Failure and Success on Mt. Hood

The upper mountain from my high point at 10,700'

The upper mountain from my high point at 10,700′

Sunday the 20th was an amazing day on the mountain. Mild, mid-spring conditions (while the lower valleys were stuck in a frozen inversion pattern), brilliant sunshine, no wind and near-perfect snow for climbing. We left the parking lot at Timberline Lodge at approximately 3:10 a.m., and almost immediately my lungs were burning. Within half an hour I was already questioning whether or not I could climb the mountain. It was very frustrating. I had been training throughout most of the winter, and while I had been sick a few weeks earlier, I really thought I was essentially free from illness and fully expected to climb well that morning. So to struggle so quickly was really discouraging.

My climbing partner, Bill, who has climbed the mountain somewhere around 120 times, kept pushing me to continue, and I kept grinding it out, despite the burning in my lungs and the shaking of my legs. After a few hours, my lungs did actually start to feel better and I began to regain hope that I might make the summit.

When we reached the top of the Palmer Ski lift, around 8500′, we stopped to eat and rest for just a few short moments and Bill, who is also a nurse, got out his oxygen saturation/heart-rate monitor and we discovered that my heart rate, even after I had been resting for a few minutes, was in the mid-130’s, while his was about half of that. He expressed his concern about it, but also said that I was not showing any symptoms of anything else, and he believed we could continue safely.

The eastern rim of the crater of Mt. Hood

The eastern rim of the crater of Mt. Hood

So on we went. Shortly after heading past the top of the Palmer, the snow conditions were getting icier, so we decided to stop again and get on our crampons. Then we continued.

I also continued to struggle. Sometimes my lungs would be burning, and would also wheeze a little, but with Bill’s gentle prodding and my determination, I kept pushing, and inevitably  would feel better again.

When the sun began to rise around 7, we were greeted by a mountain that was otherworldly and fantastic, fluted ice pinnacles up high and snow slopes colored salmon by the rays of the morning sun. These are moments we mountaineers live for, and I was so glad to be there to witness it.

By this point I felt like there was a good chance I would make it to the summit. My wheezing had stopped and I was starting to feel better. Yet every time we stopped and took my pulse, it was still between mid-130’s and 140, and would not go down with rest. Bill was obviously very puzzled by it. I was able to talk while we walked, I wasn’t showing symptoms other than being really tired.

When we reached the base of Crater Rock, I really started to hit a wall. Obviously, elevation had a lot to do with how I was feeling, since we were now around 10,000 feet. But I was also starting to wheeze again and I just had no gas left in the tank. I fell further and further behind Bill at this point, and I was really beginning to doubt whether I would reach the summit or not.

When we reached the Hogsback, the traditional roping-up point for the final, steeper pitches above, I was spent, and wasn’t breathing too well. Bill took my pulse once more and it was around 140, and didn’t go down with rest. I decided that was enough. Since the sun was fully risen and its warmth was releasing a barrage of ice chunks every few minutes, I knew that I would be putting both of us in danger if I continued on. Speed would be required to get across the firing line, and that was something I was lacking. So I told Bill I would wait while he continued on.

I hated having to make that decision, yet at the same time I felt like in this case, it was the right one. I have stood on Hood’s summit before, and I am certain I will again, but I am not so summit-obsessed that I need to push myself too far. As it turned out, I am really glad I made that decision.

Bill headed up, and I retreated to a flat spot closer to Crater Rock where I could rest and relax and warm up in the sun. I took off my crampons, since my feet were getting cold and shot film while Bill zipped up the mountain. He actually had to dodge a mini-avalanche of ice chunks as he ascended — if I had been following him, I sincerely doubt that I would have had the energy to run out of their path like he did.

It probably took Bill forty-five minutes to make the trip to the summit and return, and when he did, we took my pulse again, only to discover that my HR had only dropped a few points despite a long time to rest. Obviously my body was feeling pretty tweaked.

I didn’t make the summit. Again, another winter failure, yet this one felt different. I had not been in pain, I had pushed myself (with some gentle prodding from Bill) and I had reached a point higher than any other mountain in Oregon. It was an ass-kicking training run, and it motivated me to train even harder before attempting it again, something I have been doing since I have returned.

In the end we figured that several factors had been effecting me on the mountain: 1) I was having a slight case of exercise induced asthma (I had asthma as a teenager but I rarely have been effected by it as an adult — in fact, I don’t even have inhalers of any kind) 2) Having been ill for almost a month and only getting better a few weeks before the climb and 3) Coming from near-sea level and driving up to 6000′ in only a few hours, then going even higher after that was also a mitigating factor in my performance. Looking at the climb knowing this has made it easier to digest my failure. In fact, it has made me pretty proud of my accomplishment in reaching the elevation that I did.

I have been working much harder at my conditioning in the week since I returned from Hood. I am now doing my five-mile power walks with close to thirty pounds in my backpack, I started doing a core-workout routine and yesterday I did a 9.5 mile, 2000+’ elevation gain hike with the same weight in the pack. A few more weeks of this type of conditioning and I will be ready to return to Hood.

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