The elevation of Red Lodge, Montana is 5,555. The Beartooth All American Road provides visitors with access to the Northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park. This is an incredibly beautiful, scenic drive which switchbacks up the mountains and then into Wyoming. The highest elevation on this drive is 10,940 feet.
High altitude-we all enjoy that tremendous view from a high summit, but there are risks in going to high altitude, and it's important to understand these risks. Here is a classic scenario for developing a high altitude illness. You fly from New York City to a Denver at 5,000 feet (1,525 meters). That afternoon you rent a car and drive up to the trailhead at 8,000 feet (2,438 meters). You hike up to your first camp at 9,000 feet (2,745 meters). The next day you hike up to 10,500 feet (3,048 meters). You begin to have a severe headache and feel nauseous and weak. If your condition worsens, you may begin to have difficulty hiking. Scenarios like this are not uncommon, so it's essential that you understand the physiological effects of high altitude.
What is High Altitude? Altitude is defined on the following scale High (8,000 - 12,000 feet [2,438 - 3,658 meters]), Very High (12,000 - 18,000 feet [3,658 - 5,487 meters]), and Extremely High (18,000+ feet [5,500+ meters]). Since few people have been to such altitudes, it is hard to know who may be affected. There are no specific factors such as age, sex, or physical condition that correlate with susceptibility to altitude sickness. Some people get it and some people don't, and some people are more susceptible than others. Most people can go up to 8,000 feet (2,438 meters) with minimal effect. If you haven't been to high altitude before, it's important to be cautious. If you have been at that altitude before with no problem, you can probably return to that altitude without problems as long as you are properly acclimatized.
What Causes Altitude Illnesses The concentration of oxygen at sea level is about 21% and the barometric pressure averages 760 mmHg. As altitude increases, the concentration remains the same but the number of oxygen molecules per breath is reduced. At 12,000 feet (3,658 meters) the barometric pressure is only 483 mmHg, so there are roughly 40% fewer oxygen molecules per breath. In order to properly oxygenate the body, your breathing rate (even while at rest) has to increase. This extra ventilation increases the oxygen content in the blood, but not to sea level concentrations. Since the amount of oxygen required for activity is the same, the body must adjust to having less oxygen. In addition, for reasons not entirely understood, high altitude and lower air pressure causes fluid to leak from the capillaries which can cause fluid build-up in both the lungs and the brain. Continuing to higher altitudes without proper acclimatization can lead to potentially serious, even life-threatening illnesses.
Acclimatization The major cause of altitude illnesses is going too high too fast. Given time, your body can adapt to the decrease in oxygen molecules at a specific altitude. This process is known as acclimatization and generally takes 1-3 days at that altitude. For example, if you hike to 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), and spend several days at that altitude, your body acclimatizes to 10,000 feet (3,048 meters). If you climb to 12,000 feet (3,658 meters), your body has to acclimatize once again. A number of changes take place in the body to allow it to operate with decreased oxygen.
The depth of respiration increases. Pressure in pulmonary arteries is increased, "forcing" blood into portions of the lung which are normally not used during sea level breathing. The body produces more red blood cells to carry oxygen, The body produces more of a particular enzyme that facilitates the release of oxygen from hemoglobin to the body tissues.
Prevention of Altitude Illnesses Prevention of altitude illnesses falls into two categories, proper acclimatization and preventive medications. Below are a few basic guidelines for proper acclimatization.
If possible, don't fly or drive to high altitude. Start below 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) and walk up. If you do fly or drive, do not over-exert yourself or move higher for the first 24 hours. If you go above 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), only increase your altitude by 1,000 feet (305 meters) per day and for every 3,000 feet (915 meters) of elevation gained, take a rest day. "Climb High and sleep low." This is the maxim used by climbers. You can climb more than 1,000 feet (305 meters) in a day as long as you come back down and sleep at a lower altitude. If you begin to show symptoms of moderate altitude illness, don't go higher until symptoms decrease (Don't go up until symptoms go down"). If symptoms increase, go down, down, down! Keep in mind that different people will acclimatize at different rates. Make sure all of your party is properly acclimatized before going higher. Stay properly hydrated. Acclimatization is often accompanied by fluid loss, so you need to drink lots of fluids to remain properly hydrated (at least 3-4 quarts per day). Urine output should be copious and clear. Take it easy; don't over-exert yourself when you first get up to altitude. Light activity during the day is better than sleeping because respiration decreases during sleep, exacerbating the symptoms. Avoid tobacco and alcohol and other depressant drugs including, barbiturates, tranquilizers, and sleeping pills. These depressants further decrease the respiratory drive during sleep resulting in a worsening of the symptoms. Eat a high carbohydrate diet (more than 70% of your calories from carbohydrates) while at altitude. The acclimatization process is inhibited by dehydration, over-exertion, and alcohol and other depressant drugs.
Additional Reading: Altitude Illness Prevention & Treatment, Steven Bezruchka, The Mountaineers, Seattle, 1994. Going Higher, Charles Houston, Little Brown, 1987. High Altitude Sickness and Wellness, Charles Houston, ICS Books, 1995. High Altitude Medicine and Physiology, Ward Milledge, West, Chapman and Hall, New York, 1995.