Saturday, July 07, 2012

Straight up to 14

When our friend Daniel asked us what we wanted to do with our first day in Colorado, we said "something easy." Beat is still trying to figure out his lower back injury, I'm still trying to figure out my shin splints, and we were both sleeping at sea level until last night. Daniel said, "I know a good 14'er. It's an easy 14'er." 

We started hiking toward Quandary Peak around 11:15 a.m. Not your typical Colorado 14'er early start, but widespread rain showers had already trumped the usual chance of afternoon thunderstorms. We decided to gauge the weather on the fly, and move fast when we could.

Similar to my experience on Mount Whitney two weeks ago, above 12,500 feet I began to feel like I was breathing through a straw. Beat tried to show me pressure breathing, but the action left me light-headed, so I decided I would just increase my air intake by breathing hard and fast. To the dozens of hikers who passed me descending the mountain, I must have sounded like I was in labor.

Less than two hundred yards from the summit, my vision went black. Without deciding to, I could feel myself dropping to a squatting position and lulling my head around. My vision came back in flickers as I stood up, staggering drunkenly while Beat waved his arms from the summit. "Give ... me ... a ... minute," I called out. The words emptied my lungs and I took a deep breath to retaliate. As oxygen returned to my head, a sudden, intense sensation of euphoria washed over me. For a few short seconds the whole mountain was vibrating, the sky was singing, and I stood frozen in astonishment at the incredible power of all things. And then it faded. I have to say, there's no high like that of cerebral hypoxia. Not that I would promote such things but ... wow ... And strangely, I felt quite a bit better after that short episode. My lungs felt less constricted, my brain less panicked. It did help that I didn't have anything left to climb.

We could see dark clouds on the next ridge over and began the descent just five minutes later. From there, the sky rapidly grew darker. In less than fifteen minutes, no thunder turned to distant thunder, then turned to flashes of lightning and thunder right on top of us. Rain fell in sheets, followed by stinging hail. I jogged as quickly as I could muster down the wet, slippery rocks while shielding my face with my arms. We passed several groups still descending, including a huddle of boy scouts. Lightning flashed as I passed and they counted one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three ... BOOM!, followed by the curdling screams of six ten-year-old boys. I was scared, too. Hail fell harder, hurting my back and stinging my hands. Directly behind me came a bright burst of light followed by no Mississippis, not even a one. Flash and BOOM, deafening and instant. There were no boulders large enough to cower behind. "Just keep going down," I chanted to myself. "Keep going down."

When we finally descended to tree line, I was so relieved that I could feel another Rocky Mountain high coursing through my veins. I didn't have a moment to think about my shin splints, but I wore my new brace and they're not bothering me much tonight, so that's encouraging. In all, we spent three hours and ten minutes on Quandary mountain. It was one of my more eventful seven-mile hikes, ever.


  1. Was kind of a sketchy day to be climbing with as little as you looked to be carrying. But I defer to an Alaskan any day.

    -A CO. front ranger.


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