Sleep is a precious commodity on the trail, and I am finding it does not come easily for me. Slight but nagging headaches behind my forehead deter sleep further despite taking pain relievers. Clarence says the altitude might be responsible. Sure enough, mountain sickness, which can manifest itself in some people at 5,000 feet, produces symptoms of sleeplessness, headache, fatigue, and lack of appetite among others. It begins 8 to 24 hours after arrival and could last 3 to 7 days depending on acclimatization.
These symptoms plagued me on Mt. LeConte (6,500’) and for the first three nights of the Balsam Mountain trip. In the campground (5,300’), I ate fine but sleep was just so-so. At Pecks Corner (5,300’) after a 10-mile climb, the fatigue was numbing. It couldn’t have been due to the exertion alone. I drank plenty of water, took two energy gel shots, and ate other high carb snacks along the way that should have kept me going. Yet I could hardly think or act with any clarity at the shelter. Mary and Clarence heard and responded to the initial bear noises that night; I heard nothing and stood confused trying to grasp what was happening. I ate very little and tossed and turned with a headache during the night. A headache, little appetite, and some sleeplessness were problems at Tricorner Knob (5,800’) too.
By the third night at Laurel Gap shelter (5,400’), the headache was gone and I had a decent appetite, though a truly good night’s sleep was still elusive. Now, I don’t typically sleep well the first few nights when away from home anyway, so it is certainly possible that at least part of this is just my reaction to being in a different place. Hopefully, as I become more accustomed to living outdoors, my ability to fall asleep comfortably and stay asleep will improve. Despite this tendency, the reason for all these negative experiences must go beyond mere fitness. By day five, I hiked straight up Beech Gap like a…well, maybe not like a pro, but at least not like somebody destined to be hauled out of the mountains on a stretcher!
There are two things that might minimize the effects of mountain sickness. First, I should strive to acclimate myself for a couple of days. A short stay in a campground or an easily accessible backcountry site around 3,000-4,500’ might help me gradually adjust prior to any high elevation overnight stays. Next, I could use that time to enjoy smaller day hikes and get my lungs and legs prepped for a more demanding trip. I’m also thinking that meditation and yoga stretches, as well as Advil and ear plugs, will help if symptoms do occur.
The Southern Appalachians aren’t the Rockies, but they are still a far cry from the average 750’ elevation I’m used to. Climbing out of the Interior Low Plateau’s Central Basin, where Nashville sits, up to 5,000 plus feet in a few hours is apparently asking a lot of my body. In order to fully enjoy these mountains, I may need to factor in some adjustment time on the front end.