Please disable your Ad Blocker to better interact with this website.

Summiting Mt. Whitney Without AMS

Mount Whitney

Earlier this year I successfully summited Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous US, after almost exactly one year to the week that I had to give up on a previous attempt due to acute mountain sickness (AMS), or altitude sickness. Thankfully I didn’t have any issues or symptoms of AMS this time round because of several factors that I’ll go into here shortly.

I’d like to thank each and every one of you that over the past year has left a comment of encouragement on my blog, sent me an email, mentioned me in a tweet, or reached out to me via Facebook. I read each and every message that I get and do my best to respond to every one, but wanted to take this opportunity to say thank you for all the kind words – it means so much to me and helps more than you can imagine.

Mount Whitney Crest Trail Pass

AMS – Doing Things Differently

As I mentioned, this was my second attempt at summiting Mount Whitney and I had already decided that regardless of the outcome it was going to be my last. That spurred me on to take this a little more seriously and make plans to combat the symptoms of AMS in as many ways as I could.

Proper Hydration

I was convinced that on my last trip to Whitney I did not consume anywhere near enough water each day, so one of the first things I did differently this time was to stay fully hydrated. Being dehydrated during any hike can be a bad thing, but once you bring high elevation, heat, and a strenuous hike into it play it can become very serious. There were plenty of reliable water sources along the trail, so I really had no excuse not to be fully hydrated at all times. Everyone is different and has different hydration needs, but I had set myself the goal of drinking at least 4 liters of water per day and I stuck to it.

Mount Whitney Summit View

Overall Fitness & Health

A few months before my trip to Mt. Whitney, I had participated in a team endurance event called a GORUCK Challenge (GRC), which is modelled after the military’s special operations training. To get in shape and prepare for the event I had trained hard for 5-6 months increasing my running distance, lifting weight, and starting a daily crossfit work out regime. By the time of the GRC I had dropped 30 lbs, lost six inches on my waist, gained a lot of muscle, and significantly increased my stamina and endurance.

I successfully completed the GRC #192 on June 29th and vowed to maintain that same level of fitness going forward in order to be in shape for my Whitney trip. With an extra three months of physical training between my GRC and the Whitney hike I was in much better shape than I was at the same time last year. Good livin’ as we say in the GORUCK family.

Smithsonian Hut at Mount Whitney Summit

Medication (Diamox)

Despite being in better shape than last year, or probably even since college, I wanted to leave nothing to chance, so I made a point of talking to my GP during my annual physical about the AMS symptoms I had experienced last year and whether or not he would recommend trying Diamox (Acetazolamide) to combat AMS. I was unfamiliar with Diamox as a medication for AMS until someone left a comment on my previous Whitney blog post suggesting I look into it – another reason why my readers are awesome.

My doctor reminded me that although I was in much better shape than before and had vowed to hydrate properly, AMS can strike even the most healthy of people. He agreed to prescribe me a 5-day low dosage of Diamox for my hike. The tablets were to be take twice a day at elevations starting the day before the hike. I almost laughed out loud when I read the list of potential side effects, there was one in particular that was very well documented – Diamox was a diuretic! Another reason to make sure that I was hydrating properly.

Acli-Mate Powder Packets

Drink Supplements (Acli-Mate)

Finally, I had some cool new drink supplements called Acli-Mate that were said to be able to help reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness if taken three times a day starting at least three days before being at altitude. Knowing I was going to be doing a lot of drinking on this trip, I thought that it couldn’t hurt to add some flavor to my water at the very least. So I took the packets with me and used them three times a day to supplement my drinking and really enjoyed all of the flavors except mountain grape – yuck!

I’d like to give a huge shout out to Glen Van Peski and the rest of the Gossamer Gear gang (Grant, Dave and Michael) for providing me with the packets of Acli-Mate for my trip to Mt. Whitney. We were all at the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City together in August and toward the last day of the show they spotted the Acli-Mate booth giving out drink samples and selling the packets. Intrigued and curious, they very thoughtfully bought some of the packets to try and knowing that I would be going to Whitney that same month, gave me as many as I needed for my trip – they’re all really cool guys.

Mount Whitney Summit Marker

It Worked!

