Some of the most breathtaking places in the world are found at high altitudes. Unfortunately, being 8,000 feet or more above sea level can literally take your breath away because the air is less dense, has less oxygen and is colder.  

In terms of molecules, the percentage of oxygen in the air is similar to lower altitudes. One difference is the force or pressure of the air, as in atmospheric or barometric pressure.  Air has weight.  It is heavier at sea level, forcing air into your lungs. It is lighter at high altitudes where taking a breathe requires more effort, like breathing thin air. Imagine a sealed empty plastic bottle at a high altitude.  The sealed bottle will squeeze as you decline to sea level.  Adversely, a sealed plastic bottle ascending to high altitudes would expand.  The higher you go, the thinner the air, the more difficult to breathe; which can ultimately cause hypoxia where oxygen deficiency to tissues can cause altitude sickness.   

The Medical Dictionary defines altitude sickness as pulmonary disorders that interfere with adequate ventilation of the lungs; anemia or circulatory deficiencies, leading to inadequate transport and delivery of oxygen to the tissues; and finally, edema or other abnormal conditions of the tissues themselves that impair the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide between capillaries and tissues. Altitude sickness can be deadly.

There are awesome reasons to check out some of the world’s most incredible views at high-altitudes. It’s fun to get away from the rat race and experience vegetation and animals who have adapted in intriguing ways. And here’s a fun fact, research demonstrates people who live at higher altitudes are less likely to become obese.

TIPS & TRICKS

If you decide to reap the rewards of hiking up mountain trails to take in panoramic views and experience nature at its best, please consider these helpful hints:

 

  • Climb slowly: Climbers are more likely to contract altitude sickness when they ascend quickly. Do not ascend more than 9,000 feet in one day. Spend a few days at an 8,000-9,000-foot range before you climb further.  If you fly into Denver, Colorado, you are at 5,280 feet, which is why Denver is called the Mile High City. You might consider spending a night or two before going further up the Rocky Mountains.
  • Take it easy: Once you top 8,000 feet, abstain from alcohol and heavy exercise for 48 hours. Your body will feel exhausted, and you’ll appreciate the rest to adjust.
  • Stay hydrated: It’s important to stay hydrated because symptoms of altitude sickness and dehydration are similar. Try to drink an extra liter to a liter-and-a-half a day. Too much water can dilute your body’s sodium to dangerous levels.
  • Know the symptoms: Altitude sickness can cause headache, fatigue, lack of appetite, nausea and vomiting. If you feel these symptoms, listen to your body and don’t ascend any further until they subside. If your symptoms get worse, you could be at risk for serious illness or death. You should descend to a lower altitude immediately.
  • Know yourself: Altitude can have adverse effects on pre-existing conditions. It has been shown to exacerbate respiratory and cardiovascular problems, anemia, diabetes and more.  It’s important to talk to your doctor about how high altitude might affect you and what precautions you should take in order to stay safe.
  • Carry Oxygen: Purchase a portable oxygen canister to breathe deeply and thwart low oxygen levels. They are relatively inexpensive and available in discount stores like Target or online from Amazon.

 

Getting high – destinations for your bucket list

 

  • Mt. Fuji: A fun fact, Mt. Fuji is actually three perfectly shaped volcanoes located in Hakone National Park, Japan at 12, 388 feet.  Mt. Fuji last erupted in 1707. Mt. Fuji is a sacred mountain whose name means wealth, abundance, old one – one who lives forever.  Mt. Fuji is the topic of many acclaimed poems and art. It is surrounded by clouds on most days.  It is a spectacular view if you are fortunate enough to see its splendor.
  • Machu Picchu: This ancient Inca citadel in the Andes Mountains of Peru is located 7,972 feet above sea level. The structures found there were built about 500 years ago. Scholars still don’t know the true purpose behind them.
  • Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve: Jiuzhaigou is a national park located in the north of China’s Sichuan province. Parts of this sprawling park reach heights between 6,500 and 15,630 feet above sea level. Travelers marvel at its famous blue and green lakes, waterfalls and rare animal species, like the giant panda and the Sichuan golden monkey.
  • Schilthorn Mountain: This picturesque peak in Switzerland, 9,744 feet above sea level, is the crowned jewel of the Bernese Alps. Travelers can reach the top via a cable car in the town of Mürren. Astute film enthusiasts might recognize it as a location in the James Bond film, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.”  
  • Denali: Formerly known as Mt. McKinley, Denali is the largest mountain in North America at 20,156 feet, an 18,000 foot vertical.  It is located in Alaska, a short distance from Anchorage. It is the third most prominent mountain in the world.  Denali is the name indigenous Alaskan people call the mountain, meaning great one.
  • Mount Everest: This is the tallest mountain peak in the world, stretching up more than 29,000 feet above sea level. Experienced climbers trying to challenge themselves flock to this location in the Himalaya Mountains of Nepal.

 

Know what to do:

Every year, people die from altitude sickness. Knowing what to do if anyone starts to feel altitude’s adverse affects can save a life:

  1. Prevention is better than any altitude sickness cure.  Use the Altitude Sickness guide from Altitude.org to inform yourself and those traveling with you.
  1. Being capable of identifying three types of altitude sickness is paramount:
    1. Acute Mountain Sickness – AMS, is similar to a hangover with nausea, headaches, feeling tired or fatigued.  This is the mildest form. An alarm bell should go off in your mind alerting you to take action to avoid more severe sickness.
    2. High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema – HAPE, is fluid on the lungs which can suffocate a person within hours. A person who has shorter breath than those around them, or feels like they are getting a respiratory infection could be experiencing HAPE.
    3. High Altitude Cerebral Oedema – HACE, is fluid on the brain causing swelling, and ultimately death.  Symptom include unsteadiness, confusion, sleepiness, and potential coma. If a person cannot walk heel to toe, this is a problematic indicator.
  1. You must absolutely descend to lower elevations where higher oxygen density can resolve symptoms.
  1. Dexamethasone is generally used for inflammation, while acetazolamide is taken for edema.  You should discuss these medications with your health provider and pharmacist before ascending.
  1. Hyperbaric (pressure) bags and oxygen canister inhalers are helpful.
  1. Timely and appropriate medical attention is strongly advised. Get help if possible using a portable satellite phone, radio, or cell.  

Iconic mountains are best enjoyed with thoughtful preparations.  Always depart with medical and emergency evacuation insurance.  Go prepared.  Know your surroundings.  Have a plan in place.  No matter how far – or high – you go, safety matters.  Depart Smart’s founders know this personally.  Their  16-year-old son, Tyler Hill, died a preventable death during a People to People trip to Japan in 2007.  He hiked Mt. Fuji singing “Walking on Sunshine.” He perished of dehydration from excessive vomiting after the hike. There is evidence he tried to dial 911. Emergency medical service is 119 in Japan.  Do you know how to get help and home? Please give to support Depart Smart’s life-saving efforts. Learn more at DepartSmart.org.