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.
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.
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.