Humility at New Heights

pancake_rocksThe slight disorientation I felt at the Colorado Springs airport when the plane landed grew steadily worse as we drove up to the mountain to our vacation destination at an elevation of 8,500 feet. I barely noticed the breathtaking scenery for  the elephant sitting on my chest and the vise circling my skull had my full attention.

When we stopped to pick up provisions, I wasn’t convinced I could walk the distance to the door or that I could transverse the parking lot without weaving for the dizziness and cerebral haze hanging over me.  I was surprised when I managed to pick out a few grocery items without appearing drunk and heard myself speak coherently to the cashier.

For several hours I hung on in vain hope the mental fog would clear and the elephant would return to the circus, but by the time dinner was finished I knew I needed to get to a lower elevation for the night.  I’ve struggled in mountain climes before with motion sickness, shortness of breath and dizziness.  After a few days of water consumption sufficient to float a small battleship and taking it easy, I have adjusted.  This time was different; I had never felt this awful before.  Why?  Smart phone to the rescue.

The International Society for Mountain Medicine website proved most helpful in my research. I learned eight thousand feet is the elevation at which the 20% of the population genetically predisposed to altitude problems can experience Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS).  Everyone experiences some shortness of breath, more frequent urination and restless sleep the first few days at altitude.Throw in a headache not relieved by hydration, nausea, dizziness, light-headedness and fatigue and you’ve described AMS; you’ve described me.

Why some people develop AMS and others don’t remains a mystery.  Gender, physical fitness, previous altitude experiences, and age don’t matter; and a person may have AMS one time and not another on similar itineraries.  Though many people instructed me to “just drink more water”, that isn’t the solution for AMS.  Relocation to a lower altitude, oxygen and medication are.

Usually one to tough it out, I admitted I had crossed my body’s elevation limit.  I reluctantly repacked my suitcase and moved down the mountain to Colorado Springs, elevation 6,000, for two nights.  It was wonderful to breathe freely and find my little gray cells hadn’t deserted me after all.  What a difference 2,500 feet makes.

When back at 8,500 feet, I found I still needed another three days of adjustment before I could do the 6+ mile hikes I had planned.  Sitting in a chair reading normally brings me great pleasure, but not when it’s in lieu of walking through Aspen meadows filled with wildflowers and reaching scenic overlooks.  Grrrrr.  

My future travel plans to elevations above 8,000 will allow time for adjustment to altitude.  Past travel to Colorado often included a few days in Colorado Springs or Denver before heading to the mountains, and I unwittingly averted the full-scale AMS I experienced this time.

Previously I wrote about my (and society’s) aversion to limits, and in this challenge I recognized my tendency to deny I have them.  Comic book super-heroes do little for me, but I still want to think I am one. Humbly I acknowledged my body’s slow adjustment to altitude and made my way down the mountain in order to be able to come back up and eventually achieve my hiking goals.

There truly is wisdom in the saying, “Sometimes you have to go down to go up.”

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