That’s it, I guess. Just go on living, whether you feel like or not.Anton Chekhov
I lived in Wyoming for many years, where my home sat on the edge of the Bighorn Mountains, looking east towards those ancient weathered ridge tops. While I lived there, of course, I regular hiked in those mountains, as well as in the Winds, Beartooths, and occasionally in Yellowstone National Park. Passes in those mountains regularly exceed 10,000 feet in elevation, and I sometimes scaled peaks that were 12,000 feet or higher.
I was no stranger to high elevation hiking. Even in the Olympics and Cascades, I regularly enjoyed making my way to those subalpine meadows with their views of jagged peaks. When I retired and moved to an island in Puget Sound off of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, I was still near the mountains, even though I lived at sea level. Our home provided a vista to the east towards the North Cascades, and nearby were the magnificent Olympics with their network of high country trails. I felt at home precisely because I was.
I began visiting a friend in Arizona twice a year in the spring and fall. Along the way on each visit I enjoyed the road trip, discovering the National Parks of the southwest, and altering my route each time so that I could see something new and wonderful. On one of those trips I headed south through California, where I visited Sequoia National Park, hiked among those tall trees, and made my way to a vista above Crescent Meadow on the High Sierra Trail, where I sat and ate my lunch as I gazed towards those peaks rising in the east. I heard that call once again and the familiar thrill I feel all the way to my toes when I know there is a trail calling. There it was rising before me, and it went all the way to Mt. Whitney in the eastern Sierras.
That winter I applied for a permit to hike the length of the High Sierra Trail in mid-July and was surprised when I was successful, requiring only a small schedule change to my original plan. My friend Jan agreed to take me to the trailhead and even to pick me up at the Whitney Portal six days later. The trail was only about sixty miles, and I was allowing six days. I was not anticipating any difficulties. I had done longer treks on many occasions and had trained in the usual manner, daily walks and lots of mountain trekking in the high country of the Olympics near my home.
Jan and I said good-bye on a hot day in July, and I made my way east. The eleven mile hike to Bearpaw Meadow, where I had reserved a tent/cabin for the night, did not seem particularly steep, but I was surprised that I felt more than the usual fatigue. When I arrived at my comfortable tent, I was glad that I would not be required to set one up for myself. It seemed like too much effort. Instead I collapsed on the cot, grateful for clean sheets and a warm blanket. I was more grateful still when dinner was served in the dining tent: a corn bread casserole with ham and a selection of wines, just the kind of thing that would ordinarily be a fine treat on a mountain trail to this solitary hiker.
Except this time it was not. My usual robust hiking appetite was not present. I nibbled a few bites of the casserole and retreated to my own tent, attributing my lack of appetite to the heat of the southern California sun. The following morning, when it was substantially cooler, I had the same experience at breakfast. I ate a few bites, then donned my pack, expecting that my appetite would return as I started to make my way up the trail.
With almost every foot of elevation gain, the problem got worse, adding nausea to the loss of appetite, causing me to feel increasingly tired and eventually lightheaded. I began to feel my heart racing, not the robust pounding of a healthy cardiovascular stress but a weak kind of race. . .a race I seemed to be losing with every step. Finally I sat down and put my head between my legs. It helped for a little while, but as soon as I stood up, the rush was back. I grabbed my standby low energy snack. . .orange gumdrops. . .and began sucking on one at a time. The meager sugar infusion kept me from toppling over headfirst. That was the best I could hope for.
I began to think back on a climbing class I had taken while still in college and had experienced similar symptoms while ascending the final seven hundred feet of Mt. Baker, where we dug footholds into the near vertical slope below the summit. I was successful in making it to the top with the rest of the climbers. We took the requisite photos and then began the much easier descent to base camp. Despite many high elevation climbs since that time, I had never again experienced altitude sickness. Then again, I had lived in Wyoming for much of that time. Now my home was at sea level.
Most hikers have at some point experienced “failure” when attempting a particular route. Injuries prevent many hikers from achieving their goals. Sometimes we fall behind and run out of snow free days to complete a hike. Other extremes of weather can send hikers back to the trailheads. These days, by far the most common obstacle to completing one’s chosen route is wild fire.
Failure is a hard lesson on the trail. It should not be, but it is. There never was a conscious decision for me when I decided I did not want to hike any further, and would have to turn around and head back down the trail. It was instead a matter of knowing that I could not go any further without passing out. There simply was not enough oxygen to fuel my racing heart, and I was not going to get it on that trail. It did not have anything to do with giving up.
When I got back to Bearpaw Camp, the ranger was in his tent. He acted as though he dealt with altitude sickness everyday and even listened to my lungs with a stethoscope, pulmonary edema being the worst case scenario of this condition. Most cases, like my own, are not serious, and quickly resolve when the hiker returns to a lower elevation. The ranger used his satellite phone to call Jan for me, and we arranged for a pickup back at the trailhead the following day.
On the trip home we visited the White Mountains, driving up the road into the high country to see the ancient bristlecone pine trees that grow there. The now familiar nausea returned as we reached the end of the road at 10,000 feet, and though I was able to walk through the trees with my friends, it was a strange feeling to know that my well being was suddenly dependent on the elevation at which I found myself. It helped to have those beautiful trees nearby, knowing that I could still be present in a beautiful place, sitting quietly, as those trees had done for centuries, no demands to get somewhere else, to complete something.
Of course I would still love to return and hike the High Sierra Trail, as well as another route in Nevada that is calling to me, almost all of it above 10,000 feet in elevation. I now live in the Okanogan Highlands of eastern Washington, a couple of thousand feet above sea level, so I may yet be able to return to those high elevation trails. If I do not, that is okay too. Like the bristlecone pines, I am happy to sit quietly.
There is this thing that happens as one ages. I have had a lifetime of magnificent hikes, peaks ascended, rivers crossed, challenging routes and easier ones, mornings in camp with my cup of tea, the river voices murmuring. Somehow in my seventies it just seems less important to accomplish great feats and get to high places. Like the trees, it is enough just to be present in a beautiful place for a long time. And so I sit, aging and gnarled, musing on great adventures and sharing some of them with you.