HAPE: Don’t Fall Victim to this High Altitude Condition

Matt Brennan | ClimbingClimbingBackcountryBackcountry

Mountaineering can be extremely rewarding, but it can also be equally as dangerous! Rock falls, sheer exposure and altitude sickness are just a few of the risks involved.

Altitude sickness can rear its ugly head in many different forms…but the most dangerous of all is HAPE, or High Altitude Pulmonary Edema. Basically, this is when your lungs fill with fluid…due to excessive pressure on the arteries in a low oxygen environment. It’s more severe then standard AMS (acute mountain sickness) but often the two can occur together, usually when someone continues to ascend after AMS has already begun.

The lungs on the right are partially filled with fluid.
image: http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/103/16/2078

If you’re planning an activity at high altitude (mostly above 8,000ft), it’s vital that you know the signs and symptoms of HAPE…and the correct action to take if yourself or a climbing partner starts to exhibit these symptoms.

Signs and symptoms of HAPE include the following –

– Extreme fatigue and drowsiness

– Breathlessness (particularly at rest) or rapid breathing

– Cough and wheezing or gurgling breathes

– Chest tightness

– Blue lips and fingernails

These symptoms make it easy to confuse HAPE with other respiratory conditions such as High Altitude Cough, Bronchitis, Pneumonia and Asthma.

The best way to diagnose HAPE, and also the most effective treatment, is to descend immediately. It is recommended that you descend at least 1500-3000 ft. as soon as possible if HAPE is suspected. It can, and likely will, be fatal if it goes untreated. Temporary treatment can include supplemental oxygen, hyperbaric bag and dexamethasone.

Mountaineers descend in Chamonix.
image: http://highmountainguides.com

The best way to avoid HAPE, and most altitude sickness in general, is to take the time to properly acclimatize your body. Hydrating and replenishing nutrients are also important when preparing to enter higher altitudes.

Stay informed and stay safe while enjoying your time in the mountains!

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