September 26, 2014

The Quandary of Why I Suck at Altitude

This has been a rather stressful and frustrating week… which is why I never yet followed up on my report of summiting Quandary Peak with the Gociety last weekend. So, here goes.

We got up around 4am to eat breakfast and head for the trailhead. I was so excited that we could sleep relatively “late” rather than the normal 2 or 3am wakeup call when coming from Denver! Furthermore, we probably could have even slept a little bit later if we wanted – we planned to be at the trailhead at 5am and be able to summit at sunrise (around 6:50am), for a nice early hike. I had never hiked with a headlamp before, and I was excited for the new challenge.

After assembling at the trailhead (along with some other new friends who had gotten up way earlier and actually driven from Denver), we headed up the dirt road and then took the trail off to the left that led us up into the forest. I quickly fell to the back of the pack, and once I saw who else was back there with me, I warned them that I wanted them to go on ahead if I started falling behind. I knew from previous hiking experiences that I would probably be among the slowest, and I had learned on Pettingell how much I hate the stress of having people waiting on me, so I had printed a copy of the route and tucked it into my pack, just in case. I had also done a quick read through before we started, and knew that the route was pretty straightforward: all I had to be aware of was one right-hand turn at a big rock. As it turned out, I would have been much better off not reading that.

About thirty minutes in, the rest of the group got ahead of me. I didn’t mind – although the trail wound around a little bit, it was really well-worn, and I could hear the hikers just ahead of me. A few minutes later, I heard their voices farther off to the right. Aha, I thought, time to stay alert for the right hand turn! But I didn’t see any big rock, and then when I kept following the (still very clear) trail a few minutes further, I came to a kind of lookout and could see moving headlamps of hikers wayyyyyy off to the right and below me. So apparently I had missed the turn? I retraced my steps back down the trail.

But after ten minutes of hiking down, I didn’t see any big rock (yes, I knew to reverse and look on my left). I ended up going back and forth four times before I finally heard a few members of my group calling my name in the distance, and I shouted back my location. They came back down the trail to find me, and I learned that I had been exactly on the right path – there hadn’t been any right turn at all! Those must have been other hikers that I saw, on a completely different trail. (On the way down later in broad daylight, we looked carefully but never found either a big rock or a right turn anywhere on the forest trail, so I have no idea what was talking about.) I was really embarrassed to have held some of the group up like that (probably wasted about 20-30 minutes of their time to stop and wait for me), especially since if I had just kept going, I would have been right behind them. So that was hiking fail #1.

Hiking fail #2, though, was what I’ve been experiencing all along: I really, really, really suck at altitude. I love hiking so much, and I love getting to tackle the beautiful mountains and then get rewarded with stunning views at the top. But as soon as I get above about 11,000 feet, which is basically the trailhead base for a lot of 14ers and even some 13ers, I just lose all stamina, can’t breathe, get dizzy, etc. I feel like a huge baby and part of me wonders if it’s all in my head – maybe I just need to push harder and be stronger? – but then I come close to passing out and I know it’s real and I have to listen to those signs. I’ve done great on the hikes I’ve done up in Boulder that are comparable in profile to a 14er (i.e., 3000 feet of elevation gain and 5-7 miles roundtrip), even powering past others on the trail. But stick me just a few thousand feet higher and I just. can’t. handle. it.

With all that in mind, I had asked the group multiple times to leave me behind rather than wait for me. But after my stupid, stupid getting “lost” in the dark (while still actually on the right trail), I could understand why they were reluctant to do that. We got above treeline pretty soon, so that helped, and just as we were getting out of the trees, it also started getting bright enough that we could see each other on the path without headlamps – so that helped a little more. I was really happy when my group did go on ahead of me (and some other people passed me too), because it meant I didn’t have to stress out about holding anyone up. I already felt terrible about having made them wait before when I was “lost”!

Sunrise On Quandary
Here comes the sun (doo doo doo doo)

The group kept pausing to stop and then when I’d catch up to them, they’d start up again… which gave me the sneaking suspicion that they were waiting for me, even though I asked them not to. I reminded them a few times that they really didn’t have to wait for me, especially because I could now see the entire rocky trail up the peak, but they kept telling me that they were just taking breaks because they were tired. I probably sounded like a broken record continuing to say they should just go on without me, but as much as I loved their company, I really didn’t want to inconvenience them more! Finally, someone shut me up by pointing out that it isn’t all about me, and that they were stopped for their own reasons. Point taken – I was being a pain! There was really nothing else I could do at that point but believe them, so I stopped telling them to go on ahead and just tried to hike as best as I could… and maybe try to keep up.

