Machu Picchu Backpacking

Time for some Machu Picchu Backpacking! I’ll be leading Sol Fitness Adventures Inca Trail Trek: Machu Picchu, Peru trip this May.  The plan is to spend three days in Cuzco at the beginning of the trip to acclimate. At an elevation of over 11,000 feet, the city has a reputation for vibrant culture, friendly locals – and skull-splitting headaches.

The highest peak I’ve ever hiked was Utah’s King’s Peak at 13,500 feet, where each foot felt heavy as a brick. Machu Picchu rests on a mountaintop at 7,784 feet and is the culminating highlight of hiking the four-day Inca Trail. Warmiwanusca is the highest point on the trail, measuring a sky scraping 13,780 feet above sea level.

All this talk of elevation has me thinking, what is high altitude sickness, and what can I do to treat, if not avoid, the illness altogether?

According to The International Society for Mountain Medicine (ISMM), there are three categories of high altitude sickness: Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), and High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE).

A diagnosis of AMS can be made when a headache and any one other symptom is present at over 8,000 feet.Medline Plus, a service of the US Library of Medicine, describes the symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness as:

Symptoms of mild to moderate altitude sickness:
*Difficulty sleeping
*Dizziness or light-headedness
*Loss of appetite
*Nausea or vomiting
*Rapid Pulse
*Shortness of breath with exertion

HACE can range from mild to life-threatening, when the brain is so swollen that it fails to function properly. The classic symptoms of HACE are changes in the ability to think and walk. The sick person will stagger like a drunk, and when tested, cannot walk with one foot in front of the other in a straight line. The person is very ill at this point, and must be taken to a lower elevation immediately to recover.

HAPE, also potentially fatal, occurs when there is fluid in the lungs and can occur along with AMS or separately. Signs of HAPE include:
*Extreme fatigue
*Breathlessness at rest
*Fast, shallow breathing
*Cough, possibly producing frothy or pink sputum
*Gurgling or rattling breaths
*Chest tightness, fullness, or congestion
*Blue or gray lips or fingernails

Hikers suffering from mild symptoms of AMS are encourage to rest and drink plenty of water. The symptoms typically improve. The recommended treatment for both HACE and HAPE is immediate descent to the last elevation where the person felt well. After a few days of rest and recovery, a slow and cautious climb back up the mountain is possible.

The bottom line when hiking at high elevations is to educate yourself on the signs and symptoms of altitude sickness, and then be honest with yourself and stay tuned-in to your body. Keep an eye on those you are traveling with and agree on protocols before you begin your hike. The International Society for Mountain Medicine (ISMM) has a great online altitude tutorial for anyone wanting more information.

Have you had experience with altitude sickness? Tell us your story!

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