This weekend I learned what altitude sickness feels like: not good!
I’ve climbed Baker several times before without incident; I was feeling great before it set in; and I’d spent roughly 3 hours at 6k feet resting before we made our summit push to 10.7k.
At first, it felt like my throat was sore right around 8,000 feet. Like the beginnings of a cold. I had a little wheezy cough periodically, but nothing that concerning. As we climbed higher up Pumice Ridge on the Coleman Deming route, it took a lot of effort to convince each foot to step a little higher in the soft, loose dirt. Like climbing up a sand dune. Suddenly, it became very painful to take a deep breath in, even though my brain seemed to be telling my body: YOU NEED MORE AIR. At which point I would pause, take a few shallow breaths, try unsuccessfully to lengthen and deepen my breaths, and then move on.
I distinctly recall climbing a bootpack up the final push and feeling like each step was HUGE. I tried to French step my way through untracked snow to conserve energy. I would shine my headlamp up searching (praying, ha) for the end of the Roman Wall over and over just hoping that it would finally flatten out. Eventually it did.
I don’t feel that my actions were unsafe this weekend, but I do know that in the future these symptoms will be cause to pause in order to prevent a more serious incident from occurring.
If you’ve read this far and haven’t experienced altitude sickness, hopefully this can serve as a learning experience: if you’re struggling to breathe normally with no prior respiratory issues at/above 8k feet: take your time or descend. Your body needs time to adjust to the changes in atmospheric pressure. No shame! It can happen to anyone.
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