No, wait – I had decided to descend, right? What was happening? Am I really going up this damn mountain? No way! Stop. Think. Look around. Yes, I was still heading up. What the hell?
I looked at my watch and saw that it was past noon. But I had made the decision to turn around about 11:30. At least half an hour had just simply disappeared, and now I found myself still heading UP? How can that be?
That’s when I went from very worried to just plain scared. On top of all these physical symptoms that were incapacitating me, I realized in horror that I was acting irrationally to boot. I was truly scaring myself. And thoughts of that poor kid who I had tried to help a few days before kept sneaking into my mind. He had been experiencing a moderate case of AMS when I ran across him at Cottonwood Pass, and less than 24 hours later he was dead. I kept that event locked away in a corner of my mind for the appropriate motivation when necessary, but I had to be careful not to dwell on it too much.
Having now been up this mountain a number of times, I’ve been able to work out pretty much where I had this frightening revelation. I had been counting switchbacks on the way up from Trail Camp, as a method of alleviating boredom and taking my mind off of how crappy I felt. I had made the turn-around call at switchback number 70, and I was now somewhere above the 90th switchback, and almost to Trail Crest. I was now at about 13,500 feet and had eight miles to descend, along with about 5,200 feet of loss – a vertical mile. My legs felt like jelly and what had seemed insurmountable a half hour before now appeared impossible. I had just added another half-mile-plus to my already full plate!
So I just sat down feeling incredibly sorry for myself. A couple of ladies descending asked me if I was OK, did I need any help? True to mule-stubborn form, I assured them I was fine and just taking a blow. They moved on and I kept looking down the mountain at that impossible descent I was going to have to make. I think I barfed again while I was contemplating this sad reality.
Then, for whatever reason, my mind wandered to many years ago and a book I had read. I couldn’t recall the title or author, but it was a leadership book that had been very popular within Marriott for a while. The central concept was that when you have to eat an elephant, a euphemism for a seemingly impossible task, just take it one bite at a time and you’ll eventually get it done. I have no clue why my mind landed on that instead of other similar inspirational clichés such as, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”, but I know my mind was desperately searching for an anchor of stability and hope that would offer some promise of getting me out of this fix.
And I locked on to that concept like a bulldog with a bone. It became my mantra for the rest of the day. One bite at a time. I would get off this damn mountain by taking my eyes off the intimidating big picture and concentrating exclusively on small goals. One bite at a time. Nothing mattered at that moment except getting down to the Cables at the forty-somethingth switchback. A landmark. A goal. One small bite. Once there I could rest briefly, drink, try to eat a little, and form up the next all-encompassing bite in my mind. I would do this a dozen times or more, in small increments, but by-God this is how I would get down this friggin’ mountain. Bite by bite by bite.
And that’s exactly what happened. My knowledge of the route from so much pre-planning study, and now having seen those landmarks on the way up, served me extremely well as I slowly, painfully, unsteadily descended those eight miles. One goal after another – maybe a quarter of a mile or half a mile at a time, but I slowly whittled away at them. The Cables. The first switchback. Trail Camp. Consultation Lake. Trailside Meadow. Mirror Lake. Outpost Camp. Bighorn Park. Lone Pine Lake. The log crossing. The North Fork crossing. Then finally the Portal and the parking lot! Bite, bite, bite . . .
I went very slowly, making sure I had good footing with each step and a solid purchase with my trekking poles. Regardless, I slipped, stumbled and weaved time and time again. I stopped a lot to rest and drink. I barfed a few more times, or more accurately succumbed to dry heaves. I beat back the urge to just lay down and sleep more often than I can count. I paused even more often to allow the dizziness and vertigo to fade away to a manageable level before continuing on. I was stopped several times by others on the trail, capable of recognizing a hypoxic zombie when they saw one, asking if I was OK. I thanked them for their concern, lied through my teeth to assure them I was fine, and forged on. And I paused a number of times to convince myself that I was (a) really descending, and (b) still on the trail.
It was without a doubt the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Ever. I’ve never had to dig so deep, before or since, and I’ve never felt so alone while doing it. A few years later I had a technical climbing accident on Cathedral Peak in Yosemite, immobilizing one arm and leaving me dangling in my climbing harness 400 feet above the ground for hours. On what just happened to be one of the windiest days in the recorded history of that park, and putting me on the brink of hypothermia before my climbing partner and a couple of others bailed me out. That was bad, and I was in a high degree of danger, but it wasn’t as physically or mentally challenging as my descent down Whitney on August 19th, 2009.
