Altitude sickness the "easy" way
((I made it!))

16 Aug 2003 - by Robert Greene (view roster page)

My trip to California's third highest mountain started, as all good trips should, in the snarl of Friday night Bay Area traffic. I left at 5:50pm and it seemed like every time I thought I was beyond the slow traffic, I'd hit yet another city that had crawling traffic. To get to White Mountain, I went the SR-120 route through Yosemite, and then took 395 south to Bishop. I'm not sure if this is the best way to get to the "land of the 14ers" (the 60 mile stretch of 395 with all the California 14ers on it with the sole exception of Shasta) -- especially paying the $20 Yosemite fee just to drive like a mad man through it seemed "wasteful".

I needed some supplies (food); luckily there is a 24 hour Von's in Bishop. I also got some dinner, around 1 am, since I hadn't had anything to eat all day except my carefully regimented liters and liters of water. Dinner was fairly craptastic as I didn't want to stop and really eat (there's a Denny's in Bishop too, so I don't have the "all the restaurants were closed" excuse). I knew I still had a long drive to the actual trailhead, so I wanted to get it underway.

I continued south on 395 from Bishop. In the middle of Bishop there is a sign for 168 west. I wanted 168 east, but I was happy when 395 and 168 joined forces for the southward drive. Just north of Big Pine, 168 east broke off from 395. I took that turn and was on my way into the back country. The directions I used were from eTreking page and they were more than sufficient to get to the trailhead. The only things I'd add is that there are numerous signs that give the direction to "Locked Gate", that's where you want to go. I found some humor in driving to the locked gate, but it was 2am. Also, after you get on the unpaved dirt road, about 1/2 way through the trip, the road turns paved again for a mile or so -- don't panic, it's just a reprieve from the dirt road, which begins with renewed energy shortly afterwards. When I hit the paved road, I thought I might have gone the wrong way, but like all males, I continued driving because there's no way I could be lost.

Also, I was in an Acura Legend, and it took me about 70 minutes to cover the 17 mile dirt road. And it beat the hell out of my car. I thought I was going to have to stop and pick up pieces. No big rocks, just endlessly rough road. If someone smoothed out the close packed dirt ripples in the road, it would actually be quite a nice little dirt road.

I arrived at the trailhead at 2:47am (starting from Redwood City at 5:50pm, so almost exactly 9 hours later!). Parking is pretty nice, there's a good parking area off to the side of the road, with a rail to mark the area you shall not violate that could probably hold around 20 cars. There were about six already there when I got there, so I pulled in, popped my tent up beside my car. (It's important to bring the power of the KMart tent to the wilderness!) and drifted into an unrestful sleep around 4am, broken about an hour later, when I decided I actually needed to use the sleeping bag as a bag and not a cover -- it was fairly cold.

Other people started waking up (and new people started arriving) around 6am. Don't pick this campsite if you're planning on sleeping in like a big lazy troll. I tried to pretend to go back to sleep, and finally gave up around 7am; I knew I needed to get started early. I broke camp, had a single granola bar for breakfast, and was ready to go at 7:43 am.

Now, for those playing along at home, when someone says "It is strongly suggested that unless you are already acclimatized to at least 12,000 feet, you spend a night at the parking area before your climb to the summit." They don't mean starve yourself, show up in the middle of the night, and pretend to sleep for an hour an half. Acclimation takes time, not just showing up for the roll call. Little did I know, but luckily my tutor was only a few short steps away.

The jaunt over to the Barcroft sheep farm (I mean research facility) was very quick; despite the warnings of the previous paragraph, I felt strong. Breathing was good, hydration was good, no headache. The directions to the summit were well marked, plus you were just following the road. After the research facility, the ascent begins in earnest, and you are promptly rewarded by your first view of the summit as you pass this telescope dome essentially on the top of the hill above Barcroft.

The next bit of the walk is probably the most "pleasant" part of the ascent. You walk over a vast field, around a couple of black rock structures. I was feeling good enough at this point that I almost stopped to play "mountain climber" on the rock structures -- but I decided that I'd save that for the trip back instead. With the summit in sight, I obviously thought that it was just a quick jaunt away -- very incorrectly. The walk across the field is great because you have the summit of White in clear view, and you can appreciate its majesty -- and a mere half turn away, you can see all the other mountains of the Sierras across the valley. Very beautiful country!

Eventually the field comes to an end, and you see the switchbacks leading up to the summit. Now, the first set is really nice, because you're way up on your little hill, and there is a valley between you and start of the summit hill; so this means you get to walk down, probably 1000 feet or more. It's fun going down at this point, but the whole time I was doing it, I was thinking "this is going to be a bitch coming back".

The switchbacks are long, back and forth, and up always up. I was tired by this point, but I was taking lots of micro-breaks to hydrate and take pictures. I was slow, everyone passed me, but that was by design. Eventually the switchbacks lead to a set that actually is on the summit proper. I almost thought about just rock climbing the rest of the way (in fact, it looks like there are some lines there, though I couldn't tell if they were power lines or something a rock climber might use! Okay, I didn't really consider rock climbing very much since I have no skills!)

