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Hypoxia in Elk Country

Hypoxia in Elk Country

Big mountains are no joke.  Altitude does funny things to the human body.  And sometimes not so funny. 

The brain can actually swell, grow soft and basically flood, in the case of high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE).  Symptoms start with dizziness, vomiting, and can progress to coma and death.  Lucky, if caught soon enough, the only medicine needed is lower altitude.  Go down.

High-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) is similar, though the site of fluid accumulation is the lungs.  Profuse sweating, clammy-looking skin and anxiety are all telltale signs of the ailment early on.  If you don’t heed those, the bloody coughing should be evidence enough.  And it will kill you.  Go down.

Hypoxia is a broader term, encompassing a variety of problems.  But generally speaking, it refers to a lack of sufficient oxygen in the blood stream to sustain normal bodily function.  It rears its ugly head in a number of different ways, but sometimes, acute mountain sickness (migraine and nausea) is the first step.  Other times, the sufferer feels dizzy, drunk or finds it hard to concentrate.  Go down.

Maybe you’ve heard of these issues – and others – in books and movies about Everest and K2.  Lack of atmospheric pressure and low oxygen levels are the biggest hurdles on the world’s highest peaks.  So they’re not of any concern for elk hunters, right? 

Well, not too often, but you need to be aware of the dangers of hunting high in elk country, not to mention sheep and goats. These sicknesses don’t often set in under 8,000 or 10,000 feet above sea level, but there are plenty of cases in which edema has stricken healthy adults as low as 4,500.  And, I’ll add that it’s very random.  Altitude might not bother a hunter on 9 trips, and on the 10th – for no apparent reason – it can come crashing in like a tsunami.

I’ve dealt with mild altitude sickness and splitting headaches in the past, generally starting around 10,000. But last week, in Colorado, I had my first real brush with hypoxia.

Knock off a 14er

If you live under 4,000 feet, you might not know how well you’ll preform “at altitude.”  Topping out on a 14er (a mountain over 14,000 feet) is a great litmus test, and Colorado is ripe with them; there’s 53 in the Centennial state to be exact.  On the peak of a 14er, the “effective oxygen” level is nearly half what’s available at sea level. 

When I learned that work was taking me to Colorado this summer, I hastily made plans to climb two 14ers while there.  A friend, Wayne, decided to join me, and we scabbed together an itinerary while researching routes on  The plan was to summit Ellingwood Point in the Sangre de Cristo Range, roll out of the mountains for a hot shower and some real coffee the day after, and continue up to Mt. of the Holy Cross, in the Sawatch Range. 

The route we chose on Ellingwood was 11.6 miles round trip, started at 9,600 feet above sea level and offered 5,900 feet of vertical gain.  We each had a 35 pound pack, comprised mostly of camping gear, food and lots of water. 

Our route in light red. Peak on lower right

Our route in light red. Peak on lower right

First Day Slog

For me, the first day in the mountains after being back East is the most challenging.  I’m always sucking wind, and a bloody nose and tight headache are common.  Asprin and L-Arganine can help.  This time though, I felt great.  We set off from the trailhead at quite a pace and pitched camp at dark.   

The next morning we kept plowing up the trail, ripping a few Clif Shot Blocks every now and again.  At 11,000 feet, now really feeling the altitude, we stopped for a snack of Mountain House meals next to a turquoise blue lake.  I shared my snack with a marmot, who wasn't afraid to crawl into my lap. 

Wayne throwing down some Ghost pepper stroganoff at the lake.

Wayne throwing down some Ghost pepper stroganoff at the lake.

Wayne had brilliantly packed some ghost pepper powder to mix with our freeze-dried stroganoff, so before long we were steaming up the mountain again. 

At 12,000 and hiking hard, we were both breathing at sustained running levels.  From there, Wayne started falling behind.  By 12,500, it was apparent that he was suffering from more than just cardio exhaustion.

After catching up the last time, he stayed put while I peeked around the next corner.  Seeing that we still had too far to go, and with a good bit of route-finding to boot, I went back to meet him.  By this time, the wind was gusting at 30 or 40 MPH, and I figured the afternoon storms weren’t far behind.  And my hiking partner wasn’t looking so good.

Wayne's hypoxia set in here, around 12,500 feet.

Wayne's hypoxia set in here, around 12,500 feet.

Getting high

“I feel drunk,” Wayne said.  “I’m lightheaded, and my feet aren’t going exactly where I tell them to.  I feel…. stupid.” 

He was suffering from hypoxia.  His brain wasn’t getting enough oxygen.  Having wrestled in high school and raced motocross, Wayne’s a tough dude and in good shape.  I knew he wasn’t making it up or exaggerating.  With the crux of the climb still above us, the danger was increasing and his condition was degrading.   We needed to go down.

We drank more water and made for the lower part of the marmot-infested valley in which the lake lies.  This time, we side-hilled above the trail to make a more gradual descent and get off the boulder field.  A rolling alpine meadow eventually led us back to the cairned main trail a mile or so below the lake.

Miles slip by quickly when you’re losing elevation, and we made it all the way out to the trailhead by early afternoon.  We stopped only to gulp water.  Wayne’s symptoms gradually lessened, though a headache persisted even after the dizziness passed.  We crashed in Buena Vista that night.  After a decent night’s sleep and a massive breakfast burrito smothered in green chili, we were ready to attempt Mt. of the Holy Cross.  We both felt good, though I had some blisters and Wayne had rolled his ankle. 

Summit II  

On the highway headed north, we’d gotten a fantastic look at Notch Mountain, which really got our blood pumping.  The ragged crest of the 13er shrouds any roadside view you'd otherwise have of Holy Cross.

As we flogged our rental Hyundai up the dirt road to the trailhead for the Holy Cross, not far from Red Cliff, CO, we contemplated everything we wouldn’t need on the climb ahead. 

Our route was 12 miles, with 5,600 feet gained.

Our route was 12 miles, with 5,600 feet gained.

We hit the trail with slightly lighter packs.  Making real time, we stopped three miles into our journey and picked an epic campsite to crash.  We scanned the hills for mountain goats and Bighorn sheep until dark.

At first light, swarms of mosquitos be damned, we pushed for the summit.  Following a well-cairned trail, we hit 13,800 rather quickly.  The journey turned into a scramble at this point.  Both hands and feet were needed to ascend the final boulder field that made up the last 300 vertical feet.  Now 35°F cooler than at camp, and with wind gusts nearly throwing us off the side of the mountain, we could taste the summit.  By the time we tagged the peak, it had taken us just under three hours to gain 3,300 feet.

Looking East from the summit

Looking East from the summit

We never stopped to consider that despite being substantially higher and moving at a better pace, Wayne never felt any symptoms of hypoxia on the second summit.  On the contrary, we both felt markedly stronger than before. 

I attribute this to a few things:

·         Acclimatization is everything.  If you’re hunting at elevation, the longer you’re in that atmosphere before exerting yourself, the better.  A day or two can make all the difference.  Wayne had, by this time, spent a few days in Colorado and already climbed to 12,500.

·         Lighten your load.  An ounce in the morning is a pound at night.  Be brutally honest with yourself about what items are absolutely necessary to have in your pack.  Ditch the rest.  Don't underestimate the advantage of light gear.

·         Hydrate.  We were drinking a good bit on the way up Ellingwood Point, but not as much as we did on Holy Cross.  In the two and a half hours of our summit push, we consumed nearly five liters.

Best of luck on your high altitude adventures!

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Zero Your Turrets – T.O.

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So You Want to Shoot Far?

So You Want to Shoot Far?