(A continuation of High
Altitude Brain Damage)
By Steve Gillman
In the research done so far it seems clear that brain damage
occurs even in those who do not report any symptoms of altitude
sickness. However, those who do have symptoms may suffer even
worse damage than those who do not. This suggests that if you
have any serious symptoms you should probably get lower right
Also, since it is not clear at what altitude damage can occur,
even backpackers and hikers in the states may need to be careful.
The writer of the article in Outside magazine says he has climbed
many mountains over 14,000 feet in the U.S., and his own brain
scan showed no meaningful damage, but that is one case. Since
it is also clear that the level of damage varies greatly in the
same group of people who share a climb, we just don't know what
altitude is safe.
Subcortical lesions can result from clots in thickened blood,
so another way to protect yourself is to keep fully hydrated.
This is very difficult on extreme climbs. To avoid dehydration
on Everest climbers would likely have to spend hours each day
gathering ice and snow and melting it using their stoves, which
would also mean carrying a lot of fuel weight. But backpackers
who are just going over a 12,000-foot pass on the John Muir Trail
should have plenty of opportunities to fill their water bottles
in lakes and streams.
The best medical advice then, is to go slow, stay hydrated,
and come down fast if you have any serious symptoms of high altitude
Altitude - My Own Experiences and Speculation
My head was pounding horribly when I rushed up Mount Shasta
(in ratty old shoes), my first big mountain. Fortunately I came
down quickly and the pain went away.
On a trip to Colorado years ago (before I lived here), I came
from almost at sea level in Michigan, by Greyhound bus. I got
off the bus in Silverton and immediately went up to over 13,000
feet. I camped at about 11,500 feet and felt nauseous by morning.
I also had hallucinations of sorts. As soon as I descended a
thousand feet in the I felt fine.
At 20,700 feet on top of Mount Chimborazo, I can honestly
say that I felt fine as long as I wasn't moving. As soon as I
walked or climbed I felt the lack of oxygen, but I had no symptoms
of altitude sickness. This is worth looking at more closely.
I had been in Ecuador for a week or more before this, starting
out in the capital of Quito, which is already at about 8,500
feet. I traveled to Riobamba, which is at about the same elevation,
and left from there for the climb. The guide and I were driven
up to 15,000 feet by about three the first afternoon, and hiked
up the the refuge at about 16,000 feet. We left at eleven that
night and after crossing miles of glaciers reached the summit
just at sunrise (hardest thing I've ever done physically, but
no sickness - just not enough oxygen).
We were back down to the refuge by nine and back in Riobamba
a few hours later. In other words, I was only at high altitude
for about twenty hours or less.
Now, the following is my speculation, and not supported by
the research as far as I know, so don't take this as advice.
Also, I should point out that despite the possible measures to
prevent altitude related brain damage I have no intention of
going above 15,000 feet again. I have a brainpower website and
newsletter to maintain, after all.
My thinking is that damage takes time to occur, so if one
cannot properly acclimatize to the elevation, and can't accept
the obvious option (don't go), it may be best to go fast. I took
sixteen hours to go from 8,500 feet to 20,700 feet - about eighteen
times faster than the recommended speed of twelve days. I have
not had my brain scanned, but I felt fine afterwards. I suspect
(or hope) that I just wasn't up there long enough to cause any
If my speculation is correct it provides some hope for backpackers
who only go high while hiking over a mountain pass, and then
drop back down within a few hours. But there is another reason
that many climbers go fast when at altitude: It's dangerous up
there! My guide told me we had to off the glaciers by nine that
morning due to falling rocks melted loose by the sun, and I heard
those boulders falling!
In any case, though I am one with high climbs, I will probably
still go up a few of the 14,000-foot mountains here in Colorado.
But I will limit my time up there and sleep at a lower altitude.
And at east now I live at 5,300 feet - a good start for avoiding