Of the “Top 100 Peaks of Taiwan”, 19 fall within the Shei-Pa National Park area. The Park boasts up to 51 summits over 3,000 meters above sea level, and every year, many hikers register to enter the park. In the past three years, there were 8 cases of suspected altitude illness that requested rescue. In serious cases, the sickness may cause death. Hence, the Park Headquarters appeals to the public to ascend gradually when hiking in the mountains to allow the body ample time to acclimatize to the change in height. Do not ignore any symptoms suspected of altitude illness. And remember, “Descend, descend, and descend” is the most effective way of alleviating altitude illness.
Altitude illness is caused by reduced atmospheric pressure and low oxygen levels at high altitude. The main cause of altitude illness is ascending rapidly within a short period of time, resulting in the body not being able to acclimatize to the high altitude. Generally, hikers should ascend gradually to acclimatize. However, due to the highly diversified terrain of Taiwan and the pattern of the hiking, there is almost no acclimatization made for the trip. For example, hikers may take transport up the mountain during the night to save time. In such cases, the rapid ascend and poor quality of sleep may easily cause altitude illness. Acute mountain sickness (AMS) , a mild form of altitude illness, resembles the flu and may be easily neglected. When symptoms like headache, nausea, shortness of breath and vomiting occur at altitudes of more than 2,000 meters, it should be first regarded as AMS. If it deteriorates into severe altitude illness like high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) or high altitude cerebral edema (HACE), it may result in unconsciousness and even death in serious cases.
The symptoms of HACE include loss of coordination, unsteady gait (ataxia), altered mental state, etc.; symptoms of HAPE include inability to catch one’s breath even when resting, cough, extreme fatigue or weakness, chest tightness or congestion, rales or wheezing in the lungs, cyanosis, etc. Hikers should at all time, pay attention to whether they or their teammates develop early symptoms of AMS. If after resting at the same altitude the symptoms still have not subsided or once the symptoms deteriorate, hikers should immediately descend to a lower altitude. If HAPE or HACE develop, hikers should abort the hike and descend immediately. A person with altitude illness symptoms should never be left behind or allowed to descend alone.
Shei-Pa National Park Administration suggests that proper route plannings must be made for mountain hiking. The most important principle of preventing altitude illness is to allow the body to acclimatize to the altitude. Also, avoid strenuous activities, drink plenty of fluids, keep the body warm, refrain from alcohol, avoid taking tranquilizers, etc.; these actions can reduce the incidence of altitude illness. Hikers who target the summit more than 3,000 meters are recommended to stay one night at 2,500 meters altitude to acclimatize. If medications for prevention or treatment of altitude illness are required, they must be prescribed by doctors, and taken according to the doctors’ instructions.
Director Lin Ching also advises that as winter is approaching, the temperature of the mountains during the night is near zero; thus hikers should carry along enough warm clothing and necessary equipment. Also, comprehensive hiking plans and adequate physical training are necessary, and hikers must apply for the Park Entry Permit and Mountain Entry Permit before entering the trails in the park. More preparation and vigilance mean fewer regrets.