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Will I Get Altitude Sickness?

April 4, 2011

altitude sickness – New Oxford American Dictionary


illness caused by ascent to a high altitude and the resulting shortage of oxygen, characterized chiefly by hyperventilation, nausea, exhaustion and cerebral edema.

The magic of thin mountain air. Photo by Sarah Olson.

This is a question nearly every first time climber ponders.  It’s no wonder; there is so much conflicting information out there about altitude sickness.  It’s sometimes the scapegoat used to describe a climber’s discomfort when really the culprit is a head cold, fatigue or a touch of the flu.

Certainly, if you are concerned, check with your doctor.  All climbers are encouraged to make an appointment with their physician if any health issues arise.

My personal experience is this – when I am on a guided climb, as opposed to a personal climb, my chance of experiencing altitude sickness decreases significantly.  This is one of the many beauties of being a part of a guided team.  Professional mountain guides are trained to keep a steady pace, observe their clients’ strengths and weaknesses, and make the most efficient use of your energy reservoirs.  They have spent as many hours contemplating your climb as you have – and most of them have been up and down the route like mountain goats.  They have painstakingly selected your steps, decided when and where you’ll take your rest breaks and know, even before you do, how fast you’ll travel.  They are master pacesetters.

All of this planning greatly reduces the chance that you will experience altitude sickness.

Your part in reducing your odds is to be training before your climb, remain hydrated during it, rest when you get the chance and consume calories – a lot of calories.  If you do not eat and drink on the mountain, you will feel a little sick – and not necessarily from the elevation.

Brian and Kristin are all smiles as they approach Mt. Baker. Photo by Colin Stapp

I am more apt to experience altitude sickness at a ski resort than on a guided climb.  I follow a mental checklist before and during my climb:

  • Rest in the week before
  • Hydrate. Hydrate. Hydrate in the days leading up to and during the climb
  • Follow the guide’s lead – literally
  • Sleep – and if sleep doesn’t come, rest
  • Pressure breathe
  • Hydrate some more

Mountain climbing with a professional guide service like Alpine Ascents International, Portland Parks & Recreation and Shasta Mountain Guides is downright luxurious compared to going on your own.  Remember that your guides are there to keep you safe and teach you the skills necessary to be successful.

If you rest, hydrate, eat and listen, you’ll be on your way to celebrating in thin air!

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