OK, somewhat of a nasty story, but it has a point.
A couple of guys are in the backwoods on some sort of a hunting trip. This is in a public area, not anyone’s private property. There are no public facilities (outhouses) available, and they’re pretty much traveling with what they can carry on their backs.
One of the guys has to relieve himself. So he goes behind some bushes, makes a “deposit” and then does something quite curious. He gets a bag, scoops up his mess, then tosses the stinky package down the hill.
Let me just say, there’s nothing right about this. But it does bring up some interesting thoughts about proper backcountry behavior.
Just what exactly do you do with your bodily waste?
Hard to say one rule fits all. But there are some good ways and some bad ways about dealing with your “business.”
If you don’t have a camper with a toilet and your campsite doesn’t have an outhouse or a restroom handy, then this is a problem you’re going to have to deal with.
Whatever your do, one rule remains steadfast: Never relieve yourself near a trail, route or water source. Try to keep your business at least 100 yards away from these places. No one wants to step in your mess, reach for a handhold and get a handful or your leavings, or try to filter water from a place where you’ve left your mark.
If you have to go, pick a place off trail to urinate. For No. 2, do the same. But prepare your site first. Dig a small hole. Do your business there, then cover up the hole. Find a stick that could not be mistaken for a sapling and plant it in the ground. What you’ve done is made a “cathole,” and the stick lets others know not to step there, sit there, put a tent there, etc.
These guideline aren’t universal, however. Some people insist on following the Leave No Trace ethic of backwoods behavior. One of the rules of Leave No Trace is to pack out everything you pack in. And for some, that includes human waste. In this case, a sealable plastic bag is used, which is in turn stored in a container that will not leak or break when packed away.
Sounds gross, but this is the surest way to minimize human impact in the wild.
This gets even stricter in more extreme environments. If you’ve done any big wall climbing where the effort might take a day or two, packing out also includes disposing of any urine. Needless to say, peeing off a ledge on Yosemite’s El Capitan might not be the best way to make friends to the climbers below you. Again, sounds extreme, but you wouldn’t want to be on the other end of that deal.
Some might argue that animals don’t bother being careful with what they do. But the whole purpose of setting aside wild places is to keep them wild. Even the smallest traces of human activity can disturb wild ecosystems. Certainly, the “fling and forget” story I opened with is a flagrant abuse of our natural resources.
Ran into a bunch of good links for people who are into hiking and biking, and they’re locally based. You may want to bookmark some of these, if you haven’t already.
Oklahoma Earthbike Fellowship, http://www.okearthbike.com/
Oklahoma Bicycle Society, http://www.oklahomabicyclesociety.com/
Oklahoma Bicycling Coalition, http://www.okbike.org/
Oklahoma Trail Runners Association: http://oktrailrunning.com/standard.php?id=1
Oklahoma City trails: http://www.okc.gov/trails/
Tulsa city trails: http://www.incog.org/transportation/trailguide.htm
Muskogee trails: http://www.cityofmuskogee.com/shell.asp?pg=149
Southeastern Oklahoma hiking: http://www.friendsot.org/
And all about any trails in the state: http://www.trails.com/findarea.aspx?state=OK
So there ya go. A bunch of places online to look for your next Oklahoma outdoors adventure. Happy reading/planning/playing!
From the state Tourism Department:
‘Discover Oklahoma’ to Visit OK Buffalo Tours
(25 complimentary tickets available)
“Discover Oklahoma” will venture to OK Buffalo Tours on Sept. 23 for a close-up encounter with the shaggy but noble Great American Bison.
Guests will climb aboard a custom-built trailer for a ride through native grasses and plants and will stop to view the herd from just a few feet away.
After returning to the pavilion, a full meal with bison meat will be served followed by local Native American dancers in full regalia. Twenty-five tickets, valued at $25 each, will be made available for free to those who call to reserve a spot before Sept. 21, or until tickets run out. The tour will begin at 10:45 a.m. and should last about 2 ½ hours.