Having successfully summited Mt. Whitney after a four-pronged approach to tackling AMS, I found myself unable to determine exactly which one thing had the most impact on combating my symptoms. If I had to guess I’d say it was the medication, followed closely by proper hydration, but can’t say for certain. I strongly believe that all of the things I did differently helped in their own way and the cumulative effect was the complete lack of symptoms – either way I’m extremely happy with the outcome.

Stay tuned for a follow up post on some of the cool new gear that I got to test out during my recent Whitney trip. Oh the things I do in the name of blogging – gotta love it :)

Related Posts You Might Like:

(Visited 808 times, 1 visits today)
Be Sociable, Share!
  • Congrats again buddy for beating your evil ghost.

  • karla from colorado

    Great that you had such success at keeping your AMS at bay, it’s a miserable trip when you feel like s#!t!! I’d say the benefits of being in much better shape was a huge part of that success… but just my thought! Either way, it’s fun learning from your travels and experiences. Keep on keepin’ on! :)

    • Being in better shape made the entire trip much more fun and I’m sure it did help alleviate the symptoms. I just didn’t want to get that far (again) only to find out that despite my new found fitness I still suffered from AMS – so I took additional precautions :)

  • great blog! Can’t wait to hear more details and gear reviews! They are so helping me! Love this blog! and the humor with insight.

    • It’s great to hear you say “humor”. While I’m no comedian, I do think that a lot of bloggers, especially outdoor bloggers, lack the ability to make fun of themselves and take this all far too seriously. The entire reason why we get outdoors is to enjoy it and to me that means laughing and having fun.

      Thanks for the kind words and I’m so happy to hear that you are finding the information I post here useful in some small way.

  • 1] 30lbs down 2] cardio-vascular status now where it should have been 3] water: there is a reason it is called the Staff of Life: use it or lose 4] Proper PrePlanning Promotes Proper Performance. all these together =’s a successful endeavor. You left FAR too much to chance the first time out and could have died from that oversight. You have done it correct this time and Everest could be a realistic attempt now. Congratulations on JOBS well done, sir!

    • #2 – ouch! You’re right though, I significantly underestimated how hard it would be when I made my first attempt last year. That said, AMS can strike even the most physically fit person, I saw that at first hand this time along the trail. However, I would not have gone as far to say I left too much to chance.

      I had everything I needed last year and was in pretty darn good physical shape (years or martial arts helped) but admit I did not take my hydration seriously enough. I was with two other backpackers who had hiked and summited Whitney before, so when we saw the signs of AMS accumulating we ALL agreed that it was time to turn back. We didn’t let the AMS reach the point of becoming life threatening.

      You’re also right that this time I didn’t leave anything to chance and if anything I over-compensated. I doubt that Everest will ever be a realistic possibility (mostly due to the time and cost) but I appreciate the vote of confidence :)

  • JJ_Mathes

    Congratulations Brian!

  • Snctool

    Congratulations Brian. Back when I was 19 (60 now) I got AMS on a mountain In Oregon while on a hunting trip. I was in great physical shape at the time but the thin air brought me to my knees a few times. I lost all energy. I did not know there was medication for this issue. Thanks for the information.

    • Thanks Steve, I had no idea that there was medication for this either until someone mentioned it on my previous post about suffering from AMS. Thank goodness for my readers!

  • Yippie

    Congrats! I enjoy your blog . It has opened up a whole new world to me. I just started doing day hikes and hope to do the MTS trail someday.

    • That’s the best possible type of comment I could expect to hear. Congrats on geting out and on having set a goal for yourself. If there’s ever anything I can do to help or questions I can (try to) answer, let me know! ^BG

  • Phil Casey

    Congrats on your success. Whitney is one of my goal/dream hikes. I’m about a year or so out from being physically prepared the way I want to be.

    Quick question: Did you really mean “daily” Crossfit? Or did you mean weekly? I ask because I’m trying to train for the Goruck myself and can’t imagine CrossFit more than once a week.

    • Phil, I do a Crossfit WOD five days a week, Monday through Friday, and take the weekend off – mostly to spend time with my wife and kids otherwise I’d go in on Saturdays too.

      When I started Crossfit my body hurt, and my muscles ached. After a week or so my body became used to the workouts and has grown to recover much faster than before. Plus my endurance has gone through the roof.

      The GORUCK cadre like to say that the challenges are mostly mental, and for a large part they are. But if you’re only doing CF once a week I’d be looking at running, swimming or some other form of regular exercise to prepare for the challenge.

