Altitude Sickness (AMS)

Mountaineering and Altitude Sickness



8000 Meter Expedition

8000 Meter Expedition



Been to many high altitude places for mountaineering expeditions, have seen and experienced many “Altitude Sickness”.  Altitude sickness is an illness that ranges from a mild headache and weariness to a life-threatening build-up of fluid in the lungs or brain at high altitudes. Many people died during many expeditions especially to 8000 meter peaks.

Acute altitude sickness is the mildest and most common form. Because more people are traveling to areas of high elevation for skiing and mountain climbing, acute altitude sickness has become a greater public health concern.

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A more serious form of altitude sickness is high altitude edema (HAPE). This illness occurs when fluid           builds up within the lungs, a condition that can make breathing extremely difficult. Usually, this happens    after the second night spent at a high altitude, but it can happen earlier or later. HAPE often comes on quickly. If left untreated, it can progress to respiratory collapse and ultimately to death. HAPE is the number one cause of death from altitude sickness.

Another severe form of altitude sickness is high altitude cerebral edema (HACE), in which fluid builds up within the brain.IMG_1813 As the brain swells with fluid, the person’s mental state changes. Loss of coordination, coma, and, finally, death can follow unless the problem is recognized and treated promptly.


Reason for Altitude Sickness

The main cause for altitude sickness is due to wrong techniques in hiking and climbing. Usually AMS develop when the rate of ascent into higher altitudes outpaces the body’s ability to adjust to those altitudes.


Altitude sickness generally develops at elevations higher than 2,500 meters above sea level and when the rate of ascent exceeds 500 meters per day.


Ladder Crossing on Khumbhu Icefalls



The reasons which trigger altitude sickness:

  • Ascending too rapidly
  • Overexertion within 24 hours of ascent
  • Inadequate fluid intake
  • Hypothermia
  • Consumption of alcohol or other sedatives


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One way to avoid altitude sickness is allowing the body to get used to the altitude slowly.


Acclimatization is the process by which the body adjusts to high altitudes. The goal of acclimatization is to increase ventilation (breathing) to compensate for lower oxygen content in the air. To compensate for this extra ventilation, blood needs to have a lower pH. In response, the kidneys excrete bicarbonate into the urine, which in turn lowers the body’s pH to accommodate for this extra respiratory effort.




Symptoms of Altitude Sickness

Acute altitude sickness may be associated with any combination of the following symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Insomnia
  • Shortness of breath during exertion
  • Nausea
  • Decreased appetite
  • Swelling of extremities
  • Social withdrawal




Altitude Sickness Prevention


Climbing above 2500 meters is normal for all mountaineering. Altitude sickness is preventable. The body needs time to adjust to high altitude. Climbers should have good physical condition before going hiking at high altitude. The following are the preventive measures recommended.

  • Avoid physical exertion for the first 24 hours.
  • Drink plenty of fluids, and avoid alcoholic beverages.
  • Consume a high-carbohydrate diet.
  • Ascend gradually for hiking 2,500 meters above sea level.
  • The mountaineer’s rule is “climb high, sleep low.”
  • Take Diamox that speeds acclimatization to prevent acute altitude sickness.