I’ve been thinking and struggling for about a year already whether to publish this story at all and there are many reasons I prefer to keep my mountaineering experiences unrevealed, at least publically. However, reading about the fairly recent fatal event on Aconcagua, 2 Aconcagua deaths, where one of the climbers died in similar (although at much higher elevation) circumstances, after coming back from the summit to a high camp, and even more recent tragedy of two Polish mountaineers vanished on Broad Peak (Himalayas) while descending from the summit, Polish mountaineers to attempt climb Broad Peak, influenced my decision to tell about my “Mountaineering Experiment” and its consequences, a firsthand representation of unforeseen yet gradually and persistently forthcoming possible fatal destiny.
Many people suffer in the mountains any sort of Altitude Sickness or Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) symptoms even just above 7,000 - 8,000 feet, especially those arriving from sea level. Most of these symptoms are ignored or even disappear, many are just seen as inconvenience, some become severe enough to force hikers and climbers to turn around, but in some other situations they mercilessly kill their victims.
The Mountaineering Experiment
I was already completely out of energy and very, very weak and slow while climbing the last section of (only) 14,146 foot covered with snow and ice Californian volcano, Mt Shasta. Every few steps while moving up I literally was about to pass out and forced to take a short break. However, I had not had even the slightest headache, nor any other alarming symptoms up to that point and recognized the opportunity to push and challenge myself; to experiment something I had never done in the mountains: to keep going till passing out. I agree for many people it may sound crazy, perhaps even irresponsible, but my goal was to test my physical and mental strengths collaboration, to understand my body and mind in an extreme physical exhaustion, perhaps on the edge of a total collapse, recognizing the edge or the threshold of the safety zone, but apparently still in reasonably “safe” environment. (Just to clarify, safe environment is the one I assume to be able to get out of even in unfavorable conditions. As of this writing/publishing, I’ve never been rescued over my lifetime mountaineering experiences nor intend to be, if it means anything.)
Near the Top of Mt Shasta
I kneel on the top of Misery Hill at 13,800 feet completely powerless. It is a middle of a nice but otherwise a bit chilly day. Or maybe only I feel cold. I was cold for the last few hours, not too much though. I did not eat at all or drink much for almost the same time. Chewing food became impossible; it takes too much effort. I was just told that it’s only a few hundred feet to the top. I’m staring at the vast flat plateau calmly and can clearly see the summit across. I’ve climbed this mountain many times all over in various conditions with a full backpack to the top and in a day and slept at various elevations on its slopes as well as on its top.
But now I still kneel on the flat snow of the last hill just in front of the plateau trying to regain any hidden energy left somewhere deep in my body before attempting to get up. It seems this is the only comfortable position (I invented over this trip) and am not hurrying to change it. I’m very sleepy. I really want to sleep. It is my second summit attempt in two days. The last night I had only a few hours of sleep. It seemed then that it was sufficient. But now I’m stuck on this hill. I know it’s very close but can’t do this anymore. I just reached the point at which my experiment, my curiosity what would have happened if I passed out becomes irrelevant. My physical body refuses to go up and my mind sees no sense to continue the climb even though my ego still pushes me, “This is only Mt Shasta and I’m so close to the summit. What a shame!”
It’s strange, I can’t even pass out. The collaboration of my physical body and mind prevents me from further attempts; it feels like they created an alliance to overrule my ego knowing what’s best for me and work hard to avoid my absolute collapse. Or, perhaps, there is still some logic left in my brain which refuses me facing unknown and dangerous consequences. I still have 5,000 feet down to get back to my camp. Somehow at that point I don’t even feel tired anymore, just calmed and defenseless. All arguments in my brain slowly fade out. It worries me. The inner voice silently whispers, “Forget the summit. Screw that experiment.” I make the decision, “I’m going down,” and give up the summit.
* * *
Five hours later after leaving the summit, completely exhausted, I still keep walking down the snowy slope and looking for my base camp, a small tent I set up somewhere around 9,000 feet behind a bush on a lower part of Casaval Ridge a couple of days ago. I cannot afford missing it. I’m too tired. It is late in the day and the snow heated up by the sun is soft, wet and slippery, difficult to walk on. My two liters of water I had for the summit day is long gone and I’m very thirsty and dehydrated. “I have to find my tent. I know I’m close to it,” I talk to myself. I sense the end of this endlessly long struggle. I have an additional liter of water waiting for me in the tent ready for immediate consumption. It motivates me to keep going without a break. “A few more steps, to the left, it has to be there,” I speculate and comfort myself. And I spot it and feel relieved, very much relived. I feel like crying from happiness. It’s almost 15 hours after I left my tent, way long overdue, but I am back in my camp and feel safe. “It’s time to relax and rest. It’s time to finally get some sleep. The worst is over. Oh man!” I conclude.
