Spreading summit fever…
A year ago I embarked on a journey. A journey that I was aching for- my soul needed an awakening, I needed to disrupt the pattern. I desperately needed an opportunity to disconnect from everything I knew, to connect with a new world, to disconnect from any pre conceived expectations. I needed true pure perspective and the only place I have been able to discover this is on the top of big mountains.
I wanted to celebrate my one-year anniversary of climbing Kilimanjaro in a way that would allow me to share the experience. I realized I didn’t want to cure summit fever… I wanted to spread it like an incurable virus that infects every deep dark corner of your soul. It infects every cell in your body and mind; it tortures you, enthralls you, makes you suffer, delights you then chews you up and spits you out. Finally it rewards you with a feeling of peace that connects you to the earth like the inhabitant your bleached white bones were meant to be. It makes you WILD again.
This time I wanted my favorite inhabitant on earth to experience it. My husband. He has heard all of these accounts but had yet to personally experience the howling wild heart that the tip tops of mountains can awaken. We skipped over all the other highest peaks in the lower 48 states and went strait for the highest point. Glorious Mount Whitney in Lone Pine California at 14,508 feet.
This was a test for me as much as it was for him. His fitness level is that of a tough, gritty, lifelong hockey player. I knew he could do it, but I knew it would be his hardest challenge yet and it was up to me to set him up for the best chance of success. This left me responsible for everything. All logistics, safety, route preparation, acclimatization schedule, packing lists, pack distribution, EVERYTHING. My favorite person on earth trusted my abilities and it was imperative he stood on that summit with me. He had no idea what he was in for.
We made the 8-hour drive from the desert to the town of Lone Pine California. It was quite nostalgic for me to be only 60 miles south of Bishop, It has been well over 25 years since but I spent several summers as a kid in the area with my Grandparents learning to fish for trout in the creeks and rivers all around this lush wilderness.
As we drove by these creeks I saw a small Hispanic man wearing Wrangler jeans that looked just like my gramps in his pick up truck pulling over to cast a line in that ‘perfect’ spot. I had to do a double take, then thought of the many delicious trout dinners we had and the memory of the first fish I ever caught.
I thought of the secret spots he would leave me with my Styrofoam dirt filled canister of worms and fishing pole. The slimy worms would squirm as the hook penetrated their moist guts. I always felt bad for them being dropped into the frigid waters as I pulled them out to see they had changed from dirt brown to stark white. Before I could wipe the drool from the corner of my mouth thinking about butter and lemon drenched pan-fried trout we arrived at the Shangri-La that is the Whitney Portal campsite.
We would be sleeping in this paradise tonight but tomorrow night would be a stark contrast. We enjoyed the gentle breeze as it caressed the tops of the Sequoias while the creek below us babbled sweet sounds of calm and relaxation. We enjoyed a hot meal over the campfire as the creek reminded me to keep a close eye on our water intake. We laid our heads down while the creek sung sweet lullabies.
The sun rising in the East poked through the trees just enough to gently awaken us. We made our final preparation as we locked away our luxuries in the bear locker at our campsite. We had a leisurely start to the day due to the mild weather conditions. We planned a 2-day ascent via the Mount Whitney Trail with a one-night slumber at the 12,000 foot high Trail Camp for proper acclimatization. We had 8 miles and 3,000 feet of gain to cover on day one. As long as we were to camp before sundown we would have all day to make this trek.
I was going by the book on all of our preparation. 3 liters of water each for the 2 days prior to even beginning the climb. Packs weight not to exceed 35 pounds. Rest stepping, pressure breathing, scheduled breaks for water, snacks and to check our layers of clothing.
This is a science. If you sweat too much you get wet then shiver. If you don’t drink enough water the altitude will wreak havoc. Pressure breathing helps to create more red blood cells so your body can properly acclimatize and has to be done often and before you even feel the altitude.
It can sneak up quickly and take you down. These minor things on a mountain expedition can cause many discomforts, issues, and can cost you the summit, or worse.
We began through the wooden structure that denoted the start of the trail. First we noticed a flyer posted looking for a missing hiker that got separated from his group. Then a student from a college stopped and asked us to participate in a study they were doing on altitude sickness. Glancing at the form we filled out along with the flyer hanging I went through the all the steps for the thousandth time and looked at the big smile on my husbands face. I wanted to remember this happy guy, I knew eventually he would want to remember that happy guy too so I snapped a photo.
The trail began at 8,500 feet via gentle wise long switchbacks in the John Muir Wilderness. It was warm enough to enjoy the stops along many of the creeks that crossed the trail. The whole trail had water features somewhere along the way, this I knew would keep his mind off the hard work we were outputting.
