Forum
Buying gear? Please use these links to help 14ers.com:

More info...

Other ways to help...

My experience with severe altitude sickness

FAQ and threads for those just starting to hike the Colorado 14ers.
User avatar
Posts: 5
Joined: Fri Feb 24, 2012 8:05 pm
Location: Missouri

My experience with severe altitude sickness

Postby Asclepius » Fri Feb 24, 2012 11:03 pm

Where to start? This is my first post here(apologize for length), I registered because I wanted to share a terrible experience I had in the Sawatch Range, regarding altitude sickness. I recently traveled out to Colorado with a fellow student(from CO), to take part in some backpacking and winter mountaineering. I am originally from Ohio, but I currently live in Missouri for graduate school, thus I am not used to high altitudes. I do have some experience in mountaineering out in Montana, but I never got the chance to experience beautiful Colorado.

So, onto the story. We finally get released for spring break(much needed), and haul butt to Colorado Springs and get to my friends house 9hrs later! The next day we went and got a few pieces of gear we needed, got some lunch, then packed our gear and headed out to San Isabel National Forest. I didn't carry excessive gear, but even going light as you can in the winter, it still adds up. We get to the national forest around 630pm, then hike in roughly 4 miles and decided to stop and set up camp due to being pretty spent. Now, I am completely aware that I did not undergo that long of an acclimatization, but due to really good physical fitness I wasn't really concerned. From the initial trek into the forest, to the next two days in the backcountry I was short of breathe, but didn't think much of it.

I understand the importance of ensuring proper nutrition and water/electrolyte intake with extreme physical exertion. I am a former Marine, as well as a medical student(weird I know), so I feel relatively knowledgeable on keeping myself healthy in the wilderness. So I experienced multiple symptoms of altitude sickness in the backcountry, and overlooked them because I didn't think they were that bad. The symptoms were bad, they were a sign, and even know I was aware of them, I was not thinking straight at the time and essentially ignored them.

The time spent around 10,000ft, I experienced terrible sleep, shortness of breath, tachycardia, slight headache, non-productive cough that turned productive with small amounts of blood, and just overall weakness. I was pounding water, using some of the Nuun tablets for electrolytes, eating well, and taking naproxin 500mg 2X day. I just thought I needed to man up, and this is normal for altitude and extremely dry air.

On the third day we planned to attempt a 14er, figuring 3 days was sufficient for acclimatization. We woke up at 430am, and loaded up the gear including 6L of water and bunch of food, then took off for an early start. As we started the ascent, from the get go I was short of breathe, and as we went on the symptoms got progressively worse. Shortness of breathe, headache, tachycardia were all there, but as we got around 12000ft this is were I knew I was in trouble. I started to become lethargic, my coordination went to crap, I could feel an intense bounding pulse in the neck/throat area, a feeling of suffocation, and when I bent over I experienced the worst headache I ever felt(as if my head were going to explode). I was in bad shape, and knew I had to keep myself together and just get off the mountain safely. But even though these symptoms were occurring, I initially waited on deciding to bail and rapidly descend.

The friend I was with is a former paramedic, and he realized that I was in bad shape, and helped me realize how bad I actually was and to get off the mountain. Having altitude sickness can really inhibit your cognition and decision making skills, and I am grateful for my friend helping me out. I can see how some climbers just keep pressing on sometimes while they are in bad shape, and may end up in a really bad outcome. I am glad we made it off the mountain safely, and I take this experience as a learning one. I am interested in being involved with some type of wilderness medicine down the road, and I definitely will not miss or ignore these symptoms again, period.

So as I am writing this, it has been two days since I was on the mountain. I am not exactly sure If what I was experiencing was high altitude pulmonary edema or not, but I think it might have been. Regardless, it was not fun being in that situation! Maybe next time I will utilize some pharmacologic prophylaxis if I do not have sufficient time to acclimatize. The big thing.....we must look out and take care of one another on the mountain, and use extreme caution when alone. There is great advice on this forum which I am grateful for, and hopefully someone that may read this can get something from it, helping that person, or preventing a possible bad situation from occurring.

