Over Labor Day weekend, 5 Green Berets led 50 people over some of Colorado’s most impressive 14,000-foot peaks for an event known as the GORUCK Ascent. GORUCK, founded by a former Green Beret, manufactures military-grade gear and hosted the Ascent as a means by which to raise awareness and funds for the Green Beret Foundation. Through this event, over $30,000 was raised for the Green Beret Foundation.
Beyond supporting the GBF, the purpose of the Ascent was to introduce elements of Special Forces training to civilians and former military alike all while hiking several of Colorado’s fourteeners. While in SERE school, I was immersed in a true survival setting where lack of food, sleep and information all affected my judgment and stamina. This was a unique experience that few have the opportunity and mental stamina to endure. It taught me about my own mental strength and ability to survive even in the face of complete exhaustion. I am forever grateful for this education because it has given me the confidence to know that I can withstand almost any survival scenario. Participants in the Ascent were subjected to a lack of readily available food, sleep and due to the altitude, oxygen. At the end of the Ascent, our participants learned how much they could achieve with far less than they imagined.
Food was a luxury at the Ascent. Participants were regulated to only 2 pounds of food for over 100 hours of physical exertion. This resulted in an immediate food crisis from their perspective. Clif bars, trail mix, gels and other pogey bait were loaded into rucks, but at the end of the first day, and after hiking their first fourteener, the participants were in search of a hot meal. As a reward for achieving the first summit, a bag of plain white rice was provided to the participants alongside a box of MREs. There were not enough MREs for all participants, and hunger, exhaustion and the altitude were all affecting rational judgment. A debate ensued, but after an hour, the participants decided to mix the MREs with the hot rice so that a hot, protein rich meal could be provided to everyone. While this is seemingly the obvious choice, the promise of a hot meal is enough to make a very hungry person lose lucid thought and valuable decision making skills. While in a survival setting, losing these skills can be a fatal mistake.
Only a few hours after summiting our first peak, we grabbed our headlamps and rucks and set out for peak number two. Now participants were functioning on a lack of food and a lack of sleep: a dangerous combination in a survival setting. We reached the second summit and continued hiking toward our third. Food was low, exhaustion had set in, but morale was high as we watched the sun rise over the collegiate peaks in Colorado. Participants had begun to realize how much could be accomplished running on so little.
Lack of food and sleep are two things that for a period of time can be overcompensated for. Your body does not need as much food as you might think, nor does it need as much sleep. Deprivation of these two necessities alerts you to how your body reacts in a survival setting that mimics the training I received while in SERE school. However, there was one element in the Ascent that was not a factor in my survival training: altitude.
Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is a potentially life-threatening illness that can affect anyone above 8,000 feet. Especially for participants arriving at the Ascent from sea level, everyone is at risk of suffering from AMS. While it helps to be physically fit, it will not prevent AMS, and studs at sea level can find themselves incapable of physical exertion at high altitudes.
Symptoms of AMS: From an increased heart rate, to difficulty sleeping, to vomiting, to moderate to severe headaches, we saw it all at the Ascent. As soon as a person begins to exhibit any of these symptoms, the only solution to relieve the symptom is to descend. AMS is best addressed in the earliest stages because if ignored, AMS can evolve into a far more serious condition. The symptoms of AMS are indicative of decreased oxygen in the blood (hypoxia). Due to the altitude, air pressure is decreased and it is more difficult for the body to inhale enough oxygen.
If AMS goes untreated: If a person does not descend to a lower altitude at the first signs of AMS, the symptoms can evolve and develop into either high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) or high altitude cerebral edema (HACE). HAPE is when fluid begins to accumulate in the lungs, and HACE is when fluid accumulates in the brain. These are life-threatening complications and must be addressed and treated immediately.
The best preparation for high altitude is to introduce your body slowly and steadily to the external change. When hiking 14ers, it is best to be above 8,000 feet for as many days leading to the ascent as possible. Generally, two weeks is a safe amount of time to allow for acclimatization before summiting. Additionally, hydration, like always, is incredibly important. We carried a minimum of 3 liters per person per summit.
Food, sleep and oxygen deprivation do funny things to your mind. Rational decision-making skills can go out the window, and AMS can force you to descend earlier than anticipated. Knowing how your body responds to these stresses can increase your ability to adapt and ultimately survive.