I have been at significant altitudes three times in the past 12 months. Each time has been problematic, but it wasn’t until the last time that we figured out that I may simply be susceptible to altitude sickness.
The first time was in April when we went to pick up our daughter in Avon, Colorado. The center of town sits at 7,431 feet above sea level, according to Google maps. If you venture out of the center, there is no place else to go but up, unless you are leaving town. When we walked around there, I was perpetually dizzy and somewhat lethargic. It was not enough that I felt unsafe walking. We chalked it up to my head cold, even when I immediately felt better driving out of town and down the mountain.
The second time was on our hike to Six Lakes’ Basin here in Idaho. That hike was from Black Lake, up over some steep slopes, and dropped down to 7,395 feet. I had run 8 miles the day before, which probably did contribute to how tired my legs were, but there was still that nagging lethargy. It was like slow-motion torture to keep moving.
Then, we visited the volcano, Haleakala, on the southern knob of Maui earlier this winter. (click here to see the official national park information.) I wasn’t sick with a cold this time, and I had been careful to moderate my physical activity the previous day, but when it was time to get out of the car at just under 10,000 feet elevation, it took significant mental effort to do it. (click on any photo to enlarge)
Again, what was most noticeable, at least right at first, was the lethargy, but there was also a sense of lightheadedness. This did not go away as we visited the information center, but I was able to enjoy a couple of downward views as long as I stopped walking and established a strong center of gravity.
I think everyone kept hoping I would adjust. Not to mention, I had recently been running and swimming more miles than anyone else in the group. It seemed reasonable to expect that I, of all of us, would have the red blood cells for a hike at elevation.
The crushed black cinder hiking trail slanted a steady 30 degrees, punctuated at about quarter mile intervals by switchbacks that kept upper legs of the trail vastly separated from the lower legs. I began barefoot, but the pokey cinder combined with my struggling head inspired me to put my Luna sandals on after about 15 minutes.
The two men were enjoying the barren, sci-fi surroundings, bantering about skiing down cinder slopes or guessing at geography poking through the layer of clouds below us. The other woman in the group, who admits to hardly ever exercising, but does put in a round of golf now and then, was walking along at a perky pace. I couldn’t raise my head without a wave of nausea and a sense I would fall down the mountain.
I tried to go faster, but I just couldn’t. Everyone was hanging back or waiting at points for me. I finally gave in to the fact that I just needed to stay with a manageable pace and keep putting one foot in front of the other. I got a nagging headache.
My husband walked with me patiently. As he observed my struggle, he recalled the other times he had taken me to altitude. He suggested that whatever other variables there had been then, that my main problem was a sensitivity to altitude.
Our last leg of the adventure further solidified his hypothesis. Once back at the trail head, we got in the car and drove just a couple hundred feet higher to the summit overlook parking lot. I really didn’t want to get out of the car there, but I gave it a try. I hadn’t come this close not to see the top. However, as I ascended the last 25 feet or so that was the stairway up to the observation building, I felt a sense of panic. As soon as I got to the top, I just desperately wanted to do down. Dear husband walked me carefully back to the car and I rested until the time fore the sunset was closer.
As I sat there, I watched all manner of people walk around with apparent ease. Young people. Older people. People who were quite obviously not doing any sort of aerobic training. Even people who took a cigarette break right in front of our car. I contemplated the unfairness of life. I ate a snack.
When it was time to watch the sunset from this magnificent peak, I was led slowly out onto the expanse of lava rock, where hundreds of people were gathering. The thick layer of cloud meant we didn’t see the actual sunset, but we did watch the sun dip into the creamy white froth. Then, we headed down the mountain, much to my relief.
Back at the condo, my husband did a little research about altitude sickness. Some experts say that low blood pressure can predispose a person to issues. I definitely have low blood pressure, as evidenced by the fact that I almost always get a head rush from something as simple as getting up from the floor. I also have a long history of severe motion sickness. Still, there does not seem to be any clear factor that will lead to altitude sickness. Some people get it and some people don’t. My observations at the summit seem to support this frustrating conclusion. The important thing for me is to keep in mind is how susceptible I am, getting symptoms at the lowest elevations where problems have been seen. The next time my travel companions want to go hike up a 10,000 foot volcano, I may just stay on the beach.