Thursday, September 10, 2009

Down the Mountain and Lessons Learned

Now for the easy part - right? Getting off this damn hill. If you watch those Everest documentaries, you'll always hear about how getting to the top is only half of the adventure. Well, the dangers on Whitney are nowhere near those on Everest, but the same adage holds true. The adrenaline has had a chance to wear off. The excitement of the conquest usually means that the climber has not been paying attention to some important things like eating and drinking. Coming downhill is the classic time to bonk.

After about 30 minutes on the top, Matt and I turned and put our energies into getting off the mountain. Matt was planning on getting back to our mid mountain camp and spending one more night, but my plan was to try to make it all the way down to the car. At this point we had been on the trail for a little over 5 hours. It occurred to both of us simultaneously that there had been no pee stops since starting out at the tents half an hour before that. Not good! Matt had left with 2 liters of water and me with 2.5, but the dryness of the altitude really sucks the moisture out of everything. We still had 4 miles to the next water (a seasonal spring at switchback 23), so we had to be careful with the water we had left. And while the going downhill was easier, it was still a slow go. We worked our way down the moonscape and made it back to Trail Crest at 2 PM.

From there, it was a slow but steady descent through the switchbacks. We were back at our tents at 3:30 PM. I hurriedly broke camp and packed up. I still had six miles ahead of me. My main concern were the granite slabs below where the trail was hard enough to follow in the light - much less in the dark. I wanted to make sure I got down to Outpost Camp while it was still light enough to see. Matt walked the first half mile with me where we filled our water bottles. We bid au revoir and I headed down the trail. By now it was 5 PM and the sun was starting to go down behind the ridges. I focused on making it down the trail. 5 miles left. One foot in front of the other. Repeat....

All I can say is that someone must have built a couple of extra miles of trail since Friday. The slog seemed to go on *forever*. I made it down out of the high country and to Outpost Camp by 7:15, where I stopped and had a quick snack and some water. I should have had a more substantial meal at that point, but I didn't want to spend any more time than necessary. My fuel for the day had consisted of an apple/cranberry bran muffin, one hammer gel, about two ounces of pretzels, and about 6 ounces of trail mix. Not a whole lot. I was to pay for this later. But, I just wanted to get back to the car. I replaced my cap with my headlamp, hoisted my pack, and continued on.

The last four miles seemed to take *forever*. In actuality it was only 2 hours. But I was definitely feeling the effects of a full day (remember - we had started at 7:30 AM) with little fuel. I was really struggling when I turned a corner and voila! The trail head kiosk! I made it! 9:15 PM. Just a little 14 hour, 16 mile hike in the woods!

Adventure officially over.
I'm sitting here now on Thursday morning. Four days have passed. I'm just about ready to start running again. Most of the trip went per plan, but I did learn a couple valuable points:

(1) Fueling is not an option: When I look back to my problem on day 1, I can say that it *was* related to not fueling. I felt terrible when I got to camp. But, after a gel and some caffeine, I was feeling quite chipper. The problem? I was too eager to get up the hill. I didn't take the 30 minutes to get something for lunch and for another couple of snacks.

(2) Use gels and replace electrolytes: Just like a long run, these supplements have a place on these hikes. I failed to bring any. Thank God for Matt and his never ending stash of Hammer Gel and Endurolyte. Plan on one gel every couple of hours and one Endurolyte cap every hour - especially when sweating like a hog on the lower trail.

(3) Ibuprofen: Should be eaten like candy. Feel that altitude headache coming on? Pop an ibuprofen. Getting up in the morning? Pop an ibuprofen. Believe me - it beats the alternative.

(4) Run run run: Before you come up here, do whatever you can to get into cardio shape. Everything else up there is hard enough. At least being in cardio shape you will have one less thing to contribute to feeling blah and tired.

(5) Make sure you have good equipment and carry it: Should go without saying. There's no one to turn to when it starts snowing. Or worse - raining. You had better have a good tent that you can climb into and get and stay dry. If you don't then you better turn around. Or else be ready to pay the ultimate price (yes - a couple people have died up there this year).

(6) Finally - make sure you know your limitations. See the lady on the left in the red cap in this photo? She and her two friends started at 12:30 AM Saturday on a one day assault of the peak. One of the three never made it above Trail Camp before coming down with altitude sickness. At 9:00PM the second friend came racing down the trail. The lady in the red cap wasn't going to make it out Saturday night.

The bottom line? Tougher than any marathon. Day 1 was 6 miles and 5700 feet elevation gain. Day 2 was 16 miles with 2800 feet in gain and then 6300 feet down. 12 of those miles with a 30 pound pack on my back. Monday and Tuesday I couldn't walk down stairs without turning around and walking backwards (sound familiar?). My blisters (all from my final few mile push) are doing better (including the two blood blisters on my feet). Was I ready? For the most part. Next time I'll definitely pack the gels and Enduralyte. Oh - did I just say "next time"? Don't tell my wife.....


  1. You are an inspiration. I may have to add this to my bucket list as well. Never thought I'd say it but I may try climbing a mountain. If it weren't for that pesky camping part....


  2. Sounds like you are right on with your lessons learned. Proper fueling is important with any endeavor, also helps with recovery. Great narrative on your adventure.

  3. What an amazing story. Well done Glenn you're amazing!

    It's so funny though: what does "bonk" mean? I'm thinking it doesn't mean the same thing as it does in Australia...

  4. i'm with b.o.b. ... you make this sound very tempting to do! issues, lessons learned and all. :) what were you thinking not eating? i would have definitely made time for that. thanksgiving feast on the side of the mtn!

  5. All good lessons we should heed, regardless of the endeavor. This is going to sum up comments for a few posts, so let me also once again congratulate you and wish you well with those nasty looking blood blisters. Running a marathon will seem like a cinch now, won't it?

  6. Glad to hear you know about Endurolytes, they really can make a differnce.

    I love all things everest, so I totally understand what you are saying. People spend so much energy getting to the top that they forget it's only half of the trip.

    I think after this hike, you can forgive yourself for not doing the 20 miler while you're hacking your lungs out.