When on your journey or outing, there is a good chance that you will be encountering some fairly steep terrain that could put you up at some pretty high elevations. These kinds of wilderness areas are often the most scenic and least crowded, and can offer the ultimate backpacking and camping experience. However, as the title implies, gaining a significant amount of elevation in a very short period of time can cause what is known as High Altitude Sickness (HAS). HAS, which can also be known as Acute Mountain Sickness, is a very serious condition that anyone of any body type and level of fitness can fall ill to, ranging from a minor condition to debilitating discomforts. It can also occur for different people at different elevations, ranging from 8,000 to 10,000 ft, making it difficult to know if a person is susceptible to HAS or not. Because of this diseases anonymous nature, it is best to know the early warning signs before setting out so you can take action and prevent advanced stages of the disease from forming.
HAS can present itself in a number of ways, including dizziness, fatigue, confusion, headaches, nausea, and vomiting. If you or anyone in your group are beginning to show these signs, address your suspicions with them, and make a plan to either stay at that elevation for an extended period of time, or descend. Make sure that they are hydrated and have a chance to sit down and rest. Depending on the climate and area you are hiking in, finding a shady spot with some water and a cool rag may be necessary while resting. There are very few ways to make a person feel better once they have begun to show symptoms of HAS, except for descending to a lower elevation. Never put yourself or anyone else at risk by forcing or allowing the ascent to continue. This can lead to far more dangerous conditions such as High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) or High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). Both of these can be fatal and require immediate medical attention.
One of the best ways to escape the cruel grasp of HAS is to never get it in the first place. The best way to do this is by letting your body acclimate to higher elevations slowly, rather than getting excited and trying to do as much as you can in one day. I have personal experience with the latter and can assure you that driving from my hometown of Eugene (~500 ft elevation) to the trailhead (~6000 ft elevation) and ascending to the top of the South Sister (~10,500 ft) in 12 hours time can definitely be too much for a body to handle.
Another way to prevent HAS from occurring, though not as effective as acclimation, is to be is good physical condition. Of course this is a title that varies from person to person, but for the cause of this article, I will identify ‘good physical condition’ as your body being used to physical activity and having some level of respiratory stamina built up. What you look like under your clothes has no benefit or advantage over anyone else when it comes to HAS, so long as your lungs are used to and equipped to be supplying the rest of your body with oxygen.
One of the best references for viewing the effects of High Altitude Sickness in video format comes from the YouTube channel ‘nyounie’ where this superb marathon runner and mountain biker attempts to travel the length of the John Muir Trail in 7 days. As a little back story, the adventurer in the video-documentary lives in low elevation California and travels to Mt Whitney Portal to start his trek. He goes from a 1,000 ft to a 12,600 ft elevation in a 24 hour period. I’ve linked the video [here] at the correct time frame so you only have to watch for a few minutes. Pay attention to the despair and overall discomfort he starts falling into, and how he lets pride drive him onward and upward. Feel free to watch the rest of the video, if not for the happy ending, then for the amazing High Sierra views along the John Muir that nyounie captures. Remember these symptoms that he shows in the video, so you can be knowledgeable for future safety!
One last reference that I will leave [here] is a video from Cleverhiker.com, where owner and founder Dave Collins speaks about this very subject of High Altitude Sickness in a format, tone, and pace that is easy to understand and take notes from.
I hope that this blog entry has been informative, and if you have any questions, leave a comment down below. Remember, when it comes to HAS, your friend is to descend!
Until next time, be sure to enjoy the outdoors responsibly, safely, and remember to have fun!