On Friday, I hiked Mt. Baldy with a few of my co-workers who had been wanting to climb that mountain for a while. I was super excited to join them as I had hiked Baldy something like 40 times and was very accustomed to the terrain. I consider it my favorite mountain in Southern California. Sharing the experience with my co-workers and celebrating with those who would reach the summit for the first time would have been a real treat and I was looking forward to it.
The morning started out early. We hit the trail around 7am and the first half-mile was fairly easy and we were able to hike as a group. When the trail got steep, I fell behind as I was really beginning to feel the altitude. I hadn’t climbed Baldy since May and hadn’t spent much time at altitude at all this year, so my body wasn’t as acclimated as it once was and I had to shake off that rustiness. I also had to push through some things that weighed heavily on my heart and mind.
The bigger issue was the altitude. Although I was quite a ways behind the group, I was making good time toward the ski hut, the halfway point to the summit. As I huffed it up the steep, rocky trail, I heard someone come up behind me. When I pulled off to the side to let him pass, he said my name as he greeted me, and I realized it was my friend Patrick who I know from a mountaineering group. He gave me a hug and told me that some of our other friends were right behind him. They were going to hike up to the summit and descend the same way. I greeted them and let them pass and noticed that they weren’t hiking much faster than me. However, I knew they would summit and be on their way down before I reached the top.
When I reached the ski hut and met up with my group, I didn’t want to stop, but they were just relaxing and enjoying the surroundings. I wanted so badly to be fully present with them, but knew that the toughest parts of the hike were just ahead, so I was anxious to get going. I didn’t want to admit that I was experiencing the onset of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) for fear that they would worry, so I told them that if they reached the summit and saw that I wasn’t there after a while not to wait for me because I would probably descend with my friends who had passed me earlier.
I took off and headed up Baldy Bowl through the pine trees. Before long, the group caught up to me. I had gotten a pretty big jump on them, so I was kind of surprised that they caught up so quickly. As I neared the top of the ridge, I could feel my lungs and legs beginning to struggle and weaken, but I was determined, so I pushed myself. I figured I’d take a good rest at the top of the ridge and from there, it was another steep climb to the summit, but I knew I could do it as I had done so many times before.
When I reached the top of the ridge, I got hit pretty hard. I had felt the effects of altitude sickness before, but the symptoms were usually mild and came in the form of a headache, which I was usually able to ease with ibuprofen. But this time, it wasn’t a headache. I felt lightheaded and my pulse wouldn’t slow down, even after resting a few minutes. These were classic symptoms of AMS. I tried my best to smile through it while conversing with the group so that they wouldn’t suspect anything. I had already let them know that I might be turning back before reaching the summit, so at least I was in the clear.
The group continued up the mountain and I stayed behind and pulled out my oxymeter to check my O2 levels. I was unable to get a reading because my fingertips were cold, so I had a snack and then tried to continue the uphill slog at a slower pace. Then the ringing in my ears started. I decided to sit down on a rock for a few minutes and try to check my O2 levels again. This time I got a reading and it was normal, but my pulse wasn’t slowing down. I was probably at an elevation of 8700 feet at this point. Though I really wanted to continue, I felt that if I did try to push through, I would have hurt myself and had a miserable experience. So I gathered my pack and began the steep trek downhill.
When I reached the ski hut, Patrick was there sitting on a bench. I asked how he managed to make it back there without me seeing him and he said he descended via another route that led him straight there. It was a steep scree-laden route that a lot of hardcore mountaineers take and not something I would ever do since I’m afraid of heights and of falling.
Patrick was waiting for the other guys, James, Jeff and Shin. I sat with him and had another snack, but I could still feel the effects of AMS and wondered if I should just begin the descent on my own. The best thing to do when you’re hit with AMS is to descend immediately. Since we were still at high altitude (the ski hut is at 8200 ft), I knew the symptoms were going to linger until I got lower.
It wasn’t long before the guys joined us and we began our trek down the rugged trail. On the way down, we met up with some other friends, Hikin Jim and his sweet daughter Joycie, who were on their way up to the ski hut. It was great to see them as I hadn’t seen Jim since 2014 when I did the Rae Lakes Loop backpacking trip. I hadn’t seen Joycie since she was 2 and she’s now 8.
So this trip didn’t end up a total bust. There were blessings along the journey and I embraced those special moments. I normally don’t do two big hikes back to back, but the next day, I hiked to Strawberry Peak with a big hiking group. I had done Strawberry Peak several times before and knew it was a challenging hike, but since it was at a lower elevation, I wanted to give it a try to redeem myself from the day before.
It’s always disappointing when you have to turn back from summiting a peak, even though you know it could be detrimental to your survival if you continue. But we have to be wise and set pride aside to do what’s good for us, regardless. I walked away from that Baldy hike filled with disappointment, but there were angels along the way who showed me love in the midst of that and made me smile and laugh again.
Instead of staying home on Saturday, I decided to get up and give it another go. It wasn’t Baldy, but another very challenging hike that involved a bit of rock scrambling. During that second outing, I found that I have become a much stronger hiker, and even though I took many pictures along the way, I wasn’t the last one of the group as usual. It was a fairly large group and I was able to stay in the middle section of the group. I even passed a few people along the way. One of the highlights of that trip was getting to catch up with my friend Jane who I hadn’t seen in a while. Normally, I’m not even able to hold a conversation on the trail, so this was pretty big for me.
When I signed the summit register on Strawberry Peak, I wrote the words, “Never give up! Conquer your peak!” I wrote it so that those who came behind me and examined that register would be encouraged in whatever they might be going through. I went from disappointed to inspired in just 24 hours. I decided not to quit on myself, even though my ego was pretty bruised after I couldn’t climb Baldy the day before. But the story wasn’t over.
Sometimes things don’t work out or go the way we expect them to and we’re tempted to lie down and quit, giving in to the pain of discouragement. It’s okay to feel that pain and take some time to shake it off. Do whatever is needed in that moment, but don’t stay there. Get up, lace up those boots and get to walking. There is always a peak to conquer and in conquering that peak, you will find that you are truly conquering yourself.