Altitude & Signs of Altitude Sickness

By Christa Cooper, Girls Who Hike Nevada Ambassador

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Why do we want to go high? I can’t speak for everyone but for me the reason I go to the top is for the Summit Views that are like nothing else I have ever experienced. 

I remember my first summit many years ago and when I reached the top I knew then that I was going to be in search of Summits. I loved the pain of getting to the top, it was hard, there were false summits and the vertical gain in a short distance was grueling without a trail! My feet hurt and every part of my body felt defeated. Yet, once I reached that summit all of that went away and it was worth every agonizing step! 

Great views at elevation can come with great risks be prepared and knowing the symptoms are key! 

Overview: 

Altitude Sickness aka Mountain Sickness and what I can share as a basic overview of what I know. Please do research on your own as well. I have added some great resources that I use which cover this topic in greater detail. (see resources below) 

It’s important for anyone who plans on heading out to the back country above 8,000 ft above sea level to understand how it can affects the body and the mind. It’s also important to know what the signs and symptoms are. This is what I know about Altitude Sickness and from my experience from spending time at elevation. Here’s how most break down the categories of Altitude: 

• High Altitude - 8,000-12,000 ft
• Very High – 12,000-18,000 ft
• Extreme – 18,000 + ft
• Death Zone – 26,000 + ft

Causes

Susceptibility to altitude sickness and all the data out there is not able to point back to any specific race, gender or physical condition. 

• Oxygen levels in the air decreases as the barometric pressure drops
• Ascending too quickly
• Staying at high altitude to long
• Not spending enough time to acclimate 

Symptoms 

If altitude sickness is not properly treated and worsens it can be fatal. 
• Dizziness
• Headache
• Weakness
• Fatigue
• Loss of appetite
• Nausea

More Serious Symptoms
• Increased headache
• “hangover” feeling lots of pressure in your head
• Inability to walk straight
• Confusion or inability to think straight
• Vomiting
• Exhaustion
• Personality or behavior changes
• Blurred vision
• Very shallow breathing 

Very Extreme Symptoms
• Hallucinations
• Feeling warm when its freezing out
• Discoloration of the nails
• Coma

Prevention Tips: 

• Knowing the signs early on can prevent worsening symptoms
• Number one rule is that any time you feel the symptoms of altitude sickness quit ascending
• Keeping physical exertion low
• Resting for 5 minutes and if your heart rate decreases
• Acclimate  
• I carry Alka Seltzer with me as I have found the small amount of aspirin & antacid works for me. 
o Find what works for you!  
• Staying hydrated
• If after taking a mild pain reliever, resting for a bit and the symptoms do not decrease then consider descending back to an elevation prior to feeling sick
• If your symptoms persist consider descending all the way back down as this is the safest thing you can do. 

I have spent enough time at elevation to know exactly when I start getting mild symptoms of altitude sickness, and some lucky folks may never experience it. My philosophy is to ascend slowly and listening to my body.

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Christa is the Ambassador for our Nevada chapter. You can join her local meet ups and discussions through Girls Who Hike Nevada by clicking here.