It was the second day of a three-day excursion to the Sweetwater Mountains, just north of Bridgeport, California. We stopped for some sightseeing high on the peak of Mt. Patterson. At 11,674 feet, we marveled at the incredible views. East looking into Nevada are the Bodie Hills and Corey Peak and looking west provides an extensive view of the Sierra Range.
Unfortunately, not everyone enjoyed the stop. One guest complained of a headache and brief spell of dizziness when making a quick move to exit the vehicle. Talking with the others, I learned that everyone experienced shortness of breath while setting up camp the night before.
My group had succumbed to a mild version of acute mountain sickness. (I know it sounds odd that something called acute could be mild. But it was.) Symptoms tend to mimic a hangover: headache, fatigue, sluggishness, insomnia, lack of appetite and nausea.
Mild AMS occurs when the body experiences thinner air without the chance to acclimate. The brief time spent at elevation doesn’t give your blood time to build up a sufficient supply of extra red blood cells to offset the reduction in oxygen. Most of the group drove up from sea level just the day before! In essence, your body is saying, “I don’t like it here!”
Treating Mild Acute Mountain Sickness
Mild AMS isn’t as common with four-wheelers as it is for other outdoors types, mountain climbers in particular. We rarely go to extreme elevations but we get there very fast. Here in California, Mt. Patterson is the highest peak we can drive to. There are a few roads in California (not peaks) that achieve about another 250 feet. Even so, as noted above, it can hit.
If you or anyone in your group is experiencing symptoms of Mild AMS, follow these suggestions.
Get some rest. Knock off work or sightseeing. That’s what my group did while on Mt. Patterson. We stopped for lunch early and rested for longer than normal.
Drink fluids and eat something. The body easily becomes dehydrated in the dryer air. Also, you may not feel hungry even though your body needs energy.
Take a mild pain killer. The individual with the headache took 400 mg of ibuprofen. You may find 200 mg sufficient.
If these steps don’t lessen the symptoms within a reasonable time, consider moving to a lower elevation. Anything under 8,000 feet should be fine. I realize that means changing your plans, but at least you and your friends will be able to enjoy the trip.
More-serious conditions you should be aware of
Though rare for four-wheelers, two other conditions can occur at higher altitudes. A mild bout of acute mountain sickness can evolve into more serious issues. In both cases, fluids leaking from individual cells build up in the lungs and brain. Immediate action is required.
High-altitude cerebral edema (HACE) involves swelling of the brain. Symptoms include:
Think of someone who has suffered trauma to the head. Leaking fluid causes the brain to swell. In the hospital, doctors insert a shunt in the brain to relieve that pressure. HACE is similar, and should not be taken lightly.
The other condition is high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). With HAPE, fluid builds up in the lungs. Symptoms include:
Someone with HACE or HAPE must be moved. Quickly descend 2,000 to 3,000 feet; the lower the better.
First aid steps follow the PROP formula:
Along the way, make sure someone is calling for help. Those suffering from HACE and HAPE must get medical attention. Don’t wait it out hoping the condition will improve. HACE can literally be a killer.
Prepare properly for higher elevations
Several steps will minimize the onset of AMS.
If you are responsible for planning the trip, consider picking a campsite at a lower elevation. 7,500 feet can still provide a nice temperature relief from the desert heat in the summer.
Advise everyone before the trip of the expected altitudes and the symptoms of Mild AMS. Request that they make a self-evaluation of their fitness for the trip particularly if they have had a recent illness.
Climb slowly: If above 10,000 feet, limit your rate of ascent to 2,000 feet per day. Take a rest day every 2 -3 days.
Load up on carbs: A medical guide I have recommends a diet consisting of 70% carbs. Feel free to load up on the pastries and bread during breakfast. (Chow on a few energy bars during the day for good measure.)
Be mindful of your health: Have you experienced an upper respiratory condition recently? Perhaps you should avoid high altitudes for a while. Talk with your doctor if you have any concerns.
Stay briefly: Limit your experience at elevation to just an hour or two. Take some pictures, marvel at the scenery, then head back down. Campers and mountain climbers are more at risk than short-term visitors.
Pack cold-weather gear: This is for comfort in general. The temps are much lower at higher elevations. You may even encounter snow. Prepare for those conditions.
I don’t mean to scare you away from traveling to higher elevations. There is so much to see and experience. Prepare properly and be mindful of everyone’s conditions. You will have a very enjoyable time at altitude.