Thursday, December 06, 2012

Altitude Sickness Sucks Chimp Ass

On my trip to Colorado I discovered that I do get altitude sickness. I can get over it, provided I have enough time to acclimatize. Unfortunately, it seems as though I require about ten days to get used to any altitude over 11,500 feet or so.

Altitude sickness was a very weird illness for me. It was extremely uncomfortable. At its worst, I felt as though I was skating the verge of a seriously bad situation. It may very well be that I was close to suffering something worse than what I ended up experiencing. But each time I felt it getting really awful, I'd stop to rest and drink some water. In addition, I'd generally also try to choke down some food. These things--rest, water, food--seemed to calm the symptoms and keep them at bay long enough for me to continue onward and upward.

I'm surprised I was able to keep pushing on in a few situations. It was almost always heading toward a high pass or trying to push over a particularly steep ridge when I'd suffer the most. Only at the very end of the trip was I finally accustomed to the altitude.

Some of the following photographs were taken by me in a generally ill and sometimes addled state.

This is a terminal moraine that we encountered on the way to Chasm Lake on the highest peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. I was starting to feel a bit crappy at around this point, which was in fact not a lot above tree line.

This is the kind of thing I went to Colorado to see. An enormous ridge looming like the prow of a fantastic ship in the clouds. I was so woozy and wonky and nauseous by this time that my companions had passed me by, one of them worrying about my physical and mental state. Even I realized that I was babbling nonsense. It was like being in a fever dilerium when you know you're not making sense, but there's nothing you can do about it but continue to try to make yourself understood. I did not want to turn back at this point and not see Chasm Lake, so I kept going (albeit at the pace of a wounded snail).

Chasm Lake. It was very cold up there and very cloudy. Sleet rained down on me and the wind made me feel very cold. All I could do was lie in the rocks and take photos from a reclining position. I felt like Hell.
This was taken on a mountainside trail below treeline. I didn't feel too bad at this spot, in the Weminuche Wilderness.
I hiked up to just below a glacial lake to get this shot. We had awakened to newly fallen snow and it was pretty cold, but there wasn't much wind. Clouds were moving in, though, and we had to break camp and push on. I was high enough for the altitude to get to me, though.
Another high altitude shot. This was one of the mountains we wanted to see: Rio Grande Pyramid. In the planning stages I was supposed to have climbed this one. But with the nausea and shortness of breath, there was no way. So seeing it from a distance was the best I was going to get.

 Where I began to learn about altitude sickness. On Long's Peak on the Chasm Lake Trail.


Kirk G said...

Do you know if altitude sickness can be fatal?

James Robert Smith said...

I think you can run into trouble at that altitude. Not sure if it can kill you at such a relatively low point. Some people are just more susceptible to it than others. I'm obviously in that number.

MarkGelbart said...

Maybe next time you should bring some anti-nausea medication.

Over the counter dramimine might do the trick.

Kirk G said...

When I first moved to Salt Lake City in 1987, I immeidately went hiking in Little Cottonwood Canyon, climbing the trail up to the peaks and water reservours. The base height was about 4000 and the peaks 8000 ft as I recall. I enjoyed the views, the climb but had brougth NO water, no snacks, no sunscreen. Other families took pity on me and shared. As we reached the summit, the trail steppened, and I made it in less than two hours! But sweating up a storm in the dry heat of June, I looked for a place to skinnydip. I rinsed off in the pond and then walked down the trail, arriving at the base in only a half hour! I went to a group hot tub party that afternoon and started to go into shock, sitting in the hot tub. They got me out and into a hot shower, and fed me hot cocoa. Though no one ever discussed altitude sickness, I'm wondering now if I had overstressed myself.
Ah, to be single and free again!

James Robert Smith said...

@Mark: That's a thought. I might do that.

@Kirk: From what I've been told you don't tend to run into altitude sickness unless you are above 8K feet or so. And only if you're really sensitive to it at such relatively low elevations. You probably were dehydrated, at least.

I hiked extensively in Yellowstone in 2010 at elevations topping out at 10,600 feet. And I never felt the slightest bit of altitude sickness on that trip. So I felt I just wasn't a candidate for altitude sickness. How wrong I was.

Kirk G said...

Ah, I just went to read at wikipedia about Altitude Sickness, and I should have done so before I posted. Does Altitude Sickness manifest only while you are up at that height, or is it present if you come back down again? I felt really good when I first came down the mountain. More concentrated oyygen or just physical workout? Who knows?!

James Robert Smith said...

Almost the minute I got below 11,500 feet I'd feel much better. It was all about the altitude and not just the physical exertion.