How to recover from a big altitude misjudgement

Acclimatisation is a funny thing. On the face of it, it seemed like we had a good plan.

After a full day acclimatising at 2850m in Quito, we would climb a 4258m volcano followed by a 4640m volcano. Then we would trek for 5 days, during which we would climb a 4576m volcano.

All of this would put us in good shape to climb a 5016m volcano then round things off by climbing a 5897m volcano.

High-altitude struggling in the Llanganates Mountains (Photo: Edita Horrell)
High-altitude struggling in the Llanganates Mountains (Photo: Edita Horrell)

We have both been at high altitude many times before and have proved to be good acclimatisers, so this kind of schedule, with gradual altitude gain, should produce no difficulties for us.

But we had made a big mistake, which wasn’t immediately clear from the statistics.

Everything started out OK. As I mentioned in my previous dispatch, we made it up 4258m Fuya Fuya and 4640m Imbabura without any major difficulties. We even did the second one quite quickly and appeared to be in good shape.

The problems started the following morning when I woke up with a cold. We stayed in Quito that evening and I picked up some decongestants and cough sweets from a pharmacy.

The next morning we left the hotel at 5am, planning to drive all the way to the Llanganates Mountains to begin our trek, picking up something to eat on the way.

This was our first mistake. There wasn’t anywhere open that time in the morning. We arrived at the trailhead hungry, planning to eat basic food for the next five days.

This was a reconnaissance trek. Very few people visit the Llanganates, and although we had hired a guide and a couple of extra porters, we would be carrying most of our own stuff.

The other thing I hadn’t realised was that this wasn’t going to be a gradual ascent, starting from low altitude and rising gradually to 4500m over the course of five days.

The Llanganates are a landscape of high-altitude grasslands (known as paramo). We would be starting at nearly 4000m right away, climbing up and down over difficult terrain, and not coming down to a lower altitude for five days. It was going to be a tough trek.

Within half an hour of setting out, it was clear that I was struggling. Halfway up the very first hill, after walking for less than an hour, I flung myself down in a heap and was breathing heavily.

I persevered. It was far too early to give up, so I staggered behind. After two hours I lay down in the grass and couldn’t get up for several minutes.

Edita and Pablo decided to share out some of my kit so that I was carrying only a light pack. This helped briefly and I moved more quickly, but not for long. Soon I was staggering again, and my stomach was causing me further misery.

By the time we reached the first high pass we were well behind schedule. There were concerns that we wouldn’t reach our campsite before dark.

My kit was shared out again. Now I wasn’t carrying anything at all. Pablo now had two packs and Edita’s was almost as big as she was. Still I was the slowest in the group as I wandered along behind.

I made it to camp eventually, but I was in a terrible state. The trek was only going to get harder and it was obvious I wasn’t going to complete the full five days. The following morning we made the only decision we could. We turned around and walked out again.

So what went wrong?

I was ill, certainly, but I’ve had colds and stomach trouble before. They have never caused a complete breakdown like I suffered in the Llanganates.

It’s likely that I’m not in as good shape as I usually am. I have been working hard this year and not doing as much exercise as I usually do: not running as much and not going for long walks quite as often. But I’ve not been completely sedentary. I might find things harder, but surely not this hard?

Skipping breakfast is never a good idea, particularly before a long day of backpacking. I really should have been starting on a full stomach, but I didn’t seem to have much of an appetite.

And herein lies the problem. There are some golden rules to trekking at high altitude. You need to ascend gradually. Ideally you climb high then sleep low. You keep hydrated, and you try to keep your energy levels high. Above all, you don’t over-exert until you’re fully acclimatised.

I had broken several of these rules. It was no surprise that one of us was ill. The only surprise was that Edita was able to perform so well. Not only did she carry her own big pack, but she carried half of my equipment too, and she didn’t even struggle. But that’s a question I have no answer for.

Luckily altitude sickness is something you soon recover from. We spent the next couple of days in the western highlands, completing some easy day hikes. We spent 3 nights sleeping at 3000m and we hiked around the 3800m crater lake of Quilotoa.

It was easy and restful, and the altitude enabled me to complete my acclimatisation.

I wondered if I would struggle on 5016m Tungurahua as well. Normally I would have no concerns at all, but my breakdown in the Llanganates made me stop and think.

I didn’t need to. We rested at 1800m in Banos then raced up Tungurahua. I was my normal self again.

We have one more mountain to climb, 5897m Cotopaxi. I climbed it once before, 10 years ago. Hopefully my acclimatisation is back on track and it will present no problem again.

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3 thoughts on “How to recover from a big altitude misjudgement

  • October 5, 2019 at 1:15 am

    I would suspect that you actually had more than a little viral upper respiratory infection and might even have had some viral pneumonia.

  • October 5, 2019 at 2:55 pm

    That’s interesting. Yes, I did suspect it was something more than just altitude alone.

  • October 8, 2019 at 10:58 am

    That was disappointing Mark, glad you are bouncing back and best wishes for the rest of your trip.

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