OK Buffalo Tours is five miles North of Mountain View on the Wichita Mountains Scenic Byway, State Highway 115.
To reserve a space call 405-947-5179 or 405-250-3937.
Online: OKBuffaloTours.com; e-mail: email@example.com
Got some responses on my series on wilderness safety as well as some feedback on the latest venture in the San Juans.
Bill Becquart says one thing he doesn’t leave without is his SPOT device. It’s not cheap — up to $149 for the unit, plus about $136 a year for usage. But it serves somewhat like an EPIRB on seagoing ships, those emergency locator devices that help rescuers find vessels and their crews in distress. SPOT allows search and rescue crews to find you, gives you a $100,000 insurance policy to pay for a helicopter rescue and allows you to send messages to loved ones, Bill says. That same service also sends a Google Maps message to them showing where you are.
Sounds like a heck of a way NOT to get lost.
Trent Riley just got back from doing Grays Peak and Torreys Peak in the Front Range of Colorado. He said he also plans to try some much harder mountains, including Longs Peak, Capitol Peak and Little Bear Peak. Trent also asked if I planned to do all 54 of Colorado’s 14ers, the name given to mountains that are 14,000 feet or higher.
At this time, I’d have to say no. There are some that are beyond my skill level right now, and I just don’t get up into the high country enough to improve my skills, conditioning and comfort with exposure to the point where I could tackle them all. But I’ll never say never. Each year, I try to do something harder than the year before. This year was no exception.
In any case, there’s plenty of cool places here in Oklahoma that I really need to explore. Perhaps those trips will prepare me for the more gnarly ascents Trent’s talking about.
Best of luck to Trent as he tackles Longs, Capitol and Little Bear. I want to hear all about it when you’ve bagged ‘em!
Thanks again to everyone who left comments on the Mount Yale series. It’s a pretty personal story, but my hope is that people will read stuff like that and take the utmost care before they try any wilderness experience, whether it be close to home or in some other, far-flung locale.
One interesting note from last week’s trip. It has to do with backpacking. So I’m loading up my pack for the four-mile hike out. I have to find somewhere to stow an extra banana. I stash it in a pocked on the outside of my pack.
Bad move. Though not all that heavy, it was enough to unbalance my pack and give my back fits. When we stopped to readjust our packs a bit, I snarfed the banana. Problem solved. The hike out was some of the easiest four miles I’ve ever done. Lesson learned: Even a small amount of weight that unbalances a pack can cause a lot of discomfort and even back pain.
Going to start focusing on stuff here in Oklahoma this fall and winter. Prime hiking, climbing and camping weather is at hand! Stay tuned, folks.
So I’d never been to the San Juan range in southwestern Colorado before. I’d only seen pictures. What I saw seemed to be a dramatic range in an isolated, wild place that can be as remote as it gets in the Lower 48 states.
The king of these mountains, Uncompahgre Peak, stands at 14,309 feet and is a massive testimony to the power of the geological forces that were at work in this area eons ago. Most of Colorado’s mountains are caused from uplift, but deep in the San Juans, evidence of serious volcanic activity from earth’s ancient past are visible. The violence of those eruptions shaped the otherworldly peaks of this region, including the dramatic profile of Uncompahgre.
Pictures are one thing. Seeing it was another. Uncompahgre didn’t disappoint.
Four of us made the journey, staying first in Gunnison before heading down to the remote town of Lake City. A short drive out of town took us to what would be our trailhead.
Let me say right off, the next time I come to this range I want a four-wheel drive vehicle. We didn’t have that, so to reach our campsite at the Nellie Creek trailhead we had to backpack in four miles to 11,450 feet. A good four-wheeler would easily have made the trip without the extra exertion. But it’s a fairly gentle uphill trek with just a couple of stream crossings. The trailhead campground has a good number of sites and an outhouse — are rare luxury up here. Nellie Creek flowed nearby, giving us an excellent water source.
