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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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?
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?