Quandary Saddle
But was usually about this far behind.

Fortunately, we soon reached a flat area, and I was able to regain a lot of ground. I seem to do okay at altitude when I don’t have to exert myself and when it’s just walking, but if I have to put any cardio into it, I’m sunk. (Honest question: does that mean that I am just out of shape and it’s not about the altitude?) So I was really grateful for this long flat stretch of rocks before our final (long) push to the summit! When I caught up with a few of the group on here, one of the guys dropped back to hang with me, and explained that he was really feeling sick to his stomach. I was grateful for the company and happy to have a hiking buddy, though sorry for the reason why.

Quandary Mountain Goat
This mountain goat also didn’t seem bothered by my presence at all. So cool to see him so close!

I’ll spare you the details of the rest of the summit – basically, it was me going super slowly and stopping a ton, trying not to pass out. I found that if I took 10-20 steps and then stopped, I could get my heart rate down before the dizziness set in, and then continue. But that is a slow pace! Meanwhile, my friend was stopping about the same amount that I was, but in his case, to dry heave and nearly vomit. I suppose it should have made me feel bad that I was going as slowly as someone who was clearly ill, but instead, I was just grateful for the company. And we did finally make it to the top, even despite our slow pace.

Quandary Peak Summit
Gorgeous views, of course – it was perfect weather for hiking!

On the way down, I got to hang out with our group a lot more, chatting as we went. I was hoping that I could make up for being so difficult on the way up, and based on the time we spent hanging out at the party that night and the Facebook friend requests I got later, I think I did.

But ugh, this just can’t continue anymore.

I really love going hiking in groups, but it’s really not fair for me to go when I am so much slower than everyone else. My getting “lost” at the beginning notwithstanding, I am a terrible hiker as soon as I hit any kind of altitude, and I’m tired of waiting for that to go away. I feel like I’m using every excuse in the book – I’m relatively new to Colorado (especially since I travel so much that I never truly acclimate), I keep flying back to flatland, and on this particular day, I was trying to recover from a cold. But really, the excuses can only get me so far – the honest truth is just that I really suck when I’m at altitude.

Everyone tells me it will get better with practice, but I go hiking at least once a week, and I’d say at least once a month I’ve gotten up to high altitudes. I’m not saying I couldn’t do more, because I could go out to the mountains and try to get a high-altitude hike in every weekend if I really made it a priority. (And perhaps just being out in the mountains every weekend during ski season will help?) But it frustrates me to no end that I think I’m doing adequate “training”/preparations and yet I am completely failing at hiking, while everyone else here is running up peaks like they were mountain goats. I don’t by any means think I’m the fittest person out there (by Colorado standards, I’d say I’m well below average), but I feel like I shouldn’t be as slow as I am.

To throw another factor out there: I do think I’m eating enough. I usually eat a normal breakfast (300-400 calories) before I go, then munch on another 200ish calories of some sort of snack (either trail mix or a bar) on the way up, and then eat either a sandwich or heavier bar, plus a sports drink, at the top before coming down. (Coming down has never been a problem though.) I also usually try to eat a slightly larger than usual dinner than night before I go, and eat a slightly higher ratio of carbs in my night before meal. And yes, I’m drinking plenty of water – possibly even more than I should. I know that hiking burns a lot of calories, but I would think that amount of food should be adequate for me not to be burning out on fuel – it’s much more than I eat during a marathon, and I would think that would be a similar or even more intense effort? (Definitely more intense than the slow pace I am currently doing.) Plus, I don’t really feel better when I eat on the trail, unless I’m stopping to do so and then what’s making me feel better is the stopping, not the food.

Unless I’m doing any of those things wrong, my best guess is just that my body in particular doesn’t do well with altitude. I know that’s the case for some people, but I don’t want to accept that. I don’t want to live in Colorado and not be able to participate in the fun group activities that everyone else is doing! But I need to figure out how to actually do a good job participating or no one is going to ever want to go hiking with me. Maybe I need to start getting up to the mountains weekly and doing interval training workouts there to get my body used to working hard in the thin air? Maybe there is some sort of natural (no crap!) supplement I could take, like the coca leaves I inhaled in Cusco when I would get dizzy? Until I can figure out a solution, I’m done with group trips – I don’t want to have to put others through the obnoxiousness of hiking with me. So, help! I am all ears and ready to try anything.

