Friday, July 29, 2011

I Miss My Dad

My father recently passed away and I've asked to speak at his memorial service tomorrow.
I still haven't completely decided what to say but writing it in my blog seems to help me focus (similar to my putting my struggle with writing my marriage vows here.)

The trouble is that I'm not going to be able to get a sentance out without breaking down in tears but I have to remember that's completely ok.  It's a small service with family and another family who are very close friends.

It feels a little strange to be talking about myself, but it's a lead in and it occurred to me as I was spreading his ashes, so it seems pretty essential.


Two weeks ago I summitted Mount Whitney.  My father would have been so proud.
Climbing to the top of mountains was never really his thing, he more liked to go into the mountains to decompress and relax by a nice lake.  He would climb over mountain passes like Kearsarge in the Sierras, but it was more with a destination in mind.

However, he knew that I and a neighbor before me, liked climbing and he was always supportive.  He also knew of my struggles with trying to deal with altitude sickness, and what makes today in particular really hard is that I want to tell him:  I figured it out.  Here is how you do it.  I want to tell him every part of it, and he would ask me detailed questions and we would talk about it for hours.

In short, my being able to climb Mt. Whitney was a problem to solve, and he and I both have that in common.  We love to solve problems.

Mt. Whitney was never his thing because it's a popular trail and he claimed that he liked to get away from people.  That is the biggest lie and I do regret never calling him out on it, because it's a conversation he would have loved.  He would claim this wanting to get away from people, all the while talking to every single person we met on the trail.  He loved talking to people, and quite honestly he would have loved talking to all the people who are drawn to Mt. Whitney as they come from all over.  He wouldn't have even had to have gone on the trail, but could have just hung out at the cafe and store (after he got over the idea of a store in the edge of the wilderness) and talked with the very knowledgeable proprietor Doug Sr. and his wife Earlene and anyone else who stopped in.  I always go by the store and say hello to Doug and Earlene and I know it's a habit I got from Dad even if he would have claimed otherwise.

To spread Dad's ashes Terri and I drove up from the town of Independence on highway 395 to the Onion Valley which is a trailhead for going up Kearsarge Pass which is a trip that he took all the kids on.  We walked about quarter to a half mile up the trail to find a really beautiful spot and all I could think about was: How the heck did he convince his kids to put backpacks on and climb over a mountain pass.  And this is in the 70's where blisters and pain where a guaranteed part of the experience.  Not only that, we wanted to go.  What charisma he had.  And what a great attitude.  On a separate trip his boots fell apart (the soles had come off) which is a very, very serious problem.  He managed to find a pair of tennis shoes on a mule train and they wouldn't even let him pay for them and he walked out of the mountains in Keds, and never complained.  I sure would have been, but he was like that.

Terri and I would travel with Mom and Dad on trips to Canada and I took him to Scotland once.  Every so often Dad would turn up missing and I'd have to go find him.  If someone goes missing it can be quite stressful, but after a few times of this I realized how easy he was to find.  All I had to do was stop and listen for the laughter.  I would eventually find him talking to one or more people from somewhere and having a grand time.  People loved him.  I learned so much by seeming him through other people's eyes.  As his kid, I tend to see him as smart and grouchy, and kind of an overbearing pain sometimes, but seeing the real joy that he spread was such a gift to me.  I've lot count of the number of people who have gone out of their way to tell me "I really like your Dad."  And that is my take away:  People loved him and  I do too.  I miss you so much Dad.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Summiting Mt. Whitney - What It Finally Took

After 10 years of struggling with altitude issues (on and off) I finally summited Mt. Whitney and I was not ill.  It most certainly wasn't easy, but was doable without a lot of suffering (ok, a little but nothing like it's been in the past)  It took years because I had to explore all the wrong ways to do things.  I kept at it because I solve problems for a living and it was my personality that just couldn't let this problem go unsolved.  And it's gorgeous up there anyway.

