Over the years, I have had the chance to make several hiking trips at altitudes, including Nepal, Peru and Bolivia. Every time I came back and talked about the effects of altitude, I was always treated to look a little bewildered. This is really not something that is easy to understand if one has not already experienced such a phenomenon.
So I wanted to prepare this article for all the people who will live their baptism of altitude, or for those who wish to push their limits further by reaching higher peaks.
Sunset over the Himalayas, Nepal
The B.A.-B.A. altitude
The effects of altitude begin to manifest around 2500m. The breath becomes shorter, you feel more tired, and some people may suffer from headaches. The reason is quite simple: as you go up, the air becomes scarcer, and the oxygen level also decreases. At 2500m, only 75% of the oxygen found at sea level remains. At 5500m, it is only 50%.
So your body has to work a lot harder to get oxygen out of the air and get it to the tissues, and it depletes it much faster than usual. Fortunately, nature is well done. After a few hours, you will begin to produce more red blood cells, which carry oxygen to your cells. It is the physical phenomenon that allows acclimatization.
Here are 10 tips to put all the chances on your side during your next stay at altitude.
Karakul Lake in China, at an altitude of 3600m
1. Give yourself time
If you arrive by plane in a high place, expect the first day to be a bit painful.
It happened to me for the first time in 2007, taking a flight from Lima, which is located at sea level, to Cuzco, perched high at more than 3300m. I was out of breath after climbing two floors with my backpack.
The good news is that the body gets used to it very quickly. After one or two days, you’ll be ready to climb more.
Flight to Lukla airport in Nepal, located at 2860m altitude
2. Move, but not too much
Since your body is already working very hard to adapt, avoid exercises that are too demanding, it will only slow down your acclimatization. On the other hand, it is recommended to take short walks, it accelerates the metabolism just enough to have a beneficial effect.
So basically, if you arrive at a place located at the top of 3000m, it is not a good idea to start with an 8 hour hike. The only activity on the program on this first day should simply be to gain strength.
The city of Huaraz in Peru, at 3052m altitude
3. Don’t start with Mount Everest
The majority of people react well during a first experience at altitude. But up to a third of them will make a reaction, which can range from simple headaches to more severe problems. And this, regardless of the level of fitness.
Since no one can predict their degree of tolerance to this phenomenon, I advise you to choose a reasonable goal for your first time. The area between 2500 and 4000m is perfect for beginners. So forget the Kilimanjaro or the Everest base camp for a first expedition.
View of the triangular summit of Ama Dablam, 6812m high
Hiking in the Cordillera Huayhuash in Peru, at 4800m altitude
4. Drink plenty of water, but eat light
Proper hydration helps speed up acclimatization. And since there is less steam in the air at altitude, you will lose more water than usual just by breathing. It is therefore necessary to compensate by drinking even more than usual.
You probably won’t be very hungry on your first day, and that’s completely normal. Better to say no to large meals, which would overtax your body.
Our guides during my trek in the Cordillera Huayhuash, Peru
5. Avoid alcohol like the plague
We tend to forget it, but metabolizing alcohol is really not that easy for the system. Well, you will tell me that we do not forget it either when we are awake, it’s true.
Alcohol hits MUCH harder at altitude. If you have a simple beer, you will feel like you have drunk three or four. Its absorption is also slower than usual. So if you want to help your body acclimatize and produce more red blood cells, forget about wine… red.
El Tatio geyser field in Chile, at 4280 m altitude
6. Don’t climb too fast
It is not advisable to gain more than 500m altitude per day, between the place where you got up, and the one where you will fall asleep. Obviously you can cross passes and go up more, but always try to go back down to respect this basic rule.
It is easier to acclimatize, if you do not sleep at the highest point reached in the day. Unfortunately, this is not possible in all regions. For example, while trekking to Gokyo in Nepal, I had to limit some of my days to two or three hours of walking, because I had already gained enough altitude.
Panorama of Gokyo in Nepal, at 4750m
7. Don’t underestimate the need for acclimatization days
By consulting the routes of some hikes, you will find that days of acclimatization are often planned in the program. It can be very tempting to ignore them to save time. Please don’t do that, and rest if advised to do so.
If you’ve read this right, you’ve learned that you shouldn’t win more than 500m daily. It’s true. But that does not mean that you can go from 3000 to 5000m altitude in 4 days. Oh no, the shock to your body would be far too brutal. This is why it is really recommended to take an extra day of acclimatization for each 1000m gained beyond 3000m.
The good news is that this adaptation does not involve being bedridden from morning until night. You can very well hike a few hours, but go back to sleep at the same point.
Acclimatization day from Namche Bazaar in Nepal, with views of Mount Everest on the left
8. Listen to your body
This is perhaps the most important tip in this article: if you don’t feel well, suffer from nausea or persistent headaches, stop climbing right away. If after a few hours the situation does not improve, go down a few hundred meters. This is normally enough for your body to regain its balance and good oxygenation. Sometimes you have to take a step back, to keep moving forward.
If you are not careful, the effects of this condition calledacute mountain sicknesscan be very serious. Early headaches and nausea can turn into cerebral or pulmonary edema, loss of consciousness, or even death in the most extreme cases. So follow the instructions, listen to your body, and everything will be fine.
The Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, at 3658m altitude
9. Get prescribed medication to help you with altitude
Certain medications like acetazolamide, better known as Diamox, can help speed up acclimatization and prevent acute mountain sickness. They work by stimulating ventilation, which causes greater oxygen absorption.
You should start taking the tablets 24 hours before arriving at altitude, and continue to the highest point reached during your expedition.
In the Andes, the coca leaf is also used to soothe symptoms. It can be consumed as an infusion or chewed. But know that you have to be made solid to chew these leaves, which are really very bitter. The resulting grimace remains a rite of passage during any good trip to the region.
The Altiplano (which meansaltitude plainin Spanish) extends in 4 South American countries, at an average altitude of 3300m
10. Train before
Earlier I mentioned that acute mountain sickness can strike anyone, even people with excellent physical condition. It’s true. But you will certainly have a much more enjoyable experience if you train before going hiking in the Andes or the Himalayas.
Several exercises will allow you to increase your cardiovascular capacity, strengthen your heart, and strengthen your muscles. Everything will then seem easier. You will give yourself a better chance to finish your trek, but especially the opportunity to have fun doing it.
Have a great hike!