Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Whitney Expedition

I'm finding I'm not that good at backstories. They take too long, they bore me to write. Anything that bores me to write, I've learned, bores you silly to read.

So I'll save you that. Let's just say we decided to summit Mt. Whitney a while ago. We got the required permit to do so, did some training hikes, and off we went to do this thing. Last weekend.

Mt. Whitney is the tallest peak in the contiguous US. It stands 14,497' tall. The portal/trailhead lies around 8,000', that's where we parked the car. We put everything that had a scent into a bag and stuck it in the bear locker provided, lest a bear smell something tasty, like my lip balm, and rip off the car door to get to it while we were away. Bears are a big problem in this area.

And then we headed up. The plan was to backpack 6 miles in and 4,000' feet up to Trail Camp, a campground that sits at 12,000'. There we'd spend the night. The next day we'd leave most of the gear in the tent and summit with only the essentials on our backs. Then we'd come back down, spend another night in Trail Camp, and have a leisurely walk back down to the car on the third day.

6 miles, 4,000' feet. I thought that would take me about 3 hours. I haven't been all that healthy, as you know, and I was not nearly as ready for this hike as I had wanted to be, but still. With all of the locals hikes I'd done to get ready for this summit attempt I thought 2 miles an hour was a very generous pace, taking into consideration the altitude and the steepness. I thought these 6 miles would be pretty easy.


The climb up was a lot of switchbacks that weren't particularly steep, but they were relentless. My heart went into over-drive in no time. When my heartrate gets that high I can feel it in my ears and the back of my throat and there's nothing to do but stop and wait for it to recede. That meant I could go a switchback or two, maybe three or four, and then I'd have to stop. It didn't take long, only a few moments usually, and then I could carry on. But that made for a painfully slow pace.

Basta, being still Ironman-fit and all, had no trouble with this. He just walked at my pace, took a lot of pictures, and enjoyed the scenery.

It was really scenic, too. The trail followed a creek that cascaded down the mountain and it was quite lush and green. There were a couple of waterfalls and a few pretty little alpine lakes. I had expected it to be mostly scrabbley granite so this was a pleasant surprise. The air smelled fresh and clean and of pine and sage.

This helped as I struggled up the mountain. I felt weak and tired, like I had no energy. Part of this was my condition, part of it was my lack of fitness and training for it, but a huge part of it was the altitude. It just sucks away your energy and breath. My pack got heavier and heavier as I trudged on more wearily.

We made it to Outpost Camp, 4 miles in, and had lunch. Outpost Camp is around 10,000'. Here I asked Basta if he could handle any more weight because my pack was just too darn heavy. He said he could, so I handed over the bear canister. This is a hard, thick plastic bottle in which to store your food that bears haven't figured out how to open. Yet. It's heavy in and of itself, and much heavier packed with food. That lightened my load by a good 6 pounds. I felt much better about the whole thing after offing that and having some lunch. We carried on.

Only 2 miles to go. And 2,000 more feet to gain. Another hour? Ha. We walked and walked and walked, trudged and trudged and trudged. I had to stop even more frequently. Making it to the summit was starting to look unlikely at best. This was supposed to be the easy part! It wasn't supposed to get hard until tomorrow. But this was hard.

I ran out of water at around 11,000' and we stopped to filter some at a small creek crossing.

Finally, at long last, we reached Trail Camp. 12,000', 6 miles, and 5.5 hours later. That's right, five and a half hours to cover those 6 miles. That was unbelievable.

We'd arrived around 4pm, with plenty of light to get everything done that we needed to do. We found a good campsite, pitched the tent, then walked over to the nearby lake and filtered water for dinner. I started to get a headache at the base of my skull, the first sign of altitude sickness. It was mild but persistent. Basta said that he felt dizzy as we sat by the lake.

We cooked dinner, a lovely freeze-dried lasagna. As we were doing dishes afterwards the sun started to set and it got cold. We bundled up in our fleece but opted to hit the sleeping bags early. Warmest place on the mountain.

As I lay there, enjoying the excellent features of my new Big Agnes sleeping bag, I reflected on the summit. After having rested for a while and had a good meal I thought I could make it. Everything I read said to plan for 4 hours to make it the last 2 miles to the summit. They are the hardest miles of the trip. From camp I could see how the trail got much steeper from there on, plus the altitude only got worse and worse. It was already bad enough here at 12,000'. They say altitude sickness can affect people as low as 8,000', and here we were well above that. I had whole new respect for people who summit Everest.

Honestly, if I thought about the summit I didn't think I could do it. But I knew the route to the summit was a series of switchbacks, lots of them. I knew I could make it to the end of the next switchback. There I'd rest if I needed to, then I could make it to the next one. That way, I knew I'd eventually get to the summit. My altitude-headache went away as I lay there in the tent, and I felt pretty good about the summit attempt the next day. Optimistic, anyway.

