Get Out! Going up slowly
Gradual increase in elevation will help ward off altitude sickness
My dad, a Georgia native, recently traveled out West to go backpacking with us. He’s used to backpacking, having covered the entire Georgia portion of the Appalachian Trail and most of the North Carolina portion as well.
He’s not used to altitude.
Because one can never be sure how altitude will affect someone, we decided to play it safe. Our methods seemed to work well, and my dad had no problems with reaching the summit of our trip — a 12,500-foot ridge overlooking Uncompahgre, Wetterhorn and Matterhorn peaks in the Uncompahgre Wilderness.
Please remember that high elevations affect each person differently, and although our method worked for my dad, it might not work for everyone. Still, a gradual increase is often considered a better way to reach high elevations than simply going from 500 feet to 12,000 in one or two days.
First, my dad flew into Grand Junction and enjoyed hiking and biking around town for a few days. We hiked the Palisade Rim trail, and he biked the Riverfront trail in the days leading up to our trip.
On Thursday we drove the 2-plus hours to Silver Jack Campground, near Silver Jack Reservoir in the Uncompahgre National Forest. This is a great base for day hiking and fishing at the reservoir. Its elevation is about 9,000 feet. We camped here overnight so we could get an early start on the Middle Fork of the Cimarron trail the next morning. This also gave Dad a chance to spend a full 12 hours at 9,000 feet before we started hiking.
Friday morning we drove another 30 minutes down County Road 858 and Middle Fork Road to the Middle Fork of the Cimarron trail head. We chose this trail based on the scenic valley views, plentiful campsites and gradual elevation gain. After hiking about five miles we found an excellent campsite on a knoll among blue spruce trees and set up camp.
Dad had had no problems with the altitude, and we’d gained another 1,500 feet. He’d spend the rest of the afternoon and evening at 10,500 feet before we set off on a long day hike the following morning.
We were lucky and had excellent weather throughout our trip. The morning temps were cool, but as soon as the sun found its way to our camp and kitchen spot, we warmed right up.
We’d decided to keep the same camp and spend Saturday on an eight-mile round-trip hike to the Middle Fork trail’s junction with the East Fork of the Cimarron trail and the Matterhorn trail. With light daypacks filled with water, snacks and rain gear, we set off. A few hours later we topped out at 12,500 feet. We had an amazing view of two fourteeners (Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn) and a thirteener (Matterhorn), and the weather was still holding out. All the way up the trail I had been asking my dad odd questions, just to make sure the altitude wasn’t affecting his thinking.
“Dad, what’s 8 times 4?”
A few minutes later… “Dad, what time of day was I born?”
“In the morning.”
Soon he was talking up such a storm that, as we climbed the steepest part of the trail, I knew he was fine. He spent a happy half an hour taking photos of the peaks and valleys surrounding us, and then we all set off back down the trail.
The next morning we hiked out, happy to have had a successful trip complete with awesome views and great weather.
It may seem silly to ask such questions and be so concerned, but altitude sickness, even mild forms, is no fun and is nothing to mess around with. Two years ago after not being quite so cautious, my significant other and I found ourselves dealing with altitude sickness ourselves. By the time we reached 12,800 feet I had a headache so bad I couldn’t even wear sunglasses or a hat. Soon after, he was nauseous, and we both had little appetite that evening. We had trouble sleeping.
All of these are symptoms of mild altitude sickness. Gradual altitude gain, drinking lots of water and resting can often prevent mild altitude sickness. If symptoms don’t improve quickly with rest and water, or if a person develops a wet cough or has mental confusion, you should descend immediately to lower elevations and seek medical help.
For anyone, flatlanders or people who’ve grown up in the area, the Middle Fork of the Cimarron is great for backpacking. While many day hike it, the number of backpackers is few and far between. You’ll have creeks, views and campsites mostly to yourself.