Today, to my deepest disappointment, I learned that I do not adjust well to altitude.
One of the things I was most excited about by moving to Colorado was the mountains at my doorstep.
Do you ski?
I was asked.
Do you snowboard?
I sheepishly had to reply, “No – the cost is a little too prohibitive for me right now to learn to do either. But I want to hike!”
Hiking, I reasoned, was the way for me to become one with the earth. I loved walking, the hiking I’d done in the past had been a blast, and then I could start name-dropping the “14ers” I’d conquered! All I needed was a good pair of shoes, a hat, and water, right?
“Don’t hike mountains alone,” they cautioned me. “And be down before noon – the storms on the mountains can roll in suddenly and you need to be below the tree line.”
A thousand excuses later, and I didn’t manage to do much hiking. Winter with lack of appropriate gear. Spring with almost a month straight of rain. Summer with half my weekends spent traveling and the other half too exhausted from late nights at my second job to wake early enough to join MeetUp groups… Suddenly the year was slipping away. I stole a few solo hikes, but quickly realized that I spent too much of my time alone anyway and hiking without friends wasn’t nearly as fun.
Finally, Terrence was back in Denver. At last! A hiking buddy!
The Chaser often quoted John Muir – “The mountains are calling, and I must go.” He would sometimes pass through Colorado for half a day, hike a 13er, and continue to follow the weather to another state. Since before we met, he was obsessed with summit fever and would pine for the ache in his legs and lungs to sit on top of the world. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to join him – much more slowly, but with no doubt.
We first tried Humboldt. With two of his hiking buddies, we marched up five miles and about 1200 vertical feet to the trail head to pitch our tent. I cursed myself for not being in better shape, but was determined to finish the hike. The next morning we took off before dawn, my legs shaking from the extra effort the day before. I sent the other on ahead, telling them I’d catch up. Fifty feet, I’d stop and breathe and try not to throw up. Fifty more feet, rinse and repeat. Sometimes I could push myself nearly a hundred feet before I had to collapse on the side of the trail. I trekked up, being passed by other early morning hikers, and looked down to realize my team had stopped by a lake. I kept going, nausea turning my stomach with every step. Finally, at 12,500 feet, I stopped, weeping.
When Terrence caught up, I apologized so profusely. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t continue on. Maybe, I reasoned, maybe I could do it if I only had the altitude sickness and not the sore legs. I turned back while the rest summitted. When they returned, we packed up camp – my legs didn’t hurt on the hike down, and the further down the mountain we went, the more I came to life.
Oxygen, it’s a beautiful thing.
Two weeks later, friends from Oregon were visiting.
We decided to hike Bierstadt.
Surprise, surprise, at 12,500 feet, my stomach was twisting in knots and every step had me fighting tears – sometimes unsuccessfully. A group from the Czech Republic passed by, and I chatted while crouched by the side of the trail with a woman in Slovak. I struggled to keep up. My visitors weren’t dressed properly for the altitude and were cold. We all agreed to turn back and quickly decided to never hike that mountain again as we passed well over 500 people on the trail home. “Where are we at,” we joked at the never-ending line, “Disneyland?”
Terrence and I sat down and talked, trying to figure out if there was anything to be done. Finally, we decided to drive up a 14er to see if I could handle altitude without exertion. I’d been living in the Mile High city for half a year, surely that next acclimation wouldn’t be that difficult.
So we drove up Mount Evans. At 13,000 feet, Terrence looked at me.
“How are you feeling?”
“Nauseous,” I sighed.
We continued up.
We sat on the rocks, looking out over the valley. Downtown was barely visible through the haze – pollution and wildfires in other states can really block your view.
A goat and her baby came up to visit. They munched their way right past us and showed off for the other tourists at the parking lot. You know the signs that say “Don’t Feed the Wild Animals”? That’s why. Goats are shy. These goats were not shy.
After a half hour or so, I worked up my courage to actually move. We walked up the little hill to the summit and sat on the rocks and stared out at the range beneath us.
Terrence would point out mountains in the distance, naming them. He’d point out clouds even further away and tell me where they most likely were. (You can see Wyoming clouds from Denver, in case you were curious. Those things are big, yo.) I could see him dreaming. I sat there breathing.
It’s embarrassing to breathe heavily while taking ten steps across a flat parking lot. It’s heart-breaking to want to do something and have no idea if your body will ever allow you to do it. Can I camp at 12,000 for 2-3 days and be able to not feel light-headed and like I could lose my breakfast at any moment? Can I begin to run or bike and get my body in better shape to adjust to less oxygen? I don’t know. It’s something I want to find out, but in the meantime I feel lowly and lonely, wanting to join in the beauty above me.
Maybe next time I’ll be able to make a thirteener, instead. Today, I just get to swallow a generous serving of humble pie. Because no, I can’t do everything.