The first night of camping was quite cold, so I didn’t sleep well at all. Maybe dozed a total of an hour before getting a late start (7:30 a.m.) up the trail toward the peak. The lack of rest affected my performance, but it didn’t seem to bother the two first-timers in my party, Steven Soward and Steve Winterberg.
“The Steves” proved to be stout hikers and left me and climbing buddy Rick Ponder in the dust. Us oldsters had to take our time a bit, battling various joint pains and a common experience of horrible rest the night before. But I digress.
It doesn’t take long, maybe 30 minutes or so, for the peak to come into view. When you first view Uncompahgre, its size and dramatic skyline stand out. Its east ridge rises upward in a long sweep that provides safe access to the summit. Its fearsome north face shoots straight up.
Signs of past volcanic activity abound. Huge boulders — lava bombs flung from some ancient eruption long ago — were scattered along the route.
A good trail winds its way up to the east ridge, then turns west toward the peak. Once there, dramatic views of nearby summits come into view. You see no signs of civilization, only mile after mile of mountain wilderness. Immediately to your left, sharp cliffs plummet down, but the route is cleverly designed to avoid any serious exposure to falls while still giving you the chance to take in the energy of the heights you’ve scaled so far.
Soon, we came to the portion of the trail where the climb begins in earnest. As I said, we got a late start and Rick and I weren’t moving as fast as we should. Weather started to build — puffy, white clouds with gray bottoms that usually signal the beginning of the daily summer monsoon storms that form over the Rockies. It still looked doable, so we gave it a go.
As you begin the final ascent, the trail gets steeper and switchbacks upward. By now, we were well over 13,000 feet, so our speed was slowed even more. But the fun was just starting.
The trail eventually leads you to the back side of the mountain (its southwest side) and stops. This is the crux of the climb. In front of us was a choice of two gullies. The first one is steeper, more direct and probably borderline Class 3 scrambling (call it 2+, unless you want to make it more challenging), depending on what route you choose. It also has some loose rock and dirt that make footwork a little tricky.
The second gully is less direct, not as steep and slightly more exposed. It was also a mess of loose scree and talus, much worse than the first gully. I ascended the first gully just as a mix of snow pellets (called graupel) starting pelting us and putting a little moisture on the rocks. That’s never a good thing, but luckily it wasn’t so heavy as to create much of a problem. Had it been rain, it would have been much more dicey. After going up about 150 feet, we emerged from the gully and resumed hiking on flatter ground. One steeper hiking section remained before we gained Uncompahgre’s broad summit plateau.
To our east, I saw where the bad weather was pounding the area in earnest. Rain, snow and graupel were falling at a much harder rate than what we experienced. Thunder rolled nearby, but we were fortunate that it was moving away from us.
The beauty of Uncompahgre is that that severe dropoffs are avoidable. But if you really want to peer down into the void below, the north face of the peak awaits inspection. I skirted the edge of the summit in a few places and snapped a photo of the dropoff, memories that still make my palms sweat a little. You could stand on top of the tallest building in Oklahoma City or Tulsa and still not get the same experience as you would peering down Uncompahgre’s 700-foot north face. Glad I didn’t slip.
Atop the peak, all we could see were the summits of other, equally spectacular mountains that make up the San Juans’ 4,000 square miles. Nearest us were Matterhorn Peak and its larger, more regal looking neighbor, Wetterhorn Peak. Conquests for another day, perhaps.
Light snow flew around as we descended, but it looked like more bad weather might blow in. Someone had told us the second gully was easier than the first, so that’s the one I took down. Bad move. There were parts where I felt like I was walking on stacks of dishes. A fall would have been unpleasant in that section. I regretted making that choice, but finished my descent there and marked it off to experience. For future reference, take the first gully up or down. It’s more fun and safer.
The long haul back to camp left me and Rick pretty spent. The Steves, on the other hand, made good time and were down 30 minutes before us.
