Category Archives: hiking

Mt Democrat, Mt Cameron, and Altitude Sickness

After the poor planning and research of our Mt Harvard hike and my poor life choices before our Quandary hike, when we decided to tackle to Mt Democrat-Mt Cameron-Mt Lincoln-Mt Bross loop in one day, I made a concerted effort to learn from past mistakes and prepare properly. In the end, it didn’t make a damn bit of difference.

We started our trek early under perfect weather conditions. I had gone to bed early and slept well. I had put down a bunch of water on our drive out. I had even eaten breakfast (which is something I no longer do). As we took the trail toward Mt Democrat, I felt good.

My ascent was slow and steady, as always. I know I will never be fast uphill. Not running or hiking. Just never. But we made it to the saddle between Democrat and Cameron easily enough, veering off to ascend Democrat first.

After the trail branched, the incline increased dramatically. As it always does when it is too high for any life to grow. The hike started at 12,000 feet, well above treeline, so the entire route was the hard part of hiking 14ers. Yet it was all so much shorter than the previous hikes that started lower that it seemed like it would be easier.

Seemed.

We made our ascent up Democrat at a reasonable pace. One of us was struggling with motivation. I always struggle with incline. However, overall, it went surprisingly smooth and well. Considering how painful the previous ascents had been, Democrat came fast and easy.

We took a quick rest to have a snack and enjoy the view then turned to the descent. Like always, I bounded down ahead like a mountain goat and fully enjoyed the way back. By the time I reached the saddle to take the turn for Mt Cameron, I was feeling great. The same euphoria at the base of every hike coupled with the motivation to move to the next mountain.

Yet this is where my hike began to unravel.

As we regrouped and turned to take Mt Cameron, my struggle with the incline steadily increased. It felt different than muscle fatigue, but I dismissed it. Then a nagging headache started tapping on my forehead. I adjusted my hat, adjusted my pack, drank more water, had a snack. Yet the headache persisted and burrowed deeper until nausea bloomed in my belly.

At this point, things did not feel normal or right. Something inside me kept whispering, something is wrong…something is not OK. But I dismissed it. The headache and nausea increased, and hiking became suddenly daunting. More daunting than usual, more daunting than at my most exhausted. It did not feel like normal fatigue. Instead, it felt like I had absolutely nothing in me. No go, no gas, no juice, NOTHING.

I dismissed it and pressed on anyway. At shameful and unimaginably slow pace, we made Cameron.

Once we summitted and turned to the gradual saddle between Cameron and Lincoln (the slight distance that disqualifies Mt Cameron as an official 14er). I did not feel great, and the headache and nausea did not abate, but I could at least move. I figured I could make it the 300 feet to summit Lincoln since we were already there.

I was wrong.

A few steps up the final ascent to Lincoln, I simply could not. My body had nothing. It felt like I could not breathe. My chest hurt as if something was compressing my lungs. I sat down on the trail, and that was all I had. I shooed the rest of my party on to summit and stayed exactly where I was.

In all honesty, I don’t remember much vividly from when the headache started. I know I stumbled my way up Cameron. I know I sat down on the trail. I know I was struggling to breathe and just wanted to lay down on the rocks and sleep so I stood as I waited for them. By the time they returned (which was not long), I was in rough shape, barely functioning.

We turned to Mt Bross to make an immediate descent. If I could not make 300 feet of Lincoln, I could not make anything but back to the car. Unfortunately, we made a wrong turn. Instead of following the trail that cut across the top of Bross’s stained and scarred face, we wandered down a dead end. With the risk of mine shafts anywhere, we had to turn back around. Trying to ascend again destroyed me. When we returned to the top of the trail, I had to collapse briefly.

Finally, we made it across Bross’s mangled face and began to actually drop in altitude. I continued to struggle. Whenever my heart rate climbed, my headache pounded harder. Whenever the headache increased, the nausea pressed on the back of my teeth. I still could not breathe, but moving downhill, I did not need to fight for it as hard.

However, Bross was a terrible descent. Huge boulders and slippery scree the entire length of the mountain. Everyone suffered. Everyone was miserable.

I refused to vomit as we descended the rocks. I knew puking would make me shaky, and I did not know if I could navigate the terrain with unsteady legs. However, once we finally reached the grass, I sat down and puked my guts out. I wish I could say it made me feel better.