I sit inside the small tent sticking out my legs with heavy mountaineering boots on with attached crampons covered with sticky snow. The air cools down and the wind slowly picks up. I need to change my cloths and get into the sleeping bag quickly and rest. I must keep dry and warm to avoid hyperthermia. I bend my body trying to reach my crampons and take them off but have no strength and my arms seem to be too short. It only presses my diaphragm and irritates my lungs preventing me from inhaling the air. It costs too much energy. I sit straight back and breathe heavily. But I’m too tired to stay in that position. I need to lie down in order to rest. I have to take at least my crampons off to get inside the tent. I get frustrated of the situation but quickly find another solution: by unzipping the gators, loosening the snow boots and inserts, and while hardly holding them in place, releasing my feet. It works and brings a huge relief. I then with a great effort move my legs inside the tiny tent and turn around my body, so my head is next to the door, and lie down to relax, to get some long awaiting rest.
And at that very moment when I lower my upper body down and place it on the sleeping pad my lungs instantly feel up with some strange fluid like substance and become very congested which triggers an instant and heavy cough attack and prevents me from breathing, from inhaling the air. “What the hell?” I panic and instinctively go back to my seated position and try to contain the cough, calm down and catch up my breath. I cough for a while like having a terrible flue but am able to finally slow it down. I breathe heavily and nosily. Unfortunately, sitting is too difficult preventing me from relaxing my tensed muscles. So I carefully try to lie down again but even the slightest move triggers the heavy cough attack again and again. It scares me. I fear of HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema). I’m fully aware that I may have to leave everything behind and descend the mountain at any time but has neither strength nor energy to do it. I’m too tired, too weak and need at least 15 minutes of rest. “Do I have such time?” I ask myself fearfully. The situation seems to be hopeless. I’m too vulnerable to stay in the tent but too weak to get out of it, even to put on my boots, and descent the mountain now.
* * *
Three hours later the surrounding is already monopolized by a dark and cold night. I check my pulse. It does not seem to be fast but rather slow. I grope my hand at the bag with food next to me, grab some bread and cheese, and eat piece by piece slowly chewing it. I’m happy I can finally eat. I feel better, stronger. I know I’m recovering and am confident this time the worst is really over.
After coming back from the mountain I ran several medical tests to check my heart and pulmonary system just in case, just for curiosity, just to be sure. Due to being impatient waiting for all test results, three weeks later I went back climbing the same route to test myself and everything was fine. The medical tests came out fine too. However, my doctor (really surprised I went back to the mountain without final results) concluded I developed HAPE over the prior trip and was lucky to manage to stay alive.
I did not plan this experiment while leaving for this trip. I got this idea after already straggling with diminishing altitude gain and getting weaker and weaker but on a fairly flat slope (in case if I lost my consciousness, a fall was not an option). Did my ego play a role in it? I’m sure it did but not to show off. Do I regret this experiment? On the contrary. Would I attempt it again? Don’t think so. It exceeded my expectation.
Perhaps I was out of shape that day, perhaps I was not acclimatized properly, or perhaps it was not my day. Any of these factors may contribute to altitude sickness and one has to be able to recognize that and make the right decision: to push or not to push?
Unfortunately, it’s easy to overlook or even ignore seemingly innocent or even severe symptoms which if are not taken proper steps of may sooner or later turn in to a disaster. Usually descending the mountain to, at least, the last altitude the climber felt well is recommended (if possible) as the best cure for altitude sickness. However, there are many factors that may have various effects on and contribute to the final more or less successful outcome.
Be careful up there and watch for and monitor any symptoms that might be developing among your team members and don’t let your ego to overpower you. Once you cross over the safety margin-threshold, your chances of survival may rapidly diminish. But the worst is that you may get knocked out in the least “expected” moment. Really?
If you have no control, hope is the only what’s left.
If you have any control, fight for your life like a samurai.
And never, ever give in!
Glad to stay alive again
© 2013 Marek Rudolf Damm
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