PART 1: THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT
One thing I’ve learned is it’s usually not the big things that get you. It’s the little things.
You know what I mean: a series of small, seemingly harmless or unrelated events piling up over time that, when added to blind circumstance, turn into a crisis.
That was my experience on Mount Yale, a central Colorado peak that stands 14,196 feet above sea level. Events — weeks before my ascent and halfway across the world — that turned what should have been an enjoyable scramble to the top of one of Colorado’s famed “Fourteeners” into something more desperate, even scary. And in the end, potentially fatal.
In early August 2008, I was part of a mission trip that was in Thailand. We spent most of our time going to villages and schools doing church-related work, but on one free day we went to an incredible place called Railay Beach. It’s truly one of the most beautiful places on earth. While there, a few of us went scrambling along some rocks and came across a 25-foot precipice overlooking the surf below. The water looked deep enough to take a dive.
One by one, we jumped into the choppy waters below. After I took the plunge, I encouraged everyone else to do the same before turning toward the beach some 200 yards away.
As I said, the water was rough. I was wearing sandals to keep myself from cutting my feet to pieces on the rocks. Unfortunately, they made my legs almost useless for swimming. Within a few minutes, I was physically spent and struggling to stay above the waves.
Long story short, I nearly drowned. In the process, I breathed in seawater. I was fortunate to make it back to shore, but after about 40 minutes I felt good enough to join the rest of the group on a hike through some caves nearby.
One thing is true about seawater: The lungs don’t get rid of it very quickly. Unknown to me or anyone else there is that any time someone aspirates seawater, doctors recommend immediate medical attention. For several days, I felt fine not knowing a respiratory infection was building inside me. Within a week of returning from Thailand, I felt quite ill and was given some antibiotics to deal with the infection. Within a few days, I felt well again.
And it was a good thing, too. I’d planned on going with friends to Colorado over Labor Day weekend to do some camping in Colorado and climbing Mount Yale. I worked hard for two weeks to get back into shape so I could handle to rigors of the mountain. But try as I might, I wasn’t ready for what would hit me later.
Generally speaking, I keep myself pretty fit. The exercise routines I’ve used in the past have helped me stay relatively trim and strong, giving me the needed fitness level to log nine summits of 13,000 feet or more. That’s the track I was on before I left for Thailand. But I was derailed by a lack of exercise while there and the ensuing sickness after I got back home. I was somewhat worried I’d have to cancel my trip to Colorado. But the medicine seemed to do the trick, giving me two weeks to pound myself into shape again for the climb ahead.
The plan was to take nine friends to Colorado, camp and then summit Mount Yale. Many of them had never done anything like this before. So naturally, I was full of advice.
“Summiting is optional,” I paraphrased uber-climber Ed Viesturs. “Getting back down is mandatory.”
By the time we got to Colorado, I felt good. Hiking in to our camp at about 10,000 feet, I felt strong, even with a 35-pound pack on my back. I hiked higher up the trail with my pack to see if there were any better spots higher up, found none, then went back down and joined the rest of the group which was already setting up camp. All seemed to be going well.
My personal goal was to get up earlier than the rest — about 4:30 a.m. — and head up the mountain early. I’d wait for them at the summit, taking pictures of people scrambling over the rocky pitches just below the top. It would make for one heck of a photo album.
After a good night of sleep, I arose, ate some breakfast, loaded up a small summit pack and hit the trail.
The Denney Creek trail up the flanks of Mount Yale are typical of what you might find in the Rockies — thick stands of pines, grand vistas of the surrounding mountains and occasional sightings of wildlife. It’s no wonder people want to live here. The geography of the Sawatch Range is inspiring.
The trail is also quite steep, particularly after you hike past treeline. Mount Yale is not a technical climb — no ropes, harnesses or other rock climbing gear is required. But it is a real leg- and lung-buster.
I felt the effects of the altitude — and my apparent lack of conditioning — somewhere around 12,000 feet. I’d kept a strong pace to that point, but soon other members of my party were passing me on the way up. About that time, I noticed something strange — a familiar taste in the back of my mouth that I can only describe as really greasy hash browns.
That taste brought me back to the hacking cough I picked up after my misadventures in Thailand. At the time, it seemed like a small, residual consequence of a crisis long since solved. I dismissed it as inconsequential.
By now, two of my friends had already passed me and were on the summit ridge just as I was starting the steepest part of the trek up to the mountain’s 13,000-foot saddle. Slogging ahead, I took a break and struck up a conversation with another hiker who informed me that she had, just a few days ago, climbed Mount Belford, Mount Oxford and Missouri Mountain. In one day. I had no doubt that she would forge ahead and leave me in the dust. Which she did.
By now, I was measuring my progress based on small landmarks. Walk up till you reach that cairn. Don’t stop until you get to that boulder. Take a break 30 steps from now. I was taking “rest steps,” where you step up, lock your leg, then bring the other leg up. Rest-stepping helps conserve energy, but it’s a slow way to ascend. Catching my breath was difficult, but that’s nothing new considering the elevation.
Up to this point, I’d done everything you’re supposed to do at altitude — eating occasionally, drinking often, keeping some sort of rhythm as I went higher. I reached the saddle and looked up at the summit ridge — a rocky, boulder-hopping scramble which would take me the final 800 feet to the top. On Mount Yale, the summit ridge is a reward of sorts. Instead of hiking, you’re actually climbing over and around large boulders. This is the fun stuff.
About halfway up the summit ridge, however, I felt a cramp beginning to develop on my right side.
A fitness issue? Perhaps I drank a little too deeply on my last rest stop? This had never happened to me before. Slow down and you’ll be OK, the cramps will go away, I told myself. The summit was near, I just had to be patient.
The bright morning skies that greeted us at dawn had changed to overcast, and a stiff breeze kept temperatures cool. Some time around 10:30 a.m., I was on Yale’s summit. Half our group didn’t make it to the top (one turned around with his young son; another momentarily blacked out at 13,000 feet and called it a day; others stopped for various reasons). Two others had made it and were on their way down before I got there. I fell short of my goal of reaching the summit first and taking all those pictures I’d planned. Dog tired, I snapped a few summit shots of friends Rick and Dan Ponder and sat down to rest. The longer I sat there, the more chilled I became, to the point of shivering. Thicker clouds were on their way, and a hint of rain was in the air.
Being on a high summit is no place to be when the weather turns foul. I decided it was time to get moving.
Then something strange happened. I found it hard to catch my breath going down. And that cramp on my right side wasn’t going away. It was getting worse.
Odd, I thought. Something I’d never experienced in five previous summits. By then, I was so mentally locked in to my apparent fitness issues that I didn’t realize that it was something far worse. That would only become apparent on the awful downclimb that provided other new — and very unwelcome — experiences.
TOMORROW, PART 2: STAGGERING DOWN THE MOUNTAIN. An uncomfortable summit bid gives way to pulmonary edema, altitude sickness and pneumonia. And worries that I might not make it back to camp.