Altitude sickness doesn’t have a linear cause. You can’t say “ah, he was dehydrated and that’s why he got sick…” Altitude sickness hits when the systems are out of whack. It can hit when you’ve climbed too high too fast. It can hit when you haven’t eaten well. Or slept well. Or hydrated well. Or been too stressed leading into the trip. Or “d”, all of the above, or “e” any of the above. That’s just the way of it.
I’ve been hit with it twice. Once on Colorado’s Longs Peak and once on Mount Whitney a few years ago. Both times, I can see the string of reasons behind it. Stress. Insufficient water. Questionable food choices. Didn’t sleep well the night before. Not enough acclimation. On Longs Peak it didn’t hit until the way back down. On Whitney, it hit fast and hard on the way up and forced me to turn back before reaching the summit.
The only cure for altitude sickness is to drop in elevation. In both cases, once I descended below 12,000 feet I lost symptoms within a few minutes. In both cases, I felt like a new man. On Whitney, if the clock hadn’t been against me I would have resumed the upward march.
What I learned after the Whitney hike is that I had suffered a lower back compression fracture in a surfing accident two weeks before. So, not only were my “systems” out of whack, my structure was compromised. My physical body was not able to perform up to expectations. Two little disks that should have been more or less square on the x-ray were somewhat squashed on one side.
The surfing accident is a whole story in itself. I was at an unfamiliar break- Pacific Beach in San Diego- and while paddling into a wave became concerned that it was too big and that I didn’t have the capability to ride it well. By the time I made the decision to pull back I was too far in and ended up getting “sucked over the falls” and slammed on to the shallow sandy bottom. I knew immediately that things weren’t right and managed to get myself out of the water. I was stunned and disoriented but not enough to warrant medical attention on the spot.
The funny thing with that wave was that I would have likely gone uninjured if I had stayed the course and gone with it- another life lesson. Sometimes the risk or downside of pulling back is more then the downside of riding it out.
In any event, I was injured. I spent a few days recuperating, went to the chiropractor (but didn’t get x-rayed), and took it easy. I had already purchased the permits for Whitney and was organizing about ten other guys for the trip and felt obligated to go ahead with it. By the time hike day came around I was still stiff, had a hard time lifting my right leg, and was in varying degrees of pain most of the time. Off I went.
I did complete the Whitney trip this last year with two good friends. It felt good to close that loop.
When things at home or work start to unravel, systems are out of whack, structure is compromised, perhaps it's time to step back and take stock... "What are the contributing factors here?"