Altitude Sickness in the Rwenzori Mountains

Along with the thrills of trekking, summiting the Rwenzori Mountains’ Margherita summit provides breathtaking vistas of glaciers, snow-capped mountains, and far-reaching views of the Virunga Mountain Ranges in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Protected by the Rwenzori Mountains National Park, the Rwenzori Mountains are some of Africa’s top destinations for mountaineering tours, and hiking to the top of the Rwenzori Mountains may be a rewarding experience. Elevated at 5,109 meters above sea level, the Rwenzori Mountains rank as the third highest peak in Africa spanning over 120 kilometers along the Ugandan border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).  The Rwenzori Mountains are the Nile’s highest and most permanent source, and they serve as an important water catchment; numerous fast-flowing rivers, stunning waterfalls, and encrusted vegetation make the destination extraordinarily picturesque and appealing.

Along with the thrills of trekking, summiting the Rwenzori Mountains’ Margherita summit provides breathtaking vistas of glaciers, snow-capped mountains, and far-reaching views of the Virunga Mountain Ranges in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Hiking Mount Rwenzori is such an amazing adventure safari experience; however, it is critical to recognize the physiological and physical challenges one may face when exploring for adventure at high elevations. One ought to be aware of some of the dangers of hiking the Rwenzori Mountains, as well as the safety precautions one may need to take to overcome those challenges: one of the major challenges is altitude sickness!

What is Altitude Sickness?

Altitude sickness refers to an ascension-related disease characterized by hyperventilation, nausea, and tiredness induced by a lack of oxygen. Altitude sickness is induced by fast climbing, which does not give the body enough time to acclimate to decreased oxygen and changes in air pressure, resulting in hypobaric hypoxia (a lack of oxygen reaching the body’s tissues). In severe cases, altitude sickness can also cause high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), a hazardous and sometimes fatal deposit of fluid in the lungs. Altitude sickness is infrequent but probable at middle altitude (1,500 to 2,500 meters above sea level). Acute altitude sickness develops after spending at least four hours at an altitude of over 2,000 meters. Ascending to heights of more than 2,500 meters can cause a variety of symptoms, including headache and vomiting.

When hiking the Rwenzori Mountains, altitude sickness is not something to worry about, especially before reaching the snowline; however, it is safe to be prepared as you are likely to be affected by the altitude along the Central Circuit and have minor headaches that will pass. Nonetheless, when climbing the peaks, there is a severe risk of acquiring full-blown brown altitude sickness.

Climbing the Rwenzori Mountains is recommended only if you are physically healthy and have no health conditions like heart or lung diseases.  More so, hikers who ascend quickly are more likely to acquire altitude sickness since they use a lot of energy, which consumes a lot of oxygen. It is, therefore, advisable to keep a steady pace while hiking. Fortunately, the guides can recognize the condition in case a hiker suffers from altitude sickness and can arrange for the ill hiker to descend.

How to Avoid Altitude Sickness while Hiking the Rwenzori Mountains?

Acclimatization or adaptation: Low oxygen levels cause the majority of altitude-related diseases. High elevations have a low concentration of oxygen and altitude sickness can be avoided by adapting to the hiking circumstances. Instead of just flying too high altitudes, try starting low and gradually working your way up. Traveling from a low height to a high elevation of more than 9,000 feet (2,750 m) above sea level in one day is not recommended.

If feasible, spend a few days at 8,000 – 9,000 feet before moving to a higher height. Moreover, increase your sleeping elevation by no more than 1,600 feet each day after you are over 9,000 feet, and try to spend an extra day at that height for every 3,300 feet you rise. This allows your body to acclimate to the decreased oxygen levels. Medication. Medicines like acetazolamide may help you ascend without initially adjusting. Acetazolamide works effectively by improving breathing and increasing oxygen intake, especially at night. Sleeping at high altitudes can be difficult because of poor oxygen intake throughout the night might. As a result, you may wake up feeling weary and ill by morning; thus, acetazolamide can help you breathe effectively all night.

Do not consume alcohol or engage in strenuous exercise for at least the first 48 hours after arriving at a height over 8,000 feet; instead, eat plenty of carbs, fruits, and fatty meals that can last a long time in the body. This will help you not feel hungry when you reach 3000m. Also, endeavor to consume at least 3 liters of water every day to avoid dehydration and carry adequate bottled water for rehydration at all times. Dehydration is one of the primary reasons why some hikers fail to complete their hiking escapades; failure to dehydrate.

Descend. If you exhibit any indications of altitude sickness during your hike, you are advised to descend immediately. Attempt to fall 3,000 feet or more and use short-term steps to control the sickness if your descent is not immediately likely. The first aid would be to administer dexamethasone (Decadron) to the individual or place him/her in a compressed bag. Consider going to a higher height during the day and then returning to a lower level to sleep.

Packing List for a Rwenzori Mountains Hike

When planning for a Rwenzori Mountain Hike, it is vital to prepare and dress appropriately for the trek. Pack the right gear including appropriate clothes that allow you to navigate freely. Choose well-fitting shoes that give ankle support, grip, and stability. When ascending rocky routes, use one or two trekking poles to assist you maintain your balance while navigating hard terrain.

  • A good sleeping bag
  • A duffle bag
  • Waterproof hiking boots
  • Long-sleeve shirts
  • Long trousers
  • Good rinse T-shirts
  • Lightweight daypack
  • A headlamp
  • Hiking gloves
  • A first-aid kit
  • Water bottle
  • A good camera and extra batteries
  • A pair of binoculars
  • A ski jacket
  • A rain jacket
  • Hiking poles
  • Sunglasses
  • Insect repellent and sunscreen
  • Toiletries
  • Energy-giving snacks
  • An ice axe
  • Crampons
  • A plastic bag for your dirty laundry

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John Doe

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