On August 5th, 2017 a 17-year-old boy from Salem, Utah— who would have celebrated his 18th birthday on August 6th, passed away from acute mountain sickness (AMS) while on a Scout high-adventure trip to the High Uintas.
Douglas Julian, the boy’s father, wrote in a journal-like letter what is was like to hear the devastating news of his son passing away from something so treatable as AMS:
“I recall the feeling that it felt as if someone had taken a large drill bit and bored a hole in my chest,” writes Julian. “It has been just over two months since my son has passed away and that pain from that metaphoric hole in my heart is still present; I suppose I will have to try and get used to it… I don’t think it will be leaving any time soon…”
“It felt as if someone had taken a large drill bit and bored a hole in my chest. I hurt badly and I could not make the pain go away…“
When leaders from the Scout trip recounted the story to Julian, he identified points at which his son should have gotten down to a lower elevation in order to recover just fine; however, Scout leaders did the best that they could— even discussing altitude sickness and determining it wasn’t the cause of the son’s illness… no one could have known the tragic events that would occur that day. As a loving father, Julian just wants what happened to his boy and him to never happen to anyone else.
Awareness and education— Julian knows— is the best way to prevent another tragedy. Therefore, Julian wants all Boy Scouts and adventure-lovers alike to first be aware that AMS can be very serious if not treated correctly. Second after awareness, Julian is on a mission to educate people about the signs and symptoms of AMS and how to properly treat them.
What is Altitude Sickness?
At high elevations, the air around you becomes “thinner” and the pressure needed to push oxygen into your lungs is reduced, disabling your body from getting enough oxygen from the air around you. This is called hypobaric hypoxia.
Those who begin to suffer from acute mountain sickness (AMS) may experience a headache, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, shortness of breath, inflamed hands and face, or weakness.
One of the leaders on Doug’s hiking trip recounts that, at first, Doug had a small cough that worsened the next day, but was thought to simply be a cold coming on— especially since one of the other boys on the trip had a cold. Doug had also brought a few packs of Rolaids because it was normal for him to get nauseous when camping at higher elevations, said the leader….another reason perhaps his symptoms weren’t acted upon immediately. However, Friday night the same leader did discuss altitude sickness with Doug but determined it wasn’t what he was suffering from.
Doug’s Father writes:
On Friday Doug did not improve, in fact, he stayed behind from hiking to another lake for some fishing fun due to feeling under the weather. As his father, I would have realized that this was not normal for Doug…he rarely missed a chance to fish as he a passion for fishing. At this point, Doug could have walked down the mountain and still recovered nicely from the elevation sickness.
How to Treat Acute Mountain Sickness
In retrospect, Doug experienced all of the first signs of AMS; a headache, chest pain and nausea. The problem was, though, that these symptoms were misdiagnosed as normal side effects of hiking or as signs of a cold. Sleeping with the symptoms can aggravate the sickness because it allows the fluid to build in your lungs.
In the article “How to combat altitude sickness” from the Scouting magazine, one doctor stated, “If you get a headache at altitude, assume it’s being caused by the altitude and not something else,” says Dr. Chris Davis, medical director of the Colorado Clinic for Altitude and Mountain Medicine.
If someone in your troop or hiking group has a headache accompanied by any other symptom, it qualifies as AMS, so get to a lower elevation and wait until the effects pass. By doing something so simple as walking back down the trail, lives can be saved.
S.A.M.P.L.E (Symptoms. Allergies. Medications. Past Medical History. Last Ins and Outs. Events Leading up to This.) on the Scout Backpacking Community website is a great checklist that helps leaders be able to better identify what is causing the patient’s illness.
The BSA Safety Moments also just published an article on what altitude sickness is, the different types or phases and how to prevent and treat it.
Steps You Can Take to Prevent Altitude Sickness
When traveling to areas of no communication, have a satellite communication device to summon help quickly. When going to elevations above 8,000 ft: have a pulse oximeter (they’re only $11 at Walmart and could save your life) to check oxygen levels and supplemental oxygen. Also, ascend in stages to allow time for your body to acclimate to the change in pressure and oxygen content in the air.