Altitude Sickness: My Story, Prevention & Symptoms

Altitude Sickness

In June, I attempted to hike to Kearsarge Pass at 11,709 feet in the Eastern Sierra's. The trail is five miles one way. I was going to summit, then camp at one of the lakes on the way down along the trail. I left Camarillo, CA (sea level) at 2:00am and drove up on two hours of sleep. I arrived at the trailhead around 6:30am and started hiking, without giving myself proper rest and time to acclimate. At the time, this seemed like a good idea.

I didn't make it. I was getting dizzy, exhausted, and nauseous about a mile from the top. It also took about 12 hours just to hike four miles, so I decided to set up camp at 10,800 feet and summit in the morning. But after an hour of sleeping, I woke up with my head pounding, and no amount of Advil that I was taking was helping. I tried to sleep for another two hours, telling myself I was just exhausted. But I felt like throwing up, I was dizzy, and my entire body was saying get off this mountain. So, I woke up my hiking buddy at 9:30pm, packed up camp and hiked down.

On a longer hike at higher altitude, this situation could have been worse. Reading this it’s easy to think, that’s a dumb idea, why would you do that? I know, but in the moment these things seem like good ideas.

Learn from my mistakes with altitude and listen to your body. Your safety is more important than finishing the hike. It's ok to stop and to turn around if it means you will safely get back, the mountains will still be there.

Whether you're hiking your first 14'er, going on a ski-cation, or just curious, here are a few tips to help you acclimate:

Give yourself time to acclimate

According to Jeff Stivers, REI Adventures program coordinator, “The common principle for high-altitude hiking trips is pacing of trips and acclimatization.” Acclimating can take several days, especially if you are coming from sea level to a destination above 8,000 feet. Spend the first day at the trailhead (or other nearby location at altitude), acclimate, get a good nights rest and then being your trek. Plan your trip so once you're above 8,000 feet, you only ascend 1,000 feet daily. If you're itinerary doesn't allow this, then climb higher during the day and sleep lower, especially for the first few days.

Take it easy, especially at first

As you're hiking up, take breaks along the way, pace yourself, and take it fairly easy. Hiking (especially long distance at altitude hikes) is a strenuous sport, and your physical performance is always reduced at higher altitudes because of your body's decreasing ability to take in oxygen. 

Stay hydrated

Dehydration can affect the body's ability to acclimate. Reduce your alcohol intake a week prior to traveling to altitude and start drinking 65-100 oz of water per day the week prior to your trip. During your trip, sip water often to keep yourself hydrated.

Listen to your body

If you're in a similar situation as me, and your body is saying I've had enough, I need to get down. Get down. That is the best solution for altitude sickness, is get to lower elevations. Your safety is more important than finishing the hike. The mountain will still be there. This doesn't mean you can't ever hike at altitude, this means you need to take precautions such as taking more time to acclimate or medication to get you there next time. 

Symptoms

Minor symptoms - If you are feeling any of these, do not continue further up. Let your body acclimate.

  • Dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Feeling weak and exhausted
  • Insomnia but feeling sleepy

Major symptoms which can cause fluid in the lungs and swelling of the brain - If you are feeling any of these, do not go further up, descend to lower elevations.

  • Persistent dry cough
  • Fever
  • Panting even while resting
  • Headache that is not reducing with painkillers
  • Increased vomiting
  • Increased dizziness