Monday, September 26, 2011

Mt. Whitney (Sept 16-24, 2011)

The time has finally come to head for Whitney and see if my training and preparations will pay off. Mt. Whitney is the highest point in the contiguous United States at 14,505 ft, and until this year my highest hike has been around 9,500 ft! I had no idea all year how my body will react at high altitude and I was anxious about this trip. Three weeks previously I spent a week at Mammoth where I hiked to 10,000, 11,000, then finally 13,000 ft at Mt. Dana. Other than being short on breath, I didn't seem to suffer from any altitude issues, so my confidence was good, though I was still wary. Before leaving, I decided to contact my doctor and get a prescription for acetazolamide (aka Diamox.) The Diamox makes you excrete bicarbonate from your kidneys via urine thus acidifying your blood, which increases the oxygen content in the blood. A similar effect happens naturally through hyperventilation, but takes a much longer time (acclimatization.) Even though my previous hikes showed I might be OK at altitude, I still wanted to use the pills since they should make it easier to breather and shorten the time to climb to the top of the mountain. I tried my first pill on Thursday, the day before leaving, and I really did not like the side effects. I had the tingling in the extremities like everyone complains about, but also developed a really bad headache that afternoon and evening. I decided to wait and did take my next pill until Saturday afternoon, the day before starting hiking up Whitney. I wouldn't have any more headaches, but the pins and needles lasted the entire trip.

Friday morning I quickly packed and headed to NJ's house to pick him up and start driving. We got on the road a little late and I decided to follow the GPS directions instead of the way I knew was shorter. We ended up with quite a long drive and reached our camp site at the White Mountain trail head after dark and behind schedule by an hour. The rest of our group (we were 8 in total) was already there and preparing for bed. The rest of the group that had arrived earlier and stopped by the Ancient Bristlecone forest on White Mountain and did one of the short hikes through the 4,500 year old trees. I had a done a similar hike several weeks before and didn't need to do it again. Though everyone was preparing for bed, NJ and I still had to set up our tents and make dinner. The White Mountain trail head is at 12,000 ft and we were staying there to help acclimate to the altitude. The mountain was quite exposed in addition to the altitude, so it was quite chilly. At around 8pm when we arrived it was already lower 30's and would soon drop to the mid to upper 20's.

Our campsite on White Mountain.

A really nice write-up on the White Mountains can be read here.

The next morning, Saturday, we were planning a simple hike on White Mountain. Three from our group were going to hike to the 14,246 ft summit (14 mile around trip) and the rest of us would hike the first 3 miles up and back. Not much mileage or altitude gain, but it was enough to get our hearts beating and get used to hiking at high altitude. We had time to do the entire summit hike, but at 14 miles, I wanted to save my feet for the grand prize starting the next day. NJ wasn't feeling at his best since he was recovering from a 2 week long cold so he opted not to hike with us and did a short 1/2 mile or so on the trail on his own. Everyone was getting used to their Diamox and it was a bit of a comedy with everyone having to stop and pee every 15 minutes since it's a diuretic. Luckily, the more you take Diamox, the less the side effects affect you.

An old rusty observatory on White Mountain.

Myself posing in front of the White Mountain peak in the background.

After the White Mountain hike it was time to pack up and head to Lone Pine, CA, where we would meet for dinner. One group with JY would also stop and pick up our permits. A few of our group were new to backpacking, so after their first night on White Mountain they had to hit the outfitting stores and pick up some items they missed and some sleeping bag liners to keep warm. I loved my Marmot 15 degree bag and stayed toasty warm and didn't even need to wear socks.

After our dinner in Lone Pine, we headed up to Whitney portal where we had a campsite for the night at around 8,400 ft. As we got a out of our cars and were about to set up our tents, I black bear casually walked passed our cars and through our camp site. We we warned by the rangers that the bears were being aggressive since winter was around the corner and they had to fatten up. As long as I wasn't dinner, I wasn't bothered.

