Getting Ready for Holy Grail Hiking and Trekking High Up – High Altitude Hiking
You love hiking, but you have yet to attempt high altitude. Get ready to take on the “holy grail trails” of your hiking dreams.
I will consider “high altitude” as any height that is likely to have an effect on the average hiker. Height is measured from sea level. Atmospheric pressure decreases as altitude increases. Any height above 4,900 feet can create symptoms of health problems in some people. I live in a town a little over 6,000 feet above sea level. For many of us, returning from a vacation requires a little adjustment. We feel unusually tired. We might get winded when walking. Ideally, we take it easy, reduce our activity for a while, and are fine. Some tourists who visit my hometown don’t fare as well. I met one woman (an asthmatic) who was bedridden within a few days. Fortunately, the place does not affect most people (not even most asthmatics) that way.
High altitude health problems include “altitude sickness” can look like the flu with headache, fatigue and nausea. It presents as a risk at about 8,000 feet although, as noted, it can occur earlier. Symptoms might not present themselves for several hours after arriving. Generally, rest will be sufficient, but sometimes the illness progresses to pulmonary edema, where the lungs fill with fluid and breathing is significantly inhibited even at rest or to cerebral edema where the headache worsens and does not respond to usual over-the-counter medication. The affected person may lose his or her balance and even pass out. Both pulmonary and cerebral edemas are serious conditions and require medical attention. Other symptoms of pulmonary edema may include a cough or fever. Cerebral edema may cause retinal bleeding manifested possibly only by blurry vision. Below 26,000 feet, those who do not suffer seriously from these illnesses will likely adapt. Too long above 26,000 feet, in “the Death Zone,” you probably won’t survive. The summit of Mount Everest is 29, 035 feet.
A few years ago, Lincoln Hall, with a quarter century of experience as a mountain climber, attempted Mount Everest in the company of some friends and Sherpa guides. Not far from the summit, Hall became extremely tired and told the guide he needed a nap. He had cerebral edema, but he didn’t know it. Given the brain dysfunction, he was increasingly uncooperative. Some Sherpa guides tried to help but were told to leave him on the mountain, where, limp and nonresponsive, he appeared dead to those who checked him. Another climber, nearby, had died not long before. Climbers, as we all know, regularly fail to make the summit, and not an insignificant number die on Everest. Cathy Free, in her Reader’s Digest account of this tale, quotes a hiker, “There are times when you literally have to step over somebody’s body to get to the top.” Hall eventually woke up, and, with the help of other mountaineers, did survive.
Most hikers are not going to attempt Mount Everest (or the other thirteen mountains that are this high), but if you do, you should be aware that a study by a Massachusetts General Hospital doctor, Paul Firth, concluded most mountaineers at that level died from HACE (high-altitude cerebral edema). Most people are going to hike at lower elevations. According to the Hiking Dude, “common” high altitude in the U.S. ranges from 8,000 to 13,000 feet. Let’s start with that range. The Hiking Dude has recommendations for dealing with less oxygen. They include hiking at a slower but steady pace, taking deeper breaths and stopping to rest. When you take a step, take a breath. Remember also to maintain good hydration.
Hiking at high altitudes means that you will confront colder air so you need to dress in layers for warmth, and you will have increased sun exposure so remember the sunscreen and sunglasses. According to Dr. Darrell Rigel who studied sunburn risk at high elevations, “(T)he direct UV-B in Vail (Colorado) were the same as those in Orlando (Florida).” According to the same article, the average person would need only six minutes to burn at 11,000 feet. Obviously, high altitude hiking requires the same kind of sunburn protection as does the beach. Wear a hat. You don’t need to be told to wear a good pair of hiking boots, do you?
You wouldn’t go out and run a marathon without a little preparation. Or would you? Well, one major difference is that you won’t have a crowd watching or ambulances within a few blocks if you’re hiking up in the mountains, so work your way up. Begin with lower elevations. As you get accustomed to the effect of higher altitudes on you (since effects vary among even healthy individuals), you can increase the climb. If, like most people, you work during the week, don’t let too many weekends pass in between climbs. You want to stay in shape as well as keep your lungs familiar with high altitude’s decreasing oxygen and demands on the body. In short, acclimate! You can also train at lower elevations using other aerobic exercise such as biking, running and stair climbing, but get that heart rate up. The idea is to get the body accustomed to making better use of available oxygen. When you do go to the higher elevation, give yourself a couple of days of rest before you start hiking.
How many hikers do you suppose are lost in a given year? Before you go, tell someone where you are going and when you plan to return. Do this even if you are not planning on hiking alone. A companion could be injured. Mountains can be fickle friends. Weather can change in an instant. Check the forecast before you leave, but don’t count on it. You must be prepared. Serious problems can occur even at low elevations. Always prepare to stay overnight. You need a compass, a map and matches. You can’t count on your cell phone to reach rescue. Start back as soon as you think you might be in trouble.
You have exercised, increasing your aerobic capacity. You have hiked at your elevation, gradually increasing altitude until you are ready to take on bigger challenges. You own and know what to pack. Where do you go? National Geographic can tell you where and when. Consider its “holy grail trails” all around the world.