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My Personal Victory Over Altitude Sickness

By Mark Stein

Warning! This story is about stuff a body does when outside its normal comfort zone. My wife and other cultured people may say I have a ten-year-old boy's fascination with anatomical functions, but, hey, I live with this and my experiences may help you.

I'm unfortunately known around camp dinner circles for suddenly standing up, walking away and making everyone uneasy because I give indications I'm about to project what I've eaten into the forest behind our camp kitchen. Nasty, isn't it? I'm proud to have contained my offending stomach contents every time, but there have been close calls. I suspect this is a product of high altitude (10,000 feet or more) and physical exertion after relentless backpacking. It never happens at lower altitudes. Every body has its own quirks and this is apparently one of mine.

This awkward ritual happens most frequently on the second night of backpacking, but can vary by a meal or two. It's accompanied by a sudden loss of appetite. Food I'd normally enjoy just doesn't appeal. I confess that once I felt so ill just looking at a bag of couscous I'd prepared that I secretly buried the stuff. God forgive me. I hope that couscous has gone back to nature by now and that any critter who may have unearthed it didn't croak or lose its taste for nuts and beetles.

I've carried home as much as half the food I've packed, perplexed by my inability to eat what I'd so carefully selected and toted. This summer I set a goal of eating what I carried.

On the Labor Day trip to the Weminuche, I met success. I finished the trip with a packet of instant oatmeal and nothing else edible except the leather in my boots. For this to happen to me on a trip where elevations the first three nights were higher than 11,000 feet was either a remarkable personal victory or extraordinary luck. Here's my personal list of measures to minimize the digestive downers of altitude, one or more of which may have contributed to success:

  • Drink non-alcoholic liquids, even when not thirsty. Three liters every day is minimal. I've been doing that for years and don't think I drank more or less this time, but I know drinking is essential. On waking during the night, drink then, too. Chilled water is more palatable to me than warm, so I try to drink a lot in the early morning when the water I treated the previous day is cool.
  • Eat plenty when able. Stored calories may carry over enough for sustenance when appetite fades.
  • Note menus that have worked on previous pack trips and pack them again. I know I can eat freeze-dried chili mac with beef and I love spinach-ricotta tortelloni with pasta sauce. I think the aroma of simmering the pasta and sauce builds an appetite. This trip's great food find was the spicy cocktail mix of nuts, noodles and dried peas, "ablaze with taste and goodness," according to the label. The strawberry peach smoothee mix was excellent, too.
  • Carry electrolyte tablets and drink one dissolved in a liter of water each day. I owe thanks to friends who have provided me with these on previous trips. The tablets replace potassium and sodium lost during exercise.
  • If unable to eat when everyone else does, eat later. A few hours can make a difference in appetite and ease of digestion.
  • Got a headache? Take one acetaminophen, not two. Two may trigger an upset stomach and one may chase away the headache.
  • Get realistic about how much food to carry.

All right, the next time out on an extended pack trip, I may confront the churns and gurgles all over again, but I know I'll overcome and that I may even be so fortunate as to come home again with only a packet of oatmeal.  

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