Feeling: ALTY (-tude, not -ernative)
So; the go with altitude.
The first time I ever went into it, I had no idea what it actually referred to. All I knew was that less oxygen could affect functionality, and taking a medicine called Diamox could hinder such happenstances.
But last time I took more notice, and this time I actually looked into it. Bear with me: it’s succinct, I swear.
So altitude is a place’s height above sea level. Holland and Belgium sit at about 30-100m (some bits actually under!), New Zealand is at an average 388m, South Africa is 1030. And high altitude is said to begin at 1500- 2400, with effects mainly coming on at about 3000.
So as the altitude rises, the air pressure drops. This occurs as a result of two reasons: gravity (pulling air as close to the earth’s surface as possible), and density (as altitude increases, the amount of gas molecules in the air decreases – so the air becomes less dense than that closer to the core). There we have, “thin air”.
So this lesser air pressure means less oxygen is about for breathing. So as you climb higher, shortness of breath is strife – the lungs have to work mightily more to bring the bloodstream oxygen.
As Jack Wallis analogy-ised: it’s like whiskey versus beer. The same volume goes in, but one is a whole load more rich and sends you further – whiskey is ground level with alcohol as oxygen (I.e., potent with it and you feel the effects); beer is high altitude, where it doesn’t hit you so hard (in an oxygen sense; when you drink at the Irish Bar up here is hits you damn hard). So it’s the same volume, the percentage within is just a whole load less.
(Did that clear it up a bit? Or just make you want a Jameson’s?).
The lungs cope by making your body breathe harder and longer, and when climbing uphill this becomes more acute. And continuous breathing in this way builds up carbon dioxide in the blood.
As you head higher, your body naturally acclimatises to the decrease in oxygen, building up a zone of tolerance where it functions fine. But if you go too fast and the CO2 goes beyond, your body reacts and you fall sick.
And this is where altitude sickness comes in.
You never know who it will strike – just because someone may be a magic mountaineer doesn’t mean they are immune. And just because you didn’t have it one time doesn’t mean you won’t get it the next, and vice versa: Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is a fickle fella who has no type to target.
Symptoms of the stuff range from headaches to dizziness to brain damage to death (sorry; that got serious fast). When the head pounds persistently, there is nausea and vomiting, the appetite alleviates and/or weakness and fatigue but difficulty sleeping, the only remedy is to go down and descend.
The trick is to take trekking up higher slow. To feed yourself plenty of fluids. To take days here and there to acclimatise (staying two nights in one place and going for a shorter gander up and down during). To eat garlic soup (apparently this really helps). And of course, the option of taking Diamox.
A portion of your body’s C02 sits in a chemical called bicarbonate. Usually your body exhales it through your lungs, but in high altitude there is more and not enough oxygen. So Diamox forces your kidneys to excrete it, which is why you wee way, way more.
(Apparently you can take Viagra to aid in altitude as it’s a blood thinner too – you might just have further side effects in your undercarriage to manage about as well).
The first two times I took Diamox; half a pill morning and night. It was more a case of keeping my head in the game; as soon as my head started pulsating the first time I freaked out. This time we haven’t gone as high (4040m rather than the last of 5545), and for the last three days I’ve taken just half a pill each (Craig didn’t take any).
And just some more merry makers for you on altitude: about 8000m the human body cannot survive and it starts to shut down – what is referred to as “The Death Zone”. So if you think of Everest peaking at 8848m, that’s a hell of a hike of time in which your body is literally dying down.
Just one more fun fact: if you were to try and summit Everest if it was located at the North or South Pole instead (say, Alaska or Antarctica), it would be as though it was 914m higher with the altitude effect.
Oh, how high knowing stuff makes me – I feel as though I’m at a 10,000m elevation.