-She was young and otherwise healthy
-She began to experience symptoms at an elevation of less than 11,000 ft
-Once she began displaying symptoms, her condition deteriorated quickly
-She died in a matter of a few hours
Here's what we know about Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS).
What are the symptoms of AMS? Symptoms of AMS include headache plus one or more of the following:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Shortness of Breath
- Loss of Appetite
- Over-the-Counter drugs (Ibuprofen or Tylenol)
So from what know now, did this young woman really die of AMS? It seems unlikely. She most definitely was probably experiencing AMS, but AMS is benign, not lethal. However, it still does not feel great. When AMS progresses into something that can cause harm, then it is no longer AMS. Severe altitude illnesses include High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) and High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE). Let's briefly look into HACE.
Signs and symptoms of High Altitude Cerebral Edema include:
- altered mentation
- ataxia (difficulty walking straight)
- behavior changes
- decreased responsiveness
- pupil abnormalities
- trouble making or using words
The best treatment for HACE is to descend, at least 1000m. Oxygen will help combat hypoxia and brain swelling. It is necessary for the treatment of HACE. However, the likelihood of an average backpacker or climber having access to an oxygen tank is nearly zero. Also, do not allow the patient to ascend higher.
The progression (or rather the degression) of her condition was so fast that it most certainly was not just simple AMS. If it was, she would have felt bad, would have vomited, but would not have lost consciousness and died.
We now have to think that her cause of death was either by a pervious/unknown/unrelated condition or cause. Or that it was a very rare and sad occurrence of HACE. Whatever it is, it was not AMS. Either way, this story is incredibly dreadful. Our heart and condolences goes out to this young woman's family and to her friends that were with her.
To learn more about high altitude illnesses including how to properly acclimate, watch this lecture from our online Outdoor Safety course. If you like it, consider signing up for the course to prepare yourself for whatever wilderness emergency is thrown your way.