HOW TO AVOID ALTITUDE SICKENESS?
Altitude sickness is a systemic issue on Mount Kilimanjaro. This is partly to do with the fact that Kilimanjaro is a high altitude trek, but more critically because the speed of ascent on most Kilimanjaro routes is relatively rapid. Acclimatization is the process by which the body becomes accustomed to lower availability of oxygen in the air and can only be achieved by spending time at various levels of altitude before progressing higher.
Oxygen, Air Density and Altitude
Acclimatization is best understood by looking at the relationship between oxygen in the air, air density and altitude changes.At sea level oxygen accounts for about 21% of air and barometric pressure is around 760 mmHg (millilitres of mercury). As one climbs in altitude the amount of oxygen in the air remains about the same (up to approximately 21,000 meters or 69,000 feet), however, air density drops and thus less pressure is put on packing oxygen molecules closer together (imagine oxygen molecules moving further and further away as altitude increases).
Blood oxygen saturation
The body deals with this decrease in available oxygen by breathing faster and deeper (even at rest) so as to increase the oxygen content in the blood (i.e. blood oxygen saturation or SO2). The chart below shows the typical profile of oxygen saturation in an average person’s blood as one ascends to higher altitudes. For the average person, you can see that blood oxygen saturation (SO2) decreases to nearly 80% at 6,000m (just above Kilimanjaro’s summit).
There are a number of practical steps that you can take to minimize the chances of having to abandon your climb of Kilimanjaro due to the effects of altitude sickness:
ACCLIMATIZE PRIOR TO THE CLIMB.
Easier said than done if you live at sea level but if you are able to spend time at high altitude prior to the actual Kilimanjaro climb then this is the very best way to avoid altitude sickness. Climbing Mount Meru prior to Kilimanjaro is also an excellent option.
Start the climb in the best possible health and with an excellent level of physical fitness. If you are fatigued, unwell or stressed you are more likely to suffer from altitude sickness.
SLOW AND STEADY.
You need to keep your respiration rate low enough to maintain a normal conversation. If you are panting or breathing hard, you must slow down. Overworking your heart and lungs substantially increases your chance of becoming ill.
DRINK MUCH WATER AS YOU CAN.
Getting up in the middle of the cold night may be an unpleasant thought but altitude dehydrates you and the better you hydrate the quicker your body is able to acclimatize.
Even though you may not feel like it you should eat as much as you possibly can at every meal. This will give you plenty of energy and help you to feel great. I find it also helps me to keep warm and sleep well at night.
Sleeping well in a tent is a acquired skill. Spend a few nights out in your tent and sleeping bag prior to your climb so that you have your routine nailed and are used to sleeping in a sleeping bag on a hard surface.
Diamox is the prescription name for the generic drug acetazolamide. And, though acetazolamide is prescribed for the medical treatment of glaucoma, sleep apnea, epilepsy and hypertension, it’s also used to prevent altitude sickness. You should consult with your doctor before taking it.
Relax and think positive. Although not pleasant the vast majority of people suffer only mild altitude sickness. Don’t think that every headache is cerebral oedema and every cough pulmonary oedema as this is unlikely. By relaxing and enjoying the climb you are far more likely to have a trouble free experience.