Sneak Peak! Altitude Sickness in the High Sierra

This is the sickest I’ve ever felt in my life: when Big Spoon and I climbed up to over 11,000 feet in elevation in the High Sierra, and I became the feeble victim of altitude sickness.

This thin-air disease is no joke. If left untreated for too long, the results could be fatal.

What you are about to read is taken from a chapter in Mile 445 called “Altitude Sickness in the High Sierra.” It is early summer, and Big Spoon and I had just received a hitch from the town of Lone Pine–elevation 3,700 feet–back up into the High Sierra when this sneak peak begins.

Enjoy! And stay tuned for the release of Mile 445 later this summer! It will throw you into one daring adventure after the next.

From “Altitude Sickness in the High Sierra”

The shuttle ended at Cottonwood Pass, situated in the thin and chilly air of 9,920 feet. In a mere thirty minutes, we had gained over 6,000 feet in elevation. I felt the difference. My head started to throb and my stomach turned queasy. This air was hard to breathe.

Nevertheless, Big Spoon and I pushed forward a few miles to Chicken Spring Lake—our first alpine lake of the Sierra.

Sun-bleached talus encased the rippling water that sparkled like chandeliers. To get here, we clambered to an elevation of 11,276 feet. It was early afternoon and I dreaded to take another step for I now had a full-blown migraine, and all motion made me ill. Thus I sat while Big Spoon pitched our tent on the white-stone beach. He blew up my sleeping pad and spread my sleeping bag across it. I crawled inside and lay down. Please God, I begged. Let me fall asleep.

But my migraine only built, forming waves of nausea that crashed into me. Soon, I couldn’t take it and rushed out of the tent, sprinted to the nearest boulder, and bent over behind it. My whole body tingled as if I had just stepped out of freezing water. The vomit rocked in my gut then rose to my throat. I retched. And I retched. Meanwhile, my migraine screamed and scratched against my skull like a demon desiring release. I kept vomiting and bitter brown bile spilled out. Painful dry-heaves followed that forced tears from my eyes. My throat burned and I was out of breath, but my body scraped for more. Then a metallic taste flooded my tongue and with my final heave, blood fell, coloring my vile vomit at my feet with velvety drops of red.

When it was over, I collapsed against the boulder and gasped for air. I felt like an emptied river. Big Spoon ran up to me with water. He had been walking the bank by the lake when he heard my violent gags.

“I’m carrying you back down to a lower elevation,” he said, holding the water bottle to my lips. “You have altitude sickness. That’s serious.”

“Please, no,” I wept after sipping what I could. “My head’s killing me. It’s awful to move. Please. I just want to go to sleep.”

Big Spoon looked up at the sky and smelled the air. “A storm’s coming in,” he said and thought a moment more. “We can stay,” he allowed. “But you have to drink the rest of this water. And if you throw up again, we’re going down.”

Had we known of the fatal risks altitude sickness could cast upon its captives, we would have descended the mountain immediately, regardless of my incapacitating migraine and the coming rain. As it were, we stayed at the lake. I melted into my sleeping bag as the clouds growled then slavered. Big Spoon sat up over me, making sure I was okay. Before I fell asleep, he swiped his thumb over my forehead in the shape of the cross.

“My mom did this to comfort me as a boy when she tucked me in at night,” he said of the sweet symbol. “I have something else that might make you feel better, too.” He dug into his pants pocket then held his closed fist before me. “Here,” he said, opening his hand. “I found this on the bank. It was right there in plain sight as if someone purposely left it for me to find.”

Enough light remained outside to see. I feebly sat up and Big Spoon placed the treasure in my hand. It was a silver heart about a quarter inch thick the size of a silver dollar. “It looks old,” I said, examining the fancy filigree that scrolled out from the heart’s inscription. I read the engraving aloud: “For someone special.”

“Pretty neat, huh?” Big Spoon said. “I want you to have it.”

“Thank you,” I said, moved by his beautiful find. “But this is for you. You’re the someone special that this belongs to.” I returned the token to him and lay back down. “I love you. Thank you for taking care of me,” I said and closed my eyes.

It rained into morning. When I awoke, a light pain lingered in my forehead but the nausea was gone. I readied for the rainy day ahead, working with Big Spoon by my side. As I did, I reminded myself we were on a journey. And journeys were hard. But they were full of grace, marked with meaning and gifts that made us stronger and got us closer to the place where we belonged while opening our eyes to one spectacular thing after the next—like Big Spoon’s heart—so long as we didn’t give up.

I reminded myself that in a matter of days I should acclimate to the High Sierra.


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© 2017 by Claire Henley Miller