Spiritual Altitude Sickness

  • Nathan Schneider

It was just a few weeks before my fourteenth birthday when the 1996 Mt. Everest disaster occurred. Several expedition teams ascended the summit of the highest point on earth, led by competent guides, including Rob Hall of Adventure Consultants and Scott Fischer of Mountain Madness. On May 10, these two teams made their summiting bids. But several delays and a freak blizzard resulted in numerous climbers being caught as they attempted to descend the mountain to camp IV. Trapped at high altitude, far into the infamous “death zone” (referring to elevations above 8,000 meters, or 26,000 feet, where atmospheric pressure is insufficient to supply the requisite amount of oxygen to sustain life and at which point the human body is incapable of adapting), exposed to temperatures with wind chill exceeding -100° F, and unable to navigate the difficult terrain because of low visibility, and despite numerous rescue efforts by members of Hall’s and Fischer’s teams, with assistance from other expedition teams on the mountain, including a crew filming an IMAX feature, eight climbers, including Hall and Fischer, died. By the end of the ’96 climbing season, four more climbers would die, making it the deadliest climbing season recorded on Everest to that point.

I first became aware of the Everest disaster when I attended a showing of the IMAX movie Everest with my dad in Washington, DC. By then, Jon Krakauer’s account of the event (Into Thin Air) was widely-read. Later, I would find out that one of the clients of the Mountain Madness expedition team was a man that lived in my own small town of Craig, CO. Dale Kruse was a local dentist who had started his practice in Craig in 1992. He was a close personal friend of Scott Fischer, lead guide for Mountain Madness guiding services, and had been the first to sign up for the expedition with Fischer. As fate would have it, Kruse’s experience on the mountain would be far different from the rest of the clients who were trapped on the top of the world. During his stay at camp III (24,500 ft), Kruse developed severe mountain sickness, more specifically a condition called HACE, or High Altitude Cerebral Edema, a life-threatening condition in which the brain swells with fluid. The condition is a result of the body’s inability to adequately acclimatize to the high altitude, and unless the patient is to descend quickly to a lower elevation, death usually results within a few days. In Kruse’s case, team members began to identify the tell-tale symptoms—confusion, dizziness, altered mental state, loss of coordination—and Fischer personally escorted his friend down to Base Camp (17,598 ft) before returning to guide his ill-fated team up the mountain.

Altitude sicness

As noted earlier, HACE and its close corollary HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) are the result of the body’s inability to adapt to atmospheric conditions at high altitude. A summary of the issue by Alex Derr provides a simple yet helpful explanation:

Regardless of the specific type of altitude sickness, the cause is always the same. Air pressure drops as you gain altitude because there is less air above you pushing down. This means that it is harder for your body to absorb oxygen, as there is less air pressure forcing it across the cell membranes into your body. Anyone who rapidly ascends above 8,500 feet is at risk of developing one of the following four types of altitude sickness.


I myself have experienced the effects of mild altitude sickness. My first camping trip with my wife brought us from sea-level in Los Angeles to the Virginia Lakes, a collection of alpine lakes all located at 9,600 ft and higher. My first night was spent with rolling around in my sleeping bag with a skull-splitting headache, to the point of getting up in the night to vomit outside my tent, both classic signs of early elevation sickness. Only after we descended to the little town of Lee Vining at 6,800 ft did my headache quickly dissipate. I was able to go back to camp later that morning and never felt any ill effects again. But my symptoms were no doubt the result of my rapid ascent from nearly sea level to nearly 10,000 in barely a 5-hour period of time.


So how are mountaineers able to adapt to such extreme altitudes as those seen on the world’s highest peaks? After all, even at elevations below the death zone of 26,500 ft, altitude sickness is a very real threat. The answer lies in a methodical and intentional program of acclimatization over a period of time that allows the body to slowly adapt to the decreased atmospheric pressure and lower oxygen levels. For expeditions to Mt. Everest, climbers acclimatization begins in Kathmandu (4,600 ft) in late March, continue during their trek from the town of Lukla (9,383 ft) as they slowly ascends over a 12-14 day period before reaching Base Camp (17,598 ft). Once at Base Camp, climbers spend a number of nights resting and adjusting before beginning a series of targeted ascents and descents between Base Camp, Camps 1 (19,900 ft) and Camp 2 (21,300 ft). In fact, Rob Hall, lead guide for Adventure Consultants in 1996, had created an effective method of acclimatization that encouraged clients to make frequent ascents to these camps at their own discretion. After about a 5-week period, climbers were ready to ascent to Camp 3 (24,500 ft) in preparation for a summit attempt, during mid to late May, when weather is most favorable.

