Mt. Kilimanjaro reaches 19,341ft into the sky.
That’s a long ways past where many people start to feel the effects of altitude. One of the most common questions, and fears I hear is about the altitude. Though I have personally seen both cerebral and pulmonary edema most of the time what people think they feel is all in their head. That’s not to say that signs and symptoms of altitude should ever be taken lightly but a mid headache or nausea can be expected.
What is altitude sickness and what are the symptoms?
During the trek it is likely that all climbers will experience at least some form of mild altitude sickness. It is caused by the failure of the body to adapt quickly enough to the reduced level of oxygen in the air at an increased altitude. There are many different symptoms but the most common are headaches, light-headedness, nausea, loss of appetite, tingling in the toes and fingers, and a mild swell of ankles and fingers. These mild forms are not serious and will normally disappear within 48 hours. If they continue, or get worse you need to take it seriously and seek medical help.
On our treks we carry a pulse oximeter to regularly monitor clients oxygen saturation levels. This enables us to prevent many altitude related issues before they get serious. It doesn’t prevent altitude sickness, but it can give you a good idea on how you’re doing.
How can I prevent altitude sickness?
1. Stay hydrated. Try to drink at least 4-6 liters per day.
2. Avoid tobacco, alcohol, and other depressant drugs including barbiturates, tranquilizers, and sleeping pills.
3. “Don’t go up until symptoms go down”. People acclimatize at different rates, so make sure that you properly acclimatized before going higher.
4. Before your trip, maintain a good work/rest cycle, avoid excessive work hours, and last minute packing.
5. Listen to your body. Do not over-do things the first day or two. Avoid heavy exercise.
6. Take your time. Pace is a critical factor on all routes. “Pole pole” (go slowly) is the phrase of the day.
7. Walk high sleep low: If you have enough energy, take an afternoon stroll further up the mountain before descending to sleep. (not if you have any symptoms of altitude sickness!)
Six factors that affect the incidence and severity of altitude illness:
1. Rate of ascent
2. Altitude attained
3. Length of exposure
4. Level of exertion
5. Hydration and diet
6. Inherent physiological susceptibility