Different travel destinations present different challenges. High Altitude Travel in the Rocky Mountains, the Andes, and the Himalayas requires a bit of planning and preparation. I’m currently in the process of preparing for a trip to China this coming Spring. One of the highlights of that adventure will be the opportunity to visit Tibet, which is of course high in the Himalayan Mountains. I’ll be visiting Lhasa which sits at 3,490 meters / 11,450 feet. Travel at high elevations such as this presents some unique challenges to the traveler. There is less oxygen at high altitudes. If you (and your body) are accustomed to living in an oxygen rich, low altitude environment then you will likely experience some challenges as you ascend to significantly higher elevations. Your body is going to be trying to operate on much less oxygen than usual. It will be harder to breathe, more difficult to move about, and it will take longer to recover after exercise. At altitudes above 8,000 feet some people experience altitude sickness. Mild symptoms can include difficulty sleeping, fatigue, headache, loss of appetite, nausea, rapid pulse, and shortness of breath. Severe mountain sickness symptoms might include cyanosis (skin discoloration), congestion, confusion, cough, decreased consciousness, confusion, difficulty walking and shortness of breath even at rest. Not fun. Symptoms such as these can make a travel experience uncomfortable in mild forms and dangerous in severe presentations.
How do you prepare for and deal with the challenges of high altitude travel? Here are some ideas including some that I found helpful when I previously traveled to Peru. High in the Andes Mountains, I visited Machu Picchu (8,040 feet), Cusco (11,200 feet), Lake Titicaca (12,628 feet) and crossed over the highest Peruvian Andes Mountain Pass – La Ray – at 14,172 feet. I’m planning to use many of these strategies on my travels to Tibet.
1) Get in shape – I think a pre-travel work out and exercise program is always a good idea. This is especially true when your travels are going to take you to higher altitudes. Start a month or two prior to your trip and gradually increase your program. Work on building muscle tone and endurance. High altitude travel frequently involves lots of climbing. Prior to my Peru adventure I visited my local high school football stadium on a daily basis and jogged up and down each stairway from field level to the top and down again. (There are 14 stairways in the stadium I used – I got to know them really well!) I started out by simply jogging the stairs. Gradually, I added my backpack, and then increased the load in the pack. By the time I set off to Peru I was jogging the stadium “circuit” three times on each workout with my pack full of all my travel stuff – cameras, water bottles, etc. Yep – it was work. But when I was climbing up and around Machu Picchu I was ever so happy I had done my prep work.
2) Ascend slowly – Moving up to higher elevations slowly gives your body a chance to acclimatize to decreased oxygen levels. If you can move to higher altitudes gradually over a period of several days you will likely adjust much better. Some recommend you stop and pause your ascent for a day or two for every 2,000 feet of altitude gain above 8,000 feet. Unfortunately, some travel plans don’t allow for a gradual ascent. Like my trip to Tibet for example. I’m flying into Lhasa, Tibet ( elevation 11,450 ft) from Chengdu, China (elevation 1624 ft). That’s a change of almost 10,000 feet in a matter of hours. A slow ascent is a nice idea. My travels to Lake Titicaca in Peru used a slow ascent approach. It worked well. But Peru is a much smaller country compared to China. Going slowly to Tibet would take a really long time.
3) Pace Yourself – Once you arrive at altitude, slow down. It’s hard, but resist the temptation to run out and explore your new location. Rest and give your body at least a bit of a chance to adjust. When you do move – do it slowly. Don’t rush. Pace yourself. Pacing is very important at high elevations. When you get tired – rest!
4) Hydrate – High altitude locations tend to be dry locations. Drink plenty of fluids but avoid alcohol.
5) Medication Option – Consider discussing medication with your physician. A medication called acetazolamide (Diamox) has some actions which can help your body get used to higher altitudes more quickly and reduces minor symptoms. This might be most helpful to those who can’t make a slow ascent. I didn’t use it in Peru and did fine. ( I did, however, drink tea made from Coca leaves and chewed a leaf or two as recommended by locals. I’m not sure if it helped or if it’s impact might have been purely that of a placebo. ) Based on the recommendations of many who have done the “fly in” apparoach to Tibet, I do plan to use Diamox when I visit Lhasa this spring.
So there you have it. If you are planning some high altitude travel, be sure to plan ahead. And of course the disclaimers —- The ideas here are inteded to give you an idea of some of the issues to consider. No specific endorsements or guarantees are written or implied. Use at your own risk. ETC. ETC. But seriously folks – be sure to discuss these issues with your own physician. (I just finished my pre-travel med consult today which prompted this post.) And finally, as they say – your mileage may vary.
Pace Yourself ……… And Enjoy the Adventure!
Dr.B, The Photo Trekker
© 2012, Bruce W Bean, Ph.D. All rights reserved.