How to stay safe while mountain climbing

Climbing to the top of a mountain can be a rewarding experience. In addition to the thrills of rock climbing, mountain peaks often offer scenic views and unique solitary environments.

However, it is important to understand the health and physical issues you may face when seeking high altitude adventure.

Learn about some of the risks of mountaineering and what you can do to stay safe.

Bring the right gear

Appropriate equipment for hiking and mountaineering is essential. Wear clothes that allow you to move and maneuver comfortably. Choose well-fitting shoes that provide ankle support, stability, and grip.

If you walk on rocky trails, use a trekking pole or two to help maintain your balance as you navigate rough terrain. A stick will also lessen some of the physical impacts on the knees, hips, ankles, and lower back.

It’s a good idea to carry gear for all types of weather. The air is thinner at high altitudes. This can lead to extreme and rapid changes in temperatures. Pack layers of clothing that you can add or remove as needed. Do not forget waterproof and windproof outerwear made of light material.


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You should also bring something to keep the sun out of your eyes, such as a brimmed hat and sunglasses.

Also, don’t forget the sunscreen. The sun’s rays tend to be more intense at higher altitudes, especially if they are reflected off the snow. Insect repellant is important during the warmer months, while light-colored clothing can be cooler and less attractive to pests.

When you are high in the mountains, you may be far from civilization and from access to sustenance. Don’t forget to bring food and water for your trip. Staying hydrated can be difficult as you sweat more at higher elevations.

Carry all your extra gear and food in a backpack with at least two straps. Make sure your backpack is snug and has padded shoulder straps and a belt.

Prevent altitude-related illnesses

Besides the difficulties of mountain hiking, the high altitude itself can cause serious health problems.

Acute mountain sickness (AMS) is the most common altitude disorder. It is commonly referred to as altitude sickness. Its main symptom is a severe headache, but other symptoms can include:

  • nausea
  • tired
  • dizziness
  • drowsiness
  • insomnia

Some other altitude-related disorders include:

  • high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE)
  • high altitude brain edema (HACE)
  • peripheral edema, which makes your hands, feet and face swell
  • gorge altitude
  • altitude bronchitis

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Always take AMS seriously as it may put you at risk for HAPE or HACE. These are very serious conditions that are life-threatening.

HAPE occurs when excess fluid builds up in the lungs. It can cause shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, and foamy or bloody sputum.

HACE occurs when fluid builds up in your brain. In addition to severe headache and vomiting, it can also lead to confusion, unusual behavior, drowsiness, difficulty walking, and loss of consciousness.

There are several things you can do to reduce your risk of altitude-related illnesses.

Acclimatization

Most altitude-related illnesses are caused by a lack of oxygen. Higher altitudes have a lower concentration of oxygen in the air. You may be able to prevent altitude sickness with proper acclimatization.

It is important to take the time to travel at high altitudes. Rather than driving or flying to a high altitude starting point, try to start low and work your way up. Once you reach an altitude of 8,000 feet, many experts advise not to climb more than 1,000 feet per day.

Your general health may limit the height to which you can safely climb. See your doctor if you’ve recently had a heart attack, stroke, blood clot, or severe asthma attack before planning a mountain hike.

It is also important to stay hydrated, avoid drinking alcohol, staying warm, not smoking, and eating regularly. Some climbers and trekking leaders also carry an oxygen supply when traveling at extremely high altitudes.

Medication

The drug acetazolamide (Diamox Sequels) can help prevent altitude-related illnesses. Acetazolamide works by helping your kidneys to get rid of bicarbonate, which stimulates your breathing. It helps you absorb more oxygen. It also mimics the physiological changes associated with acclimatization. Side effects can be mild numbness, tingling, and taste changes.

The corticosteroid dexamethasone (Decadron) can be used in people who cannot tolerate acetazolamide.

Sleeping at high altitudes can be difficult. Low oxygen supply at night can interrupt your sleep or make you feel tired in the morning. Acetazolamide can help you breathe better throughout the night.


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“Climb high, sleep low” is something that many climbers swear by. You climb during the day but descend to the lowest possible altitude compatible with your journey to sleep at night.

Supplements

If you have iron-deficiency anemia, you may want to consider taking an iron supplement before and during high altitude travel. Oxygen is carried throughout your body in red blood cells. If you have anemia, you have fewer red blood cells to carry oxygen. Iron supplements appear to be the most effective in increasing low iron stores when traveling to higher elevations that last two to four weeks or more.

Descent

If you or a climbing partner shows symptoms of altitude sickness, descend immediately. Try to descend 3,000 feet or more. If descent is not possible immediately, take temporary measures to manage the disease. For example, the person should be placed in a pressurized bag (Gamow), given oxygen, or given drugs such as dexamethasone.

Stay safe on your mountain climb

With proper preparation and careful attention to safety, high altitude hiking and mountain trips can be a fun, challenging, and truly inspiring experience. Always carry the correct equipment. Take the time to acclimatize to higher altitudes. And ask your doctor about the potential benefits of taking acetazolamide and iron supplements.

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