Wednesday, 9 March 2011

ALTITUDE SICKNESS.(A personal revelation.)

Ive never been happy with sportsmen taking performance enhancing drugs.But i understand why they do it and confess to gulping down more than a few over the years.Ok,so it wasnt to win medals and stuff but the summits i chased were as important to me as olympic gold to any athlete!And for some i would have sold my imortal soul.In 1976 on Mt,Bangeta in Papua,New Guinea i poleaxed flat on my face at 3700mtrs and woke up frostbitten and alone at 3am,not knowing if i was "arthur or martha"!
This was my first flirtation with Altitude Sickness,and the "bunny boiling"bitch hasnt let me alone since.That one didnt kill me but ive had some close calls since then.The last one was on the easy Via-Ferrata of the Berner Schwartzhorn in Switzerland 2003
that i was using as a warmup scramble for Eiger,Austrian Route.I had trained madly for months previously in the UK prior to Switzerland and was as fit as i can ever remember!I made the summit and got down under my own steam but i had all the signs of HACE and a doctor in Grindlewald confirmed it.

 I went on that season to summit Eiger by the Mittleggi Route dosed to the gills on Acetazolomide,and pissing for England all the way down to the station!You could not get lost on Eiger that summer.all you had to do was follow my "yellow snow"trail to Eigergletscher Hotel?! A great many studies have been done on altitude sickness.Three brilliant books by "Thomas"(Going Higher.),and a 400 man study of world scientists a few short years ago on Everest(sth col).All excellent science,and huge amounts of data collected,but no conclusions reached.
What did we get out of it? Well Charlie Houston recently died leaving behind an incredible body or research theory.(RIP Charles.And thanks man!?)And a shitload of biology students got stunning Phd,s,with a nice trip to Nepal thrown in!?But not much else really?!
Then a couple of years ago two Swiss scientists(Andreas Huber & Jaquelene Pilcher)were studying "Inherited Blood Clotting Factors"and noticed that there were high blood clotting levels in people suffering from altitude illness in the Swiss Alps.(see-SAC mag-DIE ALPEN.April 2003)They concluded(very sensibly)that inherited clotting levels played a greater role in altitude illness than originaly thought?And that got me to thinking?!
Altitude Sickness,(AMS,HACE,HAPE.)are circulatory probs!The general gist is,that your blood turns to syrup due to an overproduction of red blood cells trying to compensate for your bodies inability to absorb oxygen.In short,you end up dying of a heart attack or stroke if you dont come straight down after the symptoms kick-in!Allso the way you die can be incredibly prolonged,agonising,and unpleasant.(not exactly a winner is it?)
So i thought to try a standard treatment of symptoms only!
I started with Acetazolomide capsules(standard dose at onset.)with moderate success at 4000metres as a prophylactic before ascents?How it works is still not completely understood and invloves a complex understanding of blood chemistry.It allso bestowed upon me the new alpine "Superhero"status as the "Peemaster!"Guiding lost climbers to safety with my trail of yellow snow! Next i tried Ginco-Biloba which did bugger-all except endear me to the flatulant vegetarians and new-age "snake-oil" salesman that charge a fortune for this crap!!

Then came "Viagra"!!Which was kinda useless for AMS but great fun for my peripheral circulation!It did what was promised in the paperwork,but scared the hell out of two Swiss soldiers that i shared a cave-bivvy with on a winters night below Altells!They kept the fire going all night,and never put their SIG-Rifles down even once!! It was allso totally useless for mountain sickness problems!
It then made sense to try a course of "Dispersible Aspirin"75mg daily,as a blood thinning and anti-clotting agent in line with the "Huber-Pilcher"research?This was quite safe as i fall into that age category of heart-risk.There was a marked improvement when i used this last year!The clincher however,was a routine NHS-Cholesterol check by my friendly MO?It was found that my levels were extraordinarily high,even for a 63yr old man?(9.5)What realy bugged me is that i am super fit,6ft.1in,13stone of bone and muscle,and i train religiously four days a week?
A phone call to my elder sister in Italy revealed a history of high cholesterol on mothers side of the family.(my sisters problems mirrored my own!)And so there was a familial link with unstable blood chemistry.Two weeks ago my Doc started me on Statins(Simastatin.40mg)As a result of this my performance has improved 100%,and i have extended my training regime.Prior to the tests i showed no signs of raised levels at any time in my life!It may be that many people who suffer problems at altitude may have an underlying cholesterol problem?I am not saying that high levels are a cause of altitude illness?I am saying that altitude illness is primarily a circulatory problem,and that an inherited predisposition to high cholesterol circulatory imbalance,could well contribute to its cause!Those who suffer even in a minor way from altitude problems,would do themselves a great service a simple Cholesterol and Clotting-Factor blood test?It could be nothing,or it could save your life and improve your climbing enjoyment?! Go do yourselves a big favour!?
I will do a follow-up on this!Please comment or email me for questions! Rob.:-)

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. I have always taken ages to acclimatise - 2 weeks in Alps to get to 4000m comfortably, doing lesser peaks + a few high huts. However, I once blasted straight from GB to Obermonchjoch hut in a day (plane/train) and was extremely sick and headache, couldn't eat or sleep; but forced myself up Monch following day, then Jungfrau the day after, heck of a struggle and should have died! Never again....My chol levels check out normal. I use Diamox in Himalayas etc. Still often need a couple more days than my mates - v annoying.


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