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5 May: HAPE and HACE

Those of you who listened to Rob’s most recent voice update (see previous post) were probably jarred by the news of a fatality on the mountain. According to other news reports, the victim was a 37-year old Sherpa who died at Camp 3 of HACE, or High Altitude Cerebral Edema.

HACE and HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) are two of the insidious killers that Himalayan climbers must constantly guard against. Though the two conditions are very different, they are both often preceded by symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness, or AMS. These symptoms, such as loss of appetite, nausea, fatigue, lightheadedness and insomnia, are common ailments for almost everyone as they begin their acclimation to the higher elevations on Mount Everest. Such symptoms will normally abate as climbers progress though their acclimation rotations, but if they persist, they can be a sign of more serious trouble.

HAPE is an accumulation of fluid in the lungs, which causes shortness of breath and a persistent cough, fast, shallow breathing, and drowsiness. Other indicators are gurgling or rattling breaths, and blue or gray colored lips or fingertips. The most effective treatment is immediate descent to a lower elevation, followed by rest and rehydration, and supplemental oxygen if needed.

HACE, or swelling of the brain, can progress rapidly and can be fatal in a matter of hours unless the person retreats to a lower altitude. Common symptoms of HACE are mental confusion, changes in behavior, and loss of coordination. Recognizing these symptoms requires climbers to pay especially close attention to one another, in order to differentiate the onset of HACE from the normal fatigue and mild hypoxia that occurs when climbing at high elevation. The fact that the USAF 7 Summits climbers have bonded as a close-knit team is a definite advantage as they monitor one another’s health in the days ahead.

Sherpas, who have lived at high altitude for generations and often come from villages at elevations of about 13,000’, are considered the world’s strongest performers at altitude. They are not, however, immune to altitude sickness. In fact, their reputation as strong climbers at altitude can make it culturally difficult for a Sherpa to admit when he is suffering from symptoms of altitude sickness, and any delay in seeking treatment causes greatly increased risk.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family of the young man who perished yesterday. It is a sobering reminder that humans are merely visitors to these high mountain realms, and even then, only in the best of circumstances.

The USAF 7 Summits Challenge was created almost 8 years ago as a means of honoring the sacrifices of fallen USAF warriors, and we are also sadden by the most recent losses in Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. Our thoughts and prayers go out to those families as well. Our team appreciates the support from all of you, and we are as dedicated as ever to honoring our comrades in arms, and bringing everyone home safely.