Hiking at elevation: The risks vs. the rewards
Every year tens of thousands of people ascend the high mountain passes to reach Grand County to spend time hiking in the High Country. And every year a significant number of those individuals will experience altitude sickness symptoms ranging from mild to severe.
“Altitude illness can happen to anybody,” said Dr. Michelle Lupica of Middle Park Medical Center. “It doesn’t matter if you have a chronic condition or are an Olympian.”
According to Lupica, the single biggest factor that impacts the potential onset of any altitude illness relates to acclimation.
“The biggest mistake I see is people that don’t acclimate,” Lupica said. “They come straight from the airport and drive up the mountain. They don’t take any time to adjust. Those are the people we see getting sick most often.”
Out-of-state visitors and those hailing from low lying or coastal regions would benefit greatly from spending a few days in Denver before heading to the High Country. She also suggested that anyone visiting Grand County either refrain from alcohol or marijuana use for the first few days or limit any use of such substances.
The medical community considers an elevation of roughly 6,000 feet above sea level as being the starting elevation at which people are likely to experience altitude illness. The likelihood of an altitude illness incident increases for every 2,000 feet of additional elevation gained, she explained.
All of the communities across Grand County are well above 7,000 feet in elevation. The popular destination of Winter Park tops out above 9,000 feet making all regions prime territory for bouts of altitude illness.
The spectrum of altitude illnesses range from the mild form, referred to as mountain sickness, to the middle form of high altitude pulmonary edema to the severe form known as high altitude cerebral edema.
Those suffering from mountain sickness will typically experience headaches, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting and a lack of energy. Individuals suffering from high altitude pulmonary edema will experience the same symptoms as mountain sickness but with a severe shortness of breath to the point that almost any activity is extremely difficult. Lupica said pulmonary edema causes the lungs to begin filling with fluid and lowers oxygen saturation.
If a person appears very pasty, blue or purple that would be considered a medical emergency, Lupica said. Pulmonary edema typically occurs above 8,000 feet and Lupica noted Middle Park Medical Center does treat people suffering from the sickness in Granby and Winter Park. Pulmonary edema can potentially be treated with oxygen and does not necessarily require sufferers’ declension to lower altitudes.
High altitude cerebral edema typically occurs above 10,000 feet Lupica said and while cases of it in Grand County are rare, they do occur, typically when an individual is hiking on high peaks such as those along the Continental Divide and up Byers Peak. According to Lupica, the condition causes your brain stem to “kind of squirt out the back of the hole in your skull.”
Lupica said the portion of the brain impacted by cerebral edema is responsible for breathing and impacts from the condition are dangerous and severe, typically requiring evacuation of a patient to lower elevations. Those suffering from cerebral edema will experience headaches and vomiting and will be extremely disoriented and confused.
Lupica recommended that anyone suffering from chronic conditions such as heart disease or lung diseases such as COPD should consult their doctors before venturing into the high country.
To combat any potential altitude illnesses Lupica recommends acclimation periods at lower elevations. She said ibuprofen has been shown to help people acclimate faster than they would otherwise and some studies have also shown ginkgo biloba can help, though she added research on the issue is inconclusive. She also highlighted Diamox, a prescription drug used to treat mountain sickness, as a potential treatment to prevent altitude illness. e
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