There are two things you must deal with when you book a trip far out in advance. The first which you can’t do much about is the wait. The second which you do have some control over is your expectations for the trip. I am not sure if I have shared this or not but my friend Julia and I booked our spots for the 3 day wild horse camping tour in the Pryor Mountains in Montana a whole year before the trip took place. Over the course of nearly 12 months, I had ample time to shape my expectations for the trip and let’s be honest, they were pretty high ones. You have to add in some wiggle room for unforeseen circumstances–delayed flights, missing luggage, terrible weather, the usual thing. However, not once did the possibility of altitude sickness ever cross my mind.
Consider my expectations exceeded! Part of Coronado’s band: Manuelita, Fools Gold, Dove, and Nickel
After an incredible first day, I woke up on the second day feeling light-headed and dizzy. I got up out of my tent to go to the bathroom in the great outdoors and I noticed I was having trouble walking in a straight line. It was like someone had turned off the balance switch in my brain. I felt like I was on a rocking boat and that the mountain was spinning around me. Like a terribly bad hangover, yet one that involved no alcohol. What the hell was going on?
It was quickly decided that I would stay behind for the first planned hike of the day. Sandy, our guide, was reluctant to leave me alone by myself but I insisted that I would be okay. I did not want anyone missing out on seeing the horses just because I did not feel well. As the others set off, I went back inside my tent to lie down and rest. Much to my consternation, instead of feeling better, I began to feel worse. My head started to pound and nausea rolled over me in waves.
The tent/my sickbed. We hung the blanket from the tree to dry because it rained one night and it got a little wet.
As I lay on my sleeping bag with my eyes closed, it slowly dawned on me that what I was experiencing was probably a combination of dehydration and altitude sickness. I grew up in a coastal town located below sea level overlooking Long Island Sound. It floods every time it rains–these pictures of the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy in the fall of 2012 will demonstrate just how susceptible my town is to flooding due to its topography.
Rising to a height of over 8000 feet, the Pryor Mountains are the complete opposite of my hometown in every way. I am not used to spending long periods of time at high elevations and I had certainly never slept at that high an altitude before. Prolonged exposure at an altitude with less oxygen available than what I am typically used to combined with not drinking enough water on the first day and overexerting myself resulted in my body shutting down in order to recuperate. I could picture my mom standing over me with a raised eyebrow asking me, “Are you getting enough water?” Mothers always know best.
Left to right: Nye, Firestorm, Aztec, and Jasmine.
Usually it is best to slowly ascend when getting acclimatized to a higher altitude. However due to the time constraints of the trip, I was forced up speed up the process which ended up backfiring. Of course, it was nobody’s fault. There is no way to predict if a person will be susceptible to altitude sickness. It was something I was only vaguely aware of–something that I thought only occurred to thrill-seekers climbing mountains at extremely high elevations like Mt. Everest. And yet I was the only one in our group who seemed to be having difficulties with the altitude. I also later found out I was the first person ever in the two years Sandy has been doing camping tours in the Pryors to ever get altitude sickness. Can’t say I feel flattered to have earned that distinction!
Part of Hernando’s band: (left to right) Maelstrom (or Niobrara), Warbonnet, Niobrara (or Maelstrom), and Phoenix (Cloud’s mom). I can’t tell Niobrara and Maelstrom apart because they look so much alike.
When the rest of the group returned from their hike, Julia came over to our tent to see how I was doing. She asked me if I was feeling better and I weakly shook my head. Sandy looked up altitude sickness symptoms on Wikipedia on her smartphone (my phone got no service up in the mountain) reading them aloud. I had nearly all of the symptoms. Things were not looking good. Out of concern for my health, I overheard Sandy mention the possibility of taking me down the mountain since I was having so much trouble dealing with the high altitude. The thought of having to cut my trip short after having waited nearly a year to see the horses was just too much to bear. Leaving the Pryors early seemed like accepting defeat. To my great embarrassment, I began to cry which was not very helpful given my current dehydrated state.
Left to right: Niobrara/Maelstrom, Phoenix, and Hernando.
After I shed some tears, I was able to pull myself together and I could feel my stubbornness taking hold. There was just no way I was going down the mountain early and missing out on the camping tour. I had paid money for this trip and had taken several days off of work to fly all the way out to Montana. Altitude sickness be damned, I was going to stay put and that was that.
After lunch, the rest of the group got ready to leave for another hike. This time around, Jeannie (I am probably butchering the spelling of her name and I apologize!), Sandy’s assistant, stayed behind with me. I felt bad she had to babysit me while the others went off to look for the horses but I was glad to have some company. It got my mind off the altitude sickness and it was nice to have someone to talk to. As we sat next to each other in camping chairs, I took long sips of water from my water bottle. I was determined to get hydrated and if that meant getting up every 5 minutes to pee behind the trees (which did end up happening because I was drinking so much water), then so be it.
Then the most amazing thing happened. We saw shapes moving off in the distance and we got up to get a little closer. There were horses heading past our campsite! And best of all, it was the band I had been wanting to see the most!
Left to right: Lariat, Oklahoma (who is Oklahoma’s mom and dad?), Tonapah, Juniper
Satellite stallion: Fiesta.
Sandy has dubbed the Fiesta/Horizon band The Odd Couple. For the longest time, both stallions acted as band stallions, sharing the mare Juniper. It was a highly unusual situation because stallions do not typically adhere to the “sharing is caring” mentality. I do not know what the current situation is now–are they still both together watching over Juniper, Lariat, Tonapah, and Oklahoma? At the time, it seemed Horizon was the dominant stallion and Fiesta acted as a “satellite stallion.”
I was so happy to see the Fiesta/Horizon band, despite feeling unwell. And there was even more good news: I was starting to feel better! Nothing drastic but I was starting to feel the effects of the copious amounts of water I had drunk (apart from running to the bathroom every 3 seconds). By the time the rest of the group came back from their second hike, I had made up my mind to stay on the mountain for the night. Everybody seemed relieved that I was on the mend. By dinner time, I felt a million times better and ready to take on another day of horse watching.
Also a profound thank you to the rest of the group for bearing with me. They were all awesome and offered me several remedies to reduce the altitude sickness symptoms (which did help!). Thank you to Sandy for trying to find alternative transportation to get me down the mountain, thank you to Jeannie for staying behind to look over me and sharing life stories, to Saralee and the other guest whose name I can’t remember right now (and I feel terrible!) who had a whole arsenal of natural remedies for me to try. And last but not least, a huge thank you to my friend and travel buddy Julia! It was comforting to have someone familiar nearby while I tried to get a handle on things.