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True Tales: Can’t Breathe at High Altitude

A scape of pulmonary edema sends this reader down the mountain, fast.

Survivor Dustin Stein, 28, Durango, Colorado
Predicament Pulmonary edema filling lungs with fluid at an 11,000-foot campsite, Colorado
Lesson learned “Have escape routes in mind. If my partner hadn’t been prepared with a bailout plan, I could have died.”

Escape Plan: Recognize HAPE

"I was fit after a winter of skiing, so when the snowpack was still solid in April, my friend Tim and I planned a light-and-fast ski traverse of the San Juan Mountains. Conditions were tough, and two 12-hour days wiped me out. I was tired and developed a cough from the all-day efforts in the dry mountain air—or so I thought.

"On our second night, we set up camp near 11,000 feet, above the headwaters of the east fork of Colorado’s Piedra River, and I went straight to bed. At 11 p.m., a low rumbling noise woke me up from a restless sleep. I listened for it again and realized that it wasn’t an animal in camp, it was fluid gurgling in my lungs. I called out to Tim: “We need to get down, now. I think I have high-altitude pulmonary edema [HAPE].” By 1 a.m., we were dropping through the drainage en route to help, and descending to reduce my symptoms.

"Tim had researched potential evacuation points before the trip, and we were headed toward a lodge lower in the basin. But by noon, my condition had worsened and we’d only gone down a few thousand feet. I had slowed to a crawl, and was coughing up fluid with every exhale. We split up so I could rest while Tim raced for help. My breathing worsened throughout the night, but I surprised myself with my sense of clarity. I was grateful for being in the wilderness.

"When the chopper touched down the next morning, I was barely moving, but after oxygen therapy and a few days in the hospital, I was on the road to recovery. I’m healthy now, but I have a height- ened awareness of my body, and I try to plan for the worst.

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