Mount Whitney, Altitude Sickness, and a Heli Evac

“Nothing can go wrong… AH NO IT ALL WENT WRONG!”



Hey everyone! It’s been a while since my last update. I believe that was in Wrightwood a few hundred miles ago.

Well it’s time for my latest story!

(Also feel free to watch my live interview that was recorded and is now on the Trek’s PCT Instagram!)

 

Here we go… buckle up and take notes, because I put some informative shizz in here.

 

Let’s talk about hitting “The Button?”

No one likes to hit the button. I sure don’t. I don’t know about ya’ll, but to me it feels like I failed if I hit that button. I think I should be able to get out of it without hitting the dreaded button. BUT. This button saves lives. It is meant to help you when you feel unsafe, you’re hurt, unable to continue etc. We need to not feel guilty to hit the button. (Trust me I felt guilty until the hospital told me I was smart to come done and that I could have died.)

I knew that I couldn’t climb over Forester Pass. I knew I was going to have to hit the button once my tramily divided my gear up to let me walk without my pack. BUT. I am a stubborn person and I did NOT want to call for SAR. If I was alone I might have tried to keep going. Which would not have been smart. Don’t be like me and need someone to tell you it’s time to press the button. If you need it I rather you be safe and okay with SAR then stubborn on a mountain pass refusing to press it. (I’ll chalk up my stubbornness to be my brain not fully working due to the altitude.)

The Story Behind my Heli Evac

So as we were ascending Mount Whitney with a 4am start, I started to feel a little sick around 12,000 feet. At this point we were all already so tired from climbing 2,000 feet past our camp. I knew I was feeling some symptoms of AS (Altitude sickness) like headache and chest tightness, but I also knew that I was also just breathing hard from the climb and I was sure I would be fine. And I was. At the top I felt completely fine. I figured that my symptoms were passing because unlike my other tramily members who were feeling the 14,505 feet of elevation I was suddenly feeling on top of the world. Realistically, I should have known that my adrenaline was probably masking the feelings of being sick and I should have headed down with the majority of them when they did an hour and a half before me.

Here’s the weird thing though, unlike the ascent where I felt only a little sick, my descent was a whole other story. Suddenly, I was not okay at all. 3.5 miles from camp I collapsed. I just went to sit down and then my legs just quite and I was laying on the cool wet grass. I couldn’t see straight, my legs felt weak, I had a pounding headache, I was nauseous, etc.

I didn’t think I would make it to camp anymore. I debated on just sleeping there as I did have my sleeping bag on me and a Tyvek sheet. No pad though which would have been unpleasant.

A couple people saw Duck, my friend who was with me, and they talked with her and they made sure I got some more electrolytes and some Advil and in about 20 mins I stopped seeing stars so we kept on trekking to camp. This time very slowly. We probably averaged about a mile per hour. Slow slow slow.

The boys in my tramily were getting ready to come back to get us and help just as we rolled up to camp. Once I ate, rested and got some electrolytes in me I felt a lot better.

Crisis adverted right?

Wrong.. so so wrong.

The next day we planned to climb Forester Pass. For those who have hiked the trail you know that there are 3 smaller hills/mountains to ascend and descend before Forester begins.

I felt fine until that first up. Once I was ascending it I started to throw up every few switchbacks/feet and knew in that moment I definitely would not be able to summit Forester today.

So on the downhill I picked up my pace to try to catch the others ahead of me to let them know that I am not okay. I luckily caught them as the downhill’s helped me walk faster and informed them of my situation.

They immediately started to unload my pack and the fastest one went ahead to let the ranger 6.9 miles ahead our situation and to figure out our next plan.

I hiked another 1/2 mile before they unloaded more items and strapped my bag onto another member of our tramily so I could hike the rest of the way to the lowest elevation near us without a pack.

I was not okay. I was barely able to walk straight.

We arrived to Wallace Creek, I started to go into shock and was no longer sweating anymore. After 20 minutes of them discussing the options and I tried to not throw up they determined that it was time to call it and hit the button.

Within 2.5 hours the chopper had arrived and off I went to Lone Pine hospital.

It was a tiring day. I can’t thank my tramily enough for keeping me safe and okay until the chopper arrived.

Ps. The chopper ride was pretty sweet, besides the fact we rose to an even higher elevation to get over the mountains and I felt so sick because of it. I snapped some cool photos though.

Listen to your body and be smart.

In all fairness I should have waited another day before hitting that ascent up Forester pass. Mount Whitney feels like a two day thing. 1 day to climb, 1 day to rest. That would have been the smart thing to do. Now I know, so please learn from my mistakes, watch for the signs, really listen to your body and mind and if that means taking an extra day then do it.

Symptoms of Altitude Sickness

So what are the symptoms of altitude sickness and which ones did I unfortunately succumb to?
(Y)= I had this symptom.