The valley where we started was still gorgeous. My favorite flower (the columbine) was everywhere. I wish I could have actually seen and enjoyed it. I suffered severe tunnel vision. All I wanted to do was lay down in the car.

When we did finally reach the parking lot, I took off my boots and lay down in the passenger seat. The rest of the group had their celebratory beers and make PB&J sandwiches, but I just wanted to die. The ride down the trail was not much better. I had to vomit again when we reached the highway. Then I passed out for the rest of the trip.

Altitude sickness.

It took me about three full days to recover. I felt better after my car nap but still miserable. It was difficult to walk. I got winded just moving around the house. I have lived in Colorado, skied and hiked frequently my entire life. This is the first time I ever remember experiencing altitude sickness.

Maybe it was because I was in Dallas, near sea level a few days earlier. Maybe it was because I was still suffering a lingering cold. Maybe it was because the hike started above tree line. Maybe I wasn’t hydrated enough. Honestly, I have no idea. Altitude sickness can really strike anyone at any time under any circumstances. I can’t say it makes sense in this instance, unless it happened just to punish me for thinking I was prepared.

I feel like I should be super frustrated and disappointed to have made it so close and been taken out. I guess I am disappointed that I did not get to enjoy the hike, that I got so sick. However, I was so utterly miserable that I don’t really care that I couldn’t make the last summit (or two). It was unpleasant enough to overshadow any ambition I had.

Part of me wants to redo Cameron, Lincoln, and Bross. Part of me doesn’t care. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. I’m just relieved that the sickness has passed and I can breathe again.

Christina Bergling

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Mt Harvard and Quandary Peak

In October, we embarked on my husband’s goal of hiking 14ers in Colorado. We decided to press on it this summer. We started off by hitting it hard, doing two 14ers in two weekends.

Mt. Harvard

First, we decided to tackle Mt Harvard. My father, who avidly hiked 14ers at my present age, warned us that it was going to be challenging. While we believed him, we overestimated ourselves and underestimated the snow.

As my father forecasted, the hike began gently. The first couple miles wound lazily up gentle forest switchbacks. Snow began to appear on the edges of the trail or hidden in the shadows of the trees. I was so excited to see snow after such a disappointing and fruitless winter. As we continued to climb, the snow patches thickened into drifts that began to slow us down.

The winding forest trail eventually sprawled into a large valley beset by the breathtaking peaks of the collegiate 14ers. As the sun show brightly in a vividly clear sky, the scenery was sublime, and our spirits bordered on euphoric.

 

As we moved out of the gentle valley, the snow increased. We navigated through drifts that were mostly crunchy on the top, yet when my leg plunged through the surface, the snow came up to my vagina. The struggle started comical but gradually grew more arduous as the drifts grew deeper and wider until we faced long, uphill spans of slippery snow. Anxiety crawled on my skin as my paranoid steps tempted exacerbating my hamstring/hip injury.

At the first ocean of snow, I nearly declined to continue. I did not want to get more hurt, but I decided to give it a try. It was less challenging than I expected, so I pressed on. We broke past treeline and approached the rocky step switchbacks.

As we ascended the large, flat rock islands amidst shifting gravel, I wondered how I would ever descent such terrain without killing myself. I fought the increasing incline with decreasing oxygen and remembered that there is a distinct reason trees do not care to grow that high.

We made it all the way to the final ascent, the last cairn where we could see the summit. I saw a trail of steep and slippery snow and large boulders. Here, I decided to accept my limitations. It felt ridiculous to come so far, to be 1 mile and 1,000 feet short of the summit and stop. Yet my instincts banged and hollered to not risk it. So, for once, against who I am, I didn’t.

While I am exceedingly stubborn and often push my body too far, this 14er pursuit is not my dream. I am a supportive partner who will take any excuse to be active, punish myself, and be outside in the mountains. But it’s acceptable if I don’t make every summit or I’m not there for every hike. I am a tourist and a tagalong here, the support staff doing the planning.

Two of us stayed at the cairn for three hours while the other three continued.

