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What is Altitude Sickness? A personal encounter and how important high altitude travel insurance is for you!

26 October 2017

Altitude sickness in the Himalayas

Dianne Martin – Co-founder of Experience Earth Travel – has trekked through the Himalayas and experienced altitude sickness first hand. Her story gives an overview of altitude sickness, what you need to look out for and how her travel insurance provider World Nomads looked after her. Altitude Sickness is real. It will affect anyone, young or old, male or female, any fitness level, and both experienced or new trekkers. Having said that, do not let altitude sickness put you off experiencing Nepal’s beautiful people, culture and of course, their mountains. 

What is altitude sickness?

High altitude sickness is the physical distress from the body adjusting to lower oxygen pressure and levels in the atmosphere at higher altitude.  Most of the time the effects are mild, however it can be life threatening.

You should keep this in your mind and be prepared.  Again, don’t be put off, its just three simple steps:

  1. Learn about it!   this is easy to do – just talk to your health professional and read about signs, symptoms and preventative measures.
  2. Listen to your body: headaches, nausea, loss of appetite, shortness of breath, a change in resting heart rate, tingling, and need to lie down may be signs.
  3. Get the right insurance!  again, easy to do – I totally recommend and don’t go past, World Nomads.  These guys specialise in adventure insurance including high altitude trekking up to 6000m above sea level. And because it’s a mandatory requirement with trekking operators, who better to talk to.

While on your trek or adventure the only things you want to be focused on is the enjoyment, the challenge, the environment and the people and culture. There shouldn’t be a mindset of fear asking yourself  “will I get altitude sickness?” Good news!  You don’t have to - again two easy steps:

  1. Totally trust in your guides and listen to them. They are born of the mountains. They know and are very aware of the possibilities and risks involved with altitude sickness, and exactly what to do if/when it happens. Talk to them, don’t undermine them or be too proud about your ability to keep going.
  2. Enjoy your time on the mountain. If you have any concerns, listen to your body and just tell the guides what you are feeling. They cannot help if they don’t know.

 How altitude sickness affected me

Family Christmas trekking to Everest Base Camp in Nepal’s HimalayasA family Christmas trekking to Everest Base Camp in Nepal’s Himalayas was an adventure to remember. Not only for the sheer magnitude of being in amongst these stunning mountains, the beautiful Nepalese people and their culture, but also for getting altitude sickness on the very day of reaching Base Camp!  A bitter/sweet feeling –disappointed to have not reached Base Camp, but extremely grateful for our guides, insurance providers and helicopter crew who did a brilliant job in acting quickly, taking care of me and organising our helicopter evacuation off the mountain. I cannot thank them enough.

My symptoms were: 

  • Loss of appetite. At the time I thought I was just too full!! I assumed this symptom was due to my normal eating pattern at home being so different to the mountain. With the amount of walking, we ate large meals regularly and back home I don’t eat big cooked breakfast or a lot of starchy foods (that’s not to say the food wasn’t good though, because it was).
  • A bit of the flu.  We are in an alpine environment for extended days, its expected, right? This wasn’t alarming to me as a few in our group had similar symptoms.
  • On the day to Everest Base Camp, I felt ok in the morning. 50m out from the teahouse, it hit.  All I wanted to do was lie down and sleep, my body was struggling with the lack of oxygen. I had the most painful and intense feeling of pins and needles, a level I have never experienced before. I am a strong-minded person when there is an end goal.  I so wanted to keep going but my body wasn’t agreeing. There was no choice but to let my body take control this time around.

How did the guides, emergency services and World Nomads look after me?

Altitude Sickness in Everest Base Camp TrekOn the mountain our guide went straight into action. His only focus was to take care of me, getting me back to the teahouse and warm, then organising the helicopter. The remainder of the group were well looked after by the rest of the experienced crew and did make it to Base Camp.

A helicopter was 20 minutes away and arrived in cloudy and challenging conditions and promptly got me back down to Kathmandu.

Touching down at Kathmandu airport an ambulance was waiting to take me straight to Swacon International Hospital – a Travel and Mountain Medicine Centre which specialises in altitude sickness. The hospital was immaculate, very clean, tidy, modern and new. There were all the typical gadgets you expect to find in a New Zealand Hospital. The staff were very professional, the checks, diagnostics and transition to inpatients were very prompt. The doctors were very reassuring and the staff really caring. I was naturally disappointed as this was not part of the plan -  I just wanted to be back on the mountain. But the team really did take care of me and I know how lucky I was.

Peace of Mind began to set in. I was safe - off the mountain, in a well-equipped hospital. To top of the relief, within an hour of being back in Kathmandu, our insurance provider World Nomads carried on with ‘taking care of me’.

All we needed to do was make one phone call to them, quote our policy number and they did the rest. They liaised directly with the Hospital, approved the claim and kept us updated throughout the whole process. Communication is critical when in a hospital in a foreign country and they exceeded all expectations.

My two words to describe the experience with World Nomads :

STRAIGHTFORWARD - the whole process from start to finish was easy, including a follow-up after we arrived back home

CONSIDERATE -  they really did care about my wellbeing and showed that by never leaving us wondering.

 After listening to my story, people often ask  “ what if you get it again ? “   Really good question but to me its simply  “ Yeah, but what if I don’t ! “

 Even though I had followed my own advice above and was prepared, I still got Altitude Sickness.  But it has in no way put me off. I am going back to achieve that goal, have already planned my next trek and without a doubt, will be taking World Nomads along with me !