great experience and an even better lesson.
Mental alertness is affected at an altitude above 10,000 feet, or 3000 meters, but it’s not because there is a lack of oxygen at higher altitudes. As you get higher in the atmosphere the oxygen to nitrogen ratio actually stays the same. A person’s ability to take in oxygen is affected by the drop in air pressure, or the volume of oxygen, at those higher altitudes.
Altitude sickness also known as Acute Mountain Sickness or AMS, has a number of symptoms ranging from headache to dizziness to more extreme cases such as High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) or High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) which are potentially fatal. HAPE causes fluid to build in the lungs while HACE creates swelling in the brain tissue and is usually the cause of unattended effects of Acute Mountain Sickness. While most people can climb to 8000 feet above sea level with rather minimal effects, altitude sickness can be caused by ascending to relatively higher altitudes too quickly. The best way to reduce your chances of getting ill is to take your time and hydrate, allowing your body sufficient time to acclimate. Climbing at a fast rate without taking in fluids are key ways to succumbing to altitude sickness.
In the fall of 2008, three of my good friends and I traveled to Peru to begin our quest to experience the many different areas of this South American land. Included in our itinerary were many of the smaller cities in the southern territories before heading back north towards Cuzco and our much anticipated trek to Machu Picchu. Arequipa, which is the second largest city in Peru, was one of our planned stops. It’s a beautiful city and filled with many colonial Spanish looking buildings and overlooked by the 19,000-foot peak of El Misti Volcano, a daunting hill with a conquering presence. El Misti is an easy choice for adventure-seeking travelers. We bit. El Misti bit back.
El Misti, which stands at 19,101 feet above sea level, is highly traveled and is of moderate difficulty level for most hikers. However, there are many sandy slopes that pose challenging parts to the accent. Most guided tours on El Misti leave at 8 a.m. and consist of a hike to camp, usually located around 15,000 feet, with an early summit the next morning then followed by an easy decent back to the base. I say most because for us our attempt started at 2 p.m. I say attempt, because this is not a story of a successful summit.
Because of our late start we were under pressure from the moment we stepped foot at the base of the volcano. Equipped with three one-liter bottles of water, our backpacks full of our belongings and a headlamp, we journeyed up the sandy trail. At 2 p.m. the weather was relatively pleasant, gentle breeze, dry air and a mid to high 60 degree temperature. Hiking shoes, lightweight hiking pants and a t-shirt were almost too much clothing for Southern Peru in September. The base of El Misti consisted of the sandy trails I mentioned, but quickly became mixed with lava rocks and ledges formed by prehistoric eruptions. El Misti is classified as a stratovolcano and consists of these types of layers.
As we ascended upwards through the different layers of El Misti, the hike approached it’s third, fourth and fifth hour. As we approached 7 p.m. the sun began to set. It offered unbelievable visual opportunities that stopped you in your tracks. The setting sun lit the sky with a beautiful bright orange yet brought temperatures much colder than the 60’s we experienced near the base. Within minutes the temperature dropped twenty degrees and we emptied our packs in search of layers to keep us warm. The dark would surely slow our pace and the most difficult sections were still to come. We put on our headlamps - our guiding lights - and continued upwards.
After the first five hours we had reached an approximate elevation of 14,500 feet. It was 7 p.m. It was cold. It was dark. We still had about 2,000 feet to base camp and in the dark that meant multiple hours of hiking and climbing. Two of us were starting to feel a slight headache, first signs of altitude sickness begin to show around six to ten hours upon reaching 8000 feet. Our pace was slowing but we kept moving upwards towards base camp. The trail at this point had become more of a traverse interrupted by steep lava rock climbs that required some static climbing with the lack of ample light. As we continued to climb, that headache turned into more of a pounding sensation. I could feel my heart beat within my chest; it felt like my brain was mirroring my heart’s efforts. Annoying? Yes, but as the “mountain hangover” sensation increased, we also started to feel this slight inability to walk straight and control your balance. It was like being under the influence of alcohol and hungover at the same time. We were dizzy at nearly 16,000 feet and trying to hold on to ledges and rocks to support our efforts to move to higher ground. At one point, bear hugging a large boulder brought a sense of comfort. We were four hikers - one with a headache, one with dizziness, one with nausea and one with all the above. We joke that at 6 ft 5 inches the tallest of the foursome was continuously at higher altitude therefore more susceptible to the conditions.
We had succumbed to altitude sickness. Because of our eagerness for adventure we ignored the importance of preparation and patience. We eventually made it to base camp, almost two and half hours after the sun went down and 1500 vertical feet later. Altitude sickness affected all of us and it continued throughout the night. We attempted to eat soup and noodles but our hands were frozen from the cold and our stomachs were turning from the illness. The only thing that felt almost comfortable was getting into a sleeping bag and lying down inside the ill equipped two-man tent supplied by the guide service. At nearly 17,000 feet the cold wind seemed to blow right through the tent’s synthetic cover. Altitude sickness can last for days. For us it would at least last the night. Because of the diuretic nature and the dehydration caused at high altitudes through the process of water vapor leaving your lungs, we were constantly awake throughout the sleepless night.
Like I said before, this is not a story of a successful summit. This is an experience of altitude sickness. We achieved the latter by attempting to climb 7,000 vertical feet in five hours. Don’t try this at home or in an country.