Some of the most enjoyable riding is found in mountainous regions, so there’s a good chance that if you’re planning on some adventure touring, you’ll find yourself riding at altitude.

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Head for heights

Before you tune out, that doesn’t have to mean Khardung La (5,359m) or Mount Everest North Base Camp (5,150m), anything over 2500m is classed as ‘at altitude’ and puts you in danger of altitude sickness.

Altitude Sickness

Altitude sickness occurs when you climb to a high altitude too quickly. The decrease in atmospheric pressure makes breathing difficult because you aren’t able to take in as much oxygen. Most cases are mild and result in headaches, nausea and dizziness and exhaustion, but it can get a bit more serious, causing fluid to build up either on the lungs or the brain; both of which can be fatal.  The bad news is you cannot predict who will be affected, when and to what extent.

But I’m young & fit!

On our 2010 Silk Road Trip it was the youngest member of our group, 30 years-old and physically fit, who was hit the hardest.  He started to try and hide his symptoms knowing that it could mean the end of his trip.  But the further we went, the more severe it became and he developed ‘altitude cough’ with the dry air. The next stage can be fluid on the lungs or brain. We knew he needed to get back down towards sea level and get medical attention quickly.  He was flown straight back to the UK. The end of his trip, but thankfully not his life. He made a full recovery.

Spot the Signs

Learn to spot the signs and what to do about it, and you’ll stand a good chance of getting home in one piece too. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Feeling sick: if you or any of your group are experiencing dehydration, headaches, nausea and breathlessness, seek medical attention asap.
  • Slow and steady: if you climb too high, too fast, you could increase the risk. The basic rule here is to go up slowly, in stages and if possible ‘ride high, sleep low’.

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  • Stay hydrated: make sure you drink lots of water and avoid alcohol.
  • Take your time: At altitude, the key is to take your time. Don’t go rushing into the hotel with all your luggage, or try to set up camp as quick as you can, you’ll be out of breath and energy very quickly.
  • Take a pill: Diamox can help with acclimatisation to altitude, but there may be side effects and risks to riding, such as tingling hands or fingers – not ideal when negotiating tight mountain passes. Consult your GP before you go and be aware of what it might do to you.
  • Plan, plan plan: Really, once you’ve got altitude sickness you’ve got it.  Whilst taking oxygen may alleviate some symptoms, the only cure is to go back down.  It’s worth working out in advance how you’ll get yourself, or one of your group, down to medical attention before you go.

So once you’re over 2,500m, be alert to altitude sickness – monitor yourself and other riders that are with you closely.


Kevin & Julia