Honestly, though, I think the only reason I made it down Whitney safely that day was due to the nature of AMS. The only cure is to descend to a richer oxygen environment, and as I went down the mountain I slowly began to feel better. By the time I reached Trail Camp at 12,000 feet the trembling had almost disappeared. When I reached Outpost Camp, at 10,000 feet, the nausea had diminished and the constant desire to quit and sleep was fading. By Lone Pine Lake, at 9000 feet, the vertigo was gone and the headache had receded to a dull roar. As I reached the trailhead the only remaining symptom was simply an overwhelming sense of fatigue and tiredness. I felt completely washed-out and knackered. But the elephant was gone – there were no more bites to take. I had actually eaten the elephant!
I stood at the trailhead, looking around at the bustle of activity that was oblivious to what I had just been through, trying to put it all in perspective. Eight hours earlier I had been in what I still regard as the worst fix of my life: overwhelming sick, virtually incapacitated, and very, very despondent at 13,500 feet. That impossible ordeal was now over, somehow, and I felt a small glow of pride at extricating myself from it. I don’t know that I’ve ever had such a roller-coaster ride of conflicting, extreme emotions in a single day. The disappointment of knowing I had failed to summit was still with me, but it was somewhat offset by my surprised satisfaction at having gotten down the mountain in one piece and under my own power. And I hadn’t fretted about my damn open pants fly in hours . . .
I looked at the collection of signage at the trailhead, noticing again the most strident warning of the group. “The top is only halfway!”, it screamed. I had not seen the top this day, but I was in 100% agreement with the sentiment. I would never again under-estimate a mountain descent.
I walked up to my rental car at 8:00 p.m.. It had taken me seven and a half hours to descend that eight miles and 5200 feet. In actuality, I had covered the last three miles from Lone Pine Lake in just about an hour, so it took me well over six hours to cover the first five miles of my descent. Normally that five miles between Trail Crest and Lone Pine Lake would take me an hour and a half with a light daypack, two at the absolute most if I was taking it easy. And I was actually hungry! By my estimate, I had burned well over 5000 calories since starting out that morning, and my body was screaming for fuel.
Of course the Portal Store kitchen had closed just 15 minutes before, for which I scathingly blamed Tucker, so I settled for a cold beer from their cooler and some snacks out of my pack. Actually, I think I ate everything that was left in my pack. I didn’t really want the beer, but felt I owed myself a libation and congratulatory toast for actually standing in the Portal parking lot before dark.
As I drove down the Portal Road to Lone Pine I finally got a cell signal and called Barb. I gave her the Cliff Notes version, leaving out the more dramatic elements, and assured her I was fine and headed for bed shortly. It wasn’t till I was back home in Atlanta that I even began to tell her the true seriousness of the situation. In fact, to this day, I’m not sure I’ve really painted an accurate picture of how desperately bad off I was. Oh well, sweetie – if not, now you know!
I collapsed into bed at the HISTORIC Dow Hotel and slept without interruption for ten hours. I have never been so exhausted, and haven’t been even close to it since. When I woke up the next morning I was famished. All I could think of was that monster Portal pancake breakfast I had yet to experience, and I quickly showered and flew up the Portal Road to chow down in royal style. I may not have seen the summit of Mt. Whitney, but I was by God going to conquer Mt. Pancake before I left Lone Pine!
When ordering my pancake breakfast (yes, singular – the largest pancake you’ve ever seen in your life), I finally had the chance to meet Doug Thompson. I identified myself as “Bulldog” from his message board (another blog entry coming eventually on the fascinating subject of trail names), and we chatted for a few minutes about my failed attempt the day before and how AMS often wreaks havoc on the mountain. I picked up some really good advice from Doug and thoroughly enjoyed our conversation. We would have many, many more over the ensuing years.
I polished off the entire breakfast (no small feat) and just wandered around the Portal for a few hours, enjoying the peaceful alpine atmosphere my last day here. When I eventually left later in the day, I was still feeling depressed at my failure but was beginning to form a plan in the back of my mind to eventually return and try again. Like I’ve said, I’m stubborn.
Once I returned to Atlanta I continued to participate in the message board. I detailed my experience and got a lot of feedback from the old hands on the board. Ultimately it boiled down to the vagaries of AMS – it can strike anyone, anytime, at just about any elevation. Even the Himalayan sherpas who live at 14,000 feet are victimized by it. Humans were simply not designed to function above 7,000 feet. My biggest mistake – and the reason this blog entry is titled as it is – was my arrogance in assuming I was invulnerable to the altitude and didn’t need to prepare for it like most other people. I had tipped my hat to the “climb high” part of the old mountaineering axiom, trying to stay at 11,000 feet or higher several days before the attempt, but I had misconstrued the “sleep low” half of it.
