They left camp in the dark, he and his guide, and climbed steadily for an hour. Every ten minutes the guide stopped and waited for him to catch up. He’d arrive, chuffing like a steam locomotive, breaths driven by his heaving belly. Above his left eye lived a dull throb, an incipient headache that had been with him since they reached camp last night.
The plate of eggs and bacon that the cook handed him at breakfast turned his stomach. He’d downed juice and coffee and stuffed granola bars in his pocket. Though he’d only had a couple of Scotches the night before, he felt as if he were in the throes of a monumental hangover. It was a hell of a way to begin a five-day high-timber elk hunt.
His guide thought so too, and with the aplomb of a diplomat asked his hunter how he felt.
“I’ll be all right when I get … my breath,” the hunter said.
Hearing the rasp in the hunter’s voice and seeing that he’d not yet stopped his open-mouth panting, the guide made a decision: They’d hunt close to camp. Chances of getting a bull, any bull, let alone a trophy, would be slim. But if the hunter had a heart attack or began to hyperventilate, the guide could get him off the mountain quickly and perhaps save his life. So much for the hunt of a lifetime.
Nothing ruins an elk, sheep, or goat hunt like the occasionally lethal combination of altitude sickness and exhaustion. Add the pain caused by little-used muscles and ill-fitting boots, as well as the unaccustomed discomfort caused by cold and wet conditions, and a $5,000 hunt could be over before the sun sets on the first day out of camp.
It’s a shame. Scores of hunters throw in the towel, acutely disappointed in themselves (although they often blame their outfitters) when a little preparation would have spared them most of the pain and turned a sour hunt into a successful one.
Physicians define altitude illness as encompassing a number of disorders brought on by moving from low to high elevation too quickly. The degree of physical activity can be directly proportional to the severity of the disorders. The intensity of altitude sickness increases with elevation.
About 20 percent of hunters climbing above 9,000 feet in one day will experience symptoms. The illness can even afflict flatlanders who hunt at 6,000 feet. Likelihood of contracting altitude sickness increases dramatically if a hunter has any pre-existing medical issues, even those as minor as a slight respiratory infection. That means we’re all at risk.
The source of the malady is straightforward and so is the cure. Altitude sickness is caused by the simple fact that, the higher you go, the less oxygen there is for your lungs. Since there is less oxygen to breathe, the body automatically begins to draw deeper and more frequent breaths to compensate for decreasing levels of oxygen in the blood, a condition doctors call hypoxemia. Hyperventilation is the body’s natural response. Hyperventilation, unless it’s checked, can kill you.
There’s only one proven way to mitigate the impacts of altitude sickness: Become acclimated to the elevation. It’s easy to do, but the hard part is this: Most of us have horrific schedules. And there’s no time in our lives that we are more rushed than those few days before we plan to spend a week out of the office.
Physician Allan Reishus, a high-altitude hunter, and specialist in wilderness medicine conduct seminars for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. He says the best defense against altitude sickness is to spend two or three days at approximately the same elevation where you’ll be hunting before hooking up with your outfitter.
That means tacking two or three days on the front end of your trip. Rather than flying in from the city on a Saturday for a hunt that starts on Sunday, plan to arrive on Thursday. Colorado guide Gary Hubbell advises hunters to bring a fly rod or a shotgun, and chase trout or grouse for a couple of days prior to your hunt. Not only will you become acclimated to the elevation, but you’ll relax and shed the office angst. Eat moderately, limit your alcohol intake, and you’ll most likely be free of any symptoms of altitude sickness when it’s time to start your hunt.
If it’s simply impossible to reach your destination early, consider trimming your hunt from five days to four by spending the first-day fishing or hiking near base camp. Better to be acclimated than to be bitten by the altitude bug and spend your hunt moaning in a tent, or worse.
Of course, if you do arrive at your jumping-off point early, don’t count on your outfitter to entertain you. For him, it’s change over time. One set of hunters is leaving and another is coming in. He’s busier than a one-armed paperhanger. He’ll tell you what motels are available, but beyond that, you’re on your own. Enjoy! For a day or two you can do whatever you please, it’s not often you get a chance to do that.