So, there we are, all sitting relaxed in our van, enjoying the striking Rockies framing a happy, lush tundra environment dotted with columbines, except for Mom, who is quietly complaining of a headache and asking for some ibuprofen. Everyone turned around except Dad, who was driving. This piqued our curiosity. None of us really ever had altitude sickness before. We grabbed the pulse oximeter (little clip thing that measures amount of oxygen in blood) and passed it back to her. It read 76% oxygen saturation, which is unpleasantly lower than the 99% average. She groaned, pulled a blanket over her head, and took a nap.
We experienced our record-low oxygen levels at Pikes Peak and Trail Ridge Road because of our 2 mile elevation (basically 40% of the way up Mt. Everest). During our Mills Lake hike, Mom became short of breath and her fingernails turned blue. Basically, Mom had the “altitude bends”, so suffice to say, we didn’t climb any higher.
How did this happen?
Well, as you already know, our bodies and oxygen, are like, BFFs. We can’t get enough of each other, the less oxygen’s around, the more miserably sick we feel. Our brains need a LOT of oxygen, and without it, we start to get headaches and a bit drowsy. Some people are more sensitive to lower oxygen content than others, like our mom, so then they get hypoxia (low oxygen levels in the blood).
But how come the locals are fine with it?
Our blood has many ingredients for it to do everything we need it to do. Oxygen is carried on specialized cells called red blood cells. When your body realizes after awhile that there isn’t enough oxygen available, it makes an overload of red blood cells to help increase how much oxygen is delivered to the body. This doesn’t happen right away. It usually takes a day or two for your body to catch up
How can someone prevent altitude sickness?
You can acclimatize by gradually ascending in altitude. If you are going to the Alpine Visitor Center in Rocky Mountain National Park, stay in Boulder or Denver for a night or two. Try not to ascend more than 1,000 feet a night, because you’ll be a little more than uncomfortable otherwise. If you really can’t tolerate the headaches, they say to try some ibuprofen. After a day or two, you should be fine! Remember that we are not doctors, we are just trying to find out more about this condition so read more on the it and in some cases your doctor should be notified before attempting such a trip.
Our best wishes to you on all your high altitude adventures!! Have a great time!!
It’s an amazing world of science out there…let’s go exploring!