I adopted a slow yet steady pace. Each switchback I would make eye contact with him and stop to turn back every 15 minutes to keep him in tune with my rhythmic dance of rest stepping and pressure breathing.
We stopped every 45 minutes to assess our current situation and talk about clothing, headaches and nausea. Within a couple hours we were past the first lake and pushing toward the tree line.
Once the trees started to break we began to experience something many people on their way down reported. Wicked winds, not a breeze, not a gust, but 40-50 mph winds whipping us around like rag dolls.
There were several other teams we would get to know along the way. One was a Father and Son who were quite tall, thin and gangly. I remember looking at the thin legs on the pack top heavy Father thinking how they looked like twigs that could be broken by the winds.
We began up the bald rock face above the most scenic lake in my opinion on the mountain, Mirror Lake. I couldn’t take in much of the beauty due to the winds slapping my face, harassing my pack like a bully in a school hallway and blurring my eyes. I had to concentrate on every step as this was a very exposed area of the mountain with several plunging cliffs in every direction.
During this portion of the climb we kept seeing helicopters above landing in this wind. It was an art form for these pilots to be able to navigate these mechanic birds in these conditions. They were scowering the mountain for the missing hiker.
I heard a yell and as I stopped and turned to look behind me my hat was ripped off my head flying about 150 feet into the air then plunging over the cliff above Mirror Lake. The Father from that gangly team had been taken off his feet by the winds. He was ok and I checked in with my husband.
I was pretty shaken that my hat was GONE. We had no protection from the sun this high on the mountain and had 16 miles to complete tomorrow. I now had no hat. I decided to drop down the cliff face a bit to see if I could locate it. The winds were beating me up while whistling through and violently unraveling my braid as I peered down the cliff. I got a seriously eerie chill up my spine and figured a sunburn was the least of my worries if I kept looking for this hat. I let it go.
Chad had a bandana so offered me his hat. This time I put it so tightly on my head I was worried I would cut of circulation to my brain. Fine with me as long as it stayed put. We put our heads down and continued our ascent. Shortly we arrived at the meadow. The meadow was a green oasis that sparkles like a gem filled creek dribbling down the barren sand colored jagged terrain. My blood red eyes still trying to take in the beauty in the midst of the blinding winds I could see that we were in one of the most beautiful places I had ever been.
Just down the trail from the meadow I found a XL wide brimmed hat under a rock. It fit Chad perfectly and rewarded him for offering his hat to me. After that we found several other hats that hikers had lost in the winds along the trail.
We arrived at Trail Camp hoping the sites were out of the way of the wind. The problem with camps above the tree line- it offers no reprieve from bipolar winds that change direction at a moments notice.
We found a spot behind a rock wall that seemed like a rational spot. We soon learned there was no rationalizing with the wind. We just had to live with it.
After the three ring circus act of pitching our tent and placing boulders in it we went to filter water before the sun disappeared over the sharp points of the Sierra’s. We came back to the tent along with everyone else’s turned over and a few blown several feet down the campsite. It was going to be a long night. We boiled some water and hid out in our tent. We forced down as much food as we could. You generally burn 6,000 calories a day on these kinds of excursions and we still had 99 switchbacks, the final push to the summit, 3,000 feet and 16 miles to do the next day. Chad was sitting Indian style on his sleeping bag, he asked if that counted for stretching. I was happy to reply yes and to see that his spirits were still quite high.
The wind continued it’s tantrum all night long. We were cocooned as the tent molded itself to our faces like we were members of the Blue Man Group. We joked that we should be outside peering down into the Inyo Valley but all we got was tent INYO face.
The hardest time in high altitude on the mountain is always from when the sun sets until it rises again the next day. The acclimatization process entails very bazaar dreams and sometimes nightmares, feelings of claustrophobia, moments of darkness that seem to last for hours and your mind playing games with you.
I fell asleep immediately and woke up a couple hours later with all of these familiar foes. I poked Chad several times to make sure he was still breathing. The mental game that is played all night makes you appreciate that sunrise and its encouraging rays. It lights the way on a new day of adventure while you become stronger for accepting the darkness that came before it.
Consultation Lake was 100 feet from our campsite. I was so consumed by the wind the day prior I didn’t even notice it until the morning we left for the summit. It sparkled and rippled with the light breeze indicating that we had been gifted a beautiful day to climb to the highest point in the Contiguous USA.
Our spirits were high and we were feeling good. We left our tent and supplies at Trail Camp. I carried the pack with our water and emergency kits while Chad carried a smaller pack with only a few items in it. I kept the same steady pace that we had the day before. We were off for our summit bid!
We got back to our trance and dance of rest stepping and pressure breathing as we started filing up the infamous 99 switchbacks. The helicopters began to chop their way back to trail camp as we ascended above it to drop off and pick up new search teams to continue the search for the missing hiker. This again was a constant reminder to keep our conservative plan for the summit.
