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Don't get caught in a speed trap

A safe ascent means allowing time to adjust to the altitude.

October 14, 2003|Julie Sheer | Times Staff Writer

For time-pressed sea-level dwellers, climbing Whitney can be another item on the to-do-as-fast-as-possible list. After work on Friday, you zoom up Highway 395 and spend the night in Lone Pine. You're at Whitney Portal bright and early. By the time you reach Outpost Camp at 10,360 feet, your head is pounding, your gut doing back-flips.

You've been caught in a speed trap. Ascending too quickly from low to high elevation is a major cause of altitude sickness. Acute mountain sickness, or AMS -- the most common form of altitude illness -- can affect people at elevations as low as 4,000 feet, but for most it occurs after rapid ascents to elevations above 9,000 feet. Symptoms are similar to a hangover, including headache, queasiness, difficulty sleeping and loss of appetite.

That usually means that doing Whitney in a day is not such a good idea, unless you're "begging for some discomfort," says Brian Spitek, a wilderness ranger at Inyo National Forest's Mt. Whitney Ranger District.

The body needs time to adjust to higher elevation, where the reduced air pressure means thinner air, or less oxygen. With fewer oxygen molecules in every breath, the body has to work harder. As oxygen in the lungs decreases, the blood becomes less efficient at circulating it to the brain and other organs. To acclimate, it's best to sleep at a higher altitude for at least one night before doing hikes at more than 10,000 feet. That does not mean spending the night at 3,700 feet in Lone Pine. It does mean spending at least one night at 8,360-foot Whitney Portal campground.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 16, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Wilderness course -- In an article on altitude sickness that ran in Tuesday's Outdoors section, the name of a Sierra Club course was misidentified. It is the Wilderness Travel Course, not Wilderness Training Course.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 21, 2003 Home Edition Outdoors Part F Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Wilderness Travel Course -- In a story on altitude sickness that ran last Tuesday, the name of a Sierra Club course was misidentified. It is the Wilderness Travel Course, not the Wilderness Training Course.

Once on the trail, some mountaineers use a "climb high, sleep low" approach to ease the effects of altitude. It involves doing a steep trek in steps -- camping at one elevation and taking day hikes to higher spots to get acclimated. The technique is usually reserved for higher mountains, but can be employed on Whitney, noted Spitek. In general, sleeping elevation shouldn't increase more than 1,000 feet per night at altitudes above 10,000 feet. Since you probably don't have a lot of spare days for 6,130 feet of elevation gain to Whitney from the portal, you need to find ways to minimize the effects of altitude.

Anyone can be hit by AMS. It strikes the fit as well as the unfit. A well-conditioned hiker may be stricken, while his partner (who may have had pizza the night before) is not. It's one of the mysteries of the illness, and it can bounce gung-ho jocks off peaks while human tortoises make it to the top.

Monitoring the body's signals can help cope with AMS. Many hikers take aspirin or Tylenol to relieve the headache. Spitek says that he considers the pain a signal that his body hasn't adjusted, and he prefers to rest for about half an hour and drink water until the pain subsides. Hydrating well, even in advance of the hike -- preferably not with beer -- can also lessen the impact of altitude. Alcohol depresses respiration, and the higher elevation and increased activity cause dehydration. Start downing the H2O several days before the trip and count on three to four quarts a day on the trail.

High-altitude hikers tend to obsess over their urine -- which can serve as a kind of hydration barometer. "Clear and copious" is the goal, says Richard Boardman, an instructor in Long Beach for the Sierra Club's Wilderness Training Course.

If that doesn't help, or if symptoms worsen, experts recommend descending. If you're throwing up, "absolutely turn around, and don't turn around alone," he advises. Spitek recommends someone with the party always stay with a victim of altitude sickness in case the symptoms worsen. Serious cases of altitude sickness, such as high altitude pulmonary edema syndrome or high altitude cerebral edema, or HACE, can be fatal. In 1999, a 46-year-old hiker, near death from HACE, had to be airlifted off the summit of Whitney. HACE, which triggers a swelling of the brain, is rare, occurring in people who have spent several days at elevations of more than 12,000 feet. Symptoms include severe headache, nausea, seizures, vomiting and coma.

There are medications to prevent or lessen the effects of AMS. The prescription drug Diamox is usually taken before an ascent, but there are side effects (tingling in the fingers and toes, increased urination), and those allergic to sulfa medications shouldn't take it. Dr. John West, professor of medicine and physiology at UC San Diego and an expert in altitude sickness, says Diamox is more appropriate for higher locales and advises against using it for Whitney.

Boardman says he uses Diamox, but at one-fourth the prescribed dose, starting the day before a trip. Spitek adds that until this year he'd only heard of Diamox being used for climbing mountains such as Mt. Everest, but more and more he's coming across Whitney climbers taking it. According to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a study comparing Diamox to the herb ginkgo biloba is being planned.

High-altitude practice hikes closer to home can help. To get in shape for Whitney, Boardman recommends hiking 10,064-foot Mt. Baldy one weekend, followed by a trek to Mt. San Gorgonio (11,490 feet) the next weekend.

Spitek knows of five helicopter rescues on the Whitney Trail in recent weeks, at least two of them related to altitude illness. Though there are no figures, he estimates less than half of hikers actually summit. If you want to make it past Trail Crest (at 13,777 feet, where Spitek says many people turn around), then go slowly and start drinking -- water, of course.

To e-mail Julie Sheer or read her previous Outdoors Institute columns, go to

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