Morning in our two campsites at Whitney Portal.

We got up early on Sunday morning and started to break camp in preparation to begin our Whitney hike. It was my understanding that we were all grabbing breakfast at the Whitney Portal Store at the trail head, but everyone decided to just have breakfast in camp. NJ and I hadn't brought extra food, so we left camp 20 minutes before everyone else and headed to the store. We both had an awesome breakfast of eggs, hash, bacon, and toast. NJ wasn't feeling hungry from his cold (or altitude?) and only ate some of his breakfast. I cleaned my plate and felt well satiated. I wouldn't be lacking any energy on the hike. As soon was finished our last bites, the rest of the crew showed up at the trail head so we headed over.

First thing was to weigh our packs. This was JY's second time up Whitney and the first for everyone else. Last year his pack weight was 45 lbs and he was hoping for a smaller pack this year. His weighed in at 52 lbs! The heaviest in our group. I came in at the lightest at 30 lbs and NJ, who followed my lead and got some of the same gear, was second lightest at 32 lbs. Everyone else was around the mid-30s.

At the Whitney trail head ready to set off for Trail Camp.

As we started up the trail, I took up a position near the back, since I figured I was one of the slower hikers. I'm a strong hiker at times, but I hike better setting my own pace, which is usually a bit slower than other people. After a half mile or so I ended up in the fourth position and remained there the rest of the hike. NJ really struggled and was setting a slow pace. I assumed his cold was still affecting him, but later I heard he had to stop a lot to catch his breath a lot. Since JY was a veteran of Whitney and a strong backpacker, he was acting as the "sweeper" to make sure anyone lagging behind still made it up. He ended up hiking the 6 miles to Trail Camp alongside NJ, encouraging him all the way.

Looking back towards Lone Pine Lake.

Mirror Lake

About 2 miles from Trail Camp, I still had 2 of 3 of our group in view in front of me and I had long lost sight of the 4 behind me. At this time I also started feeling nauseous, which of course, hiking at altitude, made me very nervous. I was still at 10,500 to 11,000 ft at this point and I've shown I could hike w/o issues well above this height. I then started burping a lot and felt like I had diarrhea coming on. I then realized my problem wasn't altitude, but eating a large greasy breakfast mere minutes before starting a strenuous hike. Didn't mom warn me about swimming after eating lunch! Same problem. By the time I was approaching sight of Trail Camp, I had to stop after almost every step to keep myself from vomiting. I know it would have made me feel better to do so, but I was worried about dehydrating myself. So I just walked slower and slower with more frequent breaks until I started to feel better. Amazingly, with all these stops and slow hiking, the four members of our party behind me never caught up or passed me. Though, when I walked into camp, I realized two of them were mere minutes behind me. It would be at least another hour and a half before NJ showed up in camp with JY at his heels. Since I was still nervous about not feeling great and NJ's struggle, I figured the two of us probably wouldn't do the summit the next morning and I was OK with that. As long as I tried my best, I would be happy.

Morning alpenglow as seen from Trail Camp.

Monday morning I awoke, made breakfast and started getting ready for summit day. I was feeling great and wasn't noticing the altitude at all. So far, the Diamox was working wonders and I had no problems breathing. I didn't talk to NJ much but remember asking if he felt any better from his cold and I mentioned he shouldn't try to summit, just go part way. I figured he would be slow enough anyways that I'd see him at the halfway point on my way down and just tell him to turn around.

We were soon on the trail and I was making good progress up the mountain. The first half of the summit hike is 99 switch backs that go up to the mountain ridge and cross over a pass to the other side. We soon spread out and NJ fell quite far behind. Disregarding NJ, I was the slowest going up in 7th position, but when everyone ahead of me would stop for a breather, I usually caught up to them within a few minutes, so I wasn't too far back. Since NJ didn't need to make it to the summit and he could turn around at any time, no one stayed back to help him. We would see him on the way back down.

