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.