Then, the weather decided to turn on us. The morning sun folded under thick clouds, and a piercing wind battered us. We sat on the cairn, had a frozen dance party, and waited. For a while, we could watch their tiny forms ascend. Then they vanished for what seemed like an eternity. We almost resigned ourselves to migrate lower when we finally spotted them–a red shirt, a white shirt, and a black shirt–hiking and sliding back down.

Only one of us was able to fully summit (my husband). One was 10 feet short. One was 100 feet short. It sounded quite intense at the top, so I made the right decision to stay behind. I am no rock climber. I am uncomfortable with heights.

Since we only hiked up Pikes Peak, Harvard was our first decent of a 14er. Turns out, my body is built for coming downhill, just like running. As we approached the boulder stairs that made me so nervous coming up, the footfalls suddenly made complete sense. My feet, never entirely graceful, just knew where to go. I bounded down the hill like a mountain goat and had so much fun doing so.

The descent was never-ending though. The snow had softened during the day, and we continually plunged through the surface. It was daunting and repetitive, and the miles just dragged on. But many hours after we projected, we made it. We did our group hug in the parking lot and hurried off into the night for real food and sleep.

Quandary Peak

The next weekend, we aimed a little lower. We went up to Breckenridge, stayed overnight, and set out early to attack Quandary Peak. An easier and shorter hike (recommended by my father).

This trail started narrow and quite steep as it climbed up the hill. The switchbacks drew up the side of the mountain quickly. The sun had just broken the horizon, and the temperature hovered in the limbo where I roasted in my fleece but shivered without it.

I, in my infinitely stupidity and relentless affinity for poor life choices, got to carry a pretty severe hangover with me. What could have been a gentle and pleasant hike was instead quite uncomfortable for me. My thighs balked at the activity immediately. Nausea flirted with my throat. I suffered for my foolishness.

After a couple miles in the trees, we arrived at the customary rocky stair-like switchbacks. We also reached the snow, but it did not compare to Harvard. These drifts were ankle-deep rather than vagina-deep. Instead, our unexpected challenge was the wind. By the time we broke treeline, the wind was near unbearable. At points, I had to struggle to move against it.

There always seems to be one factor that we did not plan for on these hikes. Every mountain seems to teach us something new. Don’t underestimate the mountain. Don’t trust trail estimates. Don’t forget your yaks. Don’t forget your windbreaker. Don’t get drunk the night before. So many lessons.

By the time we passed treeline and battled the wind, I thought my hangover had broken. The trail flattened out a bit before the final ascent, and I was feeling good.

I was wrong.

The final ascent of Quandary did not have switchbacks. No, it climbed straight up the ridge to the summit. And it was terrible. At tackling the extreme grade, my hangover resurged over me. Every four steps, I stopped to evaluate my need to vomit. I moved painfully slow up the final ascent. But I did make it.

We crested the hill and enjoyed a nice flat portion before the summit. The wind even finally died down for us to enjoy our celebratory beers.

Then the descent. My favorite part. All the euphoric rush of victory floating on down the mountain.

The snowy descent did make me a little nervous. Again, I did not want to slip and further injure myself. But I found that sliding down the mountain (in established butt trails that didn’t go off the side of the face) was a much quicker and more fun way to get down. Aside from the horrendous stinging of the cold. Worth it.

The descent was pleasant and so much shorter than Harvard. The wind had died down, and the weather was temperate. It was just nice.

We made it back to the car by lunchtime and were able to enjoy the hot tub in Breckenridge before heading home. While Quandary was not as scenically gorgeous as Pikes Peak or Harvard, it definitely was a more pleasant hike overall. If you subtract the idiocy of my hangover.

Currently, we have two more 14ers scheduled for the summer. Perhaps another one or two in the fall. If nothing else, we have made strong strides on my husband’s goal. And I have seen some beautiful things.

Christina Bergling

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Ascending Pikes Peak

Yesterday, I hiked my first 14er.

At some point, my husband got the idea to do all the 14ers (mountains with summits over 14,000 feet above sea level) in the state. There is debate; however, the most agreed upon number is 58 14ers in Colorado.

We decided to start local with the mountain that sits along the west edge of home: Pikes Peak.

We started in Manitou Springs at 4:30 in the morning, headlamps and the glowing moon illuminating the lingering night. We parked downtown and made the trek in the dark to the parking lot at the base of Barr Trail.

