This study attempted a systematic investigation of incidence, type, and circumstances of anomalous perceptual experiences in a highly specialized group of healthy subjects, extreme-altitude climbers.
There is anecdotal evidence for a high incidence of anomalous perceptual experiences during mountain climbing at high altitudes.
In a structured interview, we asked eight world-class climbers, each of whom has reached altitudes above 8500 m without supplementary oxygen, about hallucinatory experiences during mountain climbing at various altitudes. A comprehensive neuropsychological, electroencephalographic, and magnetic resonance imaging evaluation was performed within a week of the interview (8).
All but one subject reported somesthetic illusions (distortions of body scheme) as well as visual and auditory pseudohallucinations (in this order of frequency of occurrence). A disproportionately large number of experiences above 6000 m as compared to below 6000 m were reported (relative to the total time spent at these different altitudes). Solo climbing and (in the case of somesthetic illusions) life-threatening danger were identified as probable triggers for anomalous perceptual experiences. No relationship between the number of reported experiences and neuropsychological impairment was found. Abnormalities in electroencephalographic (3 climbers) and magnetic resonance imaging (2 climbers) findings were likewise unrelated to the frequency of reported hallucinatory experiences.
The results confirm earlier anecdotal evidence for a considerable incidence of hallucinatory experiences during climbing at high altitudes. Apart from hypoxia, social deprivation and acute stress seem to play a role in the genesis of these experiences.