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Two Dragons welcome the sunrise with an improvised dance atop the Andes. Photo by Ryan Gasper.

Just Breathe — An Introduction to Altitude

The plane makes a sharp left turn. The flight attendant comes on the loudspeaker announcing to prepare for landing. Your face is glued to the window like bubble gum gazing at the surrounding towering Andean peaks. Before you know it, you step off the plane at one of the highest airports in the world, at El Alto, just above La Paz.

You feel the intense rays of the sun beat down against your face and the cool mountain air rush in. You are filled with excitement, trepidation and curiosity.

You try to calm yourself and go to take a big breath of that fresh mountain air…but then it feels as if you are trying to suck air through a straw. Whoa! It hits you. You are now at over 4,150 meters above sea level.

We will all experience varying degrees of this when we arrive to El Alto. It is natural. Altitude effects every one of us, no matter how many times we have been to high elevations. It is different every time (residents of high-elevation areas are known to get altitude illness quite often). It can be a bit scary to feel some of the initial effects, but we want to assure you that this is completely normal. It will take time for your body to adjust, and we instructors will guide you through this as you transition to life in the high Andes.

Some common symptoms you may feel when you step off the plane and in your first few days at high altitude: light headedness, headache, shortness of breath, fatigue, dry skin, chapped lips, general malaise, upset stomach, loss of appetite, increased heart rate, and difficulty sleeping.

These all sound super scary! Don’t worry though, we are going to take it slow and help everyone adjust. It will take a few days and our bodies will work miracles as we begin to produce more red blood cells and acclimatize. While we will be there to help ameliorate the symptoms when we arrive in La Paz, we ask that you get in the habit of doing a couple things to help you prepare for altitude and also general health while on the trip.

Most importantly: DRINK WATER. BEBE AGUA. The good stuff. We cannot stress this enough. Altitude affects the pressure differences across all membranes in your body, and at altitude, your body loses more water through your lungs (breathing), your skin (you won’t even feel like you’re sweating because it evaporates quicker), and your kidneys (you urinate more at altitude). We recommend you carry a water bottle with you wherever you go at home and try to get in the habit of drinking 4 liters a day. It sounds like a lot, but trust us, when you get to the Andes this will become part of normal life. Your water bottle will replace your cellphone. It will always be with you and help you stay healthy and connected.
Bring sunglasses, sunscreen, a sun hat and chapstick. The sun is much brighter and more powerful at altitude. It’s not that we’re that much closer, it’s just that there’s less atmosphere filtering out harmful rays of all sorts. It can drain us a lot quicker. It is important to take care of ourselves and limit our exposure. Make sure you bring these things!

Take things SLOW. When you arrive, you are going to experience an array of emotions. Some of us might feel so excited and energetic that we can’t help but having a little pep in our step. However, our bodies are experiencing extreme change and we have to intentionally take things slower. Walk half as slow as you do at home. Don’t over exert yourself. Rest. Allow your body to naturally acclimatize and give it the breaks it needs!

EXERCISE AT HOME. At home as we get closer and closer to our departure, we should all take the time to get our heart rate up. Go for a run, ride a bike, swim, walk, hike, climb, jump on a pogo stick, skip to school, dance to some jams. Get your body moving! While physical fitness doesn’t directly correlate to how we will adjust to altitude, it will help us stay to stay healthier and have all of our systems working like a well-oiled machine.

There you have it. These small steps will go a long ways! We are all so excited to see your beautiful faces and get to explore the splendors of the Andes together! Nos vemos pronto!

Your instructor team,

Ana, Jeff, Parker and Itzá