Mountain or Altitude sickness normally manifests itself at altitudes in excess of 11,000ft and respects no one. A young fit sportsman may suffer when the other older less fit members of the party do not. Every year we arrange treks for many people well into their 60s and 70s and they experience no discomfort; in fact they are probably less susceptible for they tend not to race around the routes as the younger generation do and are more willing to admit they feel unwell.
The golden rule is don’t go too high too fast. Taking things at a leisurely pace in the mountains for trekking is not a forced route march and with this basic rule adhered to, altitude sickness should not be a problem. Above 3000m, the daily net elevation gain should be no more than 500m. Drink plenty of fluids at altitude as the air is extremely dry – the rule of thumb is that unless your pee is clear, you are not drinking enough.
Symptoms of Mountain sickness include headaches, dizziness, insomnia, nausea, loss of appetite, shortness of breath and swelling of the hands and feet. One or two of these shouldn’t be cause for panic but they are a sign that your body hasn’t yet adjusted to the elevation. You shouldn’t ascend further until you start feeling better or if you do keep going, be prepared to make a hasty retreat if the conditions get worse.
Serious symptoms (persistent vomiting, delirium, loss of coordination, bubbly breathing and bloody sputum, rapid heart rate or breathlessness, blueness of face and lips) can develop within hours and, if ignored, can result in death. The only effective cure for Mountain Sickness is descent. Anyone showing serious signs of the illness should be taken downhill immediately, regardless of the time of day or night, preferably by a porter or pack animal. Recovery is usually dramatic, often after a descent of only a few hundred vertical metres.
Barraged by medical advice and horror stories, trekkers all too often develop altitude paranoia. The fact is that just about everyone who treks over 4000m experiences some mild symptoms of mountain sickness but serious cases are very rare and the simple cure, descent, almost always brings immediate recovery. In addition to being physically fit, trekkers should also be prepared to adopt a mental flexibility during the trip.