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High Altitude Hiking

Most of you have heard of altitude sickness. It can happen if someone used to living at sea level goes to mountains that are over a mile high. Sedentary persons are most at risk when they even walk around. They think that the air is so thin that they have to breathe deeper or faster. Other people feel out of breath if they try to walk uphill in high altitudes.
Last November I was concerned about going to the country of Bhutan. It is south of Tibet and contains some Himalayan peaks. Indeed this country has the most peaks over 20,000 feet that have never been climbed. The Buddhists there consider these mountains sacred. Most of the 700,000 people live in small towns in upland valleys between 4000 and 8000 feet. We would be visiting the temples, monasteries and fortresses that are built on hills overlooking the villages. On our last day we would hike the steep trail that rises 2500 feet to get a view of the Taktshang Monastery (known as the Tiger’s Nest) built on a sheer cliff in front of a sacred cave.
I had passed on a Sierra Club trip to Bhutan, that would have many hikes geared for a younger group, in favor of one sponsored by Elderhostel (now Road Scholar). I learned later that the other five travelers ranged in age from 61 to 67 while I was 85. In my teens and twenties in Colorado, I climbed thirty of the 52 peaks over 14,000 feet high. Since I moved to California I have gone on Sierra Club hikes that went as high as 10,000 feet. However, lately I knew I hiked more slowly. I asked an expert in Chinese medicine what herbal substance I could take to keep up. She said to try an extract of hawthorn berries. In books on alternative remedies I read that hawthorn has been used to dilate the coronary arteries and help the heart to beat better. I would add this to a group of other supplements that have been keeping me healthy.
Besides a simple multi-vitamin, multi-mineral pill, I take salmon oil, magnesium, and calcium twice a day. I don’t get muscle cramps or stiffness. Magnesium is important in many enzymatic reactions inside each cell. Since I didn’t have ginger root to prevent inflammation of my joints I took one ibuprofen a day. However I used a cane when going downhill to save my knees and wrapped them with ace bandages when the downhill got steep. In contrast with my younger days I take much longer going downhill than uphill.
On steep uphill trails I control my breathing as I learned to do above 10,000 feet in Colorado. Instead of huffing and puffing, I hold my breath after each inhalation to allow my body to use more of the oxygen in my blood. If you have ever done mouth to mouth resuscitation you know there is plenty of oxygen in your blood. If you take many quick breaths thinking you’re getting more oxygen, you are really blowing off too much carbon dioxide. This can change the acid to base balance of the chemicals in your blood. It might lead to altitude sickness as the cells in your lungs let fluid get into your tiny air sacs. Some people get headaches in high altitudes. None of our group suffered from the altitude. The trip had been arranged so we had three days in Thimphu at 7000 feet then shorter hikes at this or lower altitudes, with the Tiger’s Nest on the eleventh day. Only two of our group got to the top before I did. It proved that with the right timing and supplements age didn’t prevent my climb to view the most magnificent and sacred temple and monastery. It symbolizes the essence of Buddhism in Buthan.