Up and Down

We were all up and ready to go by 1:00am, as had been our goal. Sarah said she didn’t feel so hot but she wanted to try climbing anyway. I felt fine physically but mentally I was feeling a little bit apathetic. I was sleepy and thirsty and cold already. Let’s do this.

We started off ahead of the guided group but let them pass us when Sarah’s stomach got the better of her, forcing her to turn around. We continued up, following the groups at their extremely slow pace. It had actually been part of our plan to get behind them, we figured they knew what pace worked and then we could pass them on the glacier. Up and up we climbed, the section that Kyle and I had done the day before seemed to fly by. Above that there was some snow and ice but nothing to warrant crampons yet. Eventually we ran into a guide that was ahead of the group, scouting and hit some real ice. It was time to don the crampons. It was at this point that I decided to turn around.

What was going on in my head and in my body at that moment? A lot of things. Physically I actually felt okay, a little nauseas, a little cold, a little bit of a headache, but nothing terrible. However, thinking ahead to what we had left, the 3,500ft we still had to climb, I just didn’t think I would make it. My energy was low after two nights without sleep and I felt pretty dehydrated. I wanted to chug my water but I knew we had to conserve. I figured my chances of actually reaching the top were around 20%. I knew that if I turned around now, before we put crampons on, before the maze got too complicated, before I felt too crappy, I could make it back to camp on my own. I knew if I continued and needed to turn around later I would either have to sit and wait for the boys to be done climbing or I would be taking both of them with me. It was already freezing cold so sitting and waiting sounded like a recipe for hypothermia. Turning both of them around sounded unfair.

Mentally I didn’t give a damn. It is weird, you all know that I am extremely tough mentally. I have done things like push us through a 53 mile day, talked us out of quitting the PCT, talked myself into summiting scary peaks, pushed myself super hard. But on this day I wasn’t experiencing things I wanted to push through. Pain is an interesting thing, pushing through muscle aches and skeletal grinds, hungry stomachs and throbbing feet, those are things I enjoy. That is the kind of suffering I am into. Pushing myself into a worse headache or trying to ignore dizziness, swallowing my nausea and lifting my fatigued legs, those things interest me less. Looming in my mind was the advice posted on the inside of the Piedra Grande hut: Any illness at altitude is assumed to be AMS until proven otherwise. The only cure for AMS is to descend immediately.

My brain didn’t give a damn and my heart wasn’t in it. Bottom line. I had learned a lot already about high altitude climbing trips and I was ready to turn around. That curiosity I normally have to get to the top of something, to see what is up there, it wasn’t burning inside me. I turned around without regret. My only concern was that without me the boys would be just two. Just two people to make decisions. But I pushed my worry about them down and kissed Kyle goodbye and wished them luck. Kyle made me promise not to get lost on the way back down. I told him, “No chance, I’m like a homing pigeon.”

Immediately upon leaving them and the rest of the guided group, who were putting on their crampons as well, I found myself staring down upon a boulder strewn field, with no clear trail in sight. I stood there like an idiot wondering if I was going to have to turn around and join the boys, just because I couldn’t find the way back. Finally I smacked myself over the head and forced my thoughts to stop chasing themselves in circles. I cast my mind back to what had happened right before we stopped to take off our crampons. Immediately I remembered seeing the scouting guide, him telling us to go up the hill, that not leading to anything, us taking a weird side path behind that huge awkward boulder. I had smacked my head on it and thanked goodness for helmets. I smiled at the huge awkward boulder, over to my right and headed down past it, the way we had watched the guided groups come up. Shortly after that the trail became much clearer.

As I descended, recognizing rocks and blazes from the day before, I felt sicker and sicker. It was almost as if by telling myself, “You’re going down now,” all the ickiness that I had been bottling up was free to come flowing forth. My headache worsened, my stomach gurgled, and my body felt heavy. I worked hard to keep myself sharp, to place my feet carefully, to avoid tripping hazards. When I got to the section of loose scree I took my time so that my feet didn’t fly out from under me on the sloughing rocks. Finally I could see the lights of camp down at the bottom of the hill and I booked it the last couple of hundred feet. In camp I filled up my water bottle out of our icy twenty liter jug and chugged. I sat there chugging water until I was starting to get too cold and then I made a beeline for the tent. Inside I stripped off some layers and nestled into my sleeping bag. Sarah heard me at some point and called out to me. I assured her I had threatened the boys with disembowelment if they left each other alone on the glacier.

Then I tried to fall asleep. I was so tired. But I was too cold to sleep, wracked with shivering. I wanted to put on more clothes but I didn’t want to loose the heat I had managed to trap in my sleeping bag. Plus I could feel the mounting pressure in my bladder, so I knew I was going to have to leave my cocoon at some point. Finally it got to be too much and I threw on some extra layers and headed out to relieve myself. The sun was just starting to rise but it was still frigid outside. I looked up at the mountain but couldn’t see any specs on the glacier.

Back inside my tent I didn’t take off any layers. I climbed straight into my sleeping bag with all my down on, zipped it up over my hooded head and laid back. I was so fat and puffy with down I probably looked like an Everest adventurer, stuffed into my sleeping bag like a juicy sausage. But it did the trick and I stopped shivering, waiting greedily for the sun to warm my tent. I wanted the tent to get so hot I was forced out of my sleeping bag, sweating and sun burned. I thought about Kyle and Carl up on the mountain but I was too tired to worry. Instead I watched the red walls of the tent, waiting for the sun.

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As Edward Abbey said, "An indoor life is the next best thing to a premature burial."

8 thoughts on “Up and Down

  1. This is a hard mountain. I summited Cotopaxi- much higher – but tried to acclimatize too fast at Pico and only got to the edge of the glacier. No AMS – just too slow and made some dumb decisions about gear that also slowed me down. Plus, the elevation gain from the hut to summit is a lot. I thought you were going to stay at high camp (less elevation gain)? I keep wondering if I stayed there I would have made it.

  2. So glad you had sense enough to turn around. It’s a hard decision to make that’s for sure.Take care of yourself. Let us know how Kyle and his friend did. Be safe.

  3. Thank goodness you used the wisdom God gave you and I am thankful you did. You sounded a bit like the man in Touching the Void. Except for the broken leg 😳. Keep it coming.

  4. Quite the adventure! Glad you made it down okay. I have not had internet regularly, so have missed a few posts here. I assume Kyle and friend made it back okay, also!

  5. I have to wonder about you guys and your guides. It’s evident you are experiencing altitude sickness and you just keep climbing. That’s not the way to do it! This is the second post w/ symptoms, and you keep climbing. You shouldn’t even be there if you can’t recognize it! Good luck to all!

    1. We didn’t have guides! The interesting thing is Pico is it’s pretty hard to leave before the date you set to be picked up. Both kyle and I are trained in wilderness first aid so we kept a close eye on our symptoms. Unfortunately very few people play around at altitude without some symptoms of AMS, if you bailed every time you experienced a mild symptom you’d probably never go at all. I’d say our symptoms were extremely mild and not concerning to the point of needing to evacuate or leave before our planned date.

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