Alpinism with Asthma

Asthma is a disease that affects people in different ways, at different points in their lives or at different points in the year. It can be triggered by an allergy, temperatures, humidity or it can just be there.

I suffer with asthma. It has varied in severity from being able to run without using my inhaler, to being admitted to hospital and put straight on a nebulator and steroids.

Depending on the severity of your asthma, you might consider asthma to be a barrier to mountain sports such as skiing, climbing or high altitude expeditions.

Do you worry that the coldness during skiing will trigger your asthma? Or if climbing you won’t be able to take your inhaler when you’re belaying or climbing? Or do you worry about the coldness and lower oxygen levels at altitude?

These were my worries.

According to Everyday Help, “studies show that mountain climates have fewer allergens and breathing the cleaner air can help people with severe asthma feel better.”

Although studies show mountain climates have cleaner air and help people with severe asthma, I don’t believe this approach helps for alpine sports. I personally find that higher altitudes are cold and dry. Colder temperature can trigger an asthma attack, then add sport and increased respiration into that mix and it is a potential risk. Plus the lack of oxygen at altitude doesn’t help.

If you’re interested in some things I learnt for participating in alpine sports with asthma, then read on!

*Always consult your doctor for advice on your participation in alpine sports.

Asthma Alpine Mountaineering

– Keep Inhalers Close –

When inhalers get cold, they don’t work as well.

I once tested my inhalers after they had been left in an outside pocket of my rucksack in Norway (around -10 degrees centigrade). Upon pressing the canister to administer the ventolin, droplets of the drug splutted out onto my tongue (instead a high velocity spray into my lungs).

If you are in cold temperatures or at high altitudes, always carry your inhaler in a pocket near your body: this keeps the inhaler at a workable temperature. You can find out about optimal inhaler temperatures on your inhaler information sheet.

– Preventer Inhaler –

Do you have a preventer and a reliever inhaler?

My preventer is brown a beclomethasone inhaler and my reliever is a blue ventolin inhaler. state that

“If you use your preventer inhaler every day as prescribed, using a good inhaler technique, your airways will be less sensitive. This means you’ll be less likely to react to your usual asthma triggers.

Because your preventer inhaler helps stop symptoms coming on in the first place, you may notice you don’t need to use your reliever inhaler as much.”   

Prior to climbing kilimanjaro, I was requried to have a doctors note confirming that my asthma was under control and that I could ascend the mountain.

My doctor advised me to take my preventer inhaler in the morning and evening daily for a minimum of 2 weeks prior to the expedition.

Your doctor will be able to judge how to manage your asthma with alpine activities (and if your asthma is very severe, they might advise against alpine sports).

– Cold Air –

Cold temperatures are a trigger for my asthma. At higher altitudes, there are usually very cold temperatures, especially at night.

Usually the advice as given by is to wrap a scarf around your mouth to help warm up cold air that you breathe in. However, if you are doing sport, your respiration rate increases and therefore the condensation from your breath will sit on the scarf or buff. At cold temperatures this condensation will freeze.

An alternative mask to help with extreme cold and respiratory problems is the ColdAvenger Mask which states

“The unique ventilator was designed to provide airway warmth and humidity, unrestricted breathing, and facial skin protection, features critical to protecting lungs and airways in cold weather.”

One group that recently used the ColdAvenger masks was Team Fram (Twitter: @teamfram) during their Hardangervidda Winter Crossing (Norway). During the expedition the temperatures were around -12°c.

Team Fram were able to contribue to this post by giving us an insight into using the ColdAvenger mask. Here are some of the things I asked them:

  1. Can you breathe totally normally through the mask?
    • Yes
  2. Do you get condensation on your face from breathing in the mask?
    • Yes
  3. Does any part of the mask freeze from any condensation
    • Not in the temps we were in, but I expect so. I (lauren) have mild asthma that’s triggered by cold and exercise, and thought that at the -8 to -12° range we were in they worked to warm/moisten the air enough that I felt fine the whole way. Much better than my buff, which worked great but then got wet and froze against my face.

Lauren confirmed that the ColdAvenger mask doesn’t warm it [the air] much, but it takes the biting chill off! Team Fram’s Thorsten wore his mask in around -19 actually. [He] Said the inside was icy but that the air still just felt cold rather than freezing.

– Be Open About Asthma –

No shame: be open and honest. If people don’t know your problems, how can they help you in an emergency?

Regardless or whether you are with a group of friends or a guide, ensure that people in your group know that you are asthmatic. If you fall ill or require an inhaler, then the people in your group will be prepared.

It is important for all group members to know because for example: you could go for a summit push with only one or two people from a group of 10. If the people on the summit push don’t know about your asthma, this could be dangerous.

Asthma Alpine Mountaineering

– Spare Inhalers –

What happens if you need your inhaler and you can’t find it, or you drop it on a key section of a climb?

It can happen that you lose an inhaler, so it is a good back up for another member of your group to carry one of your inhalers. Remember in cold locations that they should keep it inside their clothes and close to their body.

– Listen to Your Body –

This sounds like common sense right? People die every year because they don’t listen to their bodies.

I remember ascending Kilimanjaro and there was one woman between Stella Point (5745m) and Uhuru Peak (the Summit @ 5891m) who was screaming in agony as she vomited. If that wasn’t bad enough, she was held up by porters who were carrying her to the peak as her feet scraped behind her.

I am not a doctor, but I would think if you can’t walk yourself to a peak and are suffering immensly, then you shouldn’t be up there.

Listening to your body can save your life.

There were members of our group who had to turn around before Stella Point and there is no shame in that.

Asthma Alpine Mountaineering
Weissmies, Switzerland

I turned around on a 4000’er (Weissmies) in Switerland because my anxiety kicked in. Technically speaking, it wasn’t tough, but it wasn’t a good day for me and there is no shame in any of that.

If you are ill (for example with a cold or flu) then do not try any sport. This can aggrevate asthma and it may take your longer to recover. Generally if your asthma gets worse on an adventure and your reliever doesn’t work then turn around and / or seek help from your group. Listening to your body can save your life.

– Doctor –

If in doubt, always speak to your doctor prior to an expedition. They will be able to advise if you are able to participate. If you can participate, your doctor will advise on how to manage your asthma during this time.

I’ve said it previously and I’ll say it again. Do not be ashamed to take your inhaler. I know people who avoid carrying them on a night out, because they’re scared of looking “uncool”.

There is no shame in having asthma, and definitely no shame in knowing your own limits.

Inhalers save lives…simple

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.