Cloud cover that threatened the climb earlier in the day actually made the evening a little warmer. So I slept well that night, with the exception of a couple motorcyclists coming into camp that night and honking their horns at someone. My guess is they were looking for someone already bedded down for the night. In any case, it was pretty bad form.
As for that four-mile hike out, it turned out to be pretty pleasant. We stopped to talk to others as they drove down, reliving our experience on Uncompahgre as well as some other mountains.
Uncompahgre capped off a pretty good summer in the high country for me. And it gave me my first taste of the San Juans. Without a doubt, I’ll be back to explore this range some more.
Just now got back to Gunnison, Colo. Three friends and myself successfully reached the summit of Uncompahgre Peak in the San Juan range of southwestern Colorado. One heck of an adventure! A very dramatic place, to be sure. A trip report with info on the peak, what happened, photos and maybe even a video to come.
Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!
Going to take a brief break from the blog, as I’m back in Colorado for one last high country fling before the summer ends. I’m with three other friends, and today we’re heading to Lake City, CO., where we’ll hopefully summit Uncompahgre Peak deep in the San Juan Range.
Stay tuned, more trip reports to come, hopefully with good things to say!
On the evening of Aug. 31, 2008, I was with nine other friends at a trendy pizza joint in Salida, Colo., called Amica’s. We were there to celebrate and reminisce about the weekend’s adventures in the Collegiate Peaks. Of the 10 of us who went, five summitted Mount Yale, a 14,196-foot peak in central Colorado. But for whatever reason, I wasn’t feeling the celebratory mood.
I’d called my wife while we waited on a table, admitting to her that even though I reached Yale’s summit, I probably shouldn’t have tried it. I was doubting my future in this game, too. If Mount Yale would put up this much of a fight against me, what possibility was there that I could try something tougher? Not much, I reasoned.
I was still wiped out from the day’s events. Getting up to the summit was hard work, and the downclimb was quite miserable. After gnawing on some pizza for about an hour, we headed back to the lodge where we were staying. I was looking forward to a long, deep sleep.
It never came.
As I tried to lie down for bed, the side cramp returned. It turned into pain. My body was exhausted but restless. Something was wrong. All night I battled a hacking cough and the pain in my side made it impossible for me to lie on my back or my right side.
Morning came, and climbing partner Johnny Hunter looked at me.
“Are you all right?”
“No,” was all I could mutter. Pain and exhaustion were growing.
We loaded up and left. A quick breakfast I could barely stomach. And the long ride back home. For a moment, I considered checking in to the Salida hospital to see what was wrong, but I didn’t want to delay the group. As it was, we’d be arriving home sometime after 10 p.m., and most of us had to go to work in the morning.
By now, a couple of the other guys were getting concerned. They both had some pretty potent pain killers, which I gladly accepted. They helped me sleep much of the way home, dulled the pain and, once I woke up, actually allowed me to enjoy some of the conversation going on in the van.
Arriving home, I went straight to bed, careful not to rest on my back or right side. The next morning, I dragged myself to work. Co-workers could tell I was quite ill. The pain intensified. One wrong move, and shooting barbs wracked my ribcage.
Enough was enough. I went to the hospital. A few X-rays and blood tests later, the doctor who first saw me looked worried. When they order tests “stat,” that usually conveys a sense of urgency.
Finally, I got the diagnosis. Pneumonia. I was relieved it wasn’t some weird tropical disease I picked up in Thailand weeks earlier. But then again, didn’t Bernie Mac die from complications of that very same disease just days earlier?
From that point, I began to waste away. My appetite was gone. I felt anemic. In just two weeks, I lost 18 pounds. My bearded, gaunt appearance made me look like the denizen of a POW camp. Just getting up to shower was an exhausting task.
