Home > Leadership > Day 5 Cuzco, Peru: Altitude Sickness

Day 5 Cuzco, Peru: Altitude Sickness


Not for Traveling Amateurs

Today was a travel day for us flying from Lima to the mountainous city of Cuzco. I’m not a traveling amateur and have travelled a great deal but i must say the approach into the airport here was something else. Weaving between mountain tops in the clouds, our Airbus 320 then made a dramatic turn placing the aircraft on its side to make the final approach with the runway.

Bob and I looked at each other with a nervous smile that said lots. We were both relieved when the wheels touched down and our plane taxied the very long runway to the terminal.

Cuzco’s elevation is 11,300 feet. Imagine six of Toronto’s CN Tower stacked on each other reaching over two miles into the sky with me sitting on the top. That is equivalent to where we are. When you walk from the plane to the terminal you immediately notice the altitude’s effect on you. It starts with a shortness of breath, a headache and a pressure in your chest like someone stuck a brick in behind your diaphragm. I was half expecting oxygen masks to drop when they opened the airplane doors.

We walked about six blocks from our hotel to get some supper and on our return we felt like we had run a marathon. At night I experienced a hard time breathing even when lying in bed. It is hard to sleep when your pulse is racing like you are at the gym. It will make for a pretty sleepless night, and we have an early morning to board a train to Machupicchu.


Athletes and Altitude

They say that it is good for athletes to train at these altitudes. We talked about how our friend David should be with us practicing his waterskiing on Lake Titicaca nearby.

What is interesting is that this altitude affects everyone. Whether you are a marathon runner or an out of shape 56-year-old, if you climb too high too fast you will experience symptoms.

This made me think of same principle in leadership. If a leader climbs the career ladder too quickly the symptoms will show. Do you know of a leader who got promoted too quickly? I’ve seen it happen to three different types of leaders.

  1. A leader who is very gifted but lacks the experience for the new position and whose ego needs do not allow them to ask for help.
  2. A poser, a leader who actually does not have the goods for a high altitude position but has bluffed their way through life so far.
  3. A good leader who gets promoted because they are so loyal. No one stops to ask if they really have the skill set and gifts necessary to handle the new promotion.

Of course there can be other types of leaders who find themselves at high altitude leadership too quickly but no matter how one gets there the symptoms begin to emerge and if the leader is self-aware they too will feel that brick behind the diaphragm.

How to Overcome Altitude Sickness

So how does one overcome this?

Well, for the leader who deep inside senses they have climbed too high too fast, find a mentor who can help you develop quickly – or better still, try to get into an Arrow Leadership class STAT.

If you find yourself two miles high on top a mountain, the local favorite treatment for actual altitude sickness is cocoa tea. It tastes like green tea, just don’t try bringing any back to North America.

Categories: Leadership
  1. Ed
    May 17, 2012 at 2:13 pm

    I love your comment “I was half expecting oxygen masks to drop when they opened the airplane doors.” Ha Ha!!

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