Monday, July 20, 2009

Mt. Whitney - last time (well maybe not)

[Apologies in advance, I copied and pasted this from my training diary and there are some spaces missing and I don't know if I caught them all.]

I knew it would likely work out this way. That I would go to Mt. Whitney and I would get sick, but I have to try one last time. [of course I take this all back in a later post.]

The crushing thing was that things looked so good the day before the scheduled summit day. I did everything right. I am in great physical shape (training for Shasta makes a mountain with a trail look easy). We went up slowly (which I really don't like as I'm an adrenalin junkie and like all the over-exertion and heavy breathing and completely underscores that this really isn't the activity for me), we took multiple days (stopped at 10,400' then on to 12,000' the next day), took medication (Diamox) when I started having some trouble keeping my respiration deeper than normal, took aspirin as well to thin my blood some, was able to help set up camp at 12,000' - in fact did a lot of it, cooked dinner and was able to eat no problem. I was even fine in the middle of the night, but after I fell asleep (instead of just dozing), my breathing slowed down (hence taking in less O2, and I woke up ill. I now have a hard limit - I should never sleep at 12,000' or above. I've done it before but only successfully once or twice. Even though I was ok when awake, when asleep my body degraded when asleep. There's a reason for the Climb High, Sleep Low mantra.

When I woke up, my head was splitting and I couldn't move hardly at all. Took the altitude medication and some aspirin. The headache gradually got better, but I felt nauseated, and still couldn't move more than about 10 steps without having to lay down. I stayed hopeful for about an hour and a half, but the window in which we could leave and get back down was closing and then it became get better enough to get down while carrying a pack.

Once you are ill, there are three things that are recommended that you do: Descend. Descend. Descend. Getting better on the mountain (past doing things like taking aspirin, orDiamox . Oxygen if you have it) is very difficult In my case, if I had oxygen I may have gotten better as I wasn't violently ill, but the thing is that while O2 will help you feel better, it will not help you aclimate and for me one time when I brought some, completely prevented me from aclimating to even 10k'. Over then next few hours I was able to move around enough, and even chased a marmot who had stolen food (that will be a later entry), and eventually was able to carry a pack back down to Outpost (10,400'), in which I nearly kissed the first tree I saw since there's a very noticeable difference in the oxygen level when you come to that first tree, but I never felt good again though was able to eat at Outpost (couldn't eat at all at Trail Camp after I got ill. Would I eventually have gotten better? Maybe since I wasn't violently ill, but it would have meant another day there and I didn't have it, and when you're ill, you're not very happy about choosing to stay ill. Would I have gotten better enough to summit - not likely. It's Monday, and I don't think I've fully recovered. Which is ironic as I could have run up that mountain if it were at sealevel (ok maybe not all of it but summitting would not have been hard.)

If I had another day the best choice would have been to descend to 10k' or 11k' or 11.5k' and sleep there and try to recover enough to climb from there (I knew I said this above - worth reapeating - once you're sick it's very tough to recover at that altitude). In our case, the weather was degrading and we were all too happy to hike out on Sat (7/18/09) as it had rained on and off all night at Outpost and a thunderstorm rolled in and stayed for the day, which is a bummer for those wanting to summit - not that day.

Ironically, Terri didn't have any trouble with the altitude this time. She has in the past, but other times has been great and has summitted (I have not). That's what's so funny about altitude sickness/sensitivity, there are so many factors that it's difficult or impossible to predict it. You can see obvious potentials: Terri gave a water bottle to a kid struggling up the trail, and she told him to drink it and fill it at every stream. But preventing it from happening is not much of a reality.

I think I'm done with my Whitney obsession (I made sure to stop in at the Portal Store just to chat with Earline and a staff member a little and say hi to Doug Sr. who was busy).

At the east side of the park off Tioga Road, Yosemite has mountains that are 12k and 13k - if I want to play with day hikes, I can do it there and Yosemite is way closer (and I bought a yearly pass again (only $40) so it's already paid for). The problem of not being able to sleep at 12k or higher is that there's a limit to how far past my sleep altitude I can go. I have gone from Outpost (10.4k') to Trail Crest (13k'), but I didn't feel that great at Trail Crest and the summit is another 1500' and the odds of getting that far are poor for me.

We're going to focus on kayaking for a while now (we're at sealevel and by the water - duh). We've done some before but it's in abundance here, and we would never run out of adventures. and of course there are our dogs and my dog sports obsessions which take up most of my time and attention.

The trouble is I like to climb thing and the mountains are so beautiful, alluring, and downright seductive. I can't help but want to climb them, when I see them.

The cool thing that I've written about before is that in the process of not attaining my goals I get to see some beautiful country that you don't get to see unless you go. Plus I have picked up a lot of skills having to do with camping, hiking, mountaineering, climbing. I can scamper around with trekking poles, glissade with an ice axe, and cook when it's windy using the tent vestibule as a wind block (one of those "don't try this at home" things that most every backcountry camper has to do at some point in time.)

But that doesn't change just how disappointed I am and it's just sinking in. It's supposed to be that if you train for something that you should be able to do it. Not in the case of altitude. There are ways to work with it but there isn't a way to condition for it. You are what you are. It's funny though. According to textbooks I'm more typical and everyone else is just getting away with breaking the rules. Textbook aclimatization is 1000' gain per day with 2 days at the same elevation every few days (I'm forgetting the number). No one does that - not even on Everest. I think the textbooks would say they are not aclimatizing. On Whitney that's true. On Everest that can't be true as if they didn't aclimatize some they'd be dead. But this is a disgression from just how profoundly sad I am about this. It's a loss and one that I'm still processing.

Other topics for later


Fire / Whitney Portal evacuation

Badwater Ultramarathon - "card carrying masochists"

Depressed appetite in the mountains and the inability to eat enough - (I lost 3% body fat in 4 days). This one is not yet written as I don't have enough information.

And where I take it all back:
Altitude Problem Solved (on paper)


Elf said...

Looking forward to the marmot story. Chasing marmots sounds like a monty python sport.

Bummer about the altitude thing. I haven't been at altitude in quite a while so don't know how I'd do--how did I get to this situation, fer crying out loud?--but I'm a little concerned because my dad has altitude sickness now, the same guy who used to climb around on mountain tops and rappel down [I did not inherit this brand of insanity] and haul out weekend hikers who got in over their heads and stuff. Just got email from him that even driving 120 into yosemite is too high for him. They used to go over tioga pass every chance they got. Um...sorry, am I cheering you up yet? But he's 78, so it's a little different.

Ellen said...

I really must work up the energy for the marmot story.

Altitude is so unpredictable in how it's going to affect people. In some the sensitivity gets worse with time, in others it doesn't. Terri is 10 years my senior and wasn't affected and there was no shortage of 50 and 60 year olds on the trail. I met a 68 year old dentist who had summitted and was in great spirits.

We went via Tioga Rd and the road itself gets well over 9000 feet on the east side (couldn't resist having the backpacking GPS on for the trip back mostly because I was looking for oxygen. ;)