I was lucky to have been seen and treated by Dr. Tony Haddad, a pulmonary specialist in Shawnee. X-rays and CT scans showed the damage. My right lung, at its worst, was 75 percent filled with fluid. Fluids had also built up around my right lung and heart. He told me that my age and physical condition helped me stave off more serious complications, but there was no question that for a certain time, my life was in danger. On the mountain, on the ride home, in the days that followed.
It wasn’t until December that my lung became clear. But Dr. Haddad said any future X-rays would likely show the scars from the illness. I eventually gained my weight and strength back and resumed my normally active lifestyle.
But I also came away with the knowledge that I was lucky.
I fully admit my mistakes. Ignorance was to blame in some cases, but common sense should have told me to cancel my Colorado trip. To not attempt the climb. To turn around when the pain surfaced. To have sought out medical attention sooner.
But more than anything else, I’ve learned that when you’re in a wild place, you need to be at your best. To keep your wits. To be humble. To do or be anything less invites disaster, because wild places, while beautiful, are unforgiving. Particularly for the ignorant, the weak and the prideful. I scored on all three counts.
And that’s the real reason I’m telling this story. God forbid anyone else put themselves in a similar situation, or otherwise bite off more they can chew in the outdoors. That’s how people get hurt. How they die.
There’s no summit that’s worth your life.
Three months after my initial diagnosis, I spoke to my doctor about a concern I had.
My fear, I told Dr. Haddad, was that I would be prone to similar infections in the future. Which would mean that any future forays into mountaineering were over. But he reassured me that this was highly unlikely.
Still, I worried about it. I had just gotten into mountaineering and knew there was so much more to explore. To cut it out of my life now would be so wounding to me.
So I forged ahead. I decided my next climb would be something even more challenging. A snow climb. And in June of this year, me and Johnny Hunter did just that, scaling Mount Shavano’s spring snowfields. Neither of us were in the best of shape, but the added challenge and newness of snow climbing made for an unforgettable climb.
I can’t speak for Johnny, but for me it was about exercising demons. Those bad memories of Mount Yale, the awful downclimb, the illness that followed. And the fear that I’d never climb a tall peak again.
As I neared Shavano’s summit, I looked up to the skies, shook my ice axe in the air and yelled.
A celebratory yell.
The cliché has three words that couldn’t be more false: Ignorance is bliss. Maybe for some. But ignorance can be downright dangerous.
On a cold, wind-whipped morning at 14,200 feet, one might believe that the shivers had a lot to do with the temperature. After a less-than-successful summer in terms of training, one might think that the tiredness, side cramps and difficulty in catching my breath had a lot to do with physical fitness.
One small hint ignored, and other clues explained away as relatively harmless, if annoying consequences of circumstances that could easily be overcome. These are the little things that add up. Because the reality of what was going on inside my body was much more serious.
It was late morning on Aug. 31, 2008, and I had just gutted out a difficult summit attempt on Mount Yale in central Colorado. I’d been losing steam on the way up, then started feeling cramps on the right side of my body as I began the most difficult but most enjoyable part of the climb. By the time I reached the top, I was tired. Too tired to enjoy it, too tired to eat. I sat down amongst the rocks and tried to recover from the ascent, snapped a few pictures of friends who had also made the summit and contemplated what I’d do next.
I was dressed for the cold, but it didn’t seem to matter. The longer I sat there, the more I shivered. It was time to go.
Downclimbing is the part of mountaineering I dislike the most. While it doesn’t strain the heart and lungs as much as going up, it’s punishing on the knees and fatiguing to the leg muscles. My knees aren’t the best anymore, so sometimes my descent is a slow, painstaking affair. I let the others know that they should proceed down at their own pace and not worry about me. Everyone knew I was a slow downclimber, and it had never had been a problem before.
What I wasn’t prepared for was my inability to catch my breath. And the side cramp wasn’t going away.
Unknown to me, what was occurring was a combination of problems that fed off each other. The respiratory infection I thought I’d licked was not quite gone, just subdued. The presence of fluid in my lungs, albeit negligible, grew as I ascended. And the presence of more fluid allowed the infection to reassert itself. Dramatically.
