Posted by William on February 10, 2012
In a moment of clarity, I dropped down in the snow to regroup. Alicia caught up with me and knelt down beside me. “You can breathe, come on take deep breaths.” In desperation, she added, “no one dies at 14,000 feet. Take deep breaths.” I couldn’t.
With survival instincts in full throttle, I jumped up and bolted again. This time heading into a snow drift. I plunged straight down. Alicia still in pursuit, and witnessing my total lack of coordination and panic, plunged down too. We sunk to our hips in what is called a “posthole.” The harder we tried to get out the deeper we sank. Still not able to take enough air in to calm my plight, I frantically tried digging myself out. Alicia, with no gloves, was trying to dig herself out as well. We were both in trouble. Finally, I scrambled out of the icy hole just enough to get some traction under my feet and belly flop onto the trail. Alicia, still struggling, watched as I fled down the rocky path.
Moments later, she dug her way out and pulled herself onto the trail. Both of us were cut and bleeding from the sharp, hardened snow that had encased our legs.
Although my coordination was shot, I managed to maneuver my way down the trail of dirt and rocks. Alicia told me later, I fell one more time. I have no recollection.
Midway, I did stop to try and eat a bite of a Power Bar. But I couldn’t even get it passed my lips. (Another sign of altitude sickness.) Again, I scrambled to lower ground.
With an impending sense of doom and sheer determination propelling me down the 2,000 feet of mountain side, I made it to tree line. “I can breathe.” As I sucked in the oxygen-rich mountain air, Alicia caught up with me.
“What happened?” She asked. We would hash and rehash the events of the mountaintop all the way down to the car.
As we were waiting for Rebecca (who did summit) in the small, wooded parking lot, Alicia asked me, “So do you want to do this again next summer?”
I had to catch my breath.
What Did Happen?
We polled our Aspen friends as well as anyone who would hear our story about the drama that unfolded just 100 feet from the summit. I admit, some laughed but others confirmed our experience (OK, my experience) was a full-blown bout with altitude sickness.
According to the Frisco Medical Center in Summit County (a higher authority), the incidence and severity of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) are related to, of course, altitude but also to the speed of ascent. Even though I was pacing myself, we were moving at a good clip even with the rest stops. We went from 10,500 feet to 14,300 feet in just over four hours.
Physical exertion is another factor. It was tough. I don’t think there is a stair-stepper program in the fitness industry that can duplicate the incline and intensity of hiking up a Colorado mountain peak.
Another consideration: prior acclimatization. I had been in Aspen for four days. Although I hiked with Alicia and her friends the first couple of days, it was probably not enough for a just-above-sea-level-dweller. Alicia’s conditioning? She lives in Aspen during the winter months and returns several times during the summer. Not to mention she is an endurance junkie.