I slept off and on. The cool new Big Agnes sleeping bag was comfy and warm, the integrated pad system they use worked very well, but it still takes a night or two to get used to sleeping in a tent. Bears did not visit camp and the bear canister full of food lay undisturbed on a rock a few yards away.

Deep into the night Basta started thrashing around in his sleeping bag, waking me. He rolled from side to side, curled up, then flopped over onto his stomach. Then repeated that. Again and again. I put up with that for quite a while, then finally said something like, 'damn, pick a position and stick with it for a while.'

"I'm sick!!!!" he groaned.


"I'm sick. My head is pounding, I feel like I'm going to throw up, I'm dizzy . . . I've almost gotten up to barf a few times, but I'm fighting it. I don't want the whole camp to hear me. God my head hurts . . . It's pounding. . . ."


"That's altitude sickness," I sighed. Too bad. Mine had gone away in the night, his had gotten much worse.

"It's not Giardia or something else in the water?" he asked.

"No. It takes Giardia at least 2 days to show symptoms, usually longer," I explained. "It can't be that. What you have is classic altitude sickness."

"Are you sure?" he asked.

"Yeah, I'm sure. And there's nothing to do but go down."

He groaned and curled up into a ball as another wave of nausea hit him. "I feel horrible."

I looked at my watch. 3am. I unzipped the tent and stuck my head outside, seeing if the full moon was still out lighting the mountainside. It wasn't, so a gorgeous, crisp & clear black sky full of stars was out. I told Basta he should stick his head out and see that, but he just groaned again and didn't move.

"Can you make it another 3 hours?" I asked. It was too dark to set out now, we'd have to wait for dawn.

"I've made it this long." Poor Basta.

He asked if he was going to have any permanent damage from this, and I assured him no. As soon as we got him down a couple thousand feet or so he'd be good as new. He didn't believe he'd ever feel good again, but he agreed he couldn't go up any farther.

The next couple of hours were miserable. Neither of us slept. He actually rolled over and put his head on my lap, looking for some comfort. Believe me, he never does that. Never.

He continued to get worse. When it seemed like he couldn’t stand it any more, dawn spread her rosy tips across the wine-dark mountainside. At last, we could get up and move.

I put our backpacks on two nearby rocks and he sat on another next to them while I broke camp. I packed all of the camping bits into their respective little bags and set them out for him to load in the backpacks, then took down the tent. As I did so, he'd pack a few things, then put his head down on his pack and groan for a bit until he could raise his head again.

Amazingly enough, I felt damned good. My altitude symptoms had completely passed during the night. But still, I was not the least bit disappointed in not attempting the summit, knowing as I did how hard it would be for me. Better to leave that for another day when I was more prepared. I was at least able to break camp by myself and get us ready to go without trouble.

Basta broke out the trekking poles to help with the dizziness as he descended, and off we went. Down, down, down. The trail was just as steep as when we'd come up it, but that still meant a good mile per thousand feet. Even though I didn't have to stop and rest on the way down, it took about 20 minutes per mile.

At 11,000' I asked Basta how he felt and he said a little better. Headache a little better, nausea a little better, dizziness mostly gone.

At 10,000' we made it to Outpost Camp and stopped for breakfast. There Basta said his head just had a dull ache and the nausea was minor. He could eat. We had cold Clif bars and water. Basta said he wished we had the time and energy to boil water and make coffee and eggs, but by now the warm breakfast offerings at the Whitney Cafe in Lone Pine were calling our names and we were in a hurry to get down.

At 9,000', the symptoms were gone. He felt completely fine. He was amazed.

Another 1,000' and we finally made it to the car. This trip down wasn't exactly a piece of cake, either. It took a lot longer than I expected and my pack was HEAVY. I definitely need more training before I try this again.

And Basta needs more time to acclimate. Some people just do and no one knows why. We debated if it would have been better if we'd spent the night in the car at 8,000' instead of in the motel at 4,000'. Probably. Or if we should have camped at 10,000' and made the much longer summit hike the next day instead of going all the way to 12,000'. I couldn't have done that hike, I tell you that now. Too much for my weakened body right now.

Really, we just need more time. Basta, as it turns out, feels the altitude every time he skis in Colorado. He's just susceptible to it, and I didn't know it. We'll need to go up slowly, maybe taking it over the course of several days more, if we plan to try this again.

Maybe next year. In the meantime, we're looking forward to some lower-altitude hiking and backpacking in the mountains closer to home.

Pictures are here:
Whitney pics

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


Research has vindicated my gut-feeling that pain-killers and anti-inflammatories before, during, and after exercise are bad. I'm pleased that my drug-free training advice holds water.