High and low are relative terms. Due to this first disaster on Whitney I spent a good part of the next year steadily becoming a layman expert on altitude illness. Knowing what I know now, I could kick myself for being as ignorant and arrogant as I was in 2009. The simple explanation is that if I had just slept one night at elevation, preferably two, before my Whitney ascent, I almost certainly would not have failed. While hiking high certainly helps, the real acclimation process takes place over a longer period of time while sleeping. That’s when the body works furiously to manufacture additional red blood cells to carry extra oxygen. I had been sleeping at 3,500 feet in Lone Pine. A night or two at 8,000 or 9,000 feet would likely have made all the difference.
Lessons learned the hard way stick best. And such an oh-so-simple fix! I would return to the Sierra the next year, sleeping 5 nights at 8,000 feet before tackling Whitney again, and I would easily summit feeling as good as I might have topping out on lowly Kennesaw Mountain here at home. I could not believe I had overlooked such a glaring need, and that it had caused 4 years of preparation and planning to go up in smoke!
But life has a way of spinning out curious cause-effect progressions. If I had summitted in 2009, I likely would have drifted away from the WPS message board and concentrated on the next thing. Maybe in the Sierra, but just as likely in the Rockies, Cascades, Alaska or Mexico. By not summitting Whitney, I set myself on the course for a rematch. As I lamented my failure on the WPS board, it led to an e-mail correspondence with another relatively new member, Joe Quillan. Joe is a very talented sculpture artist in SoCal who had his own reasons for trying Whitney. He’s the same age as I am, and within the previous years had been though a hip replacement and had successfully battled cancer. Climbing Whitney had become his goal for this new era in his life (this is a very common theme regarding Whitney – you’ll meet a lot of people who have struggled mightily with something in life, and see climbing the highest peak in the L49 as a symbolic step to either successfully beginning a new phase of life or retiring a troublesome one).
Joe had failed his first attempt at Whitney within just a few weeks of mine, and we commiserated together. Same reason – AMS. He eventually returned in October that year and successfully summitted just before the heavy snows began, but we were slowly making plans to tackle the mountain together in 2010, only backpacking this time. No, I had never met Joe and, yes, it does sound weird to plan heading off in the backcountry on a multi-night trip with a figurative complete stranger. When I told Barb about these developing plans she was aghast. But after a few months’ correspondence and a couple of phone conversations, I felt as if I had known Joe all my life. He had become my brutha from anutha mutha, and I had absolutely no qualms about it. We had formed a common bond – as mountains often do with people – and it was inevitable that we climb this damn mountain together.
So rather than heading off to Yellowstone or Alaska or somewhere new for our family adventure the following year, we returned to the Sierra. It was Barb and Bri’s first experience in the Whitney area, and by the time we left it was pretty much written in stone that this place would be our vacation destination for years to come. Barb’s extreme reluctance about me venturing off on a backpacking trip up Whitney with this stranger “Joe” turned 180 degrees during the 48 hours she and Bri were left “all alone” to hang out at the Portal and try to avoid boredom while worrying about me. By the time Joe and I returned, Barb had formed friendships with an amazing number of WPS message board personalities and Bri had become an honorary member of the Portal crew. Joe quickly became “Uncle Joe” to Bri, and that led to all four of us taking a backpacking trip up Whitney the following year. To this day it doesn’t feel quite right to be on Whitney without Joe. Just a few months ago he and I spent a very fun day scrambling on the lower sections of the Mountaineer’s Route, and I have no doubt we’ll be together on Whitney in 2016.
That trip in 2010 also led to our finally making the acquaintance of Laura Molnar, one of the most incredible women you’ll ever meet and Bri’s favorite non-Minnesota “aunt”. Despite her extremely busy schedule and challenging mountaineering itinerary, Laura has never failed to make time for us each and every trip out to the Sierra. She’s been an incredible role model for Bri, showing her that a woman can do anything in the mountains – and life – that a man can do, and she is absolutely precious to us. She’s my sista from anutha mista, and we have a ball when we’re all together. I’ll never forget a day on Mt. Whitney when I had Barb and Bri almost to the summit. It was oh-so tantalizingly close, a mile and 500 vertical feet away, but I had to make the call to turn back due to dangerous icing conditions we weren’t geared to deal with. We were all disappointed, but Bri just collapsed on the trail and began crying. As Barb and I consoled her, she said, “But I wanted Auntie Laura to be proud of me!” I damn near cried at that, but I had more pressing matters on my hands at the moment.
So, that failure in 2009 was ultimately a good thing. It led to a sea change in our lives and a host of new, treasured friendships. Maybe the stupidity cloud does have its silver lining. Without that failure I never would have heard Barb say the next year, as we were leaving the Portal to head back home, “I found a part of me that I didn’t know was missing.” Sniff-sniff.
Mt. Whitney 2009 was an expensive failure for me personally, but the path it led us down as a family was absolutely priceless.