Symptoms can be experienced immediately or occur gradually. They include:

  • Shortness of breath (Y)
  • Headache (Y)
  • Fatigue (Y)
  • Nausea (Y)
  • Vomiting (Y)
  • Rapid heart rate (Y)
  • Insomnia

Severe symptoms may include:

  • Skin discoloration-blue, pale or grey
  • Shortness of breath at rest
  • Confusion (Y)
  • Decreased consciousness (Y)
  • Not being able to walk in a straight line (Y)
  • Chest tightness (Y)
  • Coughs with bloody mucus
  • Dizziness/giddiness (Y)

(I also wasn’t able to move my legs for a bit, they felt numb and weak)

How can you prevent Altitude Sickness? 

  • Climb slowly so that enough time is available for the body to adjust to the changes
  • Stay at 10,000 feet for a few days to let your body acclimate
  • Get adequate carbohydrates
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Do the higher climb during the day and get back to the lower altitude at night for sleeping
  • Prophylactic use of Acetazolamide medication after consultation with a doctor before the climb

** And remember some people are just more prone to altitude sickness then others

A love letter to Mount Whitney

Mount Whitney… You are incredible.

You are relentless. You are breath taking, humbling, extraordinary, beautiful, incredible, daunting, technical, and honestly a little scary.

And REALLY, really high up there. Like significantly uphill.

I finally feel strong after climbing you.

I feel like I can take on the rest of the Sierra because I climbed freaking Mount Whitney.

What an incredible feat.

Thank you for teaching me I can climb any mountain (at least anything under 14,505 feet)

Thank you for humbling me when I thought I would only take 5 hours to the top and instead I summited in 7.

Thank you for the constant beautiful views while I rested gasping for air on every single switchback.

Thank you for kicking my ass on the way up and on the way down.

Thank you for giving me this wild experience.

 

Takeaway?

Summit those mountains, but listen to your body, yourself and those people around you who can see how you are declining.

Thanks to my tramily, the rangers and SAR, doctors and nurses I am A-OK and getting back on the trail tomorrow.

Let’s do this!! Time to tackle more mountains and passes (but under 13,000 feet)

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Comments 9

  • Barbara : Jul 2nd

    Altitude sickness is no joke. Even the stongest & fittest atheletes can be hit with it. I’m glad you came through it ok. I flew from sea level into Quito, elevation 9,350 ft, then after 2 days to Cusco at over 11,000 ft and trekked through Peru and Bolivia eventually up a ski hill at 15,000 ft. I had time to acclimatize. I was not fit but it was a dream trip for my 50th birthday. I hear you about the feet feeling like lead and each step taking tremendous effort.
    Wishing you all the best for the rest of your trip!

    Reply
  • Ellen : Jul 2nd

    HOLY SH!T, girl!
    So glad you are safe and healthy! Thank you for sharing your experience with us all. Huge kudos to your trail family and SAR / EMS crews.
    Stay safe <3

    Reply
  • coyote : Jul 3rd

    I’m so glad you’re OK! Thank you for sharing this priceless story.
    Yes, days to acclimatize are important. I’d never had altitude symptoms before, but when I drove from sea level directly to 10K’ I got them. I’ve seen people get them as low as 7K’.

    Reply
  • Caryn L Laubach : Jul 5th

    Oh, gosh…I wish I hadn’t read this 30 minutes after my son sending a photo of him peaking Mt. Whitney! Of course, being a nervous mother, I sent him this blog entry. I’m glad you’re ok! Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  • Drew Gallacher : Jul 8th

    Hi thank you for sharing in detail. One question, what did the chopper cost.

    TYIA

    Best wishes
    Drew.

    Reply
    • Craig : Jul 13th

      From those pics it’s a CHP helicopter. I rode on the outside of one back in January – a quick hike up Mt Diablo triggered my tachycardia and they flew me to a local hospital. I was freaking out about how much the chopper ride was gonna cost and the pot said it’s free! Californians dmv fees pay for it. Since Alyssa is from Canada her flight was truly free. And who says Canada has world class health car 😆

      Reply
  • Mike : Jul 10th

    First you didn’t climb Mt Whitney. You walked up the trail. Done it many times, even mid Winter. Yes I have skied the Muir trail and hiked the PCT solo back in the late 70s. Obviously some people don’t belong in the mtns., Let alone hiking the PCT. There are so many resources to help now it rediculous.

    Reply
  • Dean : Aug 3rd

    Glad you’re OK.
    I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often actually. Maybe it does?
    10,000ft/3048m to 14505ft/4421m
    Trekking in Nepal that alt gain would be spread over 3 to 4 days. Gaining 3-400m per day with a slightly higher arvo acclimatization walk. Climb high sleep low.
    I guess most get away with it due to coming straight back down.

    Reply
  • Valerie Wold : Aug 10th

    Hello from a fellow Okanagan comrade. So so glad to hear that you are safe after such an experience & your bravery to call for help. PleAse pm me. I have another story to tell about forester pass & such important information to share with Other trekkers about altitude sickness. I am a super close friend of Maddie Magee’s family. She passed on 8/28/22 on forester pass. 💔

    Reply

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