After brief introduction by the Trip leader and fellow hikers we started our ascent. The trail begins aound 10,700' elevation about 9 miles south of Breckenridge. The total distance round trip is about 7 miles with 3,500 feet of elevation gain. The first mile or so was through subalpine pine forest and we could see down to Blue Lake. However once we ascended past the treeline we entered the clouds. The pace was moderate, and I soon surpassed my personal elevation maximum of 12,000 feet. The visibility dropped and we could no longer see the valley below or the summit for most of the hike as we hiked over brown talus blocks. The pace slowed down a bit with every thousand or so feet we climbed. I kept up with the group fairly well until the final 500 feet or so before the summit. At this point I could take only a few steps and then I would have to stop to catch my breath. I noticed a slight headache but nothing too serious. This quickly faded. The summit snuck up rather surprisingly as the visibility was so low. I noticed the altimeter on my watch read 13,800 feet and I assumed I had another 465 feet to climb to the 14,265 foot summit but as I crested some rocks all of a sudden I noticed our group was standing around and I was on the summit. Up to this point the wind was rather light but the temperature had droppped a good 10 degrees (in the upper 40's). I put on another layer of polyester, wool hat and gloves and was warm as I climbed. Even though we only remained at the summit for 5-10 minutes (just long enough to have some delicious brownies prepared by out leader) and sign the summit book, I began to get chilled. This was approximately 10AM. Despite eating a very large breakfast I found myself quite hungry by the time I reached the summit and enjoyed some oatmeal cream pies.
It was soon time to begin our descent. At this point a fellow hiker asked if I would like a rain jacket made from a trash bag. I agreed as the rain was picking up and I was beginning to get soaked. The wind was also increasing as we descended and my glasses continued to get fogged (obscuring my vision). Everything in my pack was soaking wet by the pelting rain.
As we finished hiking the ridge and began to descend into the valley and back to the trailhead I noticed that my hands had swollen. This became quite bothersome until I could hardly close my hands and they felt like they would explode. Luckily there was a doctor on the trip who informed me that I was experiencing high altitude edema. I was quite worried as to how long the swelling would last. He informed me that it would subside when I descended to lower altitude in Denver. He also said that it was likely that I was starting to get High Altitude Pulmanary Edema (HAPE) or High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) but there was no way to tell for sure. To keep my hands from becomming too stiff I began to squeeze on a bandana. I was also quite cold (probably slight hypothermia). Next time I will be sure to bring a rain jacket. The rain continued to come down and the temperature did not warm up until after we descended below treeline. My knees were quite sore by the time we finished this hike at 1PM. To minimize edema of the hands on high altitude hikes it is wise to use trekking poles (which I did not use) as the help keep the hands from becomming stagnant and stiff. I was the only one on the hike who had this bizarre simptom.
Just as the doctor had told me, by the time we arrived back in Denver at 3PM the swelling in my hands had subsided to almost normal. My hands continued to remain sore through the remainder of the day however, but the pain was gone by the next day. On my next high altitude climb I will be sure to bring a rain shell, and probably trekking poles (even though I don't normally use them) to minimize edema.
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