This past Tuesday I thought I could outwit and outlast the dreaded altitude sickness or soroche, as it is known to the people of the Andes, for a lucky third time in a row when myself along with two new Karikuy volunteers climbed to Marcahuasi at a whopping 13,000 ft. However in Tuesday’s struggle of me vs. nature, nature in all her glory got the best of me and won the battle.
Until now, Peru has been my larger than life jungle gym having travelled to Cusco at 11,200 ft, and having climbed to Machu Picchu at 7,970 ft and the daunting Pastoruri Glacier at 17,000 ft, all of which left me virtually unaffected and untouched by altitude sickness which is too commonplace in climbing to be avoidable. It decided to postpone itself during the day, letting me think I was invincible, at the very least allowing me to have my fun in the sun until night hit when it hit me with a massive migraine, shortness of breath, back pain, neck pain, basically entire body pain, nausea, sore throat, and the list goes on.
Aside from the fact that I wanted to curl up into a little ball and cry, I was equally curious about what was going on with my body, how soroche works and how I could have prepared if at all for this moment of extreme discomfort. For the person who plans on traveling to high altitudes in Peru or elsewhere or has already done so and is wondering why their head felt like it would explode…this blog is for you.
The concentration of oxygen at sea level is approximately 21% and as altitude increases, the concentration of oxygen remains the same while the amount of oxygen molecules are reduced per breath. For reasons unknown to scientists high altitude combined with low air pressure incites fluid to leak from capillaries which ultimately can result in fluid build-up in the lungs and brain. In other words, this is very very bad. The level of oxygen becomes quite low at 8,000ft above sea level and those climbing above this height are likely to experience some form of altitude sickness especially if your ascent is rapid and you continue to ascend without acclimatization. Risk of soroche is increased by the cold, which might explain why I experienced it during the night, since temperature levels drop enormously in Marcahuasi at that time. Simply put, the higher you climb, the less oxygen there is in the air and the more cautious you will need to be of your symptoms.
There are two primary forms of altitude sickness, the first being Acute Mountain Sickness which is milder than the more serious High Altitude Cerebral Edema. These minor symptoms include nausea, fatigue, dizziness, insomnia, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, and of course a massive headache all off which I had. HACE on the other hand is an extreme version of soroche involving swelling of the brain and should be addressed immediately if signs occur. These include a persistent headache, retinal haemorrhaging, and over time a gradual loss of consciousness.
The best solution I have found for mild altitude sickness is to simply stay put. Acclimatization generally takes 1-3 days at one altitude allowing the body to produce more red blood cells to carry oxygen and thus for depth of respiration to increase. Walking to your destination is best because it gives your body time to gradually adjust to the altitude whereas taking a plane or driving is more rapid and does not give your body the time it needs to acclimate. The acclimatization process is inhibited by dehydration, alcohol and over-exertion so walking slowly and drinking lots of water is essential. There are loads of medications for this problem but if you are as hesitant about pharmaceuticals as I am than I would suggest chewing on coca leaves which Andean people have been using for centuries to cope with the altitude.
I really don’t believe there is anything I could have done to prevent my encounter with soroche. But I quickly discovered that the simple method to dealing with altitude sickness would be walking at a slow pace, chewing lots of coca leaves, a slow decent to lower levels and ultimately acceptance without panic if your symptoms are as mild as mine were. In the end, nature may have won the battle, but it did not win the warJ