On Climbing Mountains, Part VII

DAY ONE — HIKE TO LOW CAMP

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Our drive to the Trailhead was hampered by rain and heavy traffic pouring out of a weekend festival in South Park, so we got a late start hiking up to “low camp.” The trail itself was not terribly difficult. Most of the time we were on an old logging road and even had to make room several times for four wheelers and jeeps. But the trail was long and it followed a long morning of rappelling and it was our first real trial at high elevation carrying 60 – 70 pound backpacks. In addition to our personal gear and sleeping bag, we had divided the common gear among the group, so we each carried half of two meals for the group of seventeen, plus in my case, a four-man tent and one of the gas stoves. Although my knees were holding up well—only moderate pain—I felt my breathing labored, my strength draining away, and by the time we finally stopped, I was walking only through sheer willpower. It was dusk with night falling fast and I had early stages of altitude sickness.

Columbine, the state flower

Columbine, the state flower

Altitude sickness is usually marked by extreme headaches, lack of appetite, and sheer exhaustion. My head didn’t really hurt, but every movement had to be executed with deliberation and usually left me struggling to breathe. I helped my three tent-mates set up the tent, and then when they went to find wood for the fire, I crawled into the tent and lay down until full dark. I wasn’t hungry, but Julia Rose came and got me and we walked over to the crew fly where Dupree and Phil were cooking supper.

I could tell Julia Rose was worried, and she took care of me that night. I found a log to sit on and sort of just hunched over with my eyes closed and my arms wrapped around my knees, trying not to move or think, just breathe. Julia Rose brought me some chicken stew and a bag of straw fries. I ate a few of the straws but they had no taste. I forced down a couple spoonfuls of the chicken, but all I wanted to do was go to my sleeping bag and lay down. She tried to talk to me, and I would smile and reassure her and tell her I just needed to be still. I just needed to be. She cleaned my dishes for me and gave me a lot of worried looks, and the whole time all I could think about was how proud I was of her that day. It was quite the transition from our positions on the rappelle, where I had been confident in my ability and unable to help her. She had overcome her fear on the rope and excelled on the hike, where she dogged the guide at the head of the single-file line, took in everything, and as I learned later, entertained dreams of returning in a summer to work as a guide herself.

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