By Travis Huskisson
Right now Colorado and I are not on the greatest terms. Don't get me wrong, I love the state. I think it is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. I even hope to live there one day. However, the fact that it's tried to kill me two of the four times I've visited puts a damper on our relationship.
It was my junior year of high school and the youth group at church was going on its annual spring break skiing trip to Colorado. We went the previous year to Durango, Colo., and I was anxious to get back on the slopes. We flew up to Denver and drove over to Breckenridge, Colo. to ski for four days. On the second night we were there I woke up with the feeling that my head was splitting open. I could barely open my eyes, it hurt so badly. After trying to fall back asleep for half an hour, I finally woke my youth pastor and told him I needed a doctor. We threw on some warmer clothes and trekked across the snow and ice to the Breckenridge Medical Center about half a mile away. Each step more painful than the first. Imagine how it would feel if someone opened up your head and squeezed your brain as hard as they could, never letting go. This was my pain.
When we finally got to the medical center there was a sign on the door saying they were closed. John, my youth pastor, phoned for an ambulance as I sat down on a nearby bench. I felt vulnerable and, for the first time in my life, thought I could die. I was scared. The "closed" sign caused my hope for relief to fade, so I decided the feeling of unconsciousness coming over me was a good thing to submit to.
I awoke in a hospital with an IV in my arm and a doctor standing over me giving John the details. I had been diagnosed with High Altitude Pulmonary Edema. HAPE destroys your body's ability to feed oxygen into your blood. Your oxygen level is supposed to be 98 to 100 percent. Mine was 67. The doctor explained to me I was lucky to be alive and that he had never heard of anyone getting this sickness below 11,000 feet. I felt special, in the most horrible sense of the word.
The rest of my trip was spent lying in bed next to a giant tank of oxygen feeding into my nose. After the fluid had drained from my lungs I was allowed to fly home, doing so anxiously. I returned to Colorado a year later to ski and did so just fine.
The following summer I went on a back packing trip in the Rocky Mountains just outside of Aspen, Colo. with another church group. Our mission was to climb up and over one of the states' many 14,000 foot peaks. I thought to myself, "piece of cake." After all, I am a runner and I am in shape. My body doesn't need as much oxygen anyway, so what did I have to fear, right?
I knew I was in trouble on the second night. One of the symptoms of HAPE is a headache on the second or third night of sleeping at altitude. We spent the first night at a retreat center about 30 miles from the mountain. Vans dropped us off the following morning at the mountain and we spent the second night about 8 miles into our hike. I knew what it was when I felt the headache. Our guides thought it was just mountain sickness and said I should be fine in the morning. I knew better. That night I didn't sleep, rather I spent it throwing up just about everything I had consumed the last 24 hours.
The next day I could barely move. The only way to get help was by helicopter, something I didn't want to do. I tried to suck it up and keep going. Every step that day was worse than the previous one. When we finally got to our camp site I collapsed on the ground.
There was a storm that night so we had to stay at camp the next day, which allowed me to acclimate a little more. The following morning we reached the peak, and I was sure I was about to die. It wasn't until we started descending that I began to feel better. Miraculously that afternoon I was running around and throwing a Frisbee. I knew it was over and I had somehow beaten HAPE, yet again.
I learned from a doctor after this hiking trip that some people are genetically more prone to getting HAPE than others. The best way to combat this sickness is to gradually gain altitude, avoiding alcohol and sedatives, and eating foods rich in carbohydrates. To my surprise it's younger, physically fit people who are more likely to get HAPE. Blue skin, abnormally quick heart rate, and low oxygen levels are some of the determinants of whether someone has HAPE or not.
HAPE is a sickness commonly caused by a combination of rapid gain in altitude, physical exertion at a high altitude and exposure to colder weather. The symptoms can strike quickly, without warning, and you can die from it in a matter of hours. In a study on Colorado skiers, 15 to 40 percent were found to have experienced some sort of acute mountain sickness while only 0.1 to1 percent had ever contracted HAPE. Though Colorado boasts more 14,000-foot peaks than any other state (there are more than 50), many of its visitors come for activities requiring altitudes lower than this, keeping HAPE instances low as well. HAPE is more common at 14,000 feet or higher, with rare instances occurring between 11,000 and 14,000 feet. I was at 9,600 feet when I first got it.
Though HAPE is rare, there are people out there, myself included, who are more likely to get it than others. The odds are excellent you will never experience what I did; I hope you don't. While I plan to keep doing the skiing, backpacking and other potentially high-altitude activities, I will also treat Colorado and its mountains with an intense respect I never had before. I think the state and I now understand each other a whole lot better.