The basics are, find a way to get enough oxygen, water, food, glycogen and sleep.  Oxygen trumps everything including sleep.  In fact, especially including sleep.
  • climb high, sleep low
  • learn pressure breathing and do it a lot on your climb, or doing any exercise
  • bring and eat food you love as nothing else will look good
  • bring and eat easily digestible trail snacks that you will eat while climbing
    I use Skittles of all things, and Trader Joe's Chocolate Nibs
    This is "Bonk Prevention"
  • bring and drink a sports drink like Gatorade
    This is also Bonk Prevention
  • sleeping low may mean a longer summit day
  • spending an extra night at a moderate altitude (but still in the "sleep low" range) seems to help increase oxygen in the blood by a few percentage points
  • if Diamox helps then feel free to use it

Not getting enough oxygen is probably the main reason I have gotten altitude sickness.  Two years ago I was feeling great and ready to go for the Mt. Whitney summit the next day.  I went to sleep at Trail Camp at 12,000' and woke up very ill and lucky to move anywhere, until I got enough energy to go down.  I detail that misery here:

I let it go for a year and then I realized that I wanted to try again this year, but this time I was going to go from the lower Outpost Camp (10,300') which is a gorgeous place with a lovely waterfall and none of the crowded slum features of Trail Camp.

The issue is that when you fall asleep you lose control of your breathing, and at altitude it's important to be able to control your breathing, and you're at risk of getting ill from too little oxygen.

There is just as much oxygen at altitude but there is less air pressure (A great reference on this is the book "Going Higher" by Charles Houston, David Harris, and Ellen Zeman).  The effect of that lack of air pressure is when you breathe out not all of the carbon dioxide leaves your lungs leaving less space available for incoming oxygen.  To get the CO2 out of your lungs, one very effective way is to "Pressure Breathe" which is where you forcefully exhale hard.  I have a video demonstrating it in a Mt. Shasta parking lot with an oximeter here:

Pressure breathing is probably the reason I summitted this time.  Alas there is no way that manually managing your breathing is a good as your automatic breathing so my climbing was slower, as I had to pause every so often.

So oxygen is the main issue but there is also the issue of maintaining the level of glycogen in your muscles.  If you've ever had the experience of suddenly having your muscles refuse to do anything at all you have "Hit the Wall" or Bonked (not in the British sense):

To avoid The Bonk you have to keep eating and drinking (more than water).  The exercise you are doing is seriously depleting your energy stores and you need to find a way to maintain or at least replenish it.  On this trip I actually did Bonk while carrying a backpack during the first part of the climb.  I had to pause and eat simple sugars (Magic Skittles in my case) and also do a lot of Pressure Breathing too to help with the oxygen part of the exhaustion.

I find that carrying heavy things takes a lot of the oxygen in my blood and there's not much left for everything else.  After about 30-45 minutes I was ok to start climbing again.  Fortunately we didn't have far to go, but we had a significant short climb left to do.

So I made it.  I started at 3am.  Summited 12 hours later, and then got back 7 hours after that.  It was a long day, but with breaks and attention to detail it was very doable, and I stayed healthy which was the important part.

Given that I am no naturally very good at elevations over 12,000' I'm probably going to make this my first and last 14er.  I was working on climbing Mt. Shasta too, but things are much harder when snow is involved and I had a hard enough time on the trail (and Shasta is much steeper too.)  I have gotten up to Helen Lake 3 times (one time even higher) and glissaded down but I think, for me, Shasta is going to be a place to ski on which is a very nice thing.  It's a way of extending your ski season by two months, and it's so lovely to camp near the cabin and that wonderful spring.

But back to Whitney.  The answer is you can do it.  It takes care and determination and thought but it is possible, you just gotta work for the oxygen.

Shasta Skiing

Before I get into the Whitney entries I just wanted to mention that after I decided that I didn't want to go on a multi-night snow camping trip by myself, I turned it into a couple a days trips skiing which was much more fun.

The is the second of two trips.  The first one is where I made the Pressure Breathing demo video in one of the lower entries.  This time I was using the Randonee skis again (same ones and I might buy them) but struggled to find a boot that fit me.  Leif at 5th Season tells me that that issue goes away when you buy the boots as they a fitted to you by using heat molding.

This trip was two weeks later and the snow was now not fun anymore but very sun cupped.  On one day I would up snowshoeing instead.