Travelogue: Altitude Sickness +How to Deal

Hays, Kansas.

That's as far as we got on our first day of driving from Nashville, TN to Colorado Springs, CO. We had planned to get there in one day, but it was 10:00pm and we still had four hours of driving to go.

After weighing the pros and cons of stopping or pushing through, we decided to go the safer route and get to Colorado the next day. I informed our AirBNB host of the delay, and an hour later we were sound asleep in the flattest stretch of the U.S. I've ever seen.

First glimpse of the mountains

Next morning we hauled it the rest of the way to Colorado. The first glimpse of the mountains before us sent chills down our spines... along with a rush of queasiness which we attributed to nerves.

After all, this was our first REAL grown-up vacation - one where we were footing the bill in its entirety, driving cross-country on our own, and despite how exciting it was, we were bound to get antsy.

The mountains grew and grew until we were finally, gleefully there. Colorado Springs.

We glanced at each other sideways, silently acknowledging the now unyielding nausea which we would alleviate with a good dinner. We had our first genuinely mid-western meal at Colorado Mountain Brewery, where we had some incredible bison meatloaf paired with a pint of cider.

Full but not feeling quite "right," we thought about sightseeing but decided to make our way to the tiny Victorian Inn we had reservations at. We walked in, dropped our bags, and as I turned around I was taken aback as my husband make a mad dash to the bathroom and proceeded to loose everything he'd gained at dinner.

Atop Pikes Peak

The U.S. is a beautiful thing to drive through. The Tennessee hills flow gently into the plains of Kansas, which gracefully abut the striking Colorado mountains with no real indication that you're slowly going from 600 ft above sea level to 6,000.

Google was a dream, educating us (a little late) on how to deal with altitude sickness (otherwise known as acute mountain sickness) and what things we should avoid, like alcohol. This, a Walgreens pharmacist, and a very kind Colorado local were our sources of information on how to cope with the drop in O2 which our bodies were anything but content to handle.

Some remedies we found useful were:

  1. Dramamine: Or other nausea medications, but Dramamine is what we used. It's unsafe to take before driving since it makes you sleepy, but it quickly took care of the symptoms and allowed us to continue enjoying beautiful Colorado.
  2. Hard Candy: While touring the mighty Garden of the Gods, one Colorado native told us that even she had to endure elevation sickness once she came back home from a two-month trip east. Her tip: keep some hard candy or mints on hand to keep your mouth and tastebuds busy and your stomach calm.
  3. Drink Water: Instead of alcohol. Not only does the acclimatization process cause fluid loss, but alcohol consumption will cause dehydration, exacerbating the symptoms. Stay properly hydrated. Also, alcohol (and sleeping pills) are respiratory depressants, which slow acclimatization and should therefore be avoided for the first few days.
  4. Descent: The pharmacist we spoke with simply said that, ultimately, the only cure was to return to lower altitudes or wait until our bodies made the initial adjustment (which usually takes a few days but can take several weeks). This was especially true as we drove up Pikes Peak, going from 6,000 ft to the summit at 14,000 ft. The view at the top was unforgettable, but we were relieved when our symptoms gradually decreased as we went back down again. If you're curious, full acclimatization doesn't happen for three months, once your body has created new, more efficient cells to process the lower oxygen levels.

Our time in the mountains was absolutely unforgettable. We learned so much from this incredible trip, including how to cope with the unexpected while away from home.

More to come on the trip itself. If you're dealing with altitude sickness, here are some more resources that might be helpful:

National Park Service
Wiki Article

Also important to note is the fact that altitude sickness can become quite serious and even fatal. Since we stayed in town most of the time, we were in no danger of these levels of altitude sickness, but if we'd been hiking and camping we would have been. 

Be safe, and when traveling to altitudes higher than 10,000 ft, never spend the night more than 1,000 ft higher than you were the previous night. Stay hydrated. Educate yourself on which symptoms indicate extreme and dangerous levels of altitude sickness before climbing.

And after you've done all that stuff, look up. The view will take your breath away.

At the Rocky Mountain National Park

At the Rocky Mountain National Park