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High altitude adventure trips for women: what you need to know

Posted: Monday, October 8, 2012

Should you even consider one of our adventure trips for women that involve high altitude (for example, our Kilimanjaro Climb and Safari or Trekking to Machu Picchu)? If you're like most people, you may never have been over 8 - 10,000 feet and you have no idea how you will respond. There are alot of myths and misinformation about altitude so the first step is to get some basic information.

  • There isn't less oxygen at high altitudes. But there is lower barometric pressure, which means there is less pressure to force those oxygen molecules out of the air and into your blood stream. Your body has both short term (faster breathing and heart rate) and long term (more hemoglobin) ways of helping you adapt up to a point.  

  • Most people do not have trouble at altitudes below 8,000 feet, other than perhaps a little breathlessness and rapid heart rate the first day or so (e.g. this comonly occurs when we go to Bryce Canyon). Beyond that, our response to altitude is largely determined by our genetic makeup. Those people who climb Everest without oxygen? It isn't that they are super athletes or follow special diets (although those may be true too); it's just that they chose their parents well.

  • You can have trouble adapting to altitude one time and no trouble the next, or vice versa - because it isn't all genetic. Nonetheless, it isn't a hopeful sign if you have problems twice in a row or routinely have more trouble than other people when you are over 8,000 feet.

  • People with a long history of heavy smoking and/or chronic lung disease are mor elikely to have trouble at altitude ebcause their lung function is already affected.

  • Being in top physical condition won't prevent altitude sickness.

  • People do not get more susceptible as they get older - in fact, there is some evidence that the reverse is true.

  • The best way to avoid altitude sickness is to build in adequate time for acclimatization, preferably never sleeping more than 1,000 feet higher than the night before.

  • Staying well hydrated, eating more carbs and less fat, avoiding alcohol, and getting more rest can all help you adapt.
  • If slow acclimatization isn't possible or if symptoms of mild altitude persist, then the drug acetazolamide (Diamox) is very effective for most people. Fortunately the symptoms many of us typically get - headaches, nausea, fatigue - often resolve in a day or two. 

  • Occasionally people don't adapt, and then altitude can be deadly.  Once you develop any of the forms of altitude sickness (Acute Mountain Sickness, High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, High Altitude Cerebral Edema) the most important thing is to descend to lower elevations. Fortunately at altitudes of 20,000 or less, these are not common.

    In the end, there are no guarantees. You can do everything you need to do to get ready for a high altitude adventure trip and then have altitude problems. People with known chronic lung disease or demonstrated sensitivity to altitude probably shouldn't even bother trying. But if there is something you have been wanting to attempt and all that is holding you back is your uncertainty about how you will respond to altitude? If you don't try, you'll never know.
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