If you’re doing the math, that means that a typical timeline for tackling Mt. Everest begins in late March and ends in early June—that’s about a 3-month commitment! That’s a long time to spend climbing a mountain, but it’s what’s required for these high altitude climbs, and attempts to shortcut the acclimatization process can be deadly to the climber as well as other team members who are all relying on each other. Not only can a sick climber delay or even jeopardize the other climbers’ summit bids, but they can put them in series danger should they need to help an incapacitated climber down the mountain. Rescue efforts on these high mountains are fraught with risk and sometimes impossible, and as a result Mt. Everest is notoriously strewn with the body of deceased climbers, some of whom serve as way markers for other climbers.

spiritual growth

I just finished reading Jon Krakauer’s book on the ’96 Everest tragedy, and while there’s a host a spiritual implications I could talk about, I thought the altitude issue provided an interesting metaphor for thinking about the subject of spiritual leadership. The New Testament writers frequently encouraged their readers to continue to grow spiritually. Peter told his Gentile readers to be like newborn infants and “long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow i respect to salvation” (1 Pet. 2:2). Paul scolded his Corinthian readers for still being “infants in Christ” and “fleshly men” because it meant that he wasn’t able to speak to them as mature “spiritual men” (1 Cor. 3:1). They still needed “milk to drink, not solid food, for you were not yet able to receive it” (3:2). Similarly, the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews chided his readers for their spiritual immaturity, saying “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food” (Heb. 5:12).

In other words, there is an expectation that a believer will move from spiritual infancy to maturity following conversion. While there will be times when spiritual growth levels off, stagnancy in the Christian life is not only undesirable but dangerous because it points to an underlying problem that requires immediate attention. In fact, after extended problems with the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul exhorted the people there to “test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves!” (2 Cor. 13:5). In other words, extended periods of spiritual infancy or stagnancy can point to a far deeper danger—false conversion.

spiritual altitude sickness

But the topic of altitude sickness got me thinking about another issue—the opposite problem of too-slow spiritual growth. It’s a problem that frequently ails individuals with particular intellectual gifting. A person will come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, will taste the goodness of salvation, will apply his God-given intellectual talents by doing exactly what Peter told us to do—long for God’s spiritual milk like a newborn infant longs for milk. He will drink and drink and drink. He will grow in his knowledge of the Word and theology and doctrine. And it’s at this point that he is the most vulnerable. Like a young vigorous mountaineer who has been training hard, is physically fit, and possessing excellent stamina and technical mountaineering skills, he climbs higher and higher, not recognizing that he is climbing too fast for his own body to adapt. Perhaps he pushes past the early signs of altitude sickness only to lose himself in the confusion and incapacitation that results from the later stages of altitude sickness. By that point, he may be unable to identify his own problems or do what is necessary to rectify the issue, putting everyone else around him at imminent risk. He has ascended too high too fast, to his own peril and to the peril of those around him.

That exact warning is given from Paul to his young spiritual protege, Timothy, whose task it was to clean up the spiritual leadership issues at the church in Ephesus and appoint qualified men to serve in the office of elder. These men were to be called by God, desiring of the work of the office, proven in character and gifting. But, Paul warns, they must not be recent converts (1 Tim. 3:6). The reason is that new converts to the faith are particularly vulnerable to spiritual attack. Leadership is a serious responsibility. The Bible calls believers to submit to those in spiritual leadership over them (Heb. 13:17), which means that there is a definitive trust relationship between elders and the congregations they lead. Believers entrust themselves to the care of spiritual shepherds, who are held accountable for the spiritual care they give.

But a believer elevated to such an office, with such a responsibility, and with such authority as is invested in the leadership of a local church, opens wide the door for one spiritual issue in particular: pride. Paul wrote to Timothy that an overseer must “not be a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:6). Leadership has a way of clouding the judgment of immature believers, which is why theological knowledge and teaching ability are only part of the requisite qualifications for spiritual leadership (1 Tim. 3:2; 2 Tim. 2:24; Tit. 1:9). The vast majority of the qualifications discussed by Paul are spiritual in nature and have to do with a man’s moral life. These things are proven out over time, which is why a period of testing is mandatory before a person should be installed in any capacity of leadership (1 Tim. 3:10; 5:22).

There is a kind of elevation sickness that can be developed among spiritual leaders. Yes, it can occur in men who are spiritually older and have been in ministry a long time. But it is especially apparent in spiritually “younger” men who haven’t had the life experience to recognize their own vulnerabilities to sins in leadership and are therefore lacking in personal humility. Often, theological knowledge masks this immaturity, both for the individual as well as for the people he interacts with. Convinced of his maturity because of his natural intelligence and level of doctrinal learning, he receives affirmation by others of his call to spiritual leadership. A well-intentioned elder team in desperate need of shepherding help, brings him onto the team, welcoming the new help he will bring an the doctrinal skill he offers. But little do they know that what he possesses in knowledge he lacks in humility, self-control, and wisdom. And so this spiritual “young man,” elevated quickly to the high altitude of spiritual leadership, falls victim to the same conceit and pride and downfall as the devil.

Like I said, no man is immune from this issue. But Paul makes it a point to connect it with young converts because he was well aware of the dangerous link between leadership and pride, and the only effective means to limit the possibility of spiritual altitude sickness is a slow and steady acclimatization that results from growing spiritually within a local church, under the watchful eye of spiritually-mature leaders who can accurately assess a person not just in terms of doctrine, but in terms of life. “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will save both yourself and those who hear you” (1 Tim. 4:16).