LA’s Guide to Summiting Whitney, Part V -Minor to Major Potential Trail Perils (Altitude Sickness)

The items in this part are no fun at all – even to talk about! But, to be safe, it’s always good to know what can happen, so here we go:

Altitude Sickness: When summiting Whitney, this particular aspect should be a potential concern. The summit of Whitney is the highest point in the lower 48 states at 14,500 feet. Most people in the United States live at 0-1,000 feet above sea level. Whitney is over three miles higher than what most people’s bodies are accustomed to on a daily basis. Even if one is in excellent shape, at 10,000-14,000 feet, the altitude will have an effect on your body. At higher altitudes, there is less oxygen in the air, which means that your body will have to work harder at some point during the trek. Additionally, if you consider that you will likely be carrying a 15-35 pound backpack while ascending a steep grade, the inevitable conclusion is that at some point, you will be gasping for air. Altitude sickness ranges from the benign – headache, muscle aches, hyperventilation - to the severe – hallucinations, vomiting, and all sorts of other complications that can end in death!

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The main thing to keep in mind about altitude sickness is that for the most part, it is easily cured. The cure for altitude sickness is simple – descend to a lower altitude. So, if you’re on the trail and you start feeling really funny, it is a good idea to turn around and head back down. If you are traveling in a group, you can also keep an eye on other people. If it’s obvious someone is acting oddly, help steer them back down to a lower elevation. Some people are more susceptible to altitude sickness than others; I know that around 20,000 feet, I start to get a little loopy; the point is that everyone, at some elevation has some sort of breaking point. There are also two things to help you avoid altitude sickness: acclimatization and hydration.

By allowing your body to acclimatize, it becomes more accustomed to the elevation by producing more red blood cells. By arriving early at Whitney Portal the day before the hike, one allows their body more time to acclimatize (similarly, arriving at Trail Camp earlier on the first day of the hike also aides acclimatization). Second, it is also important to remember to stay hydrated. In addition to there being less oxygen at higher elevations, there is also less moisture. Everyone loses lots of moisture through simple breathing and through their skin. The more water you take in, the less likely you are to be dehydrated and less likely to be susceptible to altitude sickness. The thing to remember about altitude sickness is that it’s both avoidable and treatable as long as you know what to be aware of and what to do.