It’s fair to say I’ve slowed a step over the years, and I’d be delusional not to have noticed. Listening to most of my elders, it’s just part of aging and the human experience. Accept it, account for it, and move on to your AARP membership and supper at 4:30 in the afternoon. I’m in decent shape, I thought, and what guy over 35 can’t use more strength and endurance training in his life? I’m well within the ‘normal’ range, and maybe a bit closer to the ‘n.’
A friend of mine recently asked me to accompany him on a hike. He knew I enjoyed summiting tall places, and wanted to spend his day off climbing to the tallest nearby point. It’s worth clarifying that our chosen mountain peaks well above the timberline, which is typically around 11,000 feet. Above that elevation, there’s just too little gas density in the air for trees to flourish, so it’s a tundra environment. Small plants, small animals, and rocks. Lots of rocks. Many of them multi-ton boulders. Some of them you’ll have to scramble over. In addition to the local Arizona peaks, I’ve summited a half-dozen Colorado mountains over 14,000 feet, so none of this was news to me. I’m comfortable with the realities of these high-altitude hikes, and I’m prepared for them. I thought.
One of the common misconceptions about hiking in remote areas is that ‘help is available.’ No. No, it is not. Help is decidedly not available when you need it. High-mountain trails are typically five-to-ten mile out-and-backs that are quite steep and treacherous in places. You’re venturing out into the wild and there’s always risk in doing so. The first one you’ll notice is communications. I don’t care that you’re ‘closer to the cell satellites,’ you need an uplink. Verizon doesn’t put cell towers in unpopulated areas, so you typically can’t call for help. You have to bring help with you, or wait for a Good Samaritan to pass by. Second, there is no snack bar. You need to pack in your own food and water and, if you’re among the cool kids, a can of beer for the summit. Nothing more delicious than summit beer. Last, high-mountain weather is unpredictable, with the exception that you can expect afternoon clouds, showers, and lightning. Despite all that you can plan for, it never ceases to amaze me how many folks I meet on the summit trails who carry nothing more than bottle of water, running shorts, and tennis shoes. Maniacs. If you’re lucky enough to get away with shouldering that much risk once, please never do it again. You used it all up. Be prepared next time, because karma is likely coming for you.
My response to all the unknowns of these hikes is to ensure that I can sustain and treat significant injuries and spend the night on the mountain while Search And Rescue gets spun up to carry me out. Even something as normally benign as an ankle sprain could end up killing you, if you’re unprepared. Hiking time on summit trails will be 1-2 miles an hour while you’re healthy. Once you’re injured, you can expect to sustain a crawling pace over that same steep, treacherous terrain. So, I carry enough gear to treat myself and one more person, and to keep us both alive and warm overnight. That means my pack weighs in at a minimum of 45 pounds if there’s no adverse weather in the forecast.
I tell you all that to tell you this: I arrogantly believed, based on my past successes with these hikes, that I was physically prepared to keep up with my newbie friend. Did I mention I’ve got about 15 years on him? Or that he runs like a goddamned gazelle? Yeah, I know. I should’ve known better.
We started out at the designated trailhead, but that wasn’t gonna be tough enough for us. We descended another thousand-ish feet to a lower lake, just so we could climb back up to where we started. Idiots. That additional roundtrip took 90 minutes, and I began by foolishly trying to keep up with the gazelle. That didn’t last long before I realized, and felt, its futility. On those trails, down isn’t much faster than up. Up is steep and tough, down is slippery and treacherous. Especially when you’re on the edge of a thousand-foot fall. After we hiked about an hour above our original starting point, we determined the midpoint landmark where we expected to be in an hour so that we could summit an hour later. Get up in time to avoid the afternoon rainfall, remember that part? I should mention Mr. Weatherman called for rain sometime after 11am, so, it should’ve started on our final ascent. He was wrong.
I had a couple minor nuisance cramps in the third hour. Nothing big, just annoying. Drink more water, eat a banana, have a GU pack. Just before reaching the midpoint landmark, the rain started. A drizzle, really, but it doesn’t take much water at that elevation to lower your body temp. The rain jacket went on, which creates a smaller problem. It keeps the falling rain off, but doesn’t allow your sweat to evaporate. You still get wet, it’s just body-temp, inside-the-jacket moisture.
Just past the landmark, my legs protested at about hour four. Now well above the timberline, every muscle in my thighs took turns cramping hard. I dropped the pack, downed more water, ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and electrolyte tablets. I’ve had to break into my pack a few times to help other people and dogs over the years, but I’ve never had to treat myself. Never. Not once. Even though it’s a statistical certainty, my pride stung as I dug for my provisions. I next tried every known standing-leg stretch to work out the cramps (don’t wanna sit on wet ground), but nothing really helped. Shoulder the pack. Carry on. Up is closer than down. I mentioned earlier about the potential for lightning strikes. Dozens of people die on high-mountain trails every year from electrocution. Once you’re above the timberline, you’re often the tallest thing around and, likely, the most metallic and conductive. Did you know lightning originates from the ground? Where you are? With your metal boot eyelets, belt buckle, and beer can? Staying on the trails after summer weather moves in invites tragedy. I had now further slowed our pace, the weather was moving in on us, and the only viable option was to press onward. I needed to get us to the top before we fried. Literally.
For the next ninety minutes, I struggled to keep moving. Rage, frustration, self-loathing, and disappointment swirled inside my head. I told my friend to leave me in his wake and go seek shelter if we heard thunder. Thunder equals lightning, and I wasn’t going to be responsible for getting us both killed. Sounds a little dramatic in the aftermath, but I think lightning killed twelve people and two dogs on that mountain last year.
So, there, I was. An angry, injured, middle-aged man who was suffering through the consequences of all my collective decisions in the past few years. All the missed workouts. The jogs that should’ve been runs. The skipped leg days. That weighed the heaviest, of course. I hate leg days. You know what I hate more now? The consequences of missing leg days.
About a half-mile before the parking lot, the previous hour’s pill concoction took effect. I lost most of the cramping and pain, and almost moved at a normal pace. That one small change allowed us to get to the parking lot just as the rain fell with a vengeance. Visibility dropped to only about two dozen feet, and everything outside my jacket got soaked. But, at least we were there without a single clap of thunder.
My friend swears he has no interest in another high-mountain hike. I’m going back, though. Next summer, I’ll again summit a respectable high-point on the map. I’ll just be in much better shape and better physically prepared for it. I have almost a year to get my middle-aged, half-dead carcass back into gazelle-running shape. I might have suffered a sad reality for a few hours, but that doesn’t mean I have to accept it. Speaking of, I should be out getting in some miles right now.
Best of luck in facing and conquering your mountain-side realizations.
Be safe out there.