Altitude Sickness

For those of you following my adventures around the globe via Twitter, Flickr and the like, you may be aware that I recently suffered quite a blow. During my third night observing at the JCMT I began to experience respiratory distress due to the altitude of 13,500 feet. After ascending a flight of stairs (and I had climbed the very same stairs several times over the course of the night) I became unable to breathe and thanks to the quick responses of the others on the mountain I was rapidly taken down to the station at 9,000 feet.

Although rare, altitude sickness is not unheard of on Mauna Kea. The conditions at the summit are below 40% the normal oxygen levels, and under half the usual atmospheric pressure. The fluids in your body tend to ‘leak’ as I understand it. Your blood’s ability to convey oxygen around the body is greatly impaired and your reactions are often sluggish and unusual.

Tourists have been known to simply keel over after reaching the top because they didn’t spend enough time getting used to the altitude on the way up. Astronomers have also been known to be carried down, despite days of preparation at 9,000 feet. Altitude in rare cases induces people to heart attacks and hypothermia in extreme cases.

The best story I have heard is of a telescope engineer who had been up many times but on one occasion called back to base to complain of a cable that was too short. He stressed that despite cutting it three times already, the cable still would not reach the desired spot. He was told to return immediately and was right as rain upon his return.

Descent is the only cure for altitude sickness, and in most instances a short while at lower altitude will correct the problem entirely. Alas this wasn’t to be the case for me. After a time at the observer’s station I still could not breathe normally and so James di Francesco, my mentor on the summit, took me down to the town of Hilo to the Medical Center.


They administered a series of tests, an injection and a lot of oxygen; and got me better. The doctor also informed me that if I needed, I could return to the station at 9,000 feet that very same day after collecting my prescription.

Jollied by this prognosis I did indeed return to the station where I began struggling to breathe again almost right away. I was swiftly returned to the medical center at sea level where a longer wait and a different doctor told me I had a pulmonary oedema. This time I did not return to the station. I was instead restricted to lower climbs for 48 hours. Over that time, my breathing gradually returned to normal.

I have since flown to San Francisco and today walked a fair away across the city. It’s good that my lungs are almost mended, but a shame that I apparently picked up a nasty cold during that time. I never get colds and so I’m pissed about it.

On the plus side, I got to see more of Hawaii than I would have done and San Francisco is a brilliant city which everyone should visit if you haven’t already.


A great many people from home have sent their kind thoughts via email and phone and I am very touched. The hardest thing about getting ill is doing it on your own. I am very grateful to those who have been here with me. James di Francesco, Henry Matthews, Antonio Chrysostomou, Sarah Sadavoy, Ben the Telescope operator, the rangers of Mauna Kea and the Jason and Co. at the HP station have all at some point kept me company. Thanks guys!

It is only days until I get home and truthfully I can’t wait. Until then San Francisco is a very good place to spend time that needs to be served.


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