Health & Fitness

High anxiety: Heed warnings when exercising at altitude

The thin dirt road to Round Top Peak lurched up toward the distant ridge line, teasing me with the promise of alpine lake views as I climbed the mountain’s face one heavy step at a time. I was physically fit – or so I thought – and I had lugged my 40-pound backpack up and down plenty of mountains. So why did I feel so utterly exhausted?

Altitude sickness, as I found out, can be a roadblock even for the most confident hikers. Having grown up at sea level and hiked mostly in the Sierra foothills, my only elevated fitness experiences involved gliding down the slopes of Lake Tahoe ski resorts. So when I set my eyes on the 10,400-foot Round Top Peak in the Carson Pass Management Area last spring, I didn’t know I’d be feeling light-headed and gasping for air like a dry fish just a few miles into the trip.

Fortunately I stopped my ascent before the point of collapse, but plenty of adventurers have paid the price for exercising above their limits. Altitude illness affects 25 percent to 85 percent of travelers to high altitudes, depending on their rate of ascent, home altitude and other risk factors, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. Severe cases of altitude sickness can result in death.

The main problem with alpine breeze, for all its purity and crispness, is that it lacks much of the oxygen we take for granted here in the valley. The air contains 29 percent less oxygen at 8,750 feet than it does at sea level, and 43 percent less at 14,000 feet, according to the Institute for Altitude Medicine in Colorado.

Altitude sickness can occur anywhere above 5,000 feet, at which point the maximum amount of work a person can do decreases by 3 percent for every 1,000 feet gained. In Northern California, cities such as Truckee, Dardanelle and Strawberry are in elevation, as are popular recreation areas such as Eldorado National Forest and Mammoth Lakes.

Lots of people successfully exercise at high elevation, but it takes preparation. If you plan on heading higher to see some of Northern California’s most beautiful vistas and peaks, here are some tips and warnings from the altitude institute:

How to prepare:

  • An overnight stay at high altitude will help you feel better if you plan to climb upward the next day.
  • Bring lots of water. Staying hydrated helps your body acclimate.
  • Avoid alcohol and sleeping medications containing benzodiazepine, as they suppress breathing and lower oxygen intake.
  • Ask your doctor about Diamox, which has been shown to speed acclimation and prevent mountain sickness.

What to expect:

  • You’ll breathe faster and deeper as your body strives to take in more oxygen.
  • Extra urination is a response to changes in the body’s acid/base balance and it helps you acclimate.
  • Temporary high blood pressure is common during your first few days at elevation, but it usually returns to normal levels within one to two weeks.
  • Some people experience mild swelling in the hands, feet and face. It’s not serious.
  • Low oxygen affects the sleep center of the brain. Trouble sleeping is common at high altitude but usually improves over time.

Watch out for:

  • Acute mountain sickness. Symptoms include headaches, dizziness, feeling chilled, trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, nausea and fatigue.
  • High altitude cerebral edema. Sufferers may exhibit severe headaches, confusion, lethargy, lack of coordination, irritability, vomiting and seizures.
  • High altitude pulmonary edema. Look out for shortness of breath at rest, cough, weakness, chest tightness, fast breathing and wheezing.

Be careful if:

  • You’re diabetic. The effect of altitude on diabetes is largely unknown. If you’re diabetic, check your blood sugar more regularly at altitude to see if your insulin levels change.
  • You have emphysema. People with chronic lung disease tend to do worse at high altitude. Visiting moderate altitude may be feasible, but emphysema sufferers should consult a doctor before a trip.
  • You’re anemic. People who are anemic have fewer red blood cells, which carry oxygen from the lungs to other tissues. Anemia sufferers should have their red blood cell and hemoglobin levels checked before traveling, and take additional iron supplements if necessary.
  • You have cardiac issues. Altitude puts extra stress on the heart, which must work harder to get adequate oxygen. People with heart disease should generally exercise less at high altitude than they do at low altitude, especially for the first few days. Bringing a copy of a recent electrocardiogram and a negative stress test is a good idea.

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola