7 Tips for High Altitude Hiking

As seen on The Outbound Collective.

High altitude hiking is one of the most challenging and rewarding outdoor activities that you need to add to your summer adventure list right now. From the Rocky Mountains to the Sierras, to international treks up Kilimanjaro and in Nepal, hiking at high altitude gives you a unique and unforgettable look at some of the most desolate places in the world.

Like any extreme adventure, while you’re picking out the perfect camera to bring and dreaming of your quintessential summit sunrise, you’ll need to prepare accordingly and remember these tips for a successful high altitude hike.

The truth is, there’s no real way to train for high altitude other than being there yourself. So above all else, make sure you have the chance to acclimate, hydrate, and prepare for the time of your life.

img_4141

1) Understand the risks of high-altitude hiking

Do some general research on the differences between Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). Understand what a “sick person” at altitude looks like, and be prepared to take action if you or members of your team experience these symptoms.

  • AMS is the most mild form of altitude sickness and unfortunately feels very similar to a hangover. You may experience a headache, nausea, or feel exhausted… If you notice any of these symptoms, heed warning that they could predict a larger risk to HAPE or HACE.
  • HAPE occurs when liquid seeps into your lungs, and feels like you just had the wind knocked out of you. You may also cough up a frothy foam, which means it’s time to turn around and descend as quickly as possible.
  • HACE causes confusion and incoordination. If your speech is slurring and you find yourself stumbling, you are close to death and an immediate descent is imperative.

img_3342

2) Fitness is key

Do your training hikes with a weighted pack. 40 lbs. at sea level is going to feel a lot heavier (try double) once you venture above 10,000 feet. You’ll be giving yourself a break in the long run if you stuff your backpack with water, weights, or other heavy objects when you train at home.

Run stairs and hills. The calf-burners and glute-tearers you feel when hiking and running work completely different muscle groups. Switch up your workouts by adding as much elevation as you can. Training in San Francisco? Do sprints up steep hills or staircases. Stuck in a flat desert with no uphill training ground? Hit the gym and spend some time on the stairmaster. No matter where you are, there’s no excuse to not having the right physical preparation.

Get as high as possible beforehand. If you have easy access to a mountain range, slowly build your body up to higher elevations, gaining 1,000 ft. each training weekend. Starting small is also fine, too – doing aerobic exercises above 3,000 ft. will still adjust your body to working with less oxygen in your blood.

img_3466

3) Fuel yourself

It may be difficult to remind yourself, but you’ll need to be prepared to eat and drink more than usual at high altitude. Your muscles are burning energy more quickly, and your body will need more calories and H2O to properly function. This is no environment for diets: Load your pack up with sugar and carbohydrate-loaded snacks like jerky, chocolate, hard candies, and other high-calorie treats.

4) Prepare to brave the elements

Naturally prone to sunburns? Then don’t skimp on the SPF when you’re at high altitude. Sunshine, wind, and temperature reach their extremes up high. Bring the right gear and prepare to pack total face protection from the sun, wind-resistant and waterproof clothing, and extra hand warmers, thermal gloves, and wool socks to guard your body against the inhospitable mountain environment.

5) Bring first aid backups

It’s impossible to predict how your body will be affected by high altitude before you go. If it’s your first time ascending thousands of vertical feet, play it safe and carry along an altitude aid. One of the most popular altitude medications, Diamox, is commonly prescribed for treks above 8,000 ft. Be sure to also pack ibuprofen, cough drops, and over-the-counter indigestion pills in case things get less than pleasant.

img_3374

6) Know your limits

Visit your doctor before embarking on a trek in the mountains. Make sure you don’t have any lingering illnesses or undiscovered ailments that may hinder your success up high. Most importantly, be prepared to turn around if you’re not feeling well. An annoying headache or minor chest pain could be the symptom of something much worse, and you don’t want to test your body’s ability to self-preserve when you’re miles far and meters high away from safety.