The article is here: NYTIMES

And I will post it in its entirety so I have it after it rolls off the New York Times archives:

Phys Ed: Does Ibuprofen Help or Hurt During Exercise?
By Gretchen Reynolds

Dan Saelinger/Getty Images
Several years ago, David Nieman set out to study racers at the Western States Endurance Run, a 100-mile test of human stamina held annually in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. The race directors had asked Nieman, a well-regarded physiologist and director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the North Carolina Research Campus, to look at the stresses that the race places on the bodies of participants. Nieman and the race authorities had anticipated that the rigorous distance and altitude would affect runners’ immune systems and muscles, and they did. But one of Nieman’s other findings surprised everyone.

After looking at racers’ blood work, he determined that some of the ultramarathoners were supplying their own physiological stress, in tablet form. Those runners who’d popped over-the-counter ibuprofen pills before and during the race displayed significantly more inflammation and other markers of high immune system response afterward than the runners who hadn’t taken anti-inflammatories. The ibuprofen users also showed signs of mild kidney impairment and, both before and after the race, of low-level endotoxemia, a condition in which bacteria leak from the colon into the bloodstream.

These findings were “disturbing,” Nieman says, especially since “this wasn’t a minority of the racers.” Seven out of ten of the runners were using ibuprofen before and, in most cases, at regular intervals throughout the race, he says. “There was widespread use and very little understanding of the consequences.”

Athletes at all levels and in a wide variety of sports swear by their painkillers. A study published earlier this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that, at the 2008 Ironman Triathlon in Brazil, almost 60 percent of the racers reported using non-steroidal anti-inflammatory painkillers (or NSAIDs, which include ibuprofen) at some point in the three months before the event, with almost half downing pills during the race itself. In another study, about 13 percent of participants in a 2002 marathon in New Zealand had popped NSAIDs before the race. A study of professional Italian soccer players found that 86 percent used anti-inflammatories during the 2002-2003 season.

A wider-ranging look at all of the legal substances prescribed to players during the 2002 and 2006 Men’s World Cup tournaments worldwide found that more than half of these elite players were taking NSAIDS at least once during the tournament, with more than 10 percent using them before every match.

“For a lot of athletes, taking painkillers has become a ritual,” says Stuart Warden, an assistant professor and director of physical therapy research at Indiana University, who has extensively studied the physiological impacts of the drugs. “They put on their uniform” or pull on their running shoes and pop a few Advil. “It’s like candy” or Vitamin I, as some athletes refer to ibuprofen.

Why are so many active people swallowing so many painkillers?

One of the most common reasons cited by the triathletes in Brazil was “pain prevention.” Similarly, when the Western States runners were polled, most told the researchers that “they thought ibuprofen would get them through the pain and discomfort of the race,” Nieman says, “and would prevent soreness afterward.” But the latest research into the physiological effects of ibuprofen and other NSAIDs suggests that the drugs in fact, have the opposite effect. In a number of studies conducted both in the field and in human performance laboratories in recent years, NSAIDs did not lessen people’s perception of pain during activity or decrease muscle soreness later. “We had researchers at water stops” during the Western States event, Nieman says, asking the racers how the hours of exertion felt to them. “There was no difference between the runners using ibuprofen and those who weren’t. So the painkillers were not useful for reducing pain” during the long race, he says, and afterward, the runners using ibuprofen reported having legs that were just as sore as those who hadn’t used the drugs.

Moreover, Warden and other researchers have found that, in laboratory experiments on animal tissues, NSAIDs actually slowed the healing of injured muscles, tendons, ligament, and bones. “NSAIDs work by inhibiting the production of prostaglandins,”substances that are involved in pain and also in the creation of collagen, Warden says. Collagen is the building block of most tissues. So fewer prostaglandins mean less collagen, “which inhibits the healing of tissue and bone injuries,” Warden says, including the micro-tears and other trauma to muscles and tissues that can occur after any strenuous workout or race.

The painkillers also blunt the body’s response to exercise at a deeper level. Normally, the stresses of exercise activate a particular molecular pathway that increases collagen, and leads, eventually, to creating denser bones and stronger tissues. If “you’re taking ibuprofen before every workout, you lessen this training response,” Warden says. Your bones don’t thicken and your tissues don’t strengthen as they should. They may be less able to withstand the next workout. In essence, the pills athletes take to reduce the chances that they’ll feel sore may increase the odds that they’ll wind up injured — and sore.

All of which has researchers concerned. Warden wrote in an editorial this year on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine that “there is no indication or rationale for the current prophylactic use of NSAIDs by athletes, and such ritual use represents misuse.”

When, then, are ibuprofen and other anti-inflammatory painkillers justified? “When you have inflammation and pain from an acute injury,” Warden says. “In that situation, NSAIDs are very effective.” But to take them “before every workout or match is a mistake.”