Let’s end on a positive note, with a pretty shot from our Quandary descent of the colorful aspen way down on the ground.

Aspen from Mt Quandary
Beautiful fall colors down below the rocks.

10 thoughts on “The Quandary of Why I Suck at Altitude”

  1. I feel ya. My sister lives in CO and when we went out to visit, I thought I was going to die starting at 11,000 ft. I was fine before and could basically run down the trail when a storm was approaching but going up, I struggled. Also, I don’t want to be salesy and toot my own Advo horn but have you looked into O2Gold? I used it during marathon training and it seriously feels like it expands your lungs and your body can better utilize oxygen. I don’t know how, but it works. I’d be more than happy to send you a sample once I get to Florida and get all unpacked. If not, that’s cool too – It’s just the only thing I can think that might help you out!

    1. I haven’t tried any of the Advocare products – I’ll keep reading your blog to see when you get settled and then I’d love to try the O2Gold!

  2. I just got to Boulder this week and have been trying to build up my lungs. 14ers are off the table for me (at least for now) since I don’t enjoy the ill feeling while hiking. I did a backpacking trip at the Maroon Bells a couple years ago that had four passes over 12,000 ft. That was a good height – not too high to feel the effects too much.
    I tried running the trails by NCAR today and felt way better than I did at the Wednesday pizza and beer run. Thanks to one of your blog posts, I’m going to do the hike up to Bear Mtn with a friend tomorrow.
    We should meet up for a hike sometime! I live super close to NCAR!

    1. WELCOME TO BOULDER! So excited that you’re here 🙂 Bear Mountain was my first ever hike in Colorado – I hope you loved it. Drop me an email and let’s try to meet up soon!

  3. Oh, Laura, I am so sorry this was another tough 14-er for you. But at least you made it! It’s definitely not an out of shape thing though. People in better shape need more oxygen and that makes altitude super tough for them! So really, your problem could be that you’re just in too good of shape!

  4. It took me at minimum 2+ months to start feeling okay running at altitude when I moved to Tahoe, living here full time. And then I’d lost a lot of fitness in two months.

    I’ve been living at altitude for almost four years now, and I still feel the effects of altitude about 12k and above. I’ll still do stuff that high, I’m just careful and I listen to my body. I even notice it when I get off the ski lift at 10,000!

    I do think part of it is that high altitude is such a weird feeling that you have to get used to it, and decide whether you feel “off” and can keep going, or if it’s something more serious.

    1. I definitely lost a lot of fitness since I moved here for that same reason, though have been working hard the last two months or so to make up for it. That makes me feel better that you still experience it! A big part of what I am still trying to learn is how hard to push myself. Maybe the about-to-pass-out feeling is actually normal and I’m being a baby for not just continuing through it? Or maybe it IS my body telling me to stop? Ski season should definitely help me start to figure that out since you can’t really ski all that much in Colorado at low altitude!

  5. Laura,
    Don’t give up on hiking!! You mentioned that when the friend who was feeling ill slowed down to hike with you that you were grateful to have his company…. Instead of worrying so much about being a burden to your hiking friends, keep in mind that they invited you to come along because they enjoy your company — even if it does mean taking the hike at a slightly slower pace. Maybe hike with smaller groups or in groups where you can split into a couple of small groups? It’s always hard hiking with a large group because everyone goes at such different paces.

    Don’t give up, though! I love hearing about your CO adventures..I haven’t been out there in years (last time I was we hiked Longs Peak!), so I am living vicariously through your blog posts!

    1. Thanks, Stephanie – your comment made me feel a lot better! I think the hard thing is that I’m going with a lot of Meetup/Gociety/etc groups to meet new people, so I feel bad that they don’t know exactly what they’re in for hiking with me (vs if I go hiking with close friends, I don’t stress because to your point I already know they enjoy my company!). Thank you for the kind words 🙂

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Join the List

Subscribe for instant email notification of new posts.

Join the List

Subscribe for instant email notification of new posts.

© 2023 by 50by25. All rights reserved. Actions taken from the hyperlinks on this blog may yield commissions for 50by25. View my FTC disclaimer.

Scroll to Top