Into thin air.

It is essential that you should NEVER go up higher if you have acute mountain sickness.

The first time I ever noticed altitude was in New Mexico, when I drove up to Sandia Crest near Albuquerque. We arrived at the peak, a little over 10,000 feet, and we sat indolently in the rental car, staring out at the view. This was strange; we had meant to hike.

We just didn’t feel like it. I wanted a nap instead. Finally, it occurred to us that the altitude was the culprit. Oh, yeah, we’re at 10,678 feet! We laughed and went back to Albuquerque.

Since then I spent all sorts of time in Montana and Oregon and Washington. There are big mountains in those places, but I spent most of my time in the five to seven thousand foot range. Oxygen is still plentiful at those elevations. I probably should have realized that the altitude in Colorado would be an issue, but I didn’t think about it until I wanted to cry after a mile on a trail with a barely perceptible upward slope. This should not have been difficult hiking.

For three days my body wouldn’t do what it was supposed to do, what it had always done, which is climb and hike. But it’s the first day of the trip and my blood cells are struggling under the reduced oxygen rations. My center of gravity is off, and I feel like I’m hauling a lead sofa on my back. I can’t believe how hard it is, and I sink down into myself, outsourcing the duty of friendliness to Travis, who is still capable of it. This trail is open to horses and hikers alike, and is strewn with rocks of varying sizes. A faceful of horseshit is one false step away, so I decide to be careful.

I’m dehydrated, but my body hasn’t been telling me to drink. We stop at a falls, and sit on a gorgeous rock outcropping. I drink, and thin my blood a little. Travis drinks too, and that brings on a rib-quaking hiccup followed immediately by a burp so loud it echoes off the rocks. This is the first thing I’ve found funny all day.

That night I sleep harder than I’ve ever slept on the ground, and my spirits are vastly better in the morning. We do a quick four-mile, pack-less jaunt in the morning, mostly on the flat. It’s still hard, though I shove that truth away. I don’t like this feeling. Maybe if I hike more it’ll go away — How about  six miles and up another two thousand feet?

I don’t feel well. Am I getting sick? Isn’t a day enough to acclimate you to the altitude? What’s wrong with me? Nothing; just keep going. That night I wake up in the middle of the night to deeply eerie winds. I’m scared. Of what, I don’t know. The winds stay mostly on the peaks and don’t batter the tent, but I’m awake for an hour. That wind is freaking me out.

We’re scheduled to hike another two miles up and another thousand feet tomorrow, but I decide in the dark that I’m not going. Not with those winds. Even though I’ve been lying in my sleeping bag for hours, my heart is still beating rapidly and I feel like I just can’t breathe deeply enough. My stomach is angrily growling, but I have no desire for food.

There is a voice that lives somewhere inside me that always tells me to stop punking out, you big weenie. I’d like to say I have no idea where this voice came from but, alas, I do.  I have another voice, too — it’s reliable, rational, and assesses risk intelligently.  But that first voice is insidious, quiet, and slips in under the radar. It’s spoken so often it hardly has to anymore. The time has come, I think, to let the two hash it out in the open, and stop letting the nagging voice get away with being an assumption. That is the voice that always gets me into trouble. Because it doesn’t belong to me.

But it does direct me, quite unconsciously. Weakness and vulnerability are not comfortable. Travis doesn’t have this; therefore it must be some inferiority of my own. (Not so: “Physically fit individuals are not protected – even Olympic athletes get altitude sickness.”)

In the end I do twenty miles in two days, most with a pack, although Travis has taken a lot of my pack weight.  When we get to town Travis buys me a T-shirt that says: “Tenacity: What you need to compensate for your stupendous lack of good judgement.”  This feels like just the right way to view it: I’m tough and that’s nice, but I wouldn’t have had to be but for a stupendous lack of good judgment.