I have experienced the terminal miles of Barr Trail numerous times descending from hiking The Incline. I have run it, walked it, fallen on my ass on it. I have made my way down in broad daylight and the dark and in every kind of weather. Yet, in the darkness, in the opposite direction, the perspective on the trail was extremely altered. Everything looked different, felt different yet familiar simultaneously.

Immediately, my younger sister and her party took off up the trail. Yet from the first few crunching steps, my husband began lagging. He set a very slow, methodical pace. I assumed it was from his lungs and the altitude (he has a history of pulmonary aneurysm, pneumonia, and altitude sickness). So our small group began a rhythm of hiking up and then regrouping.

As we carved our way up the side of the mountain through the battered trail of switchbacks, the sun gradually began threatening the horizon. Beyond the twinkling city lights below us, day menaced. At one point, the bright moon still lingered over the peak we would climb as the sun broke into the sky opposite it. For the a brief and surreal moment, we cast two shadows on the gravel.

By the time daylight fully broke over the mountain, we had passed both the bail out and the turn off points for The Incline. We were officially in uncharted territory for three out of four of us. The path showed far less abuse from far fewer boots. And the sun ignited fall all around us.

Fall is my favorite season. And fall can be potentially disappointing in a place like Colorado where it is summer then winter then they alternate and then repeat. Most years, it seems like it goes from hot to snow and unfortunately back again. Lazy, meandering transitions like fall in the South amazed me. Yet on the side of Pikes Peak, fall was all around us.

 

Leaves crunched beneath each of our footfalls. The sweet smell of their decay played on the air. A thin razor chill hung on the edge of the air. The sun blazed through the quivering golden aspen leaves around us. It was quintessential fall, and it was fucking euphoric.

As the naked peak began to loom grander and more ominous over us, we meandered along gentle rolling trails through an aspen valley. I caught myself just floating, lost in the mountain air and the seductive scenery. It was undoubtedly my favorite section of the hike.

My husband continued to struggle even through the flat or declining sections. Despite the fact that he is not an avid exerciser, this performance was very uncharacteristic for him. The previous year, he ran a 15K with zero training nearly as fast as I did running 3 times a week and sometimes over 10 miles. I, of course, feared for his lungs again, yet he said his legs were just not working. That it was just a struggle that it should not have been.

We made it to Barr Camp at the halfway point (6.5 miles from the base) and broke for an early lunch. My sister and her party had stayed waiting for us an hour (to make sure my husband was still alive). They broke off again, and we started as well after food, water, and rest.

The trail changed after Barr Camp. The gradual, curving stroll through the aspens began to actually climb the side of the mountain. The switchbacks stretched long to the point of annoyance, where at every crest there was more of the same length of trees.

The trail did not really become hard, but at this point, it did become more boring to me. I was too enamored with the mesmerizing aspen sunrise. Thin gravel carvings between mirrored trees just could not compare. We continued our steady pace of climb and regroup as the sun began to heat the chill off the mountain.

We reached 10,000 feet and kept plugging along.

Treeline proved an elusive mistress. Every row of trees appeared to be the last only for another set of siblings to appear behind them. The monotonous switchbacks just wound back and forth slowly. We could feel the air thinning with each cut across the mountainside.

While the views around us became more pedestrian forest, the views below us grew more impressive. We could pick out the other mountains we knew, Garden of the Gods, the parts of town we lived in, the east edge of town, Kansas itself.

Then treeline and the A frame finally happened.

At this point, we stopped for another legitimate break, taking off the packs that were drawing tension up in our shoulders and knotting in our lower backs. I could tell the instant my body needed calories. My legs got heavier while my head got lighter. I felt like a new person after some energy blocks every time.

The hike became a different trail after treeline. I regretted wishing to get there. The first 10 miles were a delightful easy little stroll up the mountain. The last 3 miles were not.

Looking back, my body is exactly the same with a half marathon (I have officially run 2 and several training distances that long). A 10 mile run is great. At multiple points in my running life, it has been my absolute favorite distance. However, 13.1 miles has always been horrible. I’m great for the first 10 miles; then the last 3 are an absolute struggle every step. Maybe my body just wants to stay under 10 miles.

Unfortunately, for my husband, his entire hike was a forced battle for every step.