99 switchbacks below and nothing but smiles above. We were feeling great. Our preparation was paying off and we had only 2.5 miles to the summit.
We pushed past the crest to the backside of the range as the trail dropped 250 feet into the Sequoia National Park. Precious feet to part with but the views were a more than fair compromise. The stunning beauty of the Sierra Nevada range was displayed on this portion of the trail as a mountainous showcase for as far as they eye would dare to look.
We still had some high altitude pain and suffering to pay up on before we were given our ticket to the summit. I showed Chad about halfway where we needed to go. He wasn’t sure he could make it. I had no doubt that he would. We continued on gleaning the encouragement from those who had summited and were on their way down taking in those positive vibes like extra breaths full of oxygen.
The glory of the summit, the endorphins, the dopamine, the serotonin, all these natural highs in unison providing an incomparable unity of bliss. Feeling what your body is capable of and knowing that it is a naturally funded never ending source from nature that you can tap into if you are willing to push past the pain. This is summit fever.
The look in his eyes when he made it, the energy he exuded, the humility he exhibited, the feeling of sheer shock that he made it, all of those milestones of making a difficult summit poured out of his sparkling eyes. He had it bad, summit fever had infected him. Sharing this virus of gorgeous glory with him was my reward.
The most dangerous symptom of summit fever is when the symptoms begin to dissipate and the challenge of the descent is forgotten. We still had 12 miles and 6,000 feet to safely descend before we could consider ourselves successful. The majority of accidents happen on the descend and we were no where near the end of the danger zone.
The thin cliffs of the goat trail back from summit as always seem so much shorter on the way back from the summit. We spread those positive vibes we received back to the people headed to the summit, the relief you feel as you watch their pain stricken faces trudge down the trail seals in the accomplishment. The energy was still high so I wanted to utilize those chemicals as efficiently as possible.
Guitar Lake bids a farewell YOU ROCK as you climb back to the crest and begin down the 99 switchbacks to Trail Camp. I told Chad to quickly but safely get down without any breaks.
We still had to pack up our camp and I advised him that we needed to do that as quickly as possible. I wanted us to get down below 10,000 feet before his endorphins wore off and that pain set in. He was totally unaware of this phenomenon since he was still experiencing the symptoms of summit fever.
As we continued past camp the winds were absent. We had perfect conditions to view all of the beauty we didn’t get to the day prior. The brutal winds on the exposed rock over Mirror Lake was frightening like a roaring lion on the ascent, today it was a purring warm kitten.
We approached the tree line with this Sequoia welcoming you to the segment earth that utilizes oxygen. We were out of the danger zone and had only 6 miles left to descend. The symptoms of summit fever began to wear off along with my feelings of responsibility and my enjoyment of every natural element I missed on the way up began. This is the remedy. Your mental capacity to enjoy the glory of the summit but save some of it for the journey down.
Chad had not experienced this remedy. His summit fever had fallen and he was in that segment of the trail we call full body pain and suffering. We had 4 miles left and the wheels began to fall off the wagon. He went through every emotion until anger set in. He was certain I was trying to kill him. He was angry at the National Parks for lying to him about how long the trial was, I was lying to him, the ridiculousness of his now heavier than ever pack and that he was still carrying it, the irresponsible decision of the trail to go through water while you had to rock hop after a trek of this nature was a completely ridiculous demand. He was as angry as I had ever seen him. The fact that he had enough energy to be that mad told me he was going to be just fine…
I finished the trail while waiting for the angry Sasquatch to come stomping through the finish line. He did with tears in his eyes. I was so beyond proud of him and he had no idea what it was he had just accomplished.
I thought back to the night I summited Kilimanjaro and how I said I was never hiking again. The question on my mind when I woke the next morning was the exact feeling Chad had after we had a campfire and a good nights rest at our campsite.
When is the next one….
Photo Courtesy of Christopher Templeton Sequoia/Kings Canyon NP Pilot
When we got home I was introduced by a mutual friend to one of the helicopter pilots that was assisting in the search for the missing hiker. The day after we left they found him. He was a 60 year old very experienced hiker who had done Mt Whitney several times before. He told me of the somber reality that they found him in the cliffs above Mirror Lake. I thought back to my hat that plunged over that cliff in the fierce winds and that he suffered that same fate.
Photo Courtesy of Christopher Templeton Sequoia/Kings Canyon NP Pilot
Any activity at high altitude is dangerous. Christopher said 3 of the last 4 rescues he worked on were hikers on the descent. The majority of accidents happen during the decent. There may be no cure for summit fever, but there is a way to treat the symptoms. Always save some of it for the descent.
I wish you all a safe and happy 4th of July!