When Family Adventures Turn Scary

When her son experienced a health scare in the mountains, Lisa Jhung had to examine the unknowns of backcountry travel.
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Broome Hut, Colorado

Having fun with kids outside the Broome Hut, near Winter Park, Colorado.

I had planned on writing a sunny, celebratory post this week. On January 18, I headed up to the mountains for a long-planned winter hut trip with family and friends, and I knew we’d have an awesome time snowshoeing, skiing, sledding, board-gaming, and eating. When 16 of us (eight kids and eight adults) ascended a mile up a snowy trail to one of Colorado’s 10th Mountain Division Huts last Friday, at 11,350 feet, I was looking forward to writing about all the fun.

And we did have fun. We played games, strummed the hut guitar, and built jumps in the snow. We made turns in untracked powder, shared group meals, and all worked together to complete a 1,000-piece puzzle (remarkably gratifying). The kids had a dance party.

Any trip like this requires an exorbitant amount of planning, organizing, packing, and hauling. But there's real satisfaction in seeing eight kids, aged 7 to 10 snowshoeing up a steep hike (chocolate helped) to a cozy, remote hut. And being all together, totally unplugged in the backcountry, was well-worth the effort. That’s pretty much always true when it comes to adventure—especially family adventure.

But another truth: Adventure isn’t predictable.

On our second night in the hut, I heard my 10-year-old’s shallow cough. When I went to check on him (he was sleeping in a bunk room with the five other boys), Sam said he couldn’t sleep and was really uncomfortable. I moved him to the living area and tried to help him settle.

That’s when I noticed his racing heartbeat.

As he fell back asleep, I watched his breathing become increasingly shallow. I put my hand on his chest and felt his heart still racing. I immediately suspected altitude sickness. Living in Colorado, playing in the mountains, and having a couple decades of adventuring in me, I’m aware of this danger. Sitting with my oldest under the light of a pellet stove and moonlight reflecting on the snow through the hut windows, symptoms of high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE) flooded my mind.

Signs of HAPE include dry cough, shortness of breath, and fluid buildup in the lungs. HACE symptoms include confusion caused by fluid-caused cranial pressure. Both occur at altitude and can happen even among healthy mountaineers—or healthy 10-year-old boys who live at 5,340 feet.

I know the best treatment for altitude-related illnesses is to simply go down. But when I looked outside at the massive snowy mountains—it was maybe 1 a.m.—I wondered if that might actually be riskier than staying put.

I woke my husband. When Sam’s breathing became more labored, and then began making a gurgling sound, I woke a friend who had EMT training.

Around 3:30 a.m.,we decided it was time to descend. We loaded our packs and made plans for our sleeping 7-year-old to come down with friends later that day. I watched Sam struggle to breathe as I put on his warm clothes. When I stood him up sometime after 4 a.m., he vomited. I tried to keep it together as I put him in the Ski Chariot we’d used to haul gear up and started down.

The full moon shone brightly on the massive snowy cirque above us and the tree-lined terrain below. My tiny headlamp illuminated the snowy track.

Sam improved with every few feet of descent. He was even better after dropping 800 feet to the car. He was better still on the highway as we drove toward Boulder, 5,000 vertical feet below the hut. Still, we weren’t sure if we were headed toward his bedroom or an emergency room.

On the drive, he started to recover. He breathed normally. His heart rate was normal. When asked how he felt, he said, “Way better.” At home, several hours and one nap later, I’d never been so happy to see him sitting on the couch playing Fortnite.

A follow-up doctor’s visit confirmed he’d recovered: his lungs were clear, his heart rate and pulse oxygen normal.

Now that Sam is safe, some of my anxiety has been displaced by gratitude. I’m grateful to my friend who helped assess him in the middle of the night and keep me calm. I’m grateful to our friends who helped us get down the snowy trail before dawn, and the friends who took care of our younger son. I’m grateful the Chariot, meant for toddlers, didn’t collapse under his 77-pound weight in the snow. I’m grateful we had a clear night and a full moon. I’m grateful I knew—and recognized—the signs of HAPE, and knew to get him down that mountain.

But I’ll be honest, I’m still rattled. No parent wants to see his or her child in danger, especially not in the backcountry where help is far away. We plan to follow up with an altitude sickness specialist to see how or if we should change our mountain travel going forward.

As we process the event as a family, my instinct has been to be straight but reassuring with Sam. We’ve talked about how he got sick that night, but that he also got better as we descended. We’ve talked about all the positive adventures we’ve had in the mountains, and how we’ll go snowboarding on the local hill this weekend. And we talked about how we’ll get more information about Sam's susceptibility to altitude, and treatments for it. 

The weekend's lesson on the unpredictability of adventure was a little too gnarly for my liking. But it was an important reminder, too: The wilderness offers real adventure, and that means risk as well as fun, whatever age you are. So be aware, prepared, and ready to solve problems. I'm grateful that we were all those things. And I’m most grateful for my little boy's recovery.

Get more tips, trips, and stories about family outdoor adventures on BACKPACKER’s Families Gone Wild, and learn to recognize and treat common backcountry ailments with AIM Adventure U's Wilderness First Aid Basics course.