7) Take it slow

Don’t rush your way out of a successful trip. Your body will naturally feel slower at high altitude, so go along with it. Nothing can truly prepare your body for the thin mountain air other than actually being there – so when you do get your chance – take your time and enjoy the adventure.

img_3878

South Sister Summit Hike (10,358 ft)

This is the mountain that started it all for me. Seven years ago my dad took me on a hike up Oregon’s third tallest peak and I was exhausted, drained, sore, sunburnt – and completely inspired. Yesterday, I returned with one of my best friends from high school to share this mountain with what would be her first-ever significant summit.

img_6433

Not only is South Sister a stunning image and visible from hundreds of miles throughout Central Oregon, but it is a great beginner climb to introduce hikers to high altitude mountain life. As long as you’re mentally prepared, have good physical endurance, and pack right, there’s no reason why this mountaintop should be out of reach.

Getting there is simple and accessible for any type of city vehicle. The primary route begins at Devil’s Lake Trailhead, which is 26 miles west of Bend off of the Cascade Lakes Highway. You’ll pass Mt. Bachelor and eventually see a sign on your left that leads you to the campground. To start, walk to the very end of the parking lot and follow the unmarked trail past the bathrooms. You’ll cross the main highway (some people will park alongside the highway here too) and come across a sign that says “South Sister Climbers Trail 36.” Fill out a Wilderness Permit at the kiosk and begin your ascent.

The hike begins in a lush forest that stays green year-round. Elevation gain is moderate, and in 1.5 miles you will emerge onto a sandy plain and see a four-way crossing. Pass by the turn off for Moraine Lake and continue up Wikiup Plain, following signs for South Sister Summit. The trail across the plain is soft, flat, and leads you right up to the base of the mountain.

img_6432

Enjoying the flat bit of Wikiup Plain before taking off on the REAL ascent.

Cairns mark the way on this next section and lead you up through rocky ridges to the saddle of Lewis Glacier, where you’ll see a small brilliantly-blue alpine lake. It seems like some people dump their backpacks here before heading to the summit – but I highly discourage that. You still have a few hours round-trip before you make it back to this point and you’re about the encounter the toughest and most exposed part of the climb. Be sure to carry adequate food, water, and sun protection with you.

img_6438

Lewis Glacier saddle + lake.

Leave the lake and follow the ridge up and to your right – the route should be obvious. You will be walking entirely on deposited lava and cinder rock now. This entire trail that leads you to the summit is wide, packed, and very defined. Compared to my first summit seven years ago, there is considerably less scree and potential for sliding. When my dad and I first went up this mountain, I remember both of us begrudgingly sliding one step backwards for every two we took forwards. That being said, Brooke and I did fall on our butts once or twice on the descent.

img_6445

Volcanic ash + scree ridge leading up to the false summit.

This volcanic ridge leads you to the false summit, where you can find manmade wind blocks and stop to catch your breath and fuel up. But don’t fret; the true summit is visible just across a large snowfield, and is just a short, flat, gradual walk ahead. Follow the climber’s trail to the right around the snowfield (which becomes Teardrop Pool when melted out).

img_6450

Final few steps to the summit.

img_6452

img_6476

Brooke standing on the summit.

You’ll find a tall summit rock marked with a small metal pole and a piece of pink ribbon wrapped around it. As tempting as it is to jump around up here, be careful – lava rock is sharp and unforgiving. Enjoy the views of Mt. Bachelor to your south and Middle Sister, North Sister, Mt. Jefferson, and more to your north. Return the way you came and remember; you’re only halfway done. In almost all mountaineering cases, the bulk of accidents happen on the descent.

I’m writing this article after one of the most dangerous seasons that South Sister has ever had. More and more people are climbing the mountain, but more and more are inadequately prepared (either in physical condition or with gear), and an alarming number of hikers have had to be rescued – sometimes waiting overnight for mountain personnel. Be careful, be safe, and if it’s your first time up here – never hike alone.

img_6469

img_6470

For this climb I can’t recommend enough that you choose proper footwear and use a pair of tall hiking boots. Almost the entire trail on the actual mountain consists of sandy scree that will flood your tennis shoes, and sharp rocks that could twist an unsupported ankle. Tennis shoes will not just be uncomfortable – they could be dangerous.

It’s also important to remember weather fluctuations at this altitude. Below the Lewis Glacier Lake you may feel warm, even hot, and want to ditch your extra layers – but fight that urge and be sure to carry up all of your supplies to the summit. It’s considerably more windy and chilly on the summit ridge, and a lot can change in two hours.

img_6475

Views of Broken Top on the descent.

