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.


Elf said...

Congratulations again on having done it. I think you've completely talked me out of trying, as if there were even an ioto of thought in my brain to want to try. :-) That's a great accomplishment for anyone, and particularly after all you've tried and learned. I'll bet you treasure that shot of you signing the log!

Ellen said...

I would hike to Trail Crest at (13,600'). That's the real challenge (I've done that part three times now) and after the snow melts there isn't much exposure to falling. The traverse trail from Trail Crest over to Mt. Whitney has a remarkable number of watch your step moments, but isn't all that exciting really save to the occasional view out of the "Windows"

Ellen said...

I am vaguely tempted by Mt. Muir since it's essentially right beside Trail Crest but it's not the safest of scrambles to the top. Remarkably fatalities up around there are not common especially once the snow has melted.

Elf said...

You know me--any time the word "fatality" even occurs to someone to use in describing an activity, I start thinking there are better ways to spend my weekends. :-)