What makes people climb heights

Altitude sickness

Altitude sickness can affect anyone

At least that is what the German Society for Mountain and Expedition Medicine emphasizes on its website: "With a rapid ascent to altitudes of 3000 meters and more above sea level, 75 percent of all hikers or mountaineers" are affected by the first signs of acute altitude sickness.

Most of the trekking tours outside of Europe take place at altitudes above 3000 meters. Altitude sickness encompasses a large number of symptoms that can occur from an altitude of 2500 meters. If acute altitude sickness is not treated, it can be fatal.

Altitude sickness can affect anyone, man or woman, old or young. In most cases, the trigger is a rise that is too rapid too high. One speaks here of an ascent speed of more than 600 meters per day.

In addition, there are stressful factors such as overexertion, lack of fluids or infections. If the first warning signals are ignored, high altitude lung or high altitude cerebral edema can occur, which, if left untreated, can lead to death within a few days.

The cause lies in the falling air pressure and the associated lower oxygen uptake of the lungs. The result: a drop in performance. From an altitude of 1500 meters, the performance drops by ten percent with every additional 1000 meter mark.

That means: on a mountain with a height of more than 5000 meters - like the Kalar Pattar in Nepal - a trekker, mountain biker or mountaineer only has 50 percent of the oxygen available that he has at sea level. If the traveler does not adjust to the changed conditions at altitude, the first symptoms of altitude sickness can occur.

The milder form: the first signs of mountain sickness

The first problems can occur as early as 2000 meters: it usually begins with headaches, nausea, dizziness or a lack of appetite.

During this phase, recreational athletes should immediately stop, drink and rest for a day, recommend expedition doctors. If there is no improvement, you should descend at least 500 meters again, or to a symptom-free point.

The acute mountain or altitude sickness

In the event of severe symptoms such as dizziness, palpitations, balance disorders and a rapid decline in performance, you must descend immediately and as deeply as possible until the symptoms are alleviated. Otherwise there is a risk of high altitude cerebral edema or high altitude lung edema.

The body tries to compensate for the low air pressure and the associated lower oxygen supply per unit volume in the lungs by breathing faster and deeper. At the same time, the organism excretes more fluid and the number of red blood cells increases.

At an altitude of 4,500 meters, for example, the increase is around ten percent - and that after just two days. The blood "thickens" so to speak and embolism, thrombosis or edema can occur.

In high-altitude pulmonary edema, more fluid escapes from the pulmonary vessels into the lung tissue and alveoli: the lack of oxygen is increased. In the case of high altitude cerebral edema, the brain swells - this danger generally exists from an altitude of 5000 meters.

The cause is the increase in pressure within the organ. Initially, there are sensory disorders and balance disorders. Here, too, the immediate descent must take place.

Do mountain dwellers also suffer from altitude sickness?

Some do: In the Andes, in large cities like La Paz or Quito, altitude sickness occurs - not only among travelers, but also among the residents themselves.

In contrast, American scientists from the "Center for Research on Tibet" claim that Tibetan women and children who have lived for generations at an altitude of 3800 meters and more are immune to altitude sickness. Of course, only if you stay up to date and don't go down into the valley for a long time, for example.

The reason is a genetically determined higher oxygen saturation of the hemoglobin (iron-containing oxygen-transporting proteins) in the blood of the examined Tibetans.

Protection against altitude sickness: the right precaution

Prophylaxis begins at home. Anyone older than 40 should have a doctor examined beforehand to see whether their heart and lungs are healthy. However, there is no altitude tolerance test. A good level of fitness helps to cope better with the drop in performance at high altitudes - but that is not a real protection against altitude sickness.

The best recipe is a slow climb. As a rule of thumb, for example when trekking at heights of 3000 meters and more, the following applies: a maximum of 300 to 500 meters per day - calculated from sleeping place to sleeping place. One or two rest days should then be taken every 1000 meters.

Drinking enough is also very important. Four to five liters a day are recommended here, because the body loses more fluid at higher altitudes above 5000 meters.

If you want to climb five-thousand-meter peaks and larger mountains, you should spend a week beforehand at an altitude of 3000 meters to acclimate yourself.