By the time I started my descent, fluid was not only inside my right lung (which was filling fast), but also building up outside. Pleurisy, as the condition is called, is what caused the feeling of side cramps.
By now, several things were slowing my descent. I hadn’t eaten (a bad mistake) in some time. My compromised lung was drastically cutting the amount of oxygen getting to the rest of my body. And I couldn’t go very far without being winded. But every time I stopped, the shivers would begin.
This was a troublesome sign. Being this cold was a warning sign of hypothermia, or at least the beginnings of it. Had I been healthy, this wouldn’t be a problem. But a lack of oxygen makes the body more susceptible to cold. And thus my problems began to snowball. I’d stop, shiver, then start again to keep my body warm, only to be forced to stop again.
Other complications arose. All around me, storm clouds were brewing. I could see rain beginning to envelop nearby Mount Antero, and clouds obscured neighboring Mount Princeton. All around me, rain seemed to be falling. Still 1,500 feet above treeline, I feared that lengthy exposure to the rain would only make me colder, and I worried about being caught in the open by lightning. At the rate I was descending, I knew I was still a couple of hours away from the relative safety of treeline.
As I weakened, I kept slipping and falling on Yale’s steep, sandy trail. Each stumble seemed to sap me just a little more.
And then came the hallucination.
I’d managed to stagger my way to 13,000 feet when I saw what looked like one of my friends resting against a rock. His backpack was tossed to the side. By now, the whole group I was with was all over the mountain, with some who had turned back long before and others who had summitted and were well past treeline. But here was a straggler, like me, at 13,000 feet. I was coming to grips that I was in trouble, and I needed to let someone know.
As I approached him, I saw that the baseball cap atop his head and the backpack tossed to the side were really just a couple of boulders. My mind was now playing tricks on me.
By now, the hard questions needed to be asked. How bad was it for me right now? Would there be a need to call Search and Rescue? Is there anything I could do to get down faster?
On the summit, I had chosen not to eat, simply because I wasn’t hungry and was quite cold. Hanging out up there and eating just didn’t seem too appealing. On the way down, the deteriorating weather drove me to thinking I needed to get to treeline before stopping to eat. Now, reality dictated that rain or no rain, I had to stop and refuel. Otherwise, I might not get much further down.
Grabbing a handful of trail mix, I tried to choke it down. I nearly threw it right back up, but resisted the urge and kept eating. The energy in those few bites would help me get lower, into thicker air, where I might have a chance at getting myself out of this mess.
The weakness, loss of balance, hallucination, shivering and nausea all pointed to something I’d never experienced before: acute mountain syndrome, also known as altitude sickness. The way out of AMS is to get lower. Which I did.
Slowly, I made it down to treeline. I stopped near another group of hikers. Being near them made me feel safer. I had already gone through most of my water, so one of the hikers offered me some of his. After resting for 30 minutes or so, I decided to get going again, worrying that my group might be concerned about my lateness.
After an hour of hiking in the trees, one of my group, Johnny Hunter, had come up to meet me. We hiked down together to camp. Seeing how knackered I was, the others helped me tear down my tent and even hauled my pack down.
This was a humbling experience. I had organized this trip, offered advice and assumed something of a leadership role. And now I was the last one down the trail, completely spent, having someone else haul my stuff back to the van. I had climbed Mount Yale, but could I look at this as any sort of an accomplishment if I couldn’t even carry down what I’d brought up?
I apologized to my friends, telling them that my poor conditioning got me into trouble up high and that I should never have attempted the summit. No one held it against me.
Trouble was, I still had the mistaken notion that physical fitness was the issue. Within hours, I’d soon realize that it was something else entirely.
TOMORROW, PART 3: THE AFTERMATH OF THE CLIMB. In the hours and days after summitting Mount Yale, my health crashed to potentially life-threatening conditions.
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.