Hike to Utah’s Highpoint: King’s Peak (13,527 ft.)

Summit the tallest peak in Utah at 13,527 ft. on a 2-3 day backpacking trip – or do as we did, and knock it out in a day.

img_5983

King’s Peak peeking its head out at sunlight towards the left.

Overview: 28.8 miles, 4.1k elevation gain

This hike isn’t overly difficult; it only takes endurance. Between the 3 hour drive to the trailhead from Salt Lake City, to the seemingly endless 12 mile approach to the base of King’s Peak, this hike makes for a hell of a day.

Christina and I set our alarms for 12:30am and were on the road out of SLC by 1am. We arrived at the Henry Fork Trailhead (9,400 ft.) and were on our feet hiking by 4am. We wouldn’t reach the car until after 7pm that evening, making our day a little longer than 15 hours.

img_5977

Hiking through Henry’s Fork Basin at sunrise.

The good news is that the elevation here is gradual. In fact, the first half dozen miles seem nearly flat (especially if you’re setting out in the dark and focusing more on not tripping over the rock-and-root-filled trail). The distances I read online were confusing and felt inaccurate once we had hit the trail. Here are the big landmarks we recognized for the first part of our day:

  • 3 miles from TH: Sign for Alligator Lake Trail off to the right
  • 5 miles from TH: Sign for Elkhorn Stream Crossing, follow this to the left
  • 9-10 miles from TH: Crossing Gunsight Pass

The main trail will take you up the left/east side of the valley, where you’ll see Dollar Lake and Henry’s Fork Lake from a distance. Most people camp around these lakes before going for the summit push a day later. Be wary of campfire and human waste restrictions around this area.

img_5987

For the first 9-10 miles, the main trail is clearly marked and easy to follow. Beyond Gunsight Pass (11,900 ft.), the directions we’d read online are sparse and unspecific. You have two options from the top of this pass:

  1. Head straight down into Upper Painter Basin and lose around 500 ft. of elevation. Follow the clearly marked, rocky trail around and up Anderson Pass to the base of King’s Peak.
  2. Turn right at the top of the pass and use a “shortcut” to avoid losing elevation. There’s a faint climber’s trail marked with cairns along this mountainside (which is the base of Gunsight Peak) that leads you straight to Anderson Pass. From here, you can clearly see where you’ll meet up with the main trail and where people start off on the North Ridge Route of King’s Peak.

On both the Anderson Pass shortcut and on King’s Peak itself, there are cairns virtually everywhere, which makes it difficult to decide which markers to follow.

img_5991

img_5992

The trail loses itself on the mountain itself as we head towards the summit in the far-off distance.

One clarifying detail about this climb: This route is a 12-mile approach to the base of King’s Peak, where the climb itself turns into a class-2 scramble. There’s a lot of hand-and-foot work involved towards the summit, and we had to warn a couple people with dogs about this on their way up.

img_6005

All smiles at the summit plaque!

Standing on the summit of King’s Peak is quite a thrill – you can see for endless miles in every direction, and peer the dozen miles from where you came from. If I was doing this hike over again, I’d begin even earlier to avoid the unpredictable weather patterns I discovered during my brief visit to Utah…

We’d read about a 97-degree, crystal clear weather forecast for the day we chose to hike – and I got my first lesson into the Mountain Time Zone’s frequent and unrelenting thunderstorms. Christina and I were stuck in nearly three hours of pouring rain and scattered snow, with thunderbolts screeching down to the valley below us. And of course, we had left our rain and cold weather gear at home.

img_5995

Eventually the skies did clear up, and while we may have not made the best navigational decisions in our haste to escape the storm, we finally found ourselves below Gunsight Pass and facing the endless stretch of flatness to the car. Those last five miles were brutal to say the least, and I hope that Christina has forgiven me for the hell I put her through.

Our Fitbits measured a total of over 30 miles and 5,000 ft. of elevation gain when it was all said and done. No doubt this was from the few “interpretations” we took on the trail, but at the end of the day all that really mattered was that we made it back to the car in one piece.

If you’re looking to attempt this one-day’er, bring plenty of water, food, layers, be sure to learn from our mistakes – and have fun!