The La Sal mountain loop is one of those drives just everyone takes on the visit to Moab. The La Sal Mountains are a small row of high mountains that dominate the skyline around Moab. The first part of the trip is to follow the Colorado river through a long and spectacular canyon. You then drive through Castle Valley which climbs steadily upwards. You then turn into the Mahn La Sal National Forest. There are some lovely small lakes and alpine meadows, some campgrounds. You then travel a winding road back down. The high area is in the 11,000ft range. The top of the mountains reaches 12200ft above you. The first part of the drive along the Colorado is a story of its own I’ll post about next time.
We paused at the entrance to Castle Valley. The roads are being redone and they are closed on weekdays but they are open weekends for us tourists. Much of the Castle Valley road goes through private land including a huge vegetable farm run by the Seventh Days Adventists and there are many signs saying tourists are not welcome. Nonetheless the steep drive up was breathtaking, dominated by the Castle and needle formations. This is the valley many famous westerns were set in.
As we climbed my ears began to pop. I also became excited. it was fun to climb and climb and climb. We entered the drive into the National Forest and then we really started climb. The road was freshly paved but it had no guard rails and no lines. So it really was sheer cliffs off the side. Plus the climb was so steep the truck was working hard in low gear. These were steep, tight, narrow switch backs. My prairie girl heart was in my throat as I drove.
At last we reached the top and the pavement ran out for the last highest stretch where a dirt road twists past the best of the alpine sights and side roads go off to the lakes and trails. But I was in trouble.
I hate being reminded of my physical limitations but the La Sal mountain loop was once of those days. Honestly, I really should have known better because I have been here before but I was caught up in the excitement of the travel and I forgot I don’t do well at high altitude.The last time I was up at 11,000ft was back in 1993 when I attended a conference in Telluride Colorado. We went through the Rabbit Ears pass. Our car died and Dick went with a kind passerby to get help. I spent a horrible hour lying the car feeling like I was going to die. I was dizzy, nauseous, had a terrible headache, and felt so weak I couldn’t even sit up without forcing myself. When my husband returned with a tow truck rescue he had to half carry me to our ride back down the mountain. I should have remembered. I didn’t. At our conference in Telluride at 9000ft I wasn’t ready to pass out but I kept getting sicker and sicker which I attributed to a bad asthma flair. My asthma did not get better with my meds. It got worse and worse. I began to think I had developed pneumonia again and I needed an antibiotic. I couldn’t even walk up a few steps without dragging myself. The day before we were scheduled to leave when I felt so horrible I telephoned the hotel doctor. He was very blunt.
“You have mountain sickness. You have to get down to a lower altitude. Leave first thing in the morning and get off the mountain. Don’t stay on. This will kill you. There is no treatment but to get to a lower altitude.” He then went on to explain that people like me with lung issues are especially prone to mountain sickness. Exactly as he predicted, I soon felt perfectly fine once we got down to 5000ft.
Now, here I was at 11,000ft again. I had gone voluntarily and without preparation. Foolish me. My head was hurting so badly I felt like I was going to have a stroke. My heart was racing. I was dizzy, nauseous, my hands were numb and tingling and the nail beds looked blue. I was shaking and I felt panicky. To reinforce my nasty feeling, Fred, who is an elderly dog with his own health issues, had collapsed in the back of the truck and was lying there panting heavily his tongue hanging out as blue as my nail beds. Dick and I had a few quick words. Should we continue finish the loop, and then go down the other side? Or should we turn around and go back the way we came? My sensation of imminent death due to a blinding headache grew and grew as we talked and I began to wonder if I could even manage to drive down. We opted to turn around and go back down as that was the quickest way to get lower. While I carefully turned the truck around with Dick outside spotting to make sure I did not go over the edge, head reeling, Dick paused for a few shots.
Ears popping, spinning dizzy, shaking all over, I carefully retraced our path downwards. I was grateful we had decided to turn around because this meant I remembered what was coming on the drive. We continued down with the truck in low gear to minimize breaking and with each curve down, ears popping all over again, I felt a little better. By the time we got out of the National Forest I no longer felt like my head was going to explode. Instead I just had the really weird sensation of being aware of pulsing in every major blood vessel in my head and neck. Fred was doing better as well. As we passed Castle Rock, Fred had quit the heavy panting and he was sitting up again. My nail beds looked pink and so did Fred’s tongue. The headache had diminished to the point I no longer felt like I was about to have a stroke. Dick was sympathetic but bewildered. He had only felt a bit short of breath. He does not have lung issues, lucky fellow.
We looked at the map once we got back. We had made it almost to the turnoff to geyser pass. Too bad my poor lungs were in no shape to finish the drive. It would have been wonderful. We made some jokes about getting an oxygen tank for Fred and I and going up the rest of the drive from the other side since that way was shorter but they were jokes. I am just no good at 11,000ft. The only way we could ever do it is if I spent weeks slowly acclimatizing at gradually higher altitudes. No alpine meadow is worth it. I am prairie girl with bad lungs and I’ll just live with it that way. The La Sal mountain loop is really lovely but those brochures and recommendations should come with a warning for those with health issues. Climb 7000ft in such a short drive at your own risk.