When you ascend rapidly to an altitude you're not accustomed to, your system works to adjust to the new conditions. Breathing becomes more rapid to extract enough oxygen from the thinner air, and the blood increases its proportion of oxygen-carrying red corpuscles. Climbing slowly and steadily upward, climbers routinely suffer uncomfortable symptoms from moving into this new environment. First comes a general malaise and loss of appetite, then headache, followed by increasing weakness and lessening of interest in the climb. If you continue on at that point, there's often increased apathy, nausea, dizziness, and sleepiness. A retreat to lower elevations usually brings about rapid improvement.
Symptoms of altitude sickness (mountain sick ness) can occur at relatively low altitudes. Some people feel dizzy or tired or experience palpitations when riding in a car at 8,000 feet or so. Climbers generally have more time to acclimatize and, except for shortness of breath, usually feel only minor effects until after they reach 12,000 feet or more. In regions such as the Pacific Northwest, where climbers live at sea level yet ascend to over 14,000 feet for a weekend climb of Mount Rainier, altitude sickness of greater or lesser severity is the ride rather than the exception.
You can help moderate the more severe symptoms of altitude sickness by some relatively simple techniques. In ascending, use the rest step to give your leg muscles mini-rests all the way up the mountain and help you maintain measured, methodical breathing. Take occasional full rest stops with forced deep breathing. Drink lots of water and keep nourishment up by snacking often. Follow a program of careful acclimatization (outlined later in this chapter).
Medical experts and specialized texts can provide information on the current use of drugs in combatting altitude sickness. Two prescription drugs—Diamox and dexamethasone—are commonly used to aid in prevention and treatment of altitude sickness. They are not a substitute for proper acclimatization, or for immeditate descent if you get sick.
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