This area of the country is covered in mountains, just asking to be hiked upon. Many of them are accessible year-round allowing summits even in the winter. But how about that high mountain climb you’ve been considering for a couple years now? Are you ready to break out of the “same ole” routine and see about some serious elevation? You know, the really high peaks that yield drop-dead gorgeous panoramic photos and taunt you to stretch your limits of altitude?

There are few places in the world where you can wake up at sea level, and by mid-afternoon be standing at 10,000 feet. Washington is one of those places.  As the last waning clear days of summer fly past, consider getting up high, really high. It’s a great experience that shouldn’t be left only to mountaineers. Hikers and backpackers have some awesome options around here. You just need to know a little bit extra before you tackle the first one. Here are some thoughts on taking on that first high hike!

Getting to Elevation
Above the clouds

Take Experience. Mountain safety isn’t something to take lightly. There is a lot to know, but it shouldn’t scare you out of a higher elevation day hike. Take someone who goes up often. Preferably someone who knows what crampons and beacons and avy reports are. That way you don’t have to read the whole book of knowledge before you embark on your first high hike. If  you are considering a hike that is way out of  your comfort zone, then your experienced climbing partner should be all the more trustworthy. The first time I went up to Camp Muir on Mt Rainier, I took someone who had been to the Himalayas and up Mt McKinley (I was a little gun shy). He also sent me a very specific list of gear I would need, as well as all the gear he was taking, so I had a clear picture of what goes into the planning of such a thing and what to expect. Which leads us to number two.

Getting to Elevation

Getting to Elevation

Take all the right equipment. I took a novice hiker out the other day. His first question was “Are my running shoes okay for this trail?” It was a trail of 3000 feet elevation gain and ended in a snowfield. Not running shoe material. High elevation hikes are the same way. You need more “stuff” than a standard hike. Learn what it is and borrow what you don’t already have. Depending on your location and elevation, you’ll need gaiters, crampons, beacon, emergency shelter and other things that day hikers generally don’t carry. Go to the trouble to learn what’s needed, why, and how to use it.

Practice first. If you have been hiking trails for a bunch of years, that is great. But if they have all been flat, sea-level hikes, don’t expect to be able to drag yourself to 10,000 feet without some trouble. Train yourself and you’ll enjoy the experience more. Mt Si is a great training hill. So are about 20 others within reasonable distance from Seattle. Work into it, you’ll be glad you did.

Getting to Elevation
Camping with a view

Know the signs of altitude sickness. It goes by lots of names: Altitude sickness, AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema) HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema). While extreme altitude sickness doesn’t usually occur until above 10,000 feet, it can occur as low as 5000 feet. I know people who have had trouble flying into Denver (about 5000 feet elevation at the airport) and showed all the signs of AMS. But it’s generally recognized that about 8000 feet is where most signs begin to occur. That means there are more than 100 peaks in Washington alone that could cause altitude sickness symptoms. More importantly, it is very difficult to see symptoms in yourself. “I feel fine… I wonder why I have this headache?” is really typical. And yet, you keep ascending. Hmmm. High altitude often impairs critical decision making, so it’s nothing to mess with. It is important to know what the symptoms are and make sure your partners do as well, so you can watch each other for signs of trouble. Main indicators are:  headache, nausea (occasionally with vomiting or diarrhea), disorientation, inability to catch breath (even after a rest), slurred speech, fatigue, sleepiness and lethargy. Read more about them here. The best cure for any of these is to DESCEND. Lose 1000 vertical feet immediately and then rest and reassess.

Time the weather, weather the timing. Some Rainier summit groups have waited weeks or months to make their summit attempt. Lower mountains should be no exception. The reason is, weather way up there can be critical. Anyone who isn’t afraid of the weather at elevation, doesn’t know enough about it. Our weather systems on high mountains in particular can shift very quickly. In the time it takes you to climb half way to Camp Muir for instance, it can go from clear and sunny and 60 degrees, to completely clouded in or 40 MPH winds. That’s not something to mess with.

Getting to Elevation
Clouds forming over the summit of Rainier

Be Reasonable. Yes, you took 3 days off work to make this climb happen. You bought expensive gear and have had this planned for X weeks. Those things should create excitement, but not stupidity. Even though you took that extra day off work, and this is your one chance to climb Mount X, the weather (storm projected for the day we descend) and circumstances (my partner is sick) should come first, or you are putting yourself at unnecessary risk.

Enjoy the challenge. If it’s not your thing, by all means, don’t let me shove you up a big hill. You have to really want to do it, or it’s not worth the effort. But for most of us who enjoy being out in the high country, once you reach the peak, it’s worth every step.

Getting to Elevation
Early fall summit of Mt. Adams
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