Mountaineers help equip high altitude huts with life-saving devices

TAIPEI (CNA) – A group of mountaineers has spent the past three and a half years equipping 29 remote huts on mountains in Taiwan with portable altitude chambers (PACs), a life-saving device for mountain climbers suffering from altitude sickness.

More than 50 volunteers who are passionate mountain climbers joined the program initiated by Wang Shih-hao (王士豪) and the Taiwan Wilderness Medical Association (TWMA) in 2015 to deliver PACs to mountains at an elevation of 2,500 meters or higher.

Each year they set off for mountaineering trips in the few months with weather conditions fit for the activity, according to Wang, the TWMA’s deputy president and a physician specializing in emergency treatment.

Carrying on their back such a medical device, which is as heavy as 8 kilograms each, the volunteers climbed up mountains and have over the past three and a half years installed 29 PACs at remote mountain huts, Wang said in a recent interview with CNA.

“Each mountain route is long and rugged,” he said, adding that volunteers have to take turns to carry the 2.2 meter-long cylinder before reaching a designated rest shed.

One of the most challenging PAC delivery missions was to climb the 85 kilometer-long Southern Section 2 Trail in the Central Mountain Range.

“Volunteers completed the task after walking in rain for seven whole days,” Wang recalled.

In October 2018, Wang flew on an air rescue helicopter to the most remote hut on the Mabolasih hiking trail, one of the most challenging hiking paths in the Central Mountain Range.

That mission completed the program aimed at saving lives.

Over the past few years, the PACs installed by the group have saved at least seven lives on high mountains, Wang said.

“I’m very much delighted” with the results, he said, anticipating that many people will benefit from the PAC installation program, despite few initially expecting it to be a success.

Collecting funds was a painstaking process, he said, and our group of “silly people” only succeeded because of their persistence.

What prompted Wang to organize the PAC program was his father’s instructions that he should do something good for society after he was rescued by the Air Force’s air rescue troop on the rugged Qilai Mountain (奇萊山) in Hualien County, eastern Taiwan in 1999. Qilai Main Peak is 3,560 meters above sea level.

That year Wang was a university student who headed a mountaineers club on campus.

Out of his love for mountains, Wang began in 2006 his research on alpine medicine. After one year of field survey, he found the frequency of mountaineers struck by altitude sickness was 36 percent in Taiwan, meaning one in every three people who climb mountains here is sickened with the deadly illness.

In serious cases, mountaineers will die if they develop symptoms of high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) or high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and if they are not able to retreat from the mountain to lower level ground in time, Wang said.

Now an experienced mountaineer and doctor, Wang attributed most deaths from altitude sickness to the fact that rescue personnel are unable to reach sick mountain climbers on foot or by helicopter because of bad weather or rugged terrain.

“Altitude sickness can be cured, as long as a low-altitude environment is brought to the patient in no time” said the expert in alpine medicine.

With a PAC, which does not need electricity to function, symptoms of altitude sickness, including headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting and fatigue, can be relieved within 10 minutes, he said.

This will give rescuers time to take patients down the mountain for medical treatment, he said.

For passionate mountaineers like Wang, the PAC program represents their determination to “allow more mountain climbers to go up mountains happily and return safely.”

By Chen Wei-ting and Elizabeth Hsu