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Trekking really is a great activity for a nature lover and adventure freak. Seeing nature at its best, breathing the cool, clean air, climbing mountains, such bliss. But, like everything in the world, it has a downside, in the form of health risks. Every now and then, we keep reading about avalanches and rock falls high up in the mountains trapping hikers. Did you know that on the strategically important Siachen battlefield, more soldiers have died due to adverse weather conditions than from bullets?! Just last year, a massive earthquake hit the Everest Region, killing at least 19 people! While none of this could have been avoided, there is one weather-related condition which can be, and mind you, it can be a killer too: AMS.
What is AMS?
AMS or acute mountain sickness is the mildest form of altitude sickness; the two severer forms being HAPE (high-altitude pulmonary edema) and HACE (high-altitude cerebral edema). In simple words, it is the inability of the human body to adapt to the climatic conditions at higher elevations.
What causes AMS?
The cause of AMS is the continued exposure of the body to lower oxygen level and less air pressure. How the condition develops isn’t fully understood, with a number of theories coming up in recent past. The most common view is that because the amount of oxygen at high altitudes is less, the body directs more blood than usual to the brain to maintain consciousness. Due to increased blood flow, and sometimes due to leaking blood vessels, the brain swells. The swelling, in turn, causes the pressure inside the cranium (skull) to increase, resulting in the onset of AMS. Though this is the most widely accepted theory, it hasn’t been proven. Imagine how dangerous a situation, the onset of which hasn’t been fully studied, can be. I’m not trying to frighten you; merely keeping you aware. Thankfully, there are ways to prevent and cure AMS that you will learn in the subsequent sections.
Why does AMS Happen?
The most common reason for people suffering from AMS is reaching way too high altitudes way too quickly. The sudden change in the atmospheric conditions, the body is experiencing, doesn’t give it the time to adjust, resulting in the onset of the condition. It can happen if you live at sea level and take a flight to a place like Ladakh, giving your body no time to adapt to the changing weather conditions.
How to Asses if you have AMS?
As AMS is a body condition, there are certain signs and symptoms, associated with it. The two most common symptoms of acute mountain sickness are headache, nausea, difficulty sleeping and tiredness. Your heartbeat may also increase since the body will try to get the maximum out of whatever oxygen is available. As less oxygen would reach the brain, its ability to function might decline, leading to lightheadedness or dizziness. AMS may also cause nausea (the feeling of not wanting to eat anything) or vomiting. You may feel shortness of breath with exertion, so take it slow and don’t be a daredevil. As a precaution, the occurrence of any of these symptoms at high altitudes should be taken to mean you have AMS.
Where does AMS Happen?
As per the generally accepted theory, acute mountain sickness happens at an altitude of above 11500 feet, but its symptoms can also be felt 10000 feet above sea level. When and where the condition will appear is different for different people.
Who is at Risk for AMS?
As already noted earlier, those, who ascend to great heights too fast, are susceptible to the effects of AMS. Apart from these, if you do too much physical work at higher elevations, you could be its victim. A disease of the heart or lungs can also make you prone to the condition. If you have had AMS before, be extra cautious because chances are you might get it again. When going mountaineering or just visiting places, located high in the mountains, get your red blood cell count checked. If you have low RBCs, then the body will not be able to make do with less oxygen, and you will fall prey to the condition easily.
How can AMS be Prevented?
We have all heard the saying, “Prevention is better than cure”, and in lieu of this, let’s discuss how to prevent AMS before we start talking about ways to cure it. The best way to prevent acute mountain sickness is acclimatisation. If going to above 10000 feet altitude, your first and often the most important round of acclimatisation should be carried out at 10000 feet altitude itself, because it is this elevation, beyond which the condition starts affecting hikers. So, it is better to stay at the altitude for at least a day, and try and not do much physical work; just let your body get used to the atmospheric conditions. This is not all; you will need more rounds of acclimatisation, as little elevation change from here can result in a great variation in climatic conditions.
When ascending higher, set up camp every time after a gain of 1600 feet. This is precisely why the trail to the summit of Mount Everest has base camps at these intervals. Once you ascend 3300 feet from the previous point, stop for a day to allow your body to adapt to the extreme conditions further up. And, on your rest day, don’t exercise too much. Posting photos on your social networking account of you working out at higher altitudes could actually kill you. Another way to prevent AMS is carrying an oxygen tank above 10000 feet altitude. Drinking a lot of fluids may also help in keeping acute mountain sickness at bay. Always pack eatables, high on carbohydrates, and try to consume them as frequently as possible to supply your body the required energy.
How to Cure AMS?
Taking precautions doesn’t always mean you have prevented a mishap; in the case of AMS, acclimatisation doesn’t guarantee that you will not have it. As an added precaution, when trekking to high altitudes, pack adequate Acetazolamide (Diamox) pills in your luggage. Though it will help your body adjust to high-altitude atmospheric conditions better, you will still suffer the symptoms of AMS. In extreme conditions, the best way to cure AMS is taking enriched oxygen via the nose. If you are going to high-altitude border areas of India, you will definitely see check posts of the Indian Army. Knock on their door if your AMS worsens; they have oxygen cylinders to help soldiers, posted atop mountains, cope with the condition. They also keep oxygen for civilians, especially in areas where tourist activities are high.
Another way to prevent AMS from worsening is not ascending any more, once you start feeling the symptoms. At once, head back to lower altitudes for some more acclimatisation. If even this doesn’t work, then turn back; your body is not cut out for the task. Don’t be depressed. It happens. Not all persons are alike. You can attempt at try hiking some other time. There’s no shame in surrendering to the forces of nature.
So, you see how easy it is to counteract the effects of AMS?! To be honest, up until some time ago, even I used to think that it could not be controlled and that those, who are susceptible to cold and less oxygen, will get it no matter what. But, after doing all this research on AMS, I am relieved and now really looking forward to trekking to high altitudes. Let’s just remember these tips and make our hike an affair to remember forever.