Davenport Fourteeners and Peter Hackett Lecture re High Altitude

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | December 15, 2006      

This past Wednesday, Chris Davenport ramped up his Colorado fourteener backcountry skiing quest by making a high quality descent of Kit Carson in the Sangre de Cristo range in the southern part of the state. Sangre peaks are hard to find in skiable condition, though all are usually skiable for a few weeks in spring. To get Kit Carson in December is exceptional. Congratulations Chris and his partner Ted Mahon! Full trip report at Dav’s website.

While quick stabs at 14,000 foot peaks don’t usually result in altitude caused health problems, if you spend a long day up high or have to emergency bivouac you can be in for some hurt. I’m not particularly prone to altitude problems, but do have some discomfort when doing things such as going from home (6,000 feet) to spend the night at a high altitude Colorado hut. To learn more about this issue, my wife and I attended an interesting presentation in Aspen last evening at the Given Foundation.

I’d seen another Peter Hackett lecture a while back, and knew he has a dry sense of humor and vast experience (medical doctor, Everest, 10 years doing research on Denali) that combine for amusing and informative talk. This time Hackett was lecturing more in his role as a medical doctor and researcher, so I wondered if it would be too stuffy or technical. Not to worry. Hackett spoke to the professionals in the audience, but was careful to translate medical terms for the layman and keep things practical.

Peter Hackett M.D.
Peter Hackett M.D. at the Given Foundation in Aspen last evening.

Of particular interest was Hackett’s work with the ginkgo biloba herb in limiting the adverse affects of altitude. Hackett’s project involved taking college students who live at around 5,000 feet elevation up to the summit of 14,115 foot Pikes Peak, where they spend the night and let the miserable effects of altitude sickness ensue. One group of students takes ginkgo, and one takes a placebo. According to Hackett, during one study the ginkgo group did much better, and during another study there was virtually no difference. He said they had the ginkgo analyzed, and sure enough the amount of active ingredients varied so much that it appeared to have compromised the study. Take home idea: try ginkgo, but check brands at Consumer Labs and buy product that has consistent amount of active ingredient.

Other ideas Hackett covered were using drugs such as Diamox and Viagra to prevent or treat altitude sickness. He mentioned taking a single small dose of Diamox for easier sleeping during the first few nights at altitude. That sounds like something to consider for Colorado hut skiing. As for Viagra, his quip that it “dilates two bodily organs, and one is the lungs” got everyone laughing. But in all seriousness, it’s known that doses of Viagra do help with altitude, though word is that the dosage is below that required to dilate the other organ. Another important tip from Hackett was to simply avoid alcohol during the first night at altitude, something we Colorado hut skiers should take seriously if we want to enhance the quality of our trips. Hackett was also adamant about how beneficial caffeine is for dealing with altitude, which received many “thank God’s” from the audience.

Always good to learn more about any aspect of mountaineering, and this was no exception. If you get a chance to attend any Peter Hackett lecture you won’t be disappointed.


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12 Responses to “Davenport Fourteeners and Peter Hackett Lecture re High Altitude”

  1. Bob Lee December 15th, 2006 4:12 pm

    Good article, but five points off for spelling…it’s gingko biloba, not balboa. Carry on.

    Red-pencil Bob

  2. Lou December 15th, 2006 4:25 pm

    Thanks Bob, corrected.

  3. Shane December 15th, 2006 5:08 pm

    Actually, if you want to get really picky, the taxonomic description (the genus and species that we have here) should be spelled with an upper case “G” AND be italicized since it is Latin.

  4. Lou December 15th, 2006 5:17 pm

    Dang, I knew I was missing something!

  5. Mike Marolt December 16th, 2006 8:34 am

    Lou: Caffeine really works great. But the higher you go, you have to be careful. As good as a cup of coffee makes you feel in your tent, too much gets your already pumping heart going even faster, and, atleast for me, it can really decrease your endurance for a long day. I actually will not drink coffee above 18,000 feet; it just tires me out. Plus, it makes already difficult sleep really tough. But for hanging at base camp, or approaches, I find that it takes away that ill feeling from altitude and occasional head throb. And for the first thing in the morning, it turns my grumpy brother back into a human.



  6. Ryan December 16th, 2006 10:14 am

    Ginko Baloba? Isn’t that Rocky’s brother?!

    I agree with Mike on the coffee. Having lived at sea level for 10 years and then moving here, I notice the affects of altitude about 10k. If I know I’m going up to the mountains, I skip the coffee in the morning. On the java bean, I have noticed my heart racing like a hummingbird on speed.

  7. Tyler MacGuire December 17th, 2006 10:24 am

    I have always been under the impression that because caffeine dehydrates you it will increase the affects of altitude especially head aches. Can someone please elaborate on this for me. Thanks very much.

  8. Lou December 17th, 2006 8:33 pm

    That was a good typo, wish I didn’t have to correct it! Perhaps I should start a list of WildSnow’s best typos, then blog the list once or twice a year (grin).

  9. Dhelihiker December 18th, 2006 2:59 pm

    I did a trek with my wife in Peru and she ate ginko every day for two weeks prior and she had no problems up to 15k feet, which is good for her, she gets headaches in Tahoe from time to time. Then again we consumed lots of Coca leaves and coca tea another great altitude cure. My hands tend to swell on tours above 10-11k whats that about??

  10. David December 21st, 2006 10:51 am

    to answer Tyler-
    You are correct that caffeine is a diuretic and can accellerate dehydration. Nevertheless, you can balance that effect by being attentive to your intake and output and compensate by drinking more non-caffeinated fluids. The headaches caused by dehydration are not the same as AMS. If you have a headache at altitude and it gets better with rehydration, you probably did NOT have AMS. If rehydration does not improve the headache, beware of AMS, and if you exhibit any of the other Lake Louise criteria, by definition you have AMS.

  11. Stephanie La Porta January 24th, 2011 9:55 am

    This is great information thanks to all who contributed. I am about to climb Kilimanjaro (Feb 2011) and am not interested in taking Diamox with all the nasty side affects Ive read about. I have ordered Jarrow Ginkgo Biloba 120 mg. I am wondering about the correct dosage. Any thoughts?

  12. Lou January 24th, 2011 10:01 am

    Diamox iis not that nasty and proven to work. Try 1/2 dose. As for Ginko, there are no scientific studies that really prove out a dose, so it’s guesswork… I just took two caps a day on Denali and called it good. No idea if it helped or not. But I didn’t hesitate to use Diamox when I felt it to be appropriate. I used it when I first got to 14,000 feet (as that’s more like 15,000 feet), and used it during the summit day at 1/2 dosage.

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