Looking toward Whitney summit from the switchbacks.

Looking down at Trail Camp and Consultation Lake.

Crossing over the pass to the back of the mountain.

It took me 2 hours to reach the pass and now I just had to follow along the back of the ridge line towards the Mt. Whitney summit. The climbing wasn't as steep, but it was slower due to the altitude. The end of the trail turns right and heads straight up to the summit. I could really feel the altitude at this point and it made the hiking much slower, but it was a really nice section of the trail so it was much easier to hike at a slow consistent pace. Earlier on the trail, there were big steps over the rocks so at times you had to use a lot of energy and effort, which is hard with so little air. The Diamox did its job and I never suffered too much on the way. After the brief section up, I had reached the top of Mt Whitney four hours after starting up the trail. Man, it felt so good to reach the top, and honestly, it didn't feel that difficult of a hike. It was only 5 miles up and not that hard as most hikes go. It's the altitude that makes it difficult and all my training, acclimatizing, and even the Diamox, paid off and I got to the top without too much difficulty. With me at the top, 7 of our 8 had made it up. None of us thought NJ would make it and we assumed we'd meet him back at the halfway point and tell him to turn around, if he hadn't done so already. Most statistics say that 1 in 3 that try to climb Whitney make it to the top, so we did well with 7 of us making it. Though to be fair, aside from NJ, everyone in the group were seasoned hikers, even though a few were new to backpacking.

Posing at the top!

Great views from the summit.

The Whitney hut.

After playing around on the top, we all started heading back down. Going down is always easier, especially at high altitude. We had only been going down 15 or 20 minutes when we saw NJ on the way up. He was actually quite close to the summit and would probably make it (he did, btw, making it 8 of 8 for our group.) He didn't show any sign of distress and was simply going at his slow pace. In fact, I saw another couple just ahead of him that I had passed near the bottom, so there were others hiking at his pace as well. Even though we were only 20 minutes down from the top, I figured it would take him 1 hour to worse case 1 and a half hours to reach the summit. This would have him arriving at 2:00 to 2:30.. which was before the agreed upon safety turn around time of 3:00. He should then be back at camp by 6:00, and the latest of 7:00, though a few people thought his slowness was downhill as well and he could arrive after 8:00.. Since I had done some hikes with him, I knew he was fast downhill and was confident we'd see him by 6:00.

I made good time going down and it looked like I would make the estimated 3 hours down and arrive at camp at about 4:30 or so, which I did. When I was within a half mile of camp though, my body started to shut down and I just completely ran out of energy for some reason. I even grabbed an energy bar and it seemed to make no difference. My body felt like it just wanted to stop and have a 30 minute nap. But, I was so close to camp I just pushed on and soon arrived. I pretty much collapsed and simply relaxed for 30 to 60 minutes. Everyone was wondering when NJ would be back, but I was still betting he would making by 6:00. But, at 5:00 some clouds rolled in and it started to sleet at our campsite. Soon after there were lightning flashes across the sky and we really started to panic with NJ still on the mountain. I just knew he was only an hour away, but with everyone else thinking he was still 2 to 3 hours away, the nervousness around camp was really spreading. We even looked in his tent just to verify he had his warm clothes and his water proof jacket. It only takes minutes to get hypothermia on a mountain if you're unprepared. We really began to fear the lightning and hypothermia on the mountain. What really happened caught us by surprise.

At 5:30 a man came running through camp asking if were NJ's group. Apparently NJ was in trouble on the mountain at the cables and needed his insulin. (Good news was the cables aren't that far from camp, so NJ had made good progress coming down.) NJ is a type I diabetic and has an insulin pump. I didn't make sense to me that he needed more insulin since his pump carries plenty, plus the energy he was burning and I know he wasn't eating much, I wondered if actually he was having low sugar and just need some sweets. Regardless, we gathered together his medical supplies we found in his tent, plus some power bars and an extra bottle of water. NB was our strongest hiker and nurse so she immediately headed up the mountain with SK. NJ was close enough to camp that I could actually see them reach him. I was completely nervous and worried, not knowing what was happening to my close friend, plus I didn't have the energy to help him myself. Though, the adrenaline that hit me at this point completely supercharged me and I think I might just have been able to run up the mountain to help.

