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Understanding and Dealing with AMS

Understanding and Dealing with Acute Mountain Sickness

So you’re all set to bag that summit, the one that’s been calling out to you and daring you to traverse its high rocky routes. You’ve traveled cross-country and now stand face to face with it's belligerent peak. Achieving the apex has been a goal burning to be accomplished and a challenge you must overcome. This is the obsession we all share.

You begin your ascent, traveling higher and higher, all is well, the air is fresh, the noise of the low land is replaced by only wind, and you can see for miles after crossing the tree line.

Paradise, right?

It’s at this point in the trip that it begins, that low dull throb, the headache that’s really just a nuisance and often hardly noticeable, but no big deal, right, you can muscle through it. Soon you start feeling dizzy, and the headache increases causing you to feel nauseous. All of a sudden the trip isn’t so fun anymore; you feel miserable. What’s going on? What should you do?

You’ve just suffered the early symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS).

Luckily you probably won’t die; however your plans have just changed. Your best bet is to hydrate and descend. AMS is the most common disorder when gaining altitude. This is why, as highland enthusiast it’s crucial to be familiar with it's symptoms, what steps to take to prevent the onset, and what to do in cases of specific effects. Some have been known to suffer manifestations as low as 6,500 feet, but as the altitude heightens the number of afflicted increases. AMS is a result from, as I say, “too much too fast,” since it is often a result of ascending too quickly and not allowing the body to acclimate properly. Medically speaking, AMS is caused by lowered atmospheric oxygen in the brain. This in turn produces an increase of fluid on the brain from the alteration in its circulation brought on by the atmospheric change. Though the vessels in the brain are attempting to constrict from the lack of carbon dioxide they are also trying to dilate from the low oxygen levels of high altitude.

Before any high ascent the persons involved should allow time for their bodies to acclimatize, especially if they have traveled directly from or near sea level. This can be done without medical equipment or sophisticated techniques. Usually all that is required to achieve acclimatization is to spend time near the desired altitude. For example, if someone is planning to climb to or just above 14,000 feet after arriving from sea level, spending a day or even the night at 12,000 feet will significantly lower their chances of suffering from AMS. Taking regular breaks and slowing the pace of the climb will also allow the body to become accustomed to the change in atmospheric pressure and lower oxygen levels of the highland.

In preparation to summit a high altitude the persons involved should:

  • hydrate

  • maintain proper nutrition

  • be well rested

  • communicate with others in their party about how they feel

The following explains this list further, and the things on this list are what I like to think of as the main keys to altitude success. Just like any other extreme sport or heavy physical activity one should come prepared. The best way to combat AMS is by showing up in a well-prepared physical condition.


Think of water to the body as like oil to an engine. If an engine’s oil is kept fresh and new the engine will run cool and lubed for thousands of miles. This is very similar to the way water affects the body, it’s amazing how essential water intake is. Proper hydration prevents numerous heat and arid condition related illnesses and injuries.


While in the mindset of the way an engine works and how it relates to the body, think of food as the fuel you use to power your vehicle. Poor quality gasoline gunks an engine up, causing poor operation and performance, and without fuel all together the engine stops. Enough said.


During a good night sleep the body heals and recovers from the strains of the day. This is most important when preparing to undertake the demanding task of mountain trekking or backpacking any sort of long distance. The trip is always more fun when your mind and body are on the same page.


Communication is paramount; as much as we wish that people could read our minds, they can’t. Unless you’re displaying obvious signs of distress no one can tell if you’re unwell. As much of an inconvenience as it may be to force your group to end a trip early, it’s far better than forcing your climb and potentially causing your group to have to carry you off the mountain.

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