Finally the mountain of mountains appeared in the distant. We had been walking for just over ten days, climbing over four thousand meters up towards the highest peak in the world. Just as we are about to inhale the sweet scent of victory two figures appeared behind a hill. They looked so pale that we offered them our help, in any way we could. They rejected our offer and just said ”We just wish you the best of luck, because we never made it up to the basecamp. The altitude sickness took the best of us.”Never feel secure! Never be afraid! Always be aware of the danger!
It suddenly struck us how real the danger of altitude sickness is. The couple we met looked alot fitter than us, and far more professional for that matter, but the sickness hits without warning and affects everyone differently. But if you are not cautious it will kill you. The nepalese that live on these heights does not get affected since their bodies are used to the high altitude, but for a visitor the beatiful views are deadly.
Me and my danish companion travelled without guide or porter. That meant we had to be alot more careful with the notion of altitude sickness, since it was a physical state we new very little about. In the trekking guides it says the first symtoms are headaches and nausea. Eventually you start throwing up and finally you pass out. If you do not immediately return to lower altitudes you will never wake up again.
To avoid this you have to acclimatize on your way, which means not climbing more than 300 meters in a day if you are past 3,000 meters in altitude. There is an additional guideline called ”the golden rule” which says to climb high and then steep low. That means that you can climb as high as you want as long as you return to a base camp that is not higher than 300 meters more than your camp the previous night.
When we finally reached Everest Base Camp niether me nor my danish friend had felt any notion of the altitude sickness. We enjoyed the view, had a chat with the climbers and then turned around to begin our long decent. Then it fell over us. That light-headedness that totally made me forget where I was or why I was there, but just that it was of uttermost importance to put my one foot in front of the other and walk. Niether of us said a word for an hour, just focusing on not falling and getting as far down as possible.
When we reached the first tea-house we could find we sat down, looked in each others eyes and just waited. If anyone of us felt any worse within half an hour we would just run downhill. We waited. Nothing happened. We were lucky.
AMS, or Acute Mountain Sickness is the leading cause of death among climbers in the Himalayas. It is a result of chronic lack of oxygen in the tissues and the following physical reactions. While regaining our strenght the tea-house we heard the story about an estonian guy, fit and about thirty years old, who died just the day before. After he and his friends had dinner he felt bad and left them to sleep in his room. When his friends found him he was unconcious and had vomited all over. They used a Gamow bag, which is a inflatable pressure bag that simulates the conditions of lower altitudes. With him inside they began a quick decent in the ice cold darkness.
During the decent the estonian woke up and panicked within the pressure bag. His friends could not carry him while he had this claustrophobic attack and they opened the bag. The estonian man had not yet acclimatized and he died there.
Me and my danish friend made it back to safety without experiencing any further symtoms, but always with the nagging feeling of caution, which together with awareness can prevent alot of people from getting altitude sickness.