There’s no where in America more stunningly beautiful than the high country of the Rocky Mountains, and whether you love hunting, fly fishing, hiking, skiing or mountain biking, this endless terrain is an unbeatable location for your favorite outdoors sport.
But there can be a problem for those of us who live outside the mountain states, and particularly for those who, like me, have spent most of their lives at sea level.
When many of us reach elevations of 8,000 feet or more, we may be hindered by altitude sickness; headaches, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, nausea, loss of appetite and an inability to sleep.
Scientists say that it’s not the lack of oxygen, since oxygen levels hang on fairly steady to well above 50,000 feet, but the lack of air pressure that does many of us in. The molecules of air are more scattered at high elevations so you take in less oxygen per breath, and through a mechanism still not fully understood, this makes many of us feel the symptoms of altitude sickness.
The level of impact varies. If you’re simply traveling through a high pass, the symptoms may come and go so quickly that you hardly realize you’ve got them. On the other hand, if you fly from sea level to Denver’s 5,000 foot elevation, and then immediately jump in the car and drive up to the 8,000 foot level at Estes Park on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, you may have a full-blown attack — I suffered a dandy on my first visit, 24 hours of misery.
Fortunately, the woes of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) as it’s also called, usually go away on their own in two to three days — mine disappeared after the second night at elevation.
Those who have tackled the extreme peaks of the world have devised a system of acclimatization that will work well for those at lower altitudes, as well; basically you make sure to drop back to a comfortable elevation for your night’s sleep, then push higher during the day, then back to a lower level at night. For example, if you can remain in Denver for a night or two when you first arrive in the mountain country, you’re far less likely to run into trouble when you head for the higher elevations than if you travel there immediately.
Physicians expert in treatment of altitude sickness also recommend drinking plenty of water, going easy on exercise, eating small meals, and in extreme cases inhaling oxygen. Some also suggest various medications that seem to help, including Acetazolamide, a prescription glaucoma drug which, when taken in small doses prior to traveling to elevation, seems to eliminate most of the symptoms of AMS in many people.
Whether or not you suffer the discomforts of altitude sickness, you can be sure you will deal with the flatlanders’ lack of breath and lack of endurance if you travel to elevations over 8,000 feet. At 10,000 feet on my first visit to the mountains, I found myself out of breath just walking from the car to a trailhead — and I had been speed walking two miles a day at sea level for months in advance.
However, if you take your time and don’t push your limits during the first days in high country, you’ll gradually find your respiration improving along with your endurance. It’s possible to enjoy lengthy hikes at elevation so long as you travel at a leisurely pace, rest often, and stay fully-hydrated.
Sunburn in the High Country
Because the air is usually cool in the high country, it’s easy to forget about the possibility of sunburn, but severe burns can occur quickly on exposed skin because of the thin air here — even on an overcast day, it’s possible to get a serious burn.
The remedy is the same as when you head to a Florida beach — as a part of your morning ritual, coat any skin that will be exposed with a sunscreen with a 15 or higher SPF. While the face is the most likely to get burned, don’t forget the backs of your hands, and in warmer weather legs and arms that might be exposed during the warmest hours of the day as you peel off layers of clothing.
It’s also important to wear quality sunglasses, again because of the brilliance of the sun at high altitudes. Particularly if you visit in winter when the sun will glare on the snow pack, it’s a must to keep your eyes fully protected.
Abrupt weather changes
For those not used to high country weather, the potential for abrupt changes can lead to discomfort and perhaps danger. When you select your clothing for a day at elevation, hope for the best but plan for the worst — and here, the worst could include snow flurries, hail and high winds in the middle of July! Particularly if you’re hiking, hunting or fishing well away from any trailheads, go prepared to face the worst that Nature can throw at you. Odds are you won’t have to deal with any horrific weather from late June through early September, but at any other time of year, anything can happen at any time.
The way to deal with potential weather change is to layer your clothing; absorbent, wicking undergarments, covered with several insulating layers and topped off with a breathable, waterproof outer garment with a hood is the ticket; you can wear as much as you need when the temperature is near freezing early in the day, peel off most of it when it gets warmer during the brighter hours, and then layer up again as it cools off towards evening. Whatever you do, don’t omit that waterproof outer jacket — you won’t believe how cold you can get if you get soaked by a summer shower and then that chilly mountain wind starts to blow.
Water-proof hiking boots, cleated to suit the terrain you expect to tackle, are another essential if you’re leaving the main tourist areas, and of course you’ll add sock liners and appropriate hiking socks, with at least one spare pair of each, to carry in your pack.
The other basic survival gear we’ve reviewed in this column in the past should also be a part of your pack any time you leave the pavement out west; pocket GPS, plenty of water, knife, fire-starting gear, survival food and a space blanket are the minimum.
A word about the use of GPS in this big country, however; this winter there’s been a spate of people using their GPS to explore remote backcountry shortcuts by vehicle, and then winding up stuck in snowbanks. Anytime snow is a remote possibility, it’s best to stay clear of backcountry roads unless you’re fully equipped to deal with the possibility that you may have to spend several days in the wilderness. It’s easy for us greenhorns to get lost, the country is enormous and largely empty, and the weather can be challenging at any time of year; go prepared and carry along an extra dose of caution and common sense and you can enjoy this spectacular country without any undue hardship.
The Trucker staff can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.