Acute mountain sickness

I crashed into a chair feeling exhausted and started to get sleepy. After a while I also started to get a headache. I checked into my room (a dorm I shared with 5 others) and now was feeling more and more miserable, also getting nauseous. I tried eating some chocolate and drinking water, but it didn’t help, so I just rested. In the evening the nauseousness won, and I had to throw up. Ahhh, that was a relief… felt better but not stronger. I had lost my appetite and hadn’t eaten much and was still very tired. The climb was scheduled to start at 3am, but I was now sure that I wasn’t going to make that. All my symptoms were clear signs of altitude sickness, and going up another 700m is the last thing you should do. But I got out of bed at 2.30am anyway, still feeling nauseous, and wished my roommates good luck with the climb. I threw up once more and went back to sleep…
How to climb Mt. Kinabalu…. and NOT make it to the summit!

The climb for the summit (another 2.7km up from the base camp) was set to begin at 2:30am. However, because of our speedy hiking abilities, our guide set a special start time for Matt and I-4am (another 1.5hours of sleep!) Actually, we didn’t sleep at all the entire night, partly due to the excitment and partly due to the pounding altitude-induced headache we both had. When 2:30am rolled around, we watched as our fellow climbers set off into the dark to begin their climb. Matt and I began downing a few liters of water (which quickly eased the headache and we realized stupidly we should have been drinking such large quantities hours before then) and began preparing ourselves for the hike.
Stairway to Heaven…Mt. Kinabalu

Acute mountain sickness … or AMS.

I haven’t found any definitive figures, but it seems that the primary reason for climbers failing to reach the summit of Mt Kinabalu are exhaustion and/or AMS. The primary symptoms of mountain sickness are headaches and nausea. For many climbers these symptoms can become severe enough to prevent them from continuing.

Who is most susceptible to suffering altitude sickness? Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any way of predicting this. Regardless of age, fitness, weight, gender or race, some people get it severely at certain altitudes and some people don’t. We do know that at some stage altitude sickness affects everybody.

Still, there are ways to delay the onset or reduce how mountain sickness affects you.

  • Most important is your rate of ascent. You need to give your body time to acclimatise to higher elevations, and the best way is to climb slowly with frequent rests.
  • Exhaustion can also make the effects of altitude sickness worse. Overexertion is one of the main triggers for AMS. The more tired you are the more likely you are to be overcome by AMS. Again, climbing slowly (and rest-stepping) reduces your chances of feeling ill. Maintaining a steady pace without any large increases in physical effort helps.
  • Take regular rest intervals. Try to rest for at least ten minutes every hour. Continue deep breathing as you rest.
  • Try to keep your body oxygenated. Deep breathing as you take each step helps. Keep an eye on your heart rate and breathing. If you start panting or your heart starts pounding, take a break, and when you resume slow down.
  • Eat a high-carb diet. Snack at every rest break and eat something more substantial every two or three hours. Climbing uses a huge amount of energy and it’s easy to run out of fuel.
  • It’s important to keep your body well hydrated. Try to drink a litre of water every hour as you climb (see the quote above).
  • Taking Diamox (generic name: acetazolamide) or similar before climbing can help, as well as headache remedies like aspirin or paracetamol. Note that Diamox is not a cure for AMS: it just helps you acclimatise faster.
  • If mountain sickness hits you hard enough so that you can’t continue, if possible descend to a lower altitude.

Check with your physician before taking high altitude medications like Diamox. People with certain physical conditions shouldn’t take it. In addition, possible side effects include nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite and diarrhoea. The last one particularly concerns me. That’s not how I want to keep my legs warm when I’m hanging off a rope on a cliff face at night above Sayat Sayat.


Posted on November 9, 2015, in Hiking, mountainclimbing, Mt Kinabalu and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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