California's 14,494-foot Mount Whitney
Nothing wrecks a romp in the mountains quicker than the agonies of acute mountain sickness (AMS). And as more alpine rookies test their mettle at altitude, the incidence of AMS has reached an all-time high, says Luanne Freer, M.D., director of the Everest Base Camp Medical Clinic.
It can strike as low as 6,300 feet, so climbers, skiers and even day-hikers are at risk--up to 42 percent of visitors to Colorado fall prey, says Peter Hackett, M.D., a Telluride-based altitude specialist. What's worse, the fitter you are, the slower you adapt your breathing to inhale more oxygen, which makes you more susceptible to AMS.
The remedies are simple--rest, descend and hydrate--but scientists are still hammering out ways to stop the trouble before it starts. New evidence shows, for instance, that everyday athletes can effectively acclimatize by spending a long weekend at 8,000 feet up to a month before their excursion. Big-peak climbers have been doing this for years. Why? After just a few high-alt hours, Hackett says, a chemical trigger in the body called Hif-1 Alpha activates genes that help your body handle heights.
Researchers are currently testing Hif-1 as a possible prophylactic, but until a miracle cure comes through, follow our guide to staying fit on high.
The only foolproof way to cheat biology is to sleep in a hyperbaric tent. But plenty of products out there claim to ease your path to the top. Here, we sort the AMS dynamos from the duds.
CIALIS: Prescription drug.
The dope: Developed to treat erectile dysfunction, it also prevents HAPE by reducing blood pressure in the lungs.
COCA LEAVES: South American wonder drug.
The dope: Keeps your head clear up high like a strong cup of joe, but you'd have to smuggle it back home.
DIAMOX: Prescription drug.
The dope: Eases AMS symptoms, but it takes a day to kick in and may numb your limbs (bad news if you're on the move).
GINKGO BILOBA: Over-the-counter herbal remedy.
The dope: Some mountaineers swear by GB as an AMS preventive, but science isn't on their side.
THE HOUSE RULES
Whether you're aiming for Everest or the 14er out your back door, it pays to be in peak shape for the summit. Just ask mountaineer and pro guide Steve House, 37. He preps more than a year in advance for big climbs, and so far, it's served him well: In 2004 he soloed Pakistan's K7 in 44 hours and in 2005 pioneered a new route up 26,660-foot Nanga Parbat's Rupal Face. This fall he attempts another Himalaya giant, 23,891-foot K6, which has been summited only once. Here, he breaks down his strategy for range-topping success.