Tuesday, October 03, 2017

The Colorado Trail – Part Two – Acclimating to the Altitude

(This is a series of blogs related to a thru hike of the Colorado Trail – Durango to Denver, August 20-September 26, 2017)

I am an eastern dweller at approx. 800 feet elevation. And I am going to spend day two of my hike heading northbound on the Colorado Trail climbing to 12,000 feet. BIG difference in elevation for sure. And one I need to prep for, even as I prep for other parts of my hike gear wise, mail drop wise, etc.

So what do you do to avoid the dreaded AMS or Acute Mountain Sickness? This is a very real and potentially life threatening illness. It can begin as a headache and rapidly spread to nausea, vomiting, and other more potent symptoms.  Just this past summer a young woman died of it in Colorado. It is not something to take lightly. So whether you are planning to tackle the Colorado Trail as I did, or are considering other destinations such as the PCT, John Muir Trail, Kilimanjaro, etc. one must get ready for the change in altitude. I did a few things to prep for this all important area I know if I didn’t get a handle on it, could ruin my chances for a safe adventure.

I first scanned the Internet for altitude related articles. Some advocated a period of acclimating, that is, going to a midway altitude and adjusting. This I did by spending the first few days in Denver, Estes Park, and I also climbed a bit of the trail up Longs Peak.

The second thing I read was taking gingko biloba two weeks before the hike. This I also did and continued to take it throughout my five week journey.

Fluids is a big deal. Drink, drink, drink. Know the water and streams issue and take extra containers to carry the water you need. There are several “dry” areas on the Colorado Trail – and this I prepared for by asking fellow hikers of water conditions and using any updated info some hikers did provide on my Atlas Guide map app (many thanks to hikers Phoenix and Hippie Longstocking for valuable information on water and campsites along the CT).

The other thing I did was join the Facebook group Altitude Acclimatization. The group offered great advice on what to do. The FILES also contained important information on an altitude medicine to take. At first I wasn’t going to take it, but I decided it was a good idea. The drug Acetazolamide (or Diamox) has been used to treat glaucoma. But in small doses it is very effective in warding off AMS. I was given 125 mg tablets by my doctor. Some say to take more, some less. The dosage that worked for me is the day before beginning my ascent, I took 125 mg AM and PM. I also needed to drink a lot as this drug acts as a diuretic. Be prepared to head for the forests and fields frequently as you will urinate frequently. You keep taking it until you reached maximum altitude. On the Colorado Trail this did not happen for a week when I reached the high point at 13,000 feet. I took it for 10 days then for the last two days went down to half dosage. After about five days of taking the drug I did experience a side effect of some strange tingling in my fingers and the heels of my feet. It did not bother me, but it was noticeable. But the drug worked perfectly, I had no headaches, nausea or other symptoms of AMS.

There are of course physical aspects. Hiking at altitude can make you very short winded. While you may not be having any signs of sickness, you still need to curb your physical output to match your cardiovascular one. I found using my respirations as the guide to how fast I hiked worked well. If my breathing became labored, I slowed it down. If I needed an extra breath, I stopped and allowed my body a quick recoup. I found with this technique that even after a few days, I was able to hike farther without having to pause so frequently. In time I was also hiking quicker. Being in good physical condition beforehand helps speed this process along.  

Once I adapted, I went off the drug, continued to take in water, but had no other issues, even as I hiked between 10-12,000 feet. In time  was able to hike a fairly good pace and keep my breathing also in check.

With some careful prep ahead of time, altitude doesn’t have to be the issue that can ruin your trail experience.

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