Hiking At Altitude – South America Edition

Now, we’re aren’t going to pretend to be expert mountaineers, but we’ve spent more time in the high peaks of the Rocky Mountains than the average hiker. And after some time at altitude in the Andes mountains of Peru and Bolivia, I think we’ve got enough of a knowledge arsenal to let you in on some of the basics, and maybe save you some grief. Please keep in mind, this post will not cover health considerations for at risk populations, please consult with your physician if any of the following applies to you:

  1. You have an underlying health risk or concern
  2. Have a chronic illness
  3. Are of older age
  4. Plan to get pregnant or are currently pregnant
  5. Plan to travel with young children or infants

See http://www.altitudemedicine.org/altitude-and-pre-existing-conditions/ for more information.

Altitude Sickness: It’s pretty well common knowledge that hiking at altitude has its risks. But what exactly is altitude sickness? It is a group of symptoms that are brought on by a sudden increase in altitude. Even with adequate acclimatization prior to your hike, altitude sickness can still effect you, as it does many others.

Early Symptoms Severe Symptoms
Headache Confusion
Dizziness Extreme dizziness and vertigo
Nausea Vomiting
Trouble breathing when active Trouble breathing and shortness of breath at rest
Weakness or fatigue Pallor
Increased heart rate Chest tightness and pain

Please be advised that severe symptoms can be life-threatening, don’t try to tough it out for the sake of that view up-top, get yourself back down to a lower altitude right away. More serious forms of altitude sickness can occur where fluid accumulates in the lungs and brain, this needs to be taken VERY seriously.

See http://www.altitudemedicine.org/altitude-illness/ for more information.

What Causes Altitude Sickness? For the sake of keeping this simple and informative, IN GENERAL, what causes altitude sickness is this: The lower atmospheric pressure at high altitude results in lower levels of available oxygen in the air, and therefore lower quantities of oxygen taken in with every breath. Lower quantities of oxygen in our lungs means lower quantities of oxygen are available to be delivered by the blood to all the parts of our body. Oxygen is one (very important) component involved in creating the energy the body requires to carry out normal functions, without energy, our body cannot function as it normally does.

Our body has several magically efficient mechanisms to adjust to these changes in our environment, and this is why acclimatization is so important. Giving your body time to adjust at gradually higher altitudes before hiking several hundred metres in a day can really save you, and increase your chances of making it up that mountain. For those who think a little bit of a headache never killed anyone, tell that to someone who’s really had altitude sickness. Some Advil or Tylenol won’t take this headache away, the only real cure for altitude sickness is getting back down to lower altitude, and even then, you might still feel pretty awful that day.

I’m sure your itching for the part where I tell you HOW ON EARTH ARE YOU GOING TO AVOID THIS AWEFULNESS. But first, let me put into perspective just how drastic of a difference the altitude can be compared to home (and these are popular spots).

Location Altitude
Victoria, British Columbia 23 m above sea level
Golden Hinde, British Columbia (highest peak on Vancouver Island) 2,195 m above sea level
Vancouver, British Columbia 1-152m above sea level
Edmonton, Alberta 645 m above sea level
Calgary, Alberta 1,048 m above sea level
Mount Robson, British Columbia (highest peak in the Canadian Rockies) 3,954 m above sea level
Location Altitude
Laguna 69, Peru 4,500 m above sea level
Machu Picchu, Peru 2,430 m above sea level
Rainbow Mountain, Peru 5,200m above sea level
Ausangate, Peru 6,384 m above sea level
Lake Titicaca, Peru/Bolivia 3,812 m above sea level
Huayna Potosi, Bolivia 6,088 m above sea level

Being the true Canadian that I am, I still have to give us some credit. A lot of the popular hikes in South America, although magnificent, do not always boast the same kind of elevation GAIN as some of the hikes were used to back home. Meaning you start at high altitude, and can reach much higher altitudes in a short amount of time without necessarily having to hike all day till your feet bleed. Unfortunately, this still won’t save you from altitude sickness.

Preventing Altitude Sickness: Disclaimer: These are simply recommendations based on personal experience and knowledge we’ve acquired over the course of our travels. This should not replace professional medical advice.

We were lucky, with the help of a well-known local trick and adequate time acclimatizing, we’ve been able to avoid taking our altitude sickness pills all together. However, not everyone will have the same luxury as we did, and by luxury, I mean weeks to months to acclimatize. We did experience some mild altitude sickness on our first couple hikes in the first week our trip, but by the time we got to Cusco to do the Rainbow mountains (peak at 5,200 m) we were running up the mountain no problem. Here’s what we’ve learned:

  1. Acclimatization Starts on Arrival: Spend a few nights if possible in the neighbouring city or town closest to your hike. While you’re there, walk! Walk everywhere! If you want to make the most of the acclimatization process you’ve got to get moving.
  2. Hydration: This may seem obvious, but it’s harder than you think. At altitude, humidity is lower and sweat evaporates quicker, and with the changes in atmospheric pressure (as discussed earlier) respiratory rate increases, increasing water loss from respiration. As a result, water loss from exertion is significantly expedited at altitude as compared to the same activities closer to sea level. To make matters worse, high altitudes, in combination with cooler temperatures, can blunt your thirst response, making it even harder to stay hydrated. The take away message? Drink up! Depending on how high you are, you may have to aim at guzzling back between 1-4 litres of water daily with added electrolyte and carbohydrate supplementation.

See http://www.altitudemedicine.org/training-at-altitude/ for more information.

  1. Ascend Gradually: If you end up doing any guided treks, you’ll notice a common trend (at least we did). Slow and steady really does win the race, especially for those multi-day treks. The goal should be to avoid overexerting yourself, especially in the early stages of your hike, getting progressively stronger as your hike continues.
  2. Last resort. The most popular prescription for preventing altitude sickness is Diamox. It is designed, in short, to help speed up to acclimatization process and therefore prevent or reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness. Keep in mind, to prevent altitude sickness, Diamox should be taken 1-2 days before you start your climb, not once symptoms have already begun to establish. In addition, this medication cannot completely prevent serious forms of altitude sickness and therefore you should descend to lower altitudes if you begin to show serious symptoms. Like any medication, it has its own set of risks and possible side effects.

See https://www.webmd.com/drugs/2/drug-6753/diamox-oral/details for more information.

  1. Best for last. In some parts of South America including, Peru, Bolivia, and parts of Argentina, the locals have a trick, and we SWEAR by it. Even better part is, it can come in the form of candies, and is readily sold in just about every little bodega we’ve come across so far. It’s called Coca, most commonly in the form of Coca Leaves. If you didn’t already know, this is the same plant that contains the psychoactive alkaloid that people use to make Cocaine. Don’t go thinking you’ll be flying back home hooked on cocaine if you try this, it takes about 370 Kilograms (or approx. 800lbs) of Coca leaves to make one Kilogram of Cocaine. In the form of a raw leaf, the locals have long used this plant to combat the effects of altitude sickness. Some additional benefits are said to include: increased energy, strengthened immune system and alleviated indigestion. Try as a tea, or chew on the leaves like the locals.

More tidbits on Coca Tea https://www.livestrong.com/article/478795-what-are-the-benefits-of-coca-tea/.