As you embark on the journey to conquer Mount Kilimanjaro, it’s crucial to grasp the concept of altitude sickness and acclimatization. This article will break down these topics, providing insights into their effects and the measures to take for a safe and successful climb.
Altitude and Its Effects
Mount Kilimanjaro, standing at a towering height of 5,895 meters (19,341 feet), presents unique challenges to climbers. Among these challenges, altitude sickness looms as one of the most perilous. An alarming number of individuals experience symptoms related to altitude sickness when ascending beyond 9,000 feet. At Climbing Kilimanjaro, ensuring your safety takes precedence.
Understanding the Impact of Altitude
Kilimanjaro is a favorite trek for many because it offers the opportunity to summit a high peak without requiring specialized climbing skills. This “walk-up” nature might mislead some into underestimating the potential dangers posed by altitude.
The summit of Kilimanjaro falls into the “extreme altitude” category, akin to Aconcagua and Denali. These peaks are surpassed only by “ultra” altitude peaks such as Everest and K2, where the acclimatization process becomes nearly impossible.
Diving into Altitude Science
At Kilimanjaro’s summit, the oxygen available is approximately 49% less than at sea level. However, it’s not the oxygen percentage in the air that changes; rather, it’s the reduction in barometric pressure (air pressure) within the atmosphere.
In simpler terms, even though the oxygen percentage remains at 20.9%, its availability is diminished due to lower air pressure. This scarcity of oxygen molecules can lead to fluid accumulation around the brain (High Altitude Cerebral Edema) and the lungs (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema), which are severe conditions associated with reduced air pressure.
About Altitude Sickness
Altitude sickness comes in three primary forms: Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), and High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE). AMS can manifest as mild, moderate, or severe, while HACE and HAPE entail more critical conditions.
Let’s delve deeper into these conditions.
Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)
AMS can affect anyone above 6,000 feet, as described by Dr. Peter Hackett. The initial sign is often a headache, which can also result from dehydration or overexertion. If other symptoms emerge, a diagnosis of AMS is likely.
- Mild AMS: Symptoms resemble a hangover, including nausea, headache, fatigue, and appetite loss. Address these symptoms by informing your guide, resting, and staying hydrated.
- Moderate AMS: Symptoms worsen, leading to persistent headache, dizziness, coughing, shortness of breath, nausea, and vomiting. Descent to a lower elevation is recommended at this stage.
- Severe AMS: Ignoring moderate AMS can escalate symptoms, causing severe headache, lack of coordination, increased coughing, shortness of breath, and even evacuation from the mountain.
High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE)
HAPE arises from lung artery pressure elevation in low-oxygen environments, resulting in fluid accumulation around the lungs. Even climbers without severe AMS symptoms can develop HAPE.
Look out for:
- Coughing up blood or mucus
- Abnormal lung sounds
- Extreme listlessness
- Difficulty breathing
- Bluish lips
- Confusion and lack of coordination
High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE)
HACE is a critical condition requiring immediate medical attention. Fluid buildup around the brain leads to confusion, lethargy, incoordination, and altered behavior.
Look out for:
- Disorientation, hallucinations, nonsensical speech
- Inability to walk properly, staggering
- Irrational behavior
- Severe headache, often accompanied by nausea and vomiting
Diagnosis of Altitude Sickness
Our guides use a pulse oximeter and consider your symptoms during daily health checks to evaluate your situation. The Lake Louise Scoring System aids diagnosis, assigning scores based on the severity of symptoms.
Acclimatisation: Your Ally Against Altitude Sickness
Acclimatization refers to the body’s adaptive processes in response to low-oxygen and low-atmospheric pressure environments. From day one, your body initiates changes to cope with altitude.
Changes you’ll experience:
- Deeper and possibly faster breathing
- Elevated resting heart rate
- Potentially higher blood pressure
As you ascend gradually, your body adopts mechanisms to adjust:
- Increased hemoglobin production for oxygen transport
- Higher erythropoietin production for more red blood cells
- Decreased plasma volume, raising dehydration risk
- Enhanced kidney function to maintain acid-base balance
These adaptations occur gradually, and optimal acclimatization is achieved through routes with robust acclimatization protocols. Longer ascents allow your body ample time to adapt.
Preventing Altitude Sickness: Best Practices
– Opt for longer routes to build in acclimatization days.
– Walk slowly (“pole pole” in Swahili) to avoid exhaustion.
– Conserve energy, even if you’re fit.
– Stay hydrated to prevent dehydration.
– Consult your doctor about Diamox.
– Descend if experiencing altitude sickness symptoms.
– Avoid alcohol, narcotic painkillers, sleeping pills, and stimulants.
– Communicate symptoms to your guide.
– Maintain a carbohydrate-rich diet for high-altitude exertion.
– Protect yourself from hypothermia by staying dry and wearing layers.
– Use sunscreen and UV-blocking sunglasses to shield from intense rays.
– Follow hygiene precautions to prevent gastrointestinal issues.
– Prioritize your health, even beyond altitude sickness, by staying warm and practicing good hygiene.
Altitude Training and Health Considerations
Altitude training is growing in popularity among aspiring mountaineers and athletes. Various methods exist, such as simulated altitude chambers and intermittent hypoxic air exposure. While altitude training can improve acclimatization, pre-acclimatization through climbing other peaks or Mt. Meru can be equally effective.
Read more about training for Kilimanjaro.
Existing Medical Conditions and Altitude Effects
Individuals with well-managed pre-existing medical conditions can successfully climb Kilimanjaro, but medical clearance is essential. Precautions are necessary, especially for heart, lung, or neurological conditions. Consult your doctor about medication adjustments and travel insurance coverage.
Effects on Sleep and Other Health Considerations
Altitude can disrupt sleep due to periodic breathing, a battle between the body’s oxygen sensors and carbon dioxide sensors. Adequate layers prevent hypothermia, while sunscreen and sunglasses shield against UV rays. Stomach issues are possible, making hygiene crucial.
Safety Measures Taken By Us
Your safety is paramount. Our guides closely monitor your well-being, but your cooperation is essential. Inform your guide of any discomfort, and observe fellow climbers for unusual behavior. Regular health checks and the availability of oxygen and stretchers ensure your safety during the climb.
As you embark on this monumental journey, understanding altitude sickness and acclimatization equips you with the knowledge to safeguard your health and achieve a successful summit on Mount Kilimanjaro.