When I do an internet search at our hotel in Estes Park, I realize I had a not-insignificant case of altitude sickness, and I should have chilled the hell out. Later on in the trip, when I meet my friend Jeannie, who’s lived here for years, she said “Oh, yeah. Every year some Flatlander comes here to ski and has a heart attack halfway up to his resort and dies.”

Two days ago a friend wondered on Facebook why she feels the need to compete with the awesomeness of the world, instead of enjoying it. I replied that when she figures that out, she ought to explain it to me.  “But you at least enjoy things like mountains and waterfalls. There’s no way to compete with those,” she pointed out.

That’s right,  I joked. I stopped competing with mountains when the first one kicked my ass.

Now if only I could stop competing with myself.


9 thoughts on “It’s not the mountains; it’s me.

  1. “There is a voice that lives somewhere inside me . . . insidious, quiet, and slips in under the radar. It’s spoken so often it hardly has to anymore.”

    Whoa. Yeah, that. I have that, but I don’t call it a voice, I call it a compulsion. The other, rational voice has no control over this voice; it’s visceral and powerful and feels more like some integral part of reality, some part of the external Way Things Are, than a part of myself. That’s what I’ve been wrestling with for so long!

    1. I thought about your comment and my post on the way into the office this morning. For me, it’s very much about the process of learning to be the judge of my own character, accomplishments, and self, instead of outsourcing that to others, which I was taught to do from the cradle. Now, in the last three or four years I’ve made millions of miles of progress on this issue — hell, IDENTIFYING that issue was the first million. We all have these things we have to work against as adults, and that’s mine. The alternative is a never-ending gerbil wheel — you never get to stop competing. You just keep upping the ante.

      And of course the other part of this is that most of the adventures are in the backcountry, far from where most people hike, and I wanted to get there. 🙂 But that’s only part of it.

  2. Maybe it’s a bit of a control issue, too. I know. I’m an expert. Giving up control is one of my biggest challenges. Recently one of my daughters presented me with a situation that I have absolutely NO control over. I usually can come up with alternatives, resources, etc. But not in this case. It’s been a tough week.

    1. That is very hard. I have some sympathy for control issues. Letting things unfold instead of trying to control isn’t easy. For me it helps to remind myself that most of the time, what I think of as control is just an illusion anyway. I’ll be thinking about you — the feeling of not being in control is hard enough with ordinary things, but when they involve your children, it’s so much harder.

  3. Ugh…the effin’ punk voice. God, how I would love to slap it around a bit! What makes me even more mad is when it proves right. I had a thing come up in bootcamp this morning that I said ‘no’ to and paused at like a horse that didn’t like a jump it had come to, and so stopped. My trainer – a rather fearless fellow – immediately responded to that with “What do you mean ‘no’?’ and then held my hand while I did it. How much more embarrassed could I get? The fact that I totally balked at something I proved less than a minute later I could do was bad, that I needed my hand held to get it done, even worse – but then the fact that the voice in my head going ‘Come the f- on! You have got to be kidding me! Stop being a wuss!’ was right?! UGH! *head meet desk*

    1. Yes, that’s absolutely right. There are times when we all stop short, prefer to punk out, or turn back. I think that’s why letting the two voices have an honest discussion is key. You were right to reconsider and work your way through the bootcamp issue. But obviously we don’t want to apply that approach in a knee-jerk way. I need to learn to hear the rational voice that says “This isn’t punking out. This is taking care of yourself.”

      Such a difference, between working through something difficult and persisting, and just not wanting to feel vulnerable or weak (or wanting to feel a little bit tough, which is, ahem, mere ego.)

  4. Control issues, micro-management, not letting something get the best of us, challenging ourselves–all day to day living. Right? Something I’ve been learning as I get older is to “let it go”. It’s not about burying our heads in the sand or not dealing with a situation but rather, is about learning to live in harmony with our various situations and/or environments, and letting things unfold as they should; AND realizing what is in our best interests by doing so. Discernment of the difference in tactics from one area of life to another is not an easy thing to do.

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