NJ came into came by 6:00 and was in bad shape. He was vomiting a lot and was obviously suffering from AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). He then told us he hadn't eaten all day and only drank 13 ounces of water, not even close to the 2 to 3 liters you should drink while hiking. Even worse, because of his vomiting, he couldn't keep drink any more water, it would just come back up. I really began to get scared that he would become extremely dehydrated and we needed to worry about that more than the AMS, though curing the AMS might allow him to start drinking again. NJ hadn't fully realized he had AMS... when he started feeling sick, he checked his insulin pump and saw that he had ripped the line that feeds the insulin so it was no longer working. That's when he panicked and sent for help. Luckily the first person he asked on trail for help had a radio and could talk to others from their party at Trail Camp who then found us. After testing his glucose levels, they weren't that bad, so his diabetes wasn't the problem. It was AMS and dehydration.

Sleet on my tent.

Sunset with storm clouds.

Sunset behind the needles.

After several emergency meetings and coming up with several plans, it was decided we would give NJ 20 minutes to rest. If his nausea went away and he could start drinking, we would wait until morning, otherwise we had some plans on heading down that night, even though the sun was almost gone at this point. NB, our nurse, did most communication with NJ. Not just because of her nursing knowledge, but also because she would appear as an authority figure to NJ because she was a nurse and he would be more likely to listen to her. Luckily he realized how bad his situation was and would do whatever we told him to do.

For the next few hours NJ's nausea seemed to have abated and he drank a small amount of water and we felt we could wait until morning when it would be safest for everyone to hike down. We still knew he was in bad shape and he needed medical attention quickly. We went to bed at 8:00 to get ready for an early morning start when the sun came up. Unfortunately NJ started getting really sick again around midnight and was sick continuously all night long. In hindsight, we all wished we had just risked it and taken NJ down the mountain at night to get him help sooner. But it's hard to make a correct decision when you don't have all the information.

When we broke camp in the morning, we split up NJ's gear among our packs so he would have minimal weight to carry. Our plan was to send four of our group ahead and they would quickly get to the Whitney Portal trail head and make sure the authorities knew we were coming down with a sick person. Hopefully an ambulance could be waiting at the bottom for us. JY, NB, and myself then started down with NJ in tow. NB at point and myself directly behind NJ, ready to catch him whenever he lost balance. After a half mile or so another hiker saw we had a sick member and refuse to leave us until he knew we got NJ to help. What a great person to stay with us and help with NJ! He also took NJ's lightened pack and carried it with his own. I could see NJ actually walking a little faster and at the end of the day, he really needed the help. At this point NJ had not eaten in over 2 days and hadn't drank in a day and half. Plus he had no sleep. His energy levels were pretty much at zero, yet we needed him to get himself down the mountain. We couldn't carry him.

We were also testing NJ's glucose levels and they were rising dangerously high as we were descending. By this time, JY, NB, and myself realized NJ would never make it to the trail head. Our only option was to make it to a place where we could get a helicopter to land. We knew from talking to rangers previously that a helicopter could get into Outpost Camp, which was 2 miles down the mountain from Trail Camp where we started and 4 miles from the Whitney Portal trail head. So we kept pushing NJ towards the camp. I don't think I will ever know how he found the energy to hike those two miles. Our plan was to send NB to the bottom when we reached the camp and she would arrange the helicopter. She was a fast runner, plus being a nurse, should explain to the authorities how bad NJ's situation had become. As tired as NJ was, he realized we could get him help even faster if NB left now before we reached the camp, since it would take NB at least an hour to run the 4 miles from Outpost to the bottom plus another hour or more to get the helicopter in the air. So NB started running down trail and it was just JY, myself, and the stranger helping NJ. I don't know how long it took us, but it seemed to take forever.

