Scientists have identified a mysterious condition that induces vivid hallucinations and psychotic episodes in high-altitude mountain climbers.
Mountaineers are in danger of more things than avalanches or snowstorms.
Scaling the tallest mountains up to their highest peaks, thousands of feet above the ground, is an arduous and sometimes deadly task. Mountain climbers can even go through psychotic episodes once they get to certain altitudes, at the height where planes fly and oxygen is thin. Jeremy Windsor, who scaled Everest in 2008, even told of a time when another climber who called himself Jimmy suddenly appeared to him out of nowhere. Windsor was at 8,200 meters high, all alone, when Jimmy came along and said hello. Jimmy reportedly spent the entire day with the Windsor, and eventually disappeared without a trace.
Other climbers have described a variety of similar experiences as well. They reportedly experience olfactory, auditory, and optical hallucinations, accompanied by some physical symptoms. Instances like these aren’t unknown to doctors, who usually ascribe these hallucinations to altitude sickness. However, a newly-identified condition may actually be the culprit: isolated high-altitude psychosis.
Past a certain height, mountaineers are susceptible to a mysterious condition.
For the first time, researchers have compiled 83 accounts of psychotic episodes suffered by climbers at high altitudes and analyzed the symptoms described in the accounts. Their findings, detailed in a new study, indicate that these climbers may be suffering from a specific kind of psychosis.
41 of the accounts describe psychosis, or losing grip on reality. A smaller number of people, meanwhile, experienced psychosis with no symptoms of other illnesses. The episodes for this smaller group lasted for several hours up to several days. Climbers describe optical and auditory hallucinations, some of which were similar to Windsor’s, as well as difficulty seeing, hearing, and speaking.
23 of the 83 accounts told of psychosis without the presence of acute mountain sickness or high-altitude cerebral edema. These two conditions have been identified to be able to affect the mental states of mountain climbers. "In our study, we found that there was a group of symptoms that are purely psychotic,” said Hermann Brugger, one of the researchers, “that is to say, that although they are, indeed, linked to altitude, they cannot be ascribed to a high-altitude cerebral oedema, nor to other organic factors such as fluid loss, infections or organic diseases.”
What, therefore, is happening? Isolated high-altitude psychosis is the likely answer.
Mountaineers need to be aware of the dangers on the slopes, and not just the physical kind.
Isolated high-altitude psychosis happens at heights past 7,000 feet above sea level. However, as of now, the causes of this condition are still unknown. Researchers think that things like oxygen deficiency or swelling in certain parts of the brain may be the cause, but there’s no certain answer yet. What they researchers do know is that the symptoms of isolated high-altitude psychosis completely disappear as soon as mountaineers descend from the “danger zone”. It also appears that the climbers leave the condition completely behind when they climb down the mountain, since there don’t seem to be any residual effects.
Even so, conditions like this can put mountain climbers in danger and can increase the risk of accidents. Thus, mountain climbers should be made aware of the possibility that they may be at risk of developing isolated high-altitude psychosis once they ascend past 7,000 feet.
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