Altitude Sickness


What I didn’t mention in my Mt. Quandary post yesterday, was that when we got back to the car, I got pretty altitude sick.

Mt. Quandary (14,265ft)

It started with the standard headache, about halfway down the mountain. That usually happens to me, 50% of the time when I hike 14ers anyways. It goes away as soon as we finish or I take Advil. But this time, as soon as we got back to the car (~10,000ft), I became rapidly nauseous. We drove into the town of Breck to get lower in altitude, but within 15 minutes, I was vomiting in a gas station bathroom.

A bottle of gatorade, some salty snacks, the descent into lower altitude during the drive home -later, I felt completely fine again.

Mt. Elbert (14,440ft)

I thought it’d be interesting to write a blog post about this, because altitude sickness is common for folks here in Colorado because we all love hiking our 14ers so much.

Acute mountain sickness (aka, altitude sickness) happens to hikers/climbers/skiers typically at altitudes above 8,000ft. It’s surprisingly common. They say 20% of high altitude travelers experience it. Me? More often than not, I get mild headaches anytime I hike 14ers. I’ve never gotten sick though (besides this one time).

Mt. Massive (14,421ft)

Common symptoms are headaches, nausea, light-headedness, lethargy, and  sometimes vomiting. All unpleasant symptoms, but immediately treatable if you drop down in altitude. So for instance for me, as soon as I started to feel nauseous on Saturday, we knew I needed to get down to lower altitudes, and I’d be feeling better in no time.

Mt. Harvard (14,423ft)

To prevent altitude sickness, ascend gradually. Bring and drink lots of water. Eat high-carb snacks and food along the way (I always bring granola bars, trailmix, and dried fruit for the hike, as well as a lunch for the summit).

Grays Peak (14,270ft)

If you’re experiencing the symptoms, the best way to treat it, is simply to descend to lower altitudes as quickly and safely as possible.

It’s well known that altitude sickness is caused by the combination of lower oxygen concentrations and reduced air pressure at those higher altitudes. Sources say the air is “thinner”, less oxygen, etc. The lack of oxygen is what causes us to experience these symptoms. But how does that specifically cause headaches and nausea?

Torreys Peak (14,267ft)

I’d love to get a scientific explanation for why, biochemically-speaking, we hikers experience headaches and nausea when we’re above 8,000ft. Unfortunately, I haven’t found any specifics. So if you know the chemistry behind it, please share it in the comments below!

The good news is that the symptoms are simple to treat (and not terrible enough to deter me from hiking my favorite mountains!). It’s important to remember to hike smart, and if you start experiencing nausea while hiking above 8,000 ft, play it safe and turn around!

Have you ever gotten terribly altitude sick? 

7 Comments Add yours

  1. kaitwatts says:

    I’ve been lucky to not experience it-yet. I can always feel when the air is thinner. Usually I just feel like I have a had rush-constantly. Family members have come to visit from the East Coast and not drank enough water and ended up with it. Glad you felt better soon after.

  2. Great post! Luckily, I don’t get altitude sickness at all on 14ers. I did get a mild headache after descending a 16,000 foot volcano in Ecuador, and that wasn’t too awesome :)

    1. EfoRunner says:

      Lucky (both the no-altitude sickness thing and hiking a volcano in Ecuador)! I love your adventure stories.

  3. The most altitude sickness I’ve gotten is major headaches. I’ve been lucky enough to not get vomity sick…although, I had a weird experience climbing Long’s Peak….my hands swelled up. I did take a fall at the top, but i think in combination with me catching myself and the altitude, my hands swelled up so much that I couldn’t close them into fist and they hurt like hell!!!

    1. EfoRunner says:

      My hands swell up, too! I call them sausage fingers, haha. I usually leave my rings at home because the swell up almost every time I hike above treeline. I’m sorry that when that happened to you it hurt that bad! Eek!

  4. Heidi Nicole says:

    Eee…that sucks, but at least its easy enough to make it go away, which doesn’t really matter when you feel like crap!

    The first 14er we hiked the altitude killed me. It started just before we reached the top – my brain started pounding and every step on the way down was torture. I felt sick to my stomach but never threw up. I chugged lots of water, ate a bit, took a solid nap and was fine. The second time around I drank the days before as if I was about to run a race and was fine. Chris, on the other hand, was hurting big time our second time around. Its almost like running races – a lot of trial and error.

  5. Jason Keck says:

    I can offer you an explanation for how AMS develops. First of all, scientists are not certain of the exact biochemistry that leads to AMS or exactly why certain individuals are more prone than others. Here are some of the factors:

    Inflammaton and leakages that occur in blood vessels
    Increased production of oxidative stress (these damage cell tissue)
    Disturbances in cell fluid balance (lead to more serious HAPE and HACE)
    Neutrotransmitter responses to hypoxia (epinephrine effects blood vessels)

    All of these underlying issues are caused by how the body responds to lower blood oxygen.

    I am a researcher at Alpine Performance Laboratories. Our company recently developed a product that accelerates high altitude pulmonary and hematological acclimatization. It works by enhancing the body’s natural blood oxygen detection system. It is the biggest breakthrough in high altitude physiology in a while and I encourage you to read about it:

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