It was a real relief to finally make it to Outpost Camp and NJ didn't look like he could have walked another 100 yards. He had saved his own life getting himself down the mountain. I've left out many details of the hours it took us to cover the 2 miles, but NJ vomited at least 30 times and we kept trying to get him water, if only to wet his mouth.

About 30 minutes after reaching Output Camp, JY and I heard the *thump* *thump* from a helicopter approaching and we waved our arms around and we were quickly spotted. After a few circles the helicopter settled on a flat spot less than 30 yards from where NJ was sitting. When the other campers in the area realized what was happening and that it was our friend who needed the help, 3 or 4 of them ran to NJ and huddled around to keep the helicopter wash from blowing him over. I was running around trying to help some of the camper's tents that were being blown over. Within 20 seconds of touching down, NJ was already on board and in the air. Because of weight, the co-pilot and some rescue gear had to be left behind and the helicopter came back about 10 minutes to later to pick him up.

NJ's ride to the hospital.

JY and I quickly helped the campers set their tents back up and restored some order to the camp. We then started down the trail at a very fast pace with me in the lead. I had a really strong drive to get to the bottom and get myself to the hospital as fast as can, even though NJ was safe at this point and my own speed no longer mattered. It took a bit over an hour to cover the 4 miles to the bottom, where we met most of our group waiting. I gathered all of NJ's gear that everyone had helped carry down and I was soon in my car racing towards Southern Inyo Hospital in Lone Pine, about 30 minutes away.

At the hospital I just started running up and down corridors until I found NJ in a room that turned out to be the ER. When I got there he was finishing his fourth IV bag and about to start is fifth. The blood tests they gave him when admitted to the ER had shown that he a flu virus and should have never gone on the mountain. It wasn't a cold he had, it was the flu! Looking back, all the clues were there since he wasn't eating enough. But altitude also takes away your appetite so it wasn't quite so obvious.

NJ was initially admitted for AMS and hyperglycemia.  By the next day, Wednesday, his diagnosis would be changed to HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema), a much more dangerous altitude sickness that is often fatal. I ended up staying in Lone Pine for four nights and spent the afternoons in NJ's room while he healed. He looked quite bad for the first 2 days, but by the 3rd, his old self was returning as the brain swelling from HACE had normalized. His biggest problem by the end of the week was the damage to his throat from the vomiting and dehydration. He couldn't swallow any more. When I finally had to leave from home on Saturday, NJ was finally able to start drinking. I'm writing this blog on Sunday night and it's believed he will be released by Monday or Tuesday and will be able to go home.

On NJ's 3rd day in the hospital he was moved to another hospital room. His new roommate was none other than the guy whose tent was blown over during the helicopter rescue. The very next day as he hiked up Whitney, he began to feel odd. After remembering how bad NJ looked getting on the helicopter, he decided not to push his luck and turned around and headed back to Whitney Portal. He was still feeling bad and went to the hospital where he was diagnosed with HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema.) His was a mild case and he was released the following day.

Looking beyond NJ's medical emergency, it was a successful trip, at least on a personal level. I managed to summit Mt. Whitney and all the problems I feared about myself never happened. I'm even proud of myself and fellow hikers on the mountain for getting NJ to safety and as quickly as possible. I didn't dwell on describing how bad he looked at times, but I think we narrowly escaped a a real tragedy on the mountain. When sitting next to him in the hospital, I cannot see how he could have walked down the mountain in the shape he was in. It was quite an amazing feat. For now I like to think of him as the true hero in the story for saving himself, even though it could be argued he also got himself into the situation to begin with. It was his stubbornness that got him into trouble and saved his life.

All photos are on SmugMug.

GPS Track on Everytrail.

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