The high mountains in the world are undoubtedly very beautiful, offering breathtaking landscapes and adventure emotions. But there are many things which stop people from going there, and one of them is the high altitude sickness.
Many people say they can’t endure the high altitudes over 2500 – 3000 m, they feel uncomfortable or if they haven’t been there yet, they are afraid of other people’s experience stories. Some people want to go to Tibet. They take the plane to Lhasa, arrive to the airport, get off the plane and start feeling dizzy, tired and hard breathing, sometimes with headache. Then few days instead of enjoying their trip, they just stay in bed and feel difficult to move.
But there is a solution of this problem. And the main key is: don’t go to high altitude zones immediately, straight from the sea level, especially if you haven’t visited high mountains recently before your trip! The golden rule is: ascend gradually! Plan your route to go first to lower places, then go on step by step higher and higher. If you don’t have enough time for it, at least try to go to higher mountains before your trip- it can help too, although it will be less effective than gradually ascending route.
You want to visit Lhasa in Tibet. Lhasa is situated about 3400 m altitude. It is not too high yet, most of the people would not have serious problems with it, but you still may feel uncomfortable. So, a good way to avoid it is first to go to Kathmandu in Nepal. It is in 1400 m, which is too low indeed. But you can spend few days to make nearby trips to the Himalayan mountains around, every day higher than the previous day. And when you reach altitudes around 3000-3500 m and stay there without problem, you are ready for Lhasa.
Usually the high altitude problems start over 2500-3000 m, not lower. So your high altitude training can begin from such altitudes. The best route would look like this: Day 1- go to 2500 m point. Day 2- make a trip high to 3200 m in the day, then again back to 2500 m to sleep. Day 3- go higher- to 3500 m, then back to sleep to 2800-2900 m altitude. And Day 4 you can reach 3800-4000 m without problems and sleep about 600 m lower.
Remember- there is a golden rule: Sleep in point A. The next day ascend to 1000 m higher then point A and evening back to point B, which has to be around 600 m lower than the day’s peak and 400 m higher than point A. To avoid healthy problems- go higher, but at night sleep lower than you have been at daytime!
And usually for 2-3 days you will be ready to travel without any problems around the Great Tibetan plateau between 3200-4600 m altitudes. Here, here and here you can read more about how to arrange an example itinerary in Eastern Tibet.
Extreme high altitude
If you want to go higher altitudes- more than 4500-5000 m, then the adaptation has to be longer, following the same pattern. More than 5000 m altitude is a serious level, notice that there are no constant local people’s settlements in such areas. It is because a human can’t adapt to live long time there. You can stay there 1-2 months, but not too long. And one can suffering serious forms of altitude sickness, such as brain swelling, which can be lethal if he doesn’t go quickly to lower areas. The deadliest zone is of course the highest- over 8000 m altitude, that’s why its called “Death zone”. The oxygen level there is about only 30-40% of the level at the sea coast. Nobody can adapt to live there, but can adapt only to go there for a short time, and even adapted (as possible), still can be in danger.
Anyway, no matter how high will you go, over 3000 m you need adaptation. From 3000 to 5000 m altitude you may suffer altitude sickness, but normally it is not dangerous (unless you have some health problems).
Altitude sickness symptoms:
Usually when you go to higher altitude, if you have a good adaptation, you can’t feel anything but only easier to be tired, as well as fast breathing during physical activities- more than if you are on the sea level. But that’s all, it is normal body reaction.
However from 3000 to 5000 m you may have soft altitude sickness symptoms. They include headache, difficult sleeping, dizziness, fatigue, heart rate, loss of appetite and vomiting. If you have some of these symptoms, stop ascending higher, but descent to altitude, where the symptoms disappear, then start adapting again from that level. Yes, it may change your travel plans, but your health is more important.
But on the other side, if you are in the middle of the Great Tibetan plateau, you just cannot go lower, because there are no “lower” altitudes anywhere hundreds of kilometers (miles) around you. In such case you can just find a place to relax. You can buy oxygen masks (usually there are such masks in many places in the area- just buy from the local shops). You can use ibuprofen too, it can reduce the symptoms. Or you can go to the nearest airport and get the plane to the lowlands (and it may be necessary if the situation gets worse).
Be aware of getting cold and fever!
If you are in good health, you should not have problems. But with cold and fever it is highly advisable to stop ascending and adapting, but first treat yourself. Cold and fever makes your body “to pay more attention to healing” than adapting in the high altitude, so it may put you in dangerous situation. When we were in Tibet in our first trip there, a girl of our group got cold and has a horrible time at 3700 m altitude for 2-3 days, so we had to descend to 3100-3200 m (it is not easy to descend in the middle of Tibet, since there are no lowlands hundreds, even thousands kilometers around us), waiting her to be ok, then we proceeded again.
High altitude and children:
It is not a good idea to bring your children under 5 years old to the high altitude areas, unless they were born and grew in such areas! Their body is too young and their ability to adapt to the high altitude is limited. But if they are older, usually there should be no problem to adapt as the adults. We have been up to 4300 m altitude with our daughter when she was 7 years old, and for a short time to 4290 m when she was 5 years old, and there was no problem with her at all. Of course, following us, she ascended slowly, day by day. So, when your children are at least 5 years old, don’t be afraid to take them with you, just follow the rules how to avoid the altitude sickness.
Altitude sickness treatment
If any of the altitude sickness symptoms appear, you have to do something to stop them. Don’t allow it to progress. First, of course, the best way is to descend as lower as possible. Or at least, if it is difficult to go to the lowlands (for example, if you are in the middle of Tibet), stop ascending and go down to the nearest lower place. There are some ways for altitude sickness treatment by medications and oxygen. And the locals, who have centuries of experience in high altitudes, also have their ways to deal with it. For example a friend from Bhutan told me that they use black tea with sugar in such situations. Read more about various ways of treatment here.
Generally speaking, don’t be afraid of the high altitude. Tibet, Himalayas, Pamir, Tianshan, Karakoram and the other mountains of the Greater ranges area, as well as all other high mountains on the Earth have a lot to offer, full of beauty, adventure and stunning views. There are the highest altitude areas on the Earth, but it should not be a problem, if you just follow the right way to adapt. It has solution, so you can enjoy you trip to these wonderful lands.