My final hourly rest break occurred literally 15 feet under the summit hut. It was so close, but I had to adhere to my one 10 minute break every hour system. Then I did the last couple of switchbacks, and voila, summit hut. It was in heavy use this time around, with a bunch of trucks, and people in the hut (they were part of the Barcroft lab, so real people, though they might look just like you and me). They weren't high on the helpful list, as they couldn't tell me where the USGS plaque for the peak was, though they did tell me to look in the summit box, where I found the registry and signed it. I guess that's an official summit. Noone was climbing on the roof of the hut ... since there were people working inside the hut!

I snapped off some pictures, assessed my water situation (I'd consumed a gallon and a half coming up and had half a gallon for the trip down), tried to eat a Snickers for a snack, and discovered it didn't taste very good and didn't feel like it would stay down. I also had a pulsing headache, and decided I didn't feel well and it was time to descend to try to alleviate the altitude sickness.

The first part of the descent wasn't bad, headache was going, but it was mostly related to the level of exertion, and I wasn't exerting much on the downhill. I was still hydrating with my half gallon of water. Then I hit the "bitch", yes, the switchbacks going back up the other side of the hill. High exertion, and doing the last thing I wanted to do, which was ascend! I think it was here that I started wondering what I was doing. Fortunately, I didn't seem to have any of the advanced altitude sickness signs, just the killer headache. Now I was really slower than everyone, a group of four who was assisting a girl that didn't make it to the summit (because of altitude sickness) even passed me. She was having a really tough time with the bitch ascent too, and had a horrible red look to her face, which I was probably reflecting right back!

While I was climbing the brutal ascent, a pick up truck from the top went by with another summiteer in it; I guess he had problems and needed a quick ride down too. Eventually, I made it up to the field, and discovered the whole field had been at a very mild descent as well. Hardly noticeable at the time (it probably just contributed subconsciously to the whole "what a great field" bit I noticed)... but now, with my body begging to be released from exertion, another long painful slight (but felt like massive) uphill walk. I was buoyed by the realization that if I made it to the observatory, then it'd be all downhill from there. Eventually the observatory came into view, what a great sight. I passed it and descended to the Barcroft lab, only 2 miles to go!

I was walking endlessly, it seemed like hours. Not to mention that there were a few roads that joined with the road leading to Barcroft, so I had this very strong doubt that I might have taken an incorrect road. Two miles, it should have taken 15 minutes, and it seemed like hours. I was plaqued with despair, what if I was just walking endlessly trying to find my car in all these little valleys.

It's funny because I told my brother I was going to get a GPS and he laughed and said "dude, that's $300 just to follow a road." I took his advice; in retrospect, I wish I'd had the GPS, then I would have not had the paranoia.

I sat down to ponder my predicament, and then saw a couple of hikers coming towards me, as they passed, I said the sage words "Am I going the right way to get out of here??" and he replied in the affirmative, so I got up and followed him. He was fast, and I was still hurting, but he was my meal ticket, so I went his speed. We eventually got to the exit, though all the way until we were there, it didn't look anything like I remembered. (I tried using my digital camera to replay my earlier pictures but it was too bright to see them).

I had earlier planned to sleep the night over and try Montgomery and Boundary the next day, but given the bad altitude effects, I decided to drive home, recover, and save those for another day, with better preparation. Overall I'd say the hike wasn't bad, I reached the summit without hitting anything that I thought was "impossible" to get over; it's easily within the reach of most anyone that can walk 15 miles on flat terrain! The only trick is dealing with altitude, that's where the spanking is administered. I got lucky and didn't really get the effects until after I'd summitted and rested for a bit; if they'd occurred earlier, it would have been a quick game-over.

Humorously enough, driving back, when I had to go through the Tioga Pass, I was quite dreading it because I wanted to keep my altitude down under 3000 or 4000 feet -- but I didn't notice anything driving through those. I guess driving just isn't enough exertion for you to notice the lack of oxygen!

Oh, PS, I'd read many places on the web about how the only cure for altitude sickness is descent, and they made it sound like you descend and everything miraculously instantly clears up. That wasn't my experience, it took pretty much the entire drive up 395 before I started to feel "ok" again, so about 2 hours after descending.

The Newbie Timetable:

Started Hike ... 07:48 ... Early but not too early, earlier would have been better because of cloud cover on the summit (note: I expected to summit between 1 and 2 pm when I started)

Reached Summit ... 13:26 ... Took 5:38, some people do the entire trip in this length of time! And I'm right on my schedule.

Left Summit ... 13:36 ... Only 10 minutes on the summit, see the part about not feeling well!

Completed Hike ... 18:20 ... 4:44, not much of a gain going down because I was in bad shape. Normally my down trips are about 1/2 the length of the up trip, so this is really quite bad.

Returned Home to Palo Alto ... 02:27 ... What a long drive back, at least I got to drive down the torment of the dirt road in the daylight, which was good because I needed to see other cars to give me an idea which way to go.

Things learned:

- Acclimation takes time, a night means 8 hours at least!

- Altitude sickness is driven by exertion, you can feel fine at no (low) exertion and then still have your ass handed to you when you have to work it.

- Altitude sickness has a bit of time lag, you exert, everything is fine, 30 minutes later, you pay the price of the exertion.

- Always have a way to figure out where you are (whether that's GPS or maps), being lost (even on a road) sucks.


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