Visiting the high country
Back in 1986, I was an adult chaperone for the delegation of youth from the Central Pacific Conference to the United Church of Christ Western Regional Youth Event held in LaForet, Colorado. Roughly two thirds of our delegation boarded the train in Portland, Oregon in the morning. Our portion of the delegation joined them in Boise, Idaho that evening. We traveled through the night on the train. Sunrise found us in Salt Lake City, Utah and the next day’s travel was through the mountains to Denver Colorado, where we boarded vans that took us to the camp. During the following day, delegations arrived from across the West. There were worship services and workshops and a wide variety of activities. on the next to last day of the gathering there were several major day-long adventures offered. I agreed to be one of the adults supervising the youth who hiked the Barr trail up Pike’s Peak. The hikers were given an early breakfast and sack lunches and we started up the trail around 7 am. Our goal was to get all of the kids to the top before 4 pm as afternoon thundershowers are common in the summer and lightning strikes on the top of the peak are common.
Another counselor and I volunteered to hike sweep at the end of the delegation, assisting any campers who were a bit slower than the others and making sure that everyone was staying with the overall group. I knew the other adult counselor from growing up in Montana and we enjoyed conversation as we hiked. Not long after our lunch break we had to slow our pace for a camper from Hawaii who was struggling. He kept asking us to let him stop for a short nap. He said he would catch up. Of course, we couldn’t allow that to happen, so we kept working with him, encouraging him to drink more water, resting as he needed and coaxing him up the trail.
In retrospect, we should not have allowed someone who had come from sea level in Hawaii to be hiking above 12,000 feet where the oxygen is so thin. Hypoxia and altitude sickness are common even among healthy youth with that much altitude change. The Pike is 14,115 and a challenge even for hikers who have acclimated to the altitude. It is one of the fourteeners in Colorado that is accessible without technical climbing skills. You just follow the trail to the top. But the planners of the event should have given some attention to those who were not conditioned to the altitude. Even requiring those to ride the cog wheel railroad to the top would have been preferable to having a vulnerable youth on the mountain as the afternoon wore on.
We didn’t have many resources for treating altitude sickness. We got some orange juice into the hiker. He was strong and young and we completed the hike. You had made it to the top of the mountain in three different ways. Some hiked. Some rode the cog wheel railroad. A few rode up in vans driven by adults from the camp. At the top it was decided that I should drive one of the vans down the mountain as I had experience with steep roads and the Pike is notorious for wearing out brakes. There are brake inspection stations on the road as you descend and if you get the brakes too hot you are required to wait until they cool. Driving down was no problem and we returned to the camp without further problems. Our Hawaiian hiker recovered well after the descent.
I was thinking of the experience as we topped mountain passes on our drive from Washington back to South Dakota. The passes are no where near as high as we were in Colorado. Homestake Pass over the Continental Divide is only 6,329 feet above sea level. But we woke up on Sunday in Mount Vernon, Washington which is 180 feet above sea level. We spend that night in St. Regis, Montana at 2635 feet above the ocean and this morning we wake in Red Lodge, Montana at 5,568 feet. All of the changes in elevation have been no problem for us as we are used to traveling and they are in a comfortable range. There is plenty of oxygen in the atmosphere at 5,568 feet. Airline travel is routinely done with the pressurization set for the oxygen content of about 8,000 feet.
I have a friend, however, who feels the effects of altitude even in Rapid City which is only 3,202 feet above sea level. He has problems with his lungs and sometimes finds it difficult to catch his breath. Any exertion is a challenge for him. He is much more comfortable at sea level. I have some understanding of his situation because I also had an aunt who struggled with altitude. She carried supplemental oxygen for any trip into the mountains.
We, however, have so far been blessed with bodies that easily adjust to changes in altitude. I was a lot younger when we hiked the Barr trail, but I had no ill effects from spending time above 14,000 feet with no supplemental oxygen. My performance and judgment weren’t affected in ways that I could perceive. Of course that is one of the problems with hypoxia, you don’t think that there is anything wrong as your mental performance suffers. At any rate, we are blessed to be able to enjoy the high country without ill effects and relatively quick changes from near sea level to mountain locations don’t prevent us from hiking and walking and enjoying physical activities.
It felt good last night to lie in bed and listen to the sounds of Rock Creek flowing outside the window. The air is clean in the high country and there are lots of wild flowers to enhance the beauty of our visit to this part of Montana. How much we would miss if we were not able to get out and enjoy the mountains.
Our human bodies are amazing in their ability to adapt to changing circumstances. And yet, we know they are also frail. They require care and none of us will go on forever. So we give thanks for the moments of health that we enjoy. They are indeed a blessing.