Climbing Great Heights – Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)
I recently had the great privilege of being able to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. It is the tallest freestanding mountain in the world and the highest point in Africa. It stands at 19,341 ft. In order to attempt a climb like this, there has to be a lot of careful planning. You need to train to increase your physical stamina, you need to research what clothing and equipment is needed and lastly, but most importantly, you need to plan out your altitude medications to prevent and treat AMS.
AMS (also known as altitude sickness) usually occurs at altitudes above 8,000 feet. It is due to reduced air pressure and lower oxygen levels. The faster you ascent 8,000 ft. and higher, the more likely you are to experience altitude sickness. Symptoms include: difficulty sleeping, dizziness, fatigue, headache, and loss of appetite, nausea and/or vomiting, rapid pulse and shortness of breath on exertion. A Diamox regimen can be recommended prior to travel as well as other instructions on how to combat AMS. It is important to see your Travel Health specialist for this prescription and associated instructions.
After personally witnessing what can happen to climbers that are unprepared for this medical situation, I would say that there is no way of cutting corners on the medical preparation part of a high altitude trip. AMS can lead to scary situations that can threaten your life. There is little to no medical evacuation protocol on Mount Kilimanjaro. You would need to be brought down to a lower level very quickly by porters carrying you or being pushed on a wheeled gurney for 11 miles! The path down is rocky and unpredictable and extremely difficult to navigate when it is muddy. Having 20 years of Travel Health experience under my belt prepared me for this trip. I was able to advise and treat several members of our group, which helped facilitate our overall success rate in making it to Uhuru Peak. 14 out of 16 made it. This number is more significant as most of us were 50 to 59 years of age!