High Altitude Climbing and Acute Mountain Sickness


 I have been researching the impact that high altitude climbing will have on my body, what I can expect, what I can do to assist my body’s ability to cope.

And importantly, to be able to recognise the onset of Acute Mountain Sickness in its more serious forms.

Acute Mountain Sickness, AMS as it is often referred to, is the effect the declining number of molecules of oxygen in the atmosphere has on our body as we ascend in altitude. It can range from a mild illness, to the more severe life-threatening forms of the illness, such as High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE).

The latter two conditions require immediate attention and descent from altitude otherwise death is the most likely outcome.

I’m not intending to go into a great discussion on either, nor am I qualified to do so, but as part of my journey “To Climb a Mountain” I want to gain a better understanding of both conditions.

High altitude is defined as 5,000 to 11,500 feet, very high altitude 11,500 to 18,000, and extreme altitude as 18,000 feet and above.  At extreme altitudes physiologic function will outstrip  acclimatisation eventually.

My reading has taken me across a wide variety of topics, but the one that caught my attention was the connection between muscle and the requirement to fuel our muscles with oxygen when under exertion.

Over the years I have trained as a power-lifter for strength purposes and I have achieved results I am happy with.  As a consequence I have grown muscularly and currently weigh-in around the 95 kilogram mark.  This has given me a good power-for-weight ratio and has enhanced my speed on the kayak over the short to mid sprint distances.

Power-lifting has helped me develop strong legs, especially my quads through squatting, and dead-lifting.

Will this muscle help, or hinder me on the mountain as I trudge up the side of an 8,000 metre peak?

When exercising, the body, or more specifically the contracting muscles have an increased need for oxygen and this is usually achieved by a higher blood flow to these muscles.

And therein lies the dilemma as I see it.

Due to the less dense air at altitude the number of oxygen molecules for any given mass of air will drop. Consequently, mental and physical performance will decline, and the larger the muscles, the larger the requirement for oxygen to prevent muscular fatigue…

So what can I do?

There is not a lot that you can do to prepare for the effect of AMS, some people will adapt and perform better at altitude than others and this is hard to predict from one individual to another.

What I can do is decrease my muscle mass, and whilst that will mean a decrease in overall strength I can try and maintain the power for weight ratio balance.

The upshot of all this is that ahead of my expedition to Nepal in April I will deliberately take around 10-12 kilograms out of my frame…

The climbs in Nepal will be done without the aid of supplemental oxygen.

I won’t be changing my training routine greatly, I will maintain some weight training, rowing and kayaking, and importantly, a daily walk of around 10-kilometres with a 25-kilogram backpack at silly o’clock in the morning (that is 4:00am).

The best way to control weight change, either gaining, or losing, is via your diet and that starts in the  kitchen.

Baz – The Landy (In my home gym in the “Shed”)


13 thoughts on “High Altitude Climbing and Acute Mountain Sickness

  1. vastlycurious.com January 24, 2015 / 5:46 am

    This is so complex ! It’s exciting to read about. Be careful but how exciting !

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Emma January 10, 2015 / 7:02 am

    Have you tried those gyms that do high altitude raining like ‘Peak Altitude Training’ in Sydney? I haven’t, but wonder whether they make any difference.


    • Baz - The Landy January 10, 2015 / 6:04 pm

      Hi Emma, I think they have limited value as a training tool for mountaineering, but perhaps more success for athletes. The issue is that 1-2 hours per week doesn’t really cut it for training for higher altitudes, although it can give a taste of what you will experience.

      I had actually contemplated spending an extra week or so in Nepal and doing another short trek ahead of climbing, which will also include plenty of time for getting used to altitude…

      But essentially, best way to prepare is to be there and do it slowly.


      • Emma January 10, 2015 / 8:29 pm

        Good point, I’m sure nothing beats the real thing and being in the environment for long enough to get used to it. Worth taking some Diamox with you as a backup.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Baz - The Landy January 10, 2015 / 5:57 pm

      Thanks, I’ll be packing it in the pack!


  3. mhoustonfl January 8, 2015 / 2:15 pm

    Cardio, cardio, cardio! The stronger your heart – the easier to carry those red blood cells. Maybe due to the fact I live in a very hot humid climate, but I have always believed working out under extreme heat conditions has really helped me at very high altitudes because your body is used to stress….oh, and yoga for breath control…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Baz - The Landy January 9, 2015 / 12:19 pm

      Oh, rest assured, with summer on us it is hot and humid training in the hills…


  4. Mountainstroh (Tony) January 8, 2015 / 2:13 am

    Hudration as well buddy, the betrer hydrated fhe thinner the blood and the waier it will flow. My guides always told me. Clear cna copius. You better nee fo pee a lot and have it come out clear or,you are in trouble with dehydration

    Liked by 1 person

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