Altitude Sickness on the Way to Clouds Rest

August 04, 2014 Posted by: Yosemite Search and Rescue
On Sunday, July 27, the wife of a 37-year-old male hiker called the Yosemite Emergency Communications Center, reporting that her husband was having difficulty breathing. The couple had arrived in Tuolumne Meadows (elevation 8,600 feet) on Wednesday, July 23. On Saturday, July 26, in spite of feeling slightly ill, the subject, along with his wife, set out on a one-night backpacking trip. They were hiking slowly throughout the day. The subject’s condition deteriorated as he began experiencing difficulty breathing. That evening, the couple set up camp near a pond on the way to Clouds Rest. The subject continued to feel extremely ill, was coughing up sputum, and had difficulty sleeping. On Sunday morning, they tried to hike out. However, the subject, feeling even worse, couldn’t manage to carry his backpack. It was at this point that his wife called for help. The Tuolumne Meadows Search and Rescue team responded, assessed the patient, and determined that he needed a hasty evacuation. He was administered oxygen because he was having severe difficulty breathing and field diagnostic equipment indicated that the oxygen saturation levels in his blood were abnormally low. The SAR team arranged for the patient to be extricated via horseback. He remained on oxygen throughout the rescue. The patient was then transported out of the park to the hospital in Bishop. He was diagnosed with pneumonia and possible high altitude pulmonary edema. He remained in the hospital for two nights.  

What lessons does this event offer? 

First, if you notice you are not feeling well before your trip, consider changing your itinerary before you even set out on the trail; for example; instead of going on a planned overnight backpacking trip, try a shorter day hike. Keep in mind, also, that if, while you’re hiking, you take a turn for the worse, stop, rest, and if your condition doesn’t noticeably improve, turn around sooner rather than later. 

Also, be mindful of the signs and symptoms of altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness. This condition does affect some of our park visitors, especially those exploring the higher altitude areas of the park. Headache, nausea, and general fatigue are common symptoms. Acclimatizing slowly is the best way to prevent this illness from progressing. Perhaps spend a night or two at elevation in the campground before you begin your overnight journey.


The general area where the couple camped overnight near pond





18 Comments Comments icon

  1. Shirley miller
    April 02, 2018 at 09:10
     

    On a Breckenridge Co trip a few years ago I had to make a trip to the hospital emergency room. It was my first experience with altitude sickness. After a few hours of being hydrated with an IV, my nausea and headache improved enough I was dismissed and able to return to my condo. But they sent along with me portable oxygen to use during the night. I returned the following month with no problems because I learned what NOT to do. I started drinking large amounts of water several days before the trip. When we arrived in the Denver airport we didn’t rush to get our luggage like we had the first trip. We were already feeling the altitude so we took things slow. We spent the 1st evening relaxing in our lodge getting acclimated to the altitude with a light dinner and no alcohol. On the earlier trip we were in a frenzy walking all over Breckenridge, shopping and exploring and having cocktails. In a short time, I was definitely having trouble breathing and then the headache and nausea started. Take it easy the first day. No hiking,skiing or booze and you will be fine the rest of your trip. Now when we go, we like to drive rather than fly, and spend our 1st night in Colorado Springs before we get into the higher altitude, and it makes a big difference in how we feel the rest of our trip. And those in our party who don’t want to give up their cocktails definitely have difficult time adjusting to the altitude.

     
  2. Shirley miller
    April 02, 2018 at 09:10
     

    On a Breckenridge Co trip a few years ago I had to make a trip to the hospital emergency room. It was my first experience with altitude sickness. After a few hours of being hydrated with an IV, my nausea and headache improved enough I was dismissed and able to return to my condo. But they sent along with me portable oxygen to use during the night. I returned the following month with no problems because I learned what NOT to do. I started drinking large amounts of water several days before the trip. When we arrived in the Denver airport we didn’t rush to get our luggage like we had the first trip. We were already feeling the altitude so we took things slow. We spent the 1st evening relaxing in our lodge getting acclimated to the altitude with a light dinner and no alcohol. On the earlier trip we were in a frenzy walking all over Breckenridge, shopping and exploring and having cocktails. In a short time, I was definitely having trouble breathing and then the headache and nausea started. Take it easy the first day. No hiking,skiing or booze and you will be fine the rest of your trip. Now when we go, we like to drive rather than fly, and spend our 1st night in Colorado Springs before we get into the higher altitude, and it makes a big difference in how we feel the rest of our trip. And those in our party who don’t want to give up their cocktails definitely have difficult time adjusting to the altitude.

