Personal experience prompts Boy Scout to warn hikers about altitude sickness

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SALT LAKE CITY — Eli Peterson knows what severe altitude sickness feels like.

The 13-year-old Boy Scout ended up in a hospital intensive care unit in the middle of a 50-mile hike in the High Unitas last month. He felt tired, had trouble breathing and coughed up mucus two days into the weeklong trip. He didn't know how he was going to make it out of the mountains.

Fortunately, another Scout troop in the area was able to pack him down on horseback before his conditioned worsened. Peterson's father, who was on the hike, got him to an emergency room where a helicopter flew him to Primary Children's Hospital.

"I was kind of delirious at the time," the Draper teenager said.

Doctors diagnosed Peterson with high altitude pulmonary edema, a condition where the lungs fill with fluid. He spent three days in the hospital. Interestingly, he said he "blasted through" the same 50-mile route two years ago.

Now Peterson wants to use his experience to educate other hikers about the illness as part of a project to earn his Eagle Scout award. He plans to post notices at trailheads and make a pocket guide about the symptoms and treatment for altitude sickness.

Peterson said he was "heartbroken" to hear about a Scout from Salem who died Saturday as his troop began hiking out of the High Uintas to get him medical attention for an apparent illness.

Duchesne County investigators suspect Doug Julian suffered from altitude sickness.

The teen complained of nausea and headaches Thursday and was still sick Friday, according to Duchesne County Sheriff’s Lt. Jeremy Curry. One Scout leader hiked out early Saturday for 8 to 10 miles to get cellphone service. Julian, who would have turned 18 this past Sunday, died before a medical helicopter arrived.


Acute mountain sickness is common above 8,000 feet elevation, affecting about 10 percent to 15 percent of people, said Dr. Colin Grissom, a critical care doctor who specializes in wilderness medicine. Symptoms include headache, nausea and fatigue. It usually can be overcome with rest or slowing down.

But high altitude pulmonary edema or HAPE, which is marked by coughing and breathlessness, is more rare, he said,. High altitude cerebral edema or HACE — where the brain fills with fluid leading to confusion, dizziness and stumbling — is even more rare and dangerous.

Both are life-threatening but most people don't die if they get to lower altitude or the hospital, the doctor said.

"If the symptoms progress, go down. If you get more and more shortness of breath and you start coughing up stuff, go down. If your headache is getting worse and worse and worse, go down," said Grissom, who worked with a high mountain rescue team on Alaska's Mt. McKinley for eight seasons.

Exertion, ascending too rapidly and staying on the mountain can contribute to backpackers, even those who live the Salt Lake area, developing HAPE, he said. The up-and-down terrain in the Uintas makes it difficult to get off the mountain or conduct a rescue.

“What happens is people think they just have the flu or a cold or some mild altitude sickness and they stay there and they don’t go down soon enough and they’re very sick by the time everybody recognizes we have a problem and then it turns into a desperate situation," Grissom said.

Altitude sickness, he said, is sometimes behavioral not physiological, especially among men, who won't admit they're sick because they don't want to slow down or turn around.

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