23 September 2019


High altitude sickness or just sickness?

Category: Climbing

The human body is a strange thing; an instrument that can be hard to read.

This photo is of me, traversing around Mount Kenya, from the MCK hut – where we’d been based for about ten days – to the Shipton hut side. We’d already spent three nights high on Mount Kenya, having tried the Grand Traverse, so I should have been well acclimatized. But here I was, feeling like I had zero energy; feeling as if I was about to die.

A good way to work out if you’ve got high altitude illness, is to use the flu test: if you see a $100 dollar note on the ground, but don’t have the energy to pick it up, then you are sick. You can also use the seasickness test: if you want to die, but can’t, then you’re sick; only with HAPE and HACE, you can.

Things got so bad on this day that I allowed Vanessa to carry my rucksack up to the col; so having no pride is another sign.

Did I have altitude sickness?

Probably not. What I was suffering from was something else, no doubt caused by contaminated water, as well as general fatigue. What this meant, was my body was fighting some nasty bug – which I struggled with for a few weeks afterwards – while being tasked with carrying a heavy load around a big mountain.

My point of this story, is that we often conflate high altitude illness with other issues: carbon monoxide poisoning, lack of sleep, poor calorie intake, and so we neither deal with the underlying problem, or learn from them, but lump it all into high altitude sickness.

Instead of reducing such risks: better sleep hygiene, resting longer, boiling all water, we just grade ourselves as bad at altitude, when really, we’re just not good at diagnosis.

The more you know your body, the more you know yourself (a simple idea, but one that’s not easy to apply).


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Andy Kirkpatrick
Andy Kirkpatrick

Andrew Kirkpatrick is a British mountaineer, author, motivational speaker and monologist. He is best known as a big wall climber, having scaled Yosemite's El Capitan 30+ times, including five solo ascents, and two one day ascents, as well as climbing in Patagonia, Africa, Alaska, Antarctica and the Alps.

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