     
  3. Shirley miller
    April 02, 2018 at 09:09
     

    On a Breckenridge Co trip a few years ago I had to make a trip to the hospital emergency room. It was my first experience with altitude sickness. After a few hours of being hydrated with an IV, my nausea and headache improved enough I was dismissed and able to return to my condo. But they sent along with me portable oxygen to use during the night. I returned the following month with no problems because I learned what NOT to do. I started drinking large amounts of water several days before the trip. When we arrived in the Denver airport we didn’t rush to get our luggage like we had the first trip. We were already feeling the altitude so we took things slow. We spent the 1st evening relaxing in our lodge getting acclimated to the altitude with a light dinner and no alcohol. On the earlier trip we were in a frenzy walking all over Breckenridge, shopping and exploring and having cocktails. In a short time, I was definitely having trouble breathing and then the headache and nausea started. Take it easy the first day. No hiking,skiing or booze and you will be fine the rest of your trip. Now when we go, we like to drive rather than fly, and spend our 1st night in Colorado Springs before we get into the higher altitude, and it makes a big difference in how we feel the rest of our trip. And those in our party who don’t want to give up their cocktails definitely have difficult time adjusting to the altitude.

     
  4. Shirley miller
    April 02, 2018 at 09:09
     

    On a Breckenridge Co trip a few years ago I had to make a trip to the hospital emergency room. It was my first experience with altitude sickness. After a few hours of being hydrated with an IV, my nausea and headache improved enough I was dismissed and able to return to my condo. But they sent along with me portable oxygen to use during the night. I returned the following month with no problems because I learned what NOT to do. I started drinking large amounts of water several days before the trip. When we arrived in the Denver airport we didn’t rush to get our luggage like we had the first trip. We were already feeling the altitude so we took things slow. We spent the 1st evening relaxing in our lodge getting acclimated to the altitude with a light dinner and no alcohol. On the earlier trip we were in a frenzy walking all over Breckenridge, shopping and exploring and having cocktails. In a short time, I was definitely having trouble breathing and then the headache and nausea started. Take it easy the first day. No hiking,skiing or booze and you will be fine the rest of your trip. Now when we go, we like to drive rather than fly, and spend our 1st night in Colorado Springs before we get into the higher altitude, and it makes a big difference in how we feel the rest of our trip. And those in our party who don’t want to give up their cocktails definitely have difficult time adjusting to the altitude.

     
  5. DJ
    May 15, 2015 at 02:05
     

    I had a similar situation in Tuolumne Meadows about 12 years ago. I had a cold that was exasperated by the altitude -- headache, tired, light headed, and increasingly congested. I went back two years ago and it wasnt nearly as bad. I think the key is, like was mentioned, you have to breathe more frequently, especially when being active. If you are sick, recognize that you will get much worse at altitude.

     
  6. Tim
    August 09, 2014 at 07:54
     

    Anecdotes are the source of much misinformation and myth. I do this . . . and I have a friend . . . stories are not medical evidence. The best medical evidence from medical doctors is that the stimulant effects of caffeine are actually beneficial in preventing altitude sickness if there is any effect at all.

     
  7. Bob
    August 08, 2014 at 11:51
     

    One thing that I learned years ago in Breckenridge CO, before going on a hike at high altitudes STOP drinking anything with caffeine for a week. Caffeine intensifies altitude sickness... We were on a hike over the Continental Divide when I became quite ill and had severe headaches. Stopping caffeine ever since has meant freedom to hike at altitudes over 6000 feet. Even if consuming coffee at those altitudes it does not effect me.

     
  8. August 07, 2014 at 11:20
     

    Even though we spent one night in the campground at Tuolumne Meadows, a couple I was hiking South with found themselves struggling the first day up Lyell Canyon. The second day they tried, but made a smart decision and went back down before we started climbing the pass. It is hard to predict, and may pass with rest, but continued symptoms can be very dangerous. When in doubt, go downhill.

     
  9. August 07, 2014 at 10:53
     

    I sincerely hope that this young man has recovered. Pneumonia at sea level is bad enough but at altitude? Must have been frightening considering the remoteness. Thanks for great advice in all the posts. Learned a lot!

     
  10. August 07, 2014 at 08:51
     

    It would be good to know a bit more about the subject, to consider if there were any predisposing factors (altitude of residence, general level of fitness, etc.). Though such considerations may not be reliably predictive, they remain relevant.

