Aging and Altitude

Finally some good news

We all know as we age our bodies start to break down. We can’t hike, bike or do anything as arduously as when we were in our 30’s, right?

There may be a silver lining in that gray hair atop your balding head. People in their 50’s and older may be able to handle high altitude better than people half their age.

It’s an inexact science, but some doctors who specialize in high altitude medicine suggest that older people can tolerate altitude better because as we age our brain shrinks and requires less oxygen.

Experienced mountain trip leaders suggest it has more to do with your ego than the physiology of your brain. Older trekkers show no more vulnerability to high altitude than much younger hikers and their summit success rates are just as good. The reason may be older trekkers are less ego driven and not trying to be first up the mountain. By taking a slower pace it aids in their acclimatization.

It seems counter intuitive, but at 65 you can hang with those muscular millennials climbing Kilimanjaro where the 19K air is razor thin. Your competitive advantage—the wisdom that comes with age.

Viagra to the rescue

Dr. Peter Hackett heads Telluride’s Institute for Altitude Medicine and is among those who believe those over 50 are less susceptible to altitude sickness. He posits that as people age their brain shrinks and needs less oxygen, but adds that genetics often determines who gets Acute Mountain Sickness. In his studies on Mt. Denali in Alaska he has found that high caliber younger athletes are more prone to altitude problems than rank and file non-athletes who are older.

Perhaps Hackett’s most provocative altitude and aging observation—guys who take Viagra can deal with altitude sickness problems better because Viagra promotes oxygenation through increased blood flow. As we all know Viagra wasn’t designed for altitude issues and is used primarily by older gents.

Tusker’s take

Tusker’s clients cover the age gamut and have included star athletes, Type A professional, elite military vets as well as retirees on bucket list quests. Andrew Springsteel, Tusker’s South American guide, observes that some of his clients over 55 treat trekking Peru’s Cordillera Blanca with respect. They prepare for the 16,000 foot altitude highest point in the trek with the caution it deserves. They often train harder and are smarter about their pace especially in the early days of the Andean climb.

“After 60 they take it more seriously and in some cases they are more efficient than the 30-year-olds because on day one they don’t push it and acclimatize better later on.  By day three and five when we get to extreme altitude their willingness to go slow earlier shows a benefit,” Andrew said. “Culturally they feel that when you’re in your 50s and 60s that you will have a tougher time so they take getting ready for the trip more seriously.”

Another factor could be years of experience. Some older hikers who have failed to summit in the past because of altitude issues take an analytical approach to their failure and don’t repeat their past mistakes. They eat and hydrate properly, and take hygiene ultra-seriously by not sharing snacks to prevent infections.

“When they put their pack on the ground they make sure the water bladders’ bite valve doesn’t get in the dirt where pack animals have been. If you get sick your body requires more oxygen to fight an infection and that could mean less oxygen for your body to get to the summit, “Andrew says.

Age, Altitude and Attitude

Tusker founder Eddie Frank has been pounding the trail above tree line for more years than his knees care to remember. He has summited Kilimanjaro over 50 times and is among the lucky ones in the genetic lottery, but is also a student of high altitude and its medical issues. He has watched the super athletes fail to summit yet seen the cerebral graybeards celebrate atop Kibo.

“Climbing smart” is among his mottos. “Go slow or go down,” is a favorite saying as is, “If you tried Kilimanjaro in your 20s and didn’t make it, do it now in your 60s, and climb smarter.”

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There Are 8 Brilliant Comments

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  1. Jayne says:

    I trained hard for the Everest Base Camp trek with Tusker but got sick on day one and became very sick by the time we got to Namche requiring a visit to the hospital and being left behind with a guide and Sherpa to recover for a couple of days. I felt better and caught up with the group later on but could not acclimate enough in time for the base camp portion. I am 53 but because I was fit and determined I still managed to climb to 16000 feet and eventually made it to base camp albeit a few days late! Had I not been fit my illness would have sent me home by day 6 for sure!

  2. Sandra G Dalton says:

    I’m 55. I will be a first time climber. I have a torn meniscus in my left inner knee. Developed this training to climb Killi. Can i still climb ? Should i wear a brace ?

    • Andrew Rashkow says:

      Did Annapurna circuit and Trong La pass at 17769 last year with torn meniscus. Don’t ask your orthopedist or he may want to operate on you. I am 65. What really hurts and what did it was skiing. Going to Ecuador in November. Hope to go at least to 15k but maybe higher with torn right meniscus. Andy

    • Eddie Frank says:

      You should really consult your doctor. Tusker’s owner, Eddie Frank has had 7 meniscus operations in his lifetime, and he continues to climb. He will be leading his 53rd climb in January. So it’s totally doable.

  3. Bob Sturm says:

    I hope to do the Annapurna Circuit this October when I’m 71.

    • Peggy says:

      Bob, Bob You can do it easily I’ve done about same age as yours it an easy 175 mi 17 days its full loop and not much gain but lots of magnificent 150+ water falls enjoy it.

  4. John Olive says:

    I also climbed Kili at the age of 68 and had no altitude problems (although the guides did insist on giving me a little oxygen boost at the summit). One of the youngest (in her 30’s) and fittest in our group of 6 who achieved the summit was the person who suffered the most from altitude sickness! She is a double marathoner and had prepared for the altitude by training in an altitude chamber up to 4800 meters. She had practically danced all the way up to that height but when she reached 5000 meters, she felt terribly sick and was demanding oxygen (although the guides determined that she didn’t need it).

  5. Gary Hulett says:

    I climbed Kili when I was 69. We had group of 12 and was the oldest and experienced the fewest altitude problems. pole-pole is the answer

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