There are a lot of people at this time of year booking or preparing to leave on high altitude charity treks. I therefore thought it prudent to write about high altitude treks and altitude illness.
There has been so much written about altitude illness and so many resources on the internet that I would like to write from a different perspective than that of the signs and symptoms of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) or HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema).
I have a really cheesy saying that it is not about altitude but attitude and that a lot of people who really struggle at altitude on charity treks are suffering from attitude illness, rather than any altitude sickness. Don’t get me wrong, altitude sickness is real and can be very debilitating and deadly. The issue is that all of us at some point will get some form of altitude sickness at altitude whether that be a mild headache and breathlessness or full on vomiting and killer migraine. It is how we deal with this that really matters. If anyone gets HAPE or HACE, there is no option but to go down as these conditions can be fatal and there should be no question of ascending. However, most of us will get some form of AMS but this does not mean that we necessarily need to descend.
Trekking at high altitude can be tough and we need to have the right attitude before embarking upon the trek. You need to expect to feel some symptoms of AMS and realise that this will happen, that it is a normal reaction of the body to acclimatising to the altitude and that you just have to walk through it or with it. That is what I mean about attitude. It is how you deal with the headaches, not really whether you get them or not. There will be days when you do not sleep so well and get out of your tent feeling rather under the weather; there will also be days when you feel great. Your attitude to being in a stunning place raising money for an amazing cause is the focus and your attitude should be strong enough to deal with both sets of days. There are of course certain drugs that may help alleviate some of the symptoms such as analgesia etc but you should still expect to have a headache and accept that this is the norm. If you trek to high altitude without any AMS, then that is a bonus but don’t shout too loudly about it to the others on your trek as they may not be crazily happy for you whilst suffering a huge headache and feeling nauseous!!
Let me illustrate what I mean about attitude: There is a small hill near to where I live that is very steep in places, so steep in fact that if you run up it, it feels as though you are running on the spot. Before going on a high altitude trek, I use this hill for training. I know that I am just fit enough to jog up the short hill but it is the fact that at some points, it would be quicker to stride out in a walk rather than run that is a test for me. I have to pass the test and run all the way to the top without stopping to show that I will not give up even though it is crazy hard at certain points. It is all about mental attitude and what I am prepared to do to get to the top. I therefore use this small hill for mental training as well as helping me physically get fitter. Altitude for me therefore is all about attitude, not necessarily about fitness or the altitude itself.
We run training weekends for those attending high altitude charity treks. We of course cannot prepare people physically in one weekend for the trek but we do hope to prepare people mentally which I think is even more important.
I hope that this makes some sense and helps any of you intending on trekking to altitude in the future.