How will my body respond to high altitude?

How Will I Respond To Altitude?

As the calendar turns over for another day, this is not just any day. Today marks one year to go until you find yourself on the start line of your challenge. At this point, your expedition may be the furthest thing on your mind, or it might be the first thought you have in the morning and the last you have at night. Whatever your outlook, it’s exciting, moving into the last 12 months before a challenge as things start to become a touch more ‘real’ with every passing day.

While there’s still more than enough time to pick up everything you need from the exhaustive kit list, check in on your vaccines and any required medication, and of course put in that all important training, it’s worth making the most of the time available because before too long departure day will be sneaking up!

One of the things you might have already started thinking about is altitude. It’s perhaps the greatest unknown factor when it comes to your challenge. You may already be well experienced in trekking in adverse conditions for hours at a time – after all, a long day in the UK mountains will provide you with all four seasons! But one thing you can’t get on those practice hikes is the feeling of the thin mountain air that comes with high altitude.

How Might The Body Respond?

When it comes to altitude, the human body has two major defence mechanisms to protect against the lack of oxygen at altitude which are triggered almost instantly: increased breathing rate and depth to get oxygen into the body and; elevated heart rate to pump this oxygen out to the muscles and the brain. There are, however, a few other potentially unpleasant effects of high altitude that you might not expect but should be aware of.

Chief amongst these is the dehydrating effect of altitude. Every time we exhale, we lose water in our breath- it’s why you can see your breath on a cold day. Not only do we breathe more at high altitude (meaning more opportunity for water losses in the breath), but the air is drier, which means we lose more water per breath. As a result, these ‘respiratory losses’ quickly add up and can leave you feeling that dry throat experienced by so many high altitude travellers before you. At the same time, some people might be particularly susceptible to the diuretic effect of high altitude: a build up of carbon dioxide results in the kidneys increasing urine production to get rid of a substance called bicarbonate. This, combined with the loss of water in your breath, quickly leads to dehydration. While it can be easy to combat by increasing your water intake, dehydration has been associated with some more severe reactions to high altitude, including altitude sickness, or acute mountain sickness by its proper name.

Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS for short) affects up to 80% of climbers heading to high altitude. It’s a progressive disease, meaning it has mild, moderate and severe phases, with around a quarter of people suffering severe AMS when trekking to >5,000 m. Those who are struck down by the most severe symptoms of AMS are less likely to summit, or at the very least have a less enjoyable experience. Determining your individual level of risk is therefore important to put an appropriate altitude training plan in place to mitigate the effect of altitude and improve your body’s response – reducing your susceptibility to altitude sickness, and increasing your probability of a successful summit.

The key take message is that everyone can acclimatise to altitude, but everyone is different. It is important you understand how you respond to altitude, so that you can plan your altitude training around how you respond.

So How Do I know How My Body Will Respond

The truth is that without actually being exposed to altitude, it’s hard to say how you’ll respond. Even the fittest athletes on the planet can be affected, so really we need to experience altitude in a controlled manner to assess your response.

Enter simulated altitude.

Normally it wouldn’t be possible to experience altitude without heading to the mountains, however, simulated altitude allows exactly this. In a safe, controlled environment in London or your own home, you can test your own susceptibility to altitude sickness via our Mountaineering Consultation.

Everyone can acclimatise to high altitude, some people just require a little more time on the mountain, or a little more altitude training to help you get there.

Our mountaineering consultation allows you the opportunity to find out exactly what it’s like to be at altitude and to exercise in thin air; from the increased heart rate to deeper and faster breathing, and how your perception of effort changes as the amount of oxygen in your blood decreases.

Interested to hear more about your own susceptibility to altitude sickness, and how altitude training can help you prepare for high altitude treks and climbs?

Check out the Mountaineering Consultation online here.