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Thursday, October 27, 2016

Living the High Life - Life at Altitude

If you've never been above 2,400 metres (8,000 feet) or so , you may not entirely get that living higher up can be challenging. In fact, some people are affected at elevations as low (relatively speaking) as 1,500m/4,921ft. The ,oxygen is just thinner up at high altitudes and aerobic activity can be hard. 
Vancouver, BC, Canada
Sea level, we know you well!
I noticed it first when we first got to Quito for a visit. Climbing the stairs at the hotel made me breathless. (It was a pretty hotel but nothing so luxurious that it took my breath away, if you know what I mean.) I didn't really notice it when I was walking around, unless I hit a steepish hill or stairs. I was lucky, I didn't get any of the "hangover" symptoms that some people get. (Things like headaches, nausea, lightheadedness etc.) That is, until I got to Cuenca...a city at a lower elevation than Quito, ironically. This type of altitude sickness is more formally called AMS (acute mountain sickness.) There are worse and more deadly types that involve liquid in the lungs and on the brain. These are deadly and best to be avoided. AMS is a good precursor to the others, but isn't necessarily a requirement.
El Panecillo in
Quito - 2,850 metres (9,350 ft)
This is the perversity that is altitude sickness. Just because you don't get it once, doesn't mean you can't get it another time. It also means that if you want to live an active lifestyle you have to be okay with feeling like you can't draw in enough breath. I've learned that even though I feel like I might suffocate, I really won't. I might puff up inclines like the little engine that could, but I still make it up. It's not so bad in Cuenca; stairs still wind me, but I recover a lot faster, but get me up into the Cajas and any incline makes me feel (presumably) asthmatic.  In truth, the higher you get the harder it gets, but I've found that if I can keep putting one foot in front of the other, I'll hit a sweet spot and stop suffering eventually.

Cusco (3,399m/11,200ft)
It's not just that, either...being short of breath. Sometimes, when we come back from being at sea level I get sick (as in nausea and vomit - sorry...I know that's a gross thought) and it wipes me out for two or three days even though I'm only talking to the toilet once, usually in the middle of the night on the day I arrive. It happened the first time I came to Cuenca and it happened again the last time, but there have been at least four times in between that I was fine. You just don't know.
Cuenca - 2,500 metres (8,200 feet)
Mirador Turi (slightly higher than Cuenca)
This last time I was cocky, we ate empanadas for lunch and then had pasta for supper. Not exactly light eating if you know what I mean and I paid the price. You can try to counter balance it or take steps to avoid it.

How to (try to) Avoid AMS:

In the first 12-24 hours it is best to avoid:
          1. ALCOHOL (none, zip, zilch, nada, zero)
          2. Heavy foods, stick to clear liquids like broths, clear juices etc (no, still not alcohol)
          3. Physical activity - keep it to a minimum
(These three rules our are from Jorge, our hotel manager in Cusco.

Oh, and HYDRATE, HYDRATE, HYDRATE! You loose tons of moisture up at altitude, so you'll want to drink lots of water. Fortunately, Cuenca has some of the world's best drinking water, but most other places you'll need to drink bottled water. Most of us don't have enough time to do what really needs to be done to avoid altitude sickness which is only ascending 500m (1,640ft) per 24 hour period.

Peru - the Salkantay Pass
4,630 metres/15,190 ft
Living at high altitude also affects how things cook, including how water boils (it actually boils at a lower temperature, so things cook more slowly), and how cakes and cookies bake. You can't just whip up your favourite batch of chocolate chip cookies without making changes to the recipe. (Which means they may never be the same again, no matter how hard you try.) The good news is that there are lots of sites out there to help you. Just be prepared to make adjustments to those tried and true recipes.
El Cajas - Tres Cruces Summit
This is life at altitude and some people need oxygen and others need to get themselves to a lower altitude ASAP. You can actually die from altitude sickness at it's most extreme, so it's something that you have to be aware of when considering the leap to the stunning Andes. If you want to find out more visit, a nifty site with everything you ever wanted to know about high altitude living, including how long you should cook an egg at your exact altitude.
Huayna Picchu (2,720m/8,920ft)
There are actually benefits to living at high altitude. You tend to lose weight, as your body is working so much harder to get oxygen. Your heart gets stronger (assuming it was originally healthy) and your red blood cells increase and when you go back to sea level physical activity is easier. (At least for the first couple of weeks.) I was much more able to perform in Australia without incident because of my high altitude life. That being said, it's still hard to workout here, but I'm training to improve my cardio performance and am likely in better physical condition now than when I was in my 20's. If that isn't a recommendation, I don't know what is!

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