A Baldy Bust and a Few Blessings

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.

Patrick at the creek near the ski hut.

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.

Steep ascent.

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.

The Devil’s Backbone Trail.

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.

With Jim, Shin and Joycie. Photo credit: James Ledbetter

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.

Strawberry Peak.

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.

Jane in love with the outdoors.

 

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.

My summit register entry.

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.

Hike on!
~J

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Tales of the Trails – Mt. Whitney Edition Pt. 2

The last three miles of the first Mt. Whitney summit attempt in August were the longest three miles of my life. I had a strange out-of-body type of experience on the way down and I have no idea how I even made it all the way. Perhaps it was the quick pace set by my friends Jeff and Nancy. Or maybe it was Jeff’s calling out the mileage on the descent, giving me hope that the trailhead was near. Somehow, even with the encouraging words from Jeff, I grew more and more discouraged as I saw headlamps snaking up the trail below us, indicating that we still had at least that much further to go.

Every inch of me was in pain. The few places that weren’t were downright numb. I felt as if rigor mortis was settling into my body while I was still in it, and that non-sensation should have frightened me, but I was even numb to fear. My headlamp had even grown dim as the batteries needed replacing, but I refused to stop. I knew that if I had stopped for even a moment, I wouldn’t be able to start again. So I walked in between Jeff and Nancy so that I could use the light of their headlamps.

By the time we finally reached the trailhead, I thought I was hallucinating. I looked up into the sky and noticed millions of stars, something I had never seen before. I glanced at Nancy and told her I had never seen that many stars in the sky and felt like something was wrong with me. She assured me that there weren’t any more stars in the sky than normal, but because of the light pollution in the city, the stars are not all clearly visible to us. While it was a comfort to know that I wasn’t hallucinating, that did little to reassure me that something wasn’t terribly wrong.

Jeff offered to treat us all to a pizza in Lone Pine as we were all famished. When we got there, I walked across the street to the hostel where I stayed to leave my backpack in the room and I could barely stand. Going up the stairs was excruciating. Somehow I made it back to the pizza joint and attempted to eat a slice of pizza and rehydrate with some green tea sweetened with honey. I had to force a small bite of pizza down and I probably only drank half a cup of green tea. I couldn’t sit at the table any longer and bid my friends goodnight. As hungry as I was, it was very surprising to me that I couldn’t eat or drink. When I got back to the room, I went straight to bed.

There had only been one time in my life that I could remember not having an appetite. I was fourteen, it was Thanksgiving, and I had the flu. It was the most awful feeling ever to be at my grandmother’s house around family and lots of food, and unable to touch any of it. After my failed attempt to summit Mt. Whitney, I had that feeling multiplied by ten. I was also severely dehydrated, as well as physically and emotionally spent. I later discovered that I had a pretty bad case of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), which could have turned fatal. Thank God, it didn’t.

The next morning, I loaded up on electrolytes, which I badly needed, and had a big breakfast up at the Whitney Portal. After that, I felt refreshed. However, I couldn’t stop looking back at Mt. Whitney staring down at me in the distance and feeling bummed that I didn’t conquer her as I had intended. I knew it would be at least a year before I would have another go at it and I tried to let it go, but be thankful that I at least made it as far as Trail Crest, which by all purposes was the summit at 13,600ft.

When I returned to L.A. and pondered my failed summit attempt, I lamented over the fact that I had given up on some dreams that I had held dear to my heart for many years. I also noted that I had given up on summiting two peaks and felt that the two instances were somehow connected. I didn’t know for sure if that was the case, but it was worth consideration. I wondered what to do about it.

The answer came suddenly when my friend Walter, the leader of the Mt. Whitney conquests, posed the idea of going back to the mountain to take care of business once and for all. I wasn’t going to have to wait another year. I would take on the mountain again, and I would do it on my birthday, celebrating with epic flare. It would be the birthday to remember.