My First Run-in with Altitude Sickness

I’ve been a little busy the last 3 months, so here is the first post of hopefully many to get caught up on my adventures!

My partner/boyfriend/best friend Ben left in early May to work in Alaska as a commercial salmon fisherman for the summer. Now you all know that I’m not shy about doing things on my own, but this summer I did a few questionable things. I’m still not sure if this is a sign of my increased confidence and backcountry skills, or wether I was being reckless. Either way, this was a day that made me think a lot.

Usually I try to drive out to the mountains the night before a hike. I get more daylight Saturday for adventuring that way, plus I get a few more hours of acclimating to the higher elevations. For whatever reason I didn’t do that this day, and ended up going from about 20 ft of elevation where I live near the bay to 9,104 ft in about 6 hours. For perspective, most people estimate it takes the body about a day to acclimate to every 1,000 ft of elevation gain. I’ve done similar things in the past and have been at much higher elevations so I didn’t really think about it. Maybe I would have been fine if it wasn’t for a few other choices I made that day.

I got to the trailhead around 11 am, not in a rush since I had read that Castle Peak is a “quick, easy 5.8 mile hike.” The peak is obvious so I wasn’t very concerned when I realized the trail was still mostly covered by snow. There are a couple of ways to get to the summit and for some reason I opted to follow the lesser traveled of these along the PCT. I won’t say it was a mistake, but this decision changed the entire course of the day.

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About 80% of the trail was covered in snow which meant I wasn’t really following a trail. I would check on my phone ever 15 minutes or so to make sure I was heading in the right direction and used my map and compass in between. I had pretty much given up on the trail and was just heading toward the peak when to my surprise I bumped into a man! “Wow,” I said “I didn’t think I was on the trail!” He barely even looked at me and said “You’re not,” as he continued to walk by. I engaged him a bit more and asked where he had come from, and how he got to the summit, noting his ice axe and technical boots. He told me to continue up the drainage we were standing in and that I would see his glissade (mountaineer speak for a controlled slide) lines. I asked him if he thought I could make it up that way. For the first time he looked at me and casually said, “sure.” In hindsight I probably should have been a little more hesitant, but off I went following his footsteps. I noticed bear tracks that were only hours old. That woke me up a bit, but not enough to turn around.

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As the day wore on the snow started getting soft, making every step up harder to get traction. I put on my microspikes but they barely helped. Still I pushed on, aware that I was by myself, off-trail, in steep loose terrain, but feeling oddly comfortable and capable. People knew where I was generally, and knew when they should expect to hear from me. I just had to get up to the summit.

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The terrain got steeper and I headed for a screefield, thinking the rock would give me more purchase than the snow. It wasn’t any better. It was at that point, afraid of starting a rockslide or even being in one that I realized this probably wasn’t smart. It was around that point that I noticed a building headache that usually indicates dehydration. I finished a bottle of juice and started in on my water, ate a snack and eventually, carefully, made it to the the top of Castle Peak. What would normally take me 1.5 hours had taken me 3, and the day was shaping up to be hot.

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Happy and relieved, I stopped for lunch but did not finish my hike. I wanted to try for 3 summits: Castle Peak, Basin Peak, and Andesite Peak. Basin Peak was another 1.25 miles along a ridgeline from Castle, and it was really breathtaking. There were so many wildflowers mixed among snowfields, and the easy walking on the trail was wonderful.

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I planned to drop down into the basin from there and catch Andesite Peak on the way back to the trailhead but I couldn’t find an obvious trail down and by this time my head was pounding and I started to worry about water. I hadn’t anticipated being this hot. The ridgeline was completely exposed to the sun and I started packing snowballs under my cap to melt slowly on my head. I knew if I got really dehydrated I could always melt snow so I didn’t panic, but I was concerned and kept constant vigil on my body. No cramping, still sweating, I ate my sugary snacks to give myself a boost and hiked back along the ridge to catch the proper trail down the other side of Castle Peak.

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It’s around this time that I think my judgement became impaired. I’ve been warning everyone that the rivers and streams were so high and fast this spring because of the snow melt, and not to risk crossing them. But when I found myself on the wrong side of the river, I was so focused on getting back to the jugs of water in my car that I took the risk. Of course I found a place where the river was wide and slow downstream from an oxbow, so I wasn’t totally crazy, but the next day reflecting back on the day I was surprised I did it. I made it back to my car and drove to Tahoe for a dip in the lake before setting up camp, but the whole evening and into the next day I had a terrible headache, and could barely eat half a sandwich for dinner. I also couldn’t sleep which was weird because of how physically tired I was. It was those clues that tipped me off when relating the story to a friend a week later: we tend to be really sleepy when we’re dehydrated, but can’t sleep when our brains swell due to altitude sickness.

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So the moral of this long story: I never really considered altitude sickness a risk or took it seriously. I’ve hiked at much higher elevations and had very similar days in the past without any symptoms worse than shortness of breath.  I still don’t think I was at serious risk at all this day, but looking back I should have recognized the symptoms and recalibrated my plans. I’m sharing this story so someone else might be better prepared than I was.

3 comments for “My First Run-in with Altitude Sickness

  1. Janet R Siegel
    October 19, 2017 at 7:22 pm

    Thanks for the heads up. This is a cautionary tale, for sure, and I’m glad you’re alright! And that guy sounds totally creepy!
    I had a scary hike on the Frying Pan trail in Capitol Reef National Park last September on a too hot, too long day. I didn’t take enough water, but luckily my hiking partner did and was able to share with me. Could have turned out badly for both of us but we were lucky.
    Sure looks like a beautiful place though! Next time, go with someone!

  2. October 22, 2017 at 2:56 pm

    Yow, that’s pretty scary, Nicole. I remember when I went to the Rockies by myself and drove up from Denver airport to a cabin in the mountains, I was extremely worried about getting altitude sickness and did everything in the books to avoid it, so in the end I was not sick but I lost the sense that it could be a serious problem. Or that anything I’d read about and prepared for could end up being a real situation. So I think this was a good reminder for me that stuff like this actually happens sometimes. Guess I will try going back to being overly careful. Cheers!

  3. Bob Gerber
    October 22, 2017 at 7:32 pm

    This is clearly your “wake up” call. Your old enough for this to happen. No longer can you assume that your body will be able to absorb all the ‘insults’ it did yesterday… or was that 6 months ago? Everything doesn’t have to change, but you have to ad in a certain calculation that takes into account new limits on resilience and capacity. It’s not so hard to work out as long as you remember to include it in **every** calculation of what is an appropriate expectation for yourself. You could think of it as including a conservative ‘discount’ on your subjective sense of what you can do. Just working out this slight governor is all that’s needed to adjust to your new station in life.

    After all you have to take care of yourself so we all can keep enjoying you and you journeys in life.

    Love
    Bob

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