Asclepius

Re: My experience with severe altitude sickness

Postby gonzalj » Fri Feb 24, 2012 11:30 pm

Well, sorry to hear about your experience with altitude sickness, but am glad to see you writing this post and hopefully by virtue of the fact that you did write this, that your condition is improving. I have seen a couple of examples and heard of many examples where even the most fit have had problems when going from sea level directly to high altitudes like 10,000+ feet. Everything that I've heard is to give yourself 3 days and maybe spend 1 day at around a mile above or 6000 feet like Denver or C Springs, the next day between 8000 & 10,000 and then on the 3rd day attempt a 13er or 14er (and clearly hydration is a big part). My only guess is that clearly you drank your fair share of water, but maybe going straight up to high elevations after coming from sea level complicated things that lead to your situation.

User avatar
Posts: 5
Joined: Fri Feb 24, 2012 8:05 pm
Location: Missouri

Re: My experience with severe altitude sickness

Postby Asclepius » Sat Feb 25, 2012 1:06 am

Thank you for the concern. It was just a terrible situation. When we finally got off the mountain, I started to think of all the problems that were occurring inducing the symptoms I had. It made me upset, knowing that what was occurring/physiologic responses were extremely serious and I did not take immediate response to it, and this may have resulted in a fatal incident.

I do feel better, still have a slight cough, but everything seems to be alright.

User avatar
Posts: 7311
Joined: Thu Jun 08, 2006 2:23 pm
Location: Colorado Springs

Re: My experience with severe altitude sickness

Postby Jim Davies » Sat Feb 25, 2012 10:49 am

Interesting story, and I'm glad you came out of it OK. It does demonstrate a counterintuitive fact about AMS. Peter Hackett, in his book "Mountain Sickness", says:
Physical conditioning has absolutely no influence on susceptability. In fact, fit individuals tend to ascend faster and therefore may have a higher incidence.
Some people are afraid of heights. Not me, I'm afraid of widths. -- Steven Wright

Posts: 3
Joined: Tue Oct 11, 2011 10:51 am

Re: My experience with severe altitude sickness

Postby climbingcue » Thu Mar 08, 2012 8:54 am

Glad you are ok, I was in Colorado in October and coming from NJ were I live only 560 ft above sea level. Flew in on a Friday night and went right to my Aunt's house at 8,266 ft. I was really worried about doing too much to quickly. I did not have the option to stay at 5,000 or 6,000 ft, I did my best to drink lots of water and get ready for my 14er hike. I did Gray's and Torrey's peak on the Wednesday, set a steady pace on the way up. Felt great on the top of both peaks, no headaches at all, which suprised me. Got a bit to confident, and decended much too fast and had a headache for the next 5hrs. Lesson learned, when I go back in August of this year I will decend at a slower pace. Here is the Garmin data from the hike.

http://connect.garmin.com/activity/120259356

Bill

User avatar
Posts: 1086
Joined: Mon May 24, 2010 12:57 pm
Location: Littleton, CO

Re: My experience with severe altitude sickness

Postby climbing_rob » Thu Mar 08, 2012 9:07 am

Coughing blood sure sounds like HAPE to me... sure glad you got down OK. I'm not sure I buy 100% the popular argument that physical fitness level has NOTHING to do w/ tolerance of altitude, but it probably does not have much to do with it, so good lesson learned.