     
  11. August 07, 2014 at 07:25
     

    Years ago a friend and I were going to backpack in Yosemite. Started at Tuolumne Meadows. I started feeling sick. Nausea, short of breath, exhausted. I bailed on the trip. My friend continued and we planned for me to meet her in 2 days at White Wolf. It's a good thing I did. As soon as I drove down to a lower elevation I felt so much better.

     
  12. August 07, 2014 at 06:17
     

    Quick (but not definitive) solution is to take shorter, faster breaths. Many people make the mistake of taking deep breaths in the assumption they are taking in needed oxygen, but the time it takes to breathe deep also means increased minute buildup of carbon dioxide. Don't resist the urge to breathe faster (as your body does when it is out of breath), and consciously continue doing this until your symptoms begin to subside. At extreme elevations, deliberately hyperventilating can be helpful. Just be mindful of your symptoms and make yourself take deeper breathes as you start to feel better. Remember, you're not just pulling in oxygen, you're getting rid of harmful carbon dioxide (don't worry, the local plant life will gladly accept it). Shallower, faster breaths - ONLY in cases where you begin to feel altitude sickness - are far more effective than deep, expansive breaths.

     
  13. August 07, 2014 at 06:16
     

    Quick (but not definitive) solution is to take shorter, faster breaths. Many people make the mistake of taking deep breaths in the assumption they are taking in needed oxygen, but the time it takes to breathe deep also means increased minute buildup of carbon dioxide. Don't resist the urge to breathe faster (as your body does when it is out of breath), and consciously continue doing this until your symptoms begin to subside. At extreme elevations, deliberately hyperventilating can be helpful. Just be mindful of your symptoms and make yourself take deeper breathes as you start to feel better. Remember, you're not just pulling in oxygen, you're getting rid of harmful carbon dioxide (don't worry, the local plant life will gladly accept it). Shallower, faster breaths - ONLY in cases where you begin to feel altitude sickness - are far more effective than deep, expansive breaths.

     
  14. August 07, 2014 at 05:38
     

    For years I regulate the first days' activities to short and relatively level hikes. Evan a robust individual can react to an altitude activity that is too taxing and the body reacts by inducing "altitude sickness". I may walk slower due to age, but neither I or any of my small groups of Tuolumne travelers have experienced this unpleasant reaction in our yearly weeks in the park.

     
  15. August 07, 2014 at 05:13
     

    As an ER physician, this case as it's presented is confusing. It has elements of a serious bacterial infection, pneumonia, occurring at an elevation where altitude sickness can occur. However, altitude sickness doesn't usually make people feel ill lin the same way that they would with a bacterial infection, in this case, pneumonia. It's difficult to sort out if he had altitude sickness, pneumonia, or both since both can cause difficulty breathing. If it were HAPE he would have improved considerably just by descending the 4000' to Bishop. His chest X-ray likewise was suggestive of but not diagnostic of HAPE.

     
  16. Joe
    August 07, 2014 at 04:39
     

    My son got a bit of alt sickness/dehydration on our recent trip to Sequoia NP. Not really scary because I caught it right away, but my poor little guy took a few days to recoop. Rest up and hydrate, everyone. It's a high world out there!

     
  17. August 07, 2014 at 03:53
     

    In 2011 I left Camarillo elev. 630 ft above sea level and in 9 hours drove straight to Coyote Lake in the Sierra's elev 10,000 ft above sea level. I setup camp and was feeling very lethargic, low energy and decided to sleep a bit. Awoke the next morning feeling very tired and was just moving slowly about when I started getting a headache. I decided I had altitude sickness and begrudgingly packed up everything and headed out. Within a few hours of getting below 8,000 feet I began to feel much better and just drove back home. Lesson learned, acclimate, acclimate, acclimate, you and your body will be happy you did.

     
  18. August 07, 2014 at 02:08
     

    In 1954 my parents and I were going to partake on our first backpacking trip. Starting from Tuolumne Meadows we were going up to Voglesang HSC for a couple nights and return. Upon arriving at Tuolumne Meadows I experience on what is now recognized as high altitude sickness. All the symptoms as stated in the article. We just waited a couple days and proceded on our trip which was wonderful. By the way this started my interest in backpacking which lasted until 1996 when my ol' body said no more. I can still day hike. Did almost all the John Muir Trail and have logged 100 nights in the inner canyon of the Grand Canyon. High altitude sickness in youth is extremely dangerous as the brain can swell. Thanks for reading.

     
 
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Last updated: August 5, 2014

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