      After a few months of CF I was still not fully prepared for the Challenge :) It’s brutal, in a good way!

  • Although it definitely helps to be in shape on Whitney, it is not at all an indicator of who will get Acute Mountain Sickness. I have some friends who attempted it two years ago (on separate trips).

    One was a marathon runner, who was 28, and in amazing shape. He failed to make the summit, and had to turn around after sleeping at Trail Camp, and waking up with a severe headache, dizziness and vomiting.

    The other friend, was 30 lbs. overweight, 42 years old, only prepared by doing a couple of trips up the Devil’s Backbone route on Mt. Baldy (and did not routinely exercise), and…..she smokes 3/4 pack of cigarettes a day! She made it to the top with no altitude symptoms at all, and lit a cigarette on the summit (very bad).

    While I personally believe being in better shape will make your body more efficient and will allow you to exert yourself less, it is not at all an indicator of how you will react at altitude. There seems to be an unusually high number of out of shape people who have success on Whitney, simply because they take it much, much slower, while the people in shape tend to push themselves a lot faster.

    There are many stories out there of people who took almost 24 hours to day hike Whitney, obviously not in the greatest shape and moving very, very slowly, but who made the summit.

    • Kathy, I agree with you 100% and it sort of infuriated me last year to see people who were less “active” than myself pass by me and make it to the summit. AMS in not selective that way. My plan was to tackle AMS from every approach possible, even if some of them weren’t necessary. In the end one of the changes (probably the meds) made the difference, I’m just happy with the results.

  • A question about both your trips – I didn’t see anything about acclimatizing before heading up the trail, (although I might have missed this). Did you spend any time up above 10,000 feet before starting the trail? Like at Horseshoe Meadows? A couple nights spent up there before hitting the trail, (and doing some over 1,500 foot elevation gain day hikes) really helps.

    • You didn’t miss it – I simply didn’t have the time to do it. That would have been exactly what I would have done (more time outdoors is always preferable anyway), but having a full time job, living on the East coast and flying in to CA resulted in a limited amount of time, so less than ideal. That’s the only reason :)

  • Daryl Davis

    Congratulations, Brian!

    I was down there (I’m in San Jose) at the end of September. We didn’t summit: it’s a long story, but boils down to my buddy was mentally not up to the challenge. We decided to shoot for Lone Pine Lake before we left, and made it that far. I’ll go back next year, but probably as a solo. It was good to be in the outdoors again, after 10 years without more than an occasional overnight trip.

    We camped next to four young fellows (I’m 55, my buddy is 47) who were attempting the East Arete of Mt. Russell, a Class 3 scramble. All four got hit with AMS 100 feet from the summit, and had to come down. They were a great group of guys, and we’re keeping in touch.

    One handy bit of kit I took were the Pacerpole trekking poles, designed by Heather Rhodes in the U.K. I ordered a pair after reading about them on SectionHiker’s site. After using them, I’m ordering another pair: they’re that good!

    • I’m bummed that your trip was cut short but sometimes that happens – it did for me too last year and I was the cause. Better safe than sorry.

      Mountain hiking, for me, demands trekking poles – period. For stability, to reduce leg fatigue, and as part of my shelter (most of the time), so I hear you loud and clear. I use a pair of Gossamer Gear LT4s that weigh next to nothing but are carbon fiber and super strong. That said my hiking buddy snapped one of his LT4s on the descent, so he continued on with just one.

      Great to see yet another >40 rocking it in the back country. If you go back next year, be sure to check in here and even share some thoughts and photos. Thanks Daryl.

  • DD Longlegs

    Hey Brian, major congratulations on your summit!

    I just got back from Peru which included hiking in to a mountain basin at 15,440 ft. I had already been in Peru for 2 weeks, mostly in Cuzco which is at 10,800 ft. Even so, the last kilometer was brutal.

    A few points: I had trained on our 1/2 marathon mountain (2000 ft elevation gain, summit 6000 ft) but was not as fit as I wanted. I took a “blood builder” (increases red blood cells for anemia) for a month before I went. I took Diamox before arriving in Cuzco but it made me feel slightly disoriented so I quit the day after I arrived there. Coca tea is everywhere, and I mean EVERYWHERE. We stayed at some nice hotels and they have it for free for AMS. I didn’t feel anything when I drank the tea. It is sort of like camomile…not much flavor. I had spent 5 days slogging up and down the mountains of Machu Picchu and Pisaq (and lost 10 lb doing before we went on the mountain hike.

