Mountain or Altitude Sickness

The Gathering of Circles and other activities, such as Vision Quests and Healing Hearts, are held in the Lincoln National Forest outside Cloudcroft, NM at an elevation of about 9,200 feet. About 10-15% of the population may experience mountain or altitude sickness at this elevation, so we routinely have minor, and sometimes severe, cases of mountain sickness. In severe cases, the only alternative is to get the  person to a lower elevation. As in any of life’s activities, it is important that we understand the risks in what we do and become responsible for our own well-being. We are not physicians or pharmacists, so we cannot tell you what to do to prevent and deal with mountain sickness. However, we can point out to you the issue and pass on what an herbalist (Rob Hawley, owner of Taos Herb Company) has told us about the issue. 

Rob Hawley: 
Taos is at an elevation of about 7,100 feet and Taos Ski Valley ranges from about 9,000 feet to almost 11,000 feet, so we routinely have winter and summer visitors suffering from mountain sickness. Rob said that a 15-year-old might become acclimated to 9,000 feet in 10-14 days, while a 50-year-old might require 4-6 weeks to become acclimated. 

There may be two different problems associated with mountain sickness: 
(1) water retention and (2) the hemoglobin doesn’t carry enough oxygen until the person is acclimated to the higher elevations. A person experiencing water retention might have problems with the inner ear and experience dizziness, nausea, and vomiting. 

We are always telling visitors to NM to drink water, drink water, drink water because they may be sweating more than they think in the low humidity and they might become dehydrated. Drinking water also helps with the water retention associated with mountain sickness because it stimulates the kidneys into processing the accumulated water. However, those fasting on a Vision Quest will not be drinking water, so they might need another alternative and Rob recommended taking a natural diuretic, such as Natrol’s Water Pill (two pills twice per day), if there is a problem with mountain sickness. In the event of mountain sickness, you may have a small amount of water to take the pills. Likewise, if you are on medication now, you should continue to take it while Questing. 

If you live near sea level or at a lower elevation, you are not likely to become acclimated to an elevation of 9,000 feet during the Gathering of Circles or a Vision Quest. Rob suggested considering taking chlorophyll (available as powder, capsules, or elixirs–World Organic Chlorophyll is available in 60 mg capsules and we would take 2 capsules every 2 hours–the resulting green stool is not a problem), which will carry extra oxygen. Some have had success with Ginkgo Biloba helping to prevent mountain sickness, but it should be taken starting several weeks before going to the higher elevations. If you have had problems with mountain sickness in the past, you might consider consulting your physician before you get here. I have recently heard that Osha (Bear Medicine) also is good for Mountain Sickness, but I haven’t tried using it.

Mountain sickness can be a major issue and we frequently have people with medical training attending our activities. They have been able to help those suffering from it, but there is no guarantee that medically-trained people will be on hand at every event. Those that have experienced severe forms of mountain sickness don’t want to experience it again. If you live near sea level, we strongly suggest you consider getting some of the aforementioned herbals in the event that you have a problem at the higher elevation where we will be meeting. In addition, we plan to have a cylinder of oxygen available, which will provide short-term relief until you can get to a lower elevation. 

by Mike Andrews