The temperature was obviously hotter after treeline, in the direct sunlight, yet the drafts were colder and more abrasive. Though even at the worst of moments, we got impossibly lucky with the weather. The weather was literally perfect. Cool enough with barely any snow toward the top. Finding an October day like this in Colorado is nothing short of a miracle.

The views below were breathtaking, but the scenery around us was barren and mundane. Rocks and boulders stacked forever to the summit.

Our pace slowed and slowed. The air thinned and thinned.

The first mile past treeline was fine. It was slower, but it was not terrible. Not exceptionally steeper. However, the last two miles were hell. I really have no other way to say it.

No longer did three of us wander ahead then wait to regroup. Now, everyone was requesting breaks, taking a step they could not follow through with movement, breathing deep against a dizzy spell. I do not know if it was the altitude or the over 11 miles already stacked on our muscles or that it was the first 14er summit for all of us. Perhaps it was all of the above.

The hardcore people passed us, of course. This is Colorado. People run this route annually for the Pikes Peak Ascent half marathon then up and down for the full marathon. In one of the fittest cities in the country, even a compulsively active person can be proved completely out of shape. We marveled at the fact that any body could perform such a feat multiple times, and one of us removed participating in the event from their bucket list.

We trudged on. That is the most apt way to say it. The steps were slow and heavy. The breaths were deep and labored. The muscles burned. The thoughts revolted. And yet, we trudged on.

The absolute worst part (for EVERYONE) was the very final stretch, horrendously dubbed The Golden Stairs. At this point, we had made our way to the final boulder field approaching the peak. We could hear and see the cog railway moving along the top of the mountain. We could even hear the tourists milling about above us, most likely spectating our sad ascent.

The switchbacks jagged severely and rapidly across the waning mountainside with larger and more fierce rocks to overcome. These 16 “steps” felt like they were never going to end. For an eternity, it felt like we were so impossibly close and so depressingly far from the end. Like we could reach out and touch it yet never actually reach it.

Then it was there. The summit. The end.

We had fucking made it.

Directly at the terminus of the trail, the four of us circled together in a group hug. Some of us may have cried (me absolutely). I said how proud I was of them. And I was. So proud of all of us.

In all honesty, on that hike, our group enjoyed the perfect chemistry. No one got irritated or bitchy, even at our lowest moments. The levity was an appropriate balance. The support was amazing. No one got left behind.

My sister and crew finished a good two and a half hours before we made it to the top. It took us just over 10 hours to go about 14 miles from car to summit. Thankfully, we had two separate pick up cars.

Looking back at the hike as a whole, it was not hard. It was actually quite easy as far as hikes go. Base to treeline was easy. Everything until the last two miles was tolerable. (The last two miles were HELL.) It was just long. So long. Over 13 miles just in up. Yet that all just managed to accentuate the accomplishment.

In the wake, I find myself changed. I have such a completely different perspective on something that has loomed over me most of the days of my life. I grew up in Pikes Peak’s shadow. I have been up the highway to the summit plenty of times. Yet nothing was like actually learning the mountain the way we did with each step, actually experiencing the entire length of something I saw every day, something I ignored many days.

I have had many experiences in my life that utterly shifted my perspectives on everything. Accepting being bipolar. Going to Iraq. This was the first one that occurred entirely externally. It felt like a metaphor, like a physical experience of all the perspective shifts I have experienced on the inside. I was able to see something familiar from an entirely different angle. Everything changed, and everything stayed the same.

I have a pretty decent view of Pikes Peak at the end of my street, and every time I have been outside today, I am just dumbstruck thinking that only yesterday I was up there. Right there at the top. I walked up that entire mountain.

And what is the one thing I have no mentioned? My hamstring. That’s right. I have not mentioned my hamstring because it was a nonissue. It is a nonissue. There were certainly moments of discomfort and tightness along the trail. I did not sit very often because it hurt. Yet my hamstring was not a hindrance. That is a HUGE change from earlier this year when I could cry rolling over in bed or standing up out of my car.

Today I find that I feel like nothing happened. My hamstring does not hurt at all. I am not even sore (though that could be waiting for me in the morning). I must be doing something right with all these workouts. It must be doing something.

But none of that matters as much as the fact that my hamstring does not hurt.

Christina Bergling

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