    We drove to the trail head (13,650 ft) and most of the elevation gain was in the first kilometer. After that it is a rolling trail except the last kilometer which has a mild hill. My problem was not muscle fatigue but I could definitely feel the lack of oxygen in breathing. I tested at 96% O2 saturation in Cuzco and the next morning at base camp I was at 86%. I was told this was good although I could still feel the lack of O2. I never did develop classic AMS symptoms (headache, insomnia, etc) but others in the group, who had been in Peru nearly as long as I had, did and needed oxygen. They have a nifty aerosol can called OxyShot and 2 hits off that makes a big difference.

    I am not sure which things made the difference but most likely being at (and hiking at) altitude for so long before the hike was the most effective, even though this did not seem to make a difference with others in the group who had problems. Many were significantly younger/fitter than me (I am 59).

    Would I do it again? YOU BETCHA!!

    • Awesome to hear and congrats to you too. One of the strangest things about AMS is that it can strike anyone, regardless of fitness and age or even prior acclimation. There are things you can do to help offset or potentially prevent the onset of AMS symptoms, but there’s no guarantee.

      I’ve never heard of Coca tea for AMS but will have to look it up – other readers maybe interested in that. Way to lead the way for all the other >40 “Masters” here, myself included :) Job well done brother!

      • DD Longlegs

        Coca leaves are not legal anywhere in the USA or Canada. In fact they are only legal in a few South American countries, Peru included. It takes a HUGE amount of leaves to convert to cocaine but that is why they are illegal. I never felt anything when I either drank the tea or chewed a few leaves (which is also very common there) but it did seem to help with the feeling of lack of oxygen.
        Oh ya…and I am female, not male, but you can call me “sistah”…LOL

        • LOL – I took DD Longlegs to mean Daddy Longlegs. Now the long legs have a whole different meaning ;) Apologies for the gender slip up. I got it now!

  • Waylen

    Dude, Very inspiring Brian. What an awesome Feat! Thanks for sharing your story, training and tips! once again, your blog f*#%ing rocks!

    • Thanks Waylen! It was an awesome trip for sure and much better the second time round. I appreciate the support and hope I can keep up with your expectations :)

  • AndyAmick

    Great job and glad you made it this time. Acclimation would probably help but a trip across the country with work waiting when you get back has a way of not giving you enough time. :)

    • Thanks Andy, your exactly right. If work were not an issue I’d have taken much more time, but my backpacking trips and my blogging are a passion that have to take second place to earning a living, forcing me to compromise. Even with that being the case I had an awesome time and would recommend it for anyone who is thinking about trying. Thanks for leaving a comment :)

  • Patrick

    Great job, man! I hope you took a lot of pictures while you are on the trail. Man, it must really be amazing feeling to have accomplished this! How many weeks or months of acclimatization do you need before trying out to get to the summit? It must have been really tough.

    • I took a lot of photos this time, I just haven’t managed to get round to uploading them all yet. I really do need to take care of that.

  • Scott

    How fast did you go up? We hiked Whitney up from the Portal a few years back with no AMS until over 14K. Our key was to ascend slowly. We slept at the roadhead (8K) the night before hiking. Then we went to the camp around 10K, and a last night at the high camp at 12K. We summited from there and back to the car. Three days allowed us to adjust. We also saw a lot of people suffering coming down at the high camp.

  • MB

    These are great suggestions and one more to add would to be to apply for an overnight permit… I did on my 1st attempt and I believe it made the difference for me. I spent the 1st night at the portal (8000′) and the second night at trail camp (12.000′) and had very little if any AMS symptoms. Last Monay 9-23-13 a group of four of us set out for the day hike and had to turn around about 500 feet from the top of the switch backs (approximately 13,000′) due to dizzyness. Two out of our four person group were too dizzy to proceed safely and we turned arond as a group. I might have been able to go on but the concensus was it was simply not safe to continue. I would reccomend all the above and as much time to adjust to the altitude as possible.

    Mt Whitney is a challenging hike but it is also a very beautiful place to be. I encorage anyone to make the trip even if you dont summit. It is a great experiance and the view is stunning. Even though we didnt reach the summit we had a very good time together… an 18 mile hike and 5000′ elevation gain is an accomplishment regardless if you summit or not. See ya all up there again next year.