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The lack of oxygen causes many high altitude illnesses, the only real way to fix the problem is to get more oxygen. This can be done simply and sensibly by DESCENDING, or if this is impossible there are two ways to get more oxygen at altitude.

(1) From an oxygen bottle

Oxygen cylinders can be fitted with a face mask. The person needing oxygen simply puts on the mask and breathes in the oxygen, mixed with some of the surrounding air. If using a ‘constant flow’ kit (oxygen flowing all the time) at 2 litres per minute, a bottle containing 300litres will last 2 to 3 hours. If using a ‘demand flow’ kit (oxygen flows only when breathing in), the same bottle may last 6 to 9 hours.

(2) Inside a pressure bag

Those suffering from AMS, HAPE or HACE can be placed inside a ‘bag’, known as a Portable Altitude Chamber, Certec or ‘Gamow Bag’. The bag is ‘pumped up’ to increase the pressure inside – so the oxygen breathed is like that 2,000m lower. The person should stay inside for 1 hour but may need several hours. Lifting the head end may help with breathing. Although these bags can be a life-saver, there are problems:

  • Hard to talk to the person inside.
  • An unconscious person needs someone inside to monitor them.
  • They can damage the eardrums.
  • The air inside needs changing.
  • Recovery is often short-lived.

A couple decided to climb Kilimanjaro (5,895m) by the Marangu route. After two days trekking they reached the Horombo Hut (3,760m). Within two hours the husband began to feel breathless. During the night he began to cough up pink frothy spit and became unconscious. He had HAPE and was placed inside a ‘Gamow Bag’ for 4 hours. He came round and was able to descend with porters’ help. In hospital he made a complete recovery.

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