User avatar
Posts: 7311
Joined: Thu Jun 08, 2006 2:23 pm
Location: Colorado Springs

Re: My experience with severe altitude sickness

Postby Jim Davies » Thu Mar 08, 2012 9:16 am

Hackett's book is the best reference I've found, but it's getting kind of old (about 30 years) and I do wonder if there's any new research on this. But the stuff he discusses is the same stuff that comes up here whenever AMS is discussed - hydration, climb high/sleep low, diamox, ginko, etc. So maybe not much has been learned since the 80's.
Some people are afraid of heights. Not me, I'm afraid of widths. -- Steven Wright

User avatar
Posts: 702
Joined: Fri Feb 08, 2008 12:18 pm
Location: Michigan

Re: My experience with severe altitude sickness

Postby Wish I lived in CO » Thu Mar 08, 2012 10:14 am

Wow. Glad you're feeling fine now. Though you hesitated a bit, you made the right choice when it counted. There's a different thread out there right now that's generating a lot of posts about someone who unfortunately waited too long to call it a no go. You can always come back and try again. Us flatlanders have a bit more of a challenge to acclimate. You may be a good candidate for acetazolamide, though with your new history whatever you do I'd be cautious. But climbing's too fun not to regroup, consider a new plan, and to try again. Good luck!
I look up to the mountains - does my help come from there? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth! Psalm 121:1-2

User avatar
Posts: 1086
Joined: Mon May 24, 2010 12:57 pm
Location: Littleton, CO

Re: My experience with severe altitude sickness

Postby climbing_rob » Thu Mar 08, 2012 10:20 am

This brings to mind a classic case a CMC instructor (and doctor, who has written HA medicine papers, I believe w/ Hackett) discusses in his lectures; he was climbing Orizaba some years ago, and a dude in the huts had a cough that was persistent. In the morning he was found stone-cold dead. HAPE can strike quickly and severely. Don't mess around with a bloody cough, get your butt down fast.

Yeah, who knows Jim; my thoughts are that a very fit person will at least be able to tolerate discomfort from minor altitude related ills better than a non-fit person, but would probably not have any additional tolerance from the real nasties like HAPE and HACE.

Re: My experience with severe altitude sickness

Postby Nelson » Thu Mar 08, 2012 4:20 pm

My experience in high altitude climbing is that fit people can have more problems at higher altitudes, but don't have to have more problems. There is a tendency among strong people to go too hard at the beginning of a climb. Fitter people have the ability and the experience to push themselves hard when under stress. Finally, I read in a book while prepping for Denali that "lazy breathers" tend to get into trouble. This would include endurance athletes such as long distance runners, triathletes and bicyclers. They are used to slow breathing at sea level and don't adjust at higher elevations.

User avatar
Posts: 102
Joined: Mon May 16, 2011 3:49 pm

Re: My experience with severe altitude sickness

Postby Monte Meals » Thu Mar 08, 2012 9:56 pm

Over the years, my wife and I have taken many noobies up 14ers.

Our basic rule - we usually take only one but occasionally two - even if they live in Colorado *so we can watch them closely
above 10,000 ft*

If either of us observes distress, we turn and go down, no questions asked.

A couple of observations:

1) Physically fit people are used to driving themselves harder and may not recognize that they are in trouble.

2) We have had a couple of Colorado residents who didn't experience any HA symptoms until part way back down. It is amazing how difficult it is
to get someone down off of a mountain when they can barely stand up due to projectile vomiting.

User avatar
Posts: 7
Joined: Thu Sep 17, 2009 1:44 pm
Location: Littleton, CO

Re: My experience with severe altitude sickness

Postby telern » Thu Mar 08, 2012 10:42 pm

As a guy in the people fixing business, I've seen the effects of altitude on the unacclimated. And you displayed the severe form of AMS. You are now at a higher risk of developing it again if you repeat such a rapid ascent. The only true way to prevent AMS and the nasty HAPE/HACE is time. Spend a night or more in Denver. Sleep in Summit County over 8000feet. And start drinking water BEFORE you get in the car to haul butt to this beautiful state. I'm thankful you're sharing your experience in this forum in hopes that others will read it and learn. Some references are;


http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001190/

http://www.amazon.com/Altitude-Illness-Prevention-Treatment-Mountaineers/dp/0898866855/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1331267710&sr=1-1

http://www.amazon.com/Medicine-Mountaineering-Other-Wilderness-Activitites/dp/1594850763/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1331267789&sr=1-1

Again, thank you for sharing your story.

Next

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 2 guests