July 16, 2012

Longs Peak Prep: Altitude Sickness

On July 22, 2011, a 26 year old man from Wichita, KA experienced life threatening high altitude sickness while attempting to climb Longs Peak.  The man fell ill on July 21 and descended from his summit attempt to the Boulderfield where he spent the night.  On the morning of the 22nd, when it was apparent his symptoms of an altered consciousness were not lessening, an emergency call was made which resulted in a helicopter rescue.  It was speculated that without the emergency rescue, the man may have died.

What is altitude sickness?

At an increased elevation, the air pressure decreases resulting in less oxygen per breath.  A lack of oxygen to the muscles and brain can cause altitude sickness.    Symptoms can be felt as low as 6,500', but usually minor effects will be experienced at 10,000' when climbing rapidy without acclimating; more serious symptoms at 12,000'.  Altitude sickness if severe enough and not treated can result in death.  Some common symptoms:
  • headaches
  • fatigue
  • stomach ache
  • dizziness
  • nosebleed
  • swelling of hands/feet   

How to acclimate?

  • ascend slowly
  • spend time at high altitudes
  • aspirin to thin the blood
  • water
  • caffeine (mountain dew)

How to react?

If a climber begins to experience some of the symptoms and is below 15,000', it is best to stop and rest, drink water and assess the symptoms.  Is it persistent?  Is it getting worse?  If so, it is be best to get to a lower elevation.  In many cases, assessing your own symptoms is not recommended.  Altitude sickness can weaken good judgement and analysis of reality.  In my own experience, thinking and senses become foggy. 

Good preparation and good judgement will greatly decrease someone in the climbing party from suffereing altitude sickness.