Acute mountain sickness, hell on earth

I wanted to believe it wasn’t happening again. I lied to myself, I lied to her, lifting my face up from the mud “just some mild altitude sickness” as I lay on the trail. I held my hand up with my thumb and index finger just an inch apart to emphasize “mild”. She rightly didn’t seem convinced and set her pack down. She was waiting for her husband and decided some ibuprofen may help me. I returned my face to the ground and lay curled up just off the side of the trail. Just before she had arrived I had drank several liters straight from a creek launching down from the alpine snowfields. Liter after liter I guzzled the snowmelt like my life depended on it. In reality, my life did depend on it, but more so it depended on my body’s ability to accept it.

I abruptly lifted my head up, pushed myself up on my hands, and blankly stared down as if interrogating an insect on the ground. She knew what it meant, the guide who had led her and her husband up to the summit earlier knew what it meant. It was the universal sign for “I’m about to vomit.” They both watched from a safe distance, waiting for the inevitable. And it came. Hardly the exciting crescendo of fluid we expected, but not a good sign for my failing body nonetheless.

Her husband made it down and at his exhausted pace, I realized I could keep up and hopefully have someone to monitor my safety down the mountain. We talked the whole way down, the Advil evidently kicking in, the descent allowing me more oxygen, and the company providing some comfort. His name was Lex, from West Texas, justified his career choice in oil as, “I’m from West Texas, it’s an obligation.”

At the base of the mountain, he may have been happier to see pavement than I was, considering his trip was over. He had summited and descended safely from a true giant, a fourteener. I knew from experience that my hellish headache from raging acute mountain sickness would not release me just yet.

I threw my pack into my mess of a vehicle and stepped into the drivers seat, urgently trying to drop down another couple thousand feet before my body remembered how it was supposed to be feeling. I raced down the mountain, dropping 500 feet every couple minutes.

And then it hit me. My body remembered. I peeled off the road, tires slipping on the gravel shoulder. I shoved open the door and launched my body out. The fountain flowed with no reservation this time. I thought, that must be all the water I drank up at that creek and since, two hours of hydrating gone. Then it flowed again, and I thought, there’s the water I drank coming down from the summit, over four hours ago. It had all just sat there, like a lost child without the slightest bit of where to go, finally deciding to retrace its steps. This time I laid on the side of the road, inches away from a square yard size platter of watery vomit on the gravel. Not a hint of the last meal, there wasn’t one, no appetite for that. Curled up in the fetal position I worried of some curious foreign tourist peeling over too, thinking there was an attraction to be seen, maybe a black bear strutting through the woods. I worked my way back into my car. With no place to go, no foreseeable way to keep fluids down, I knew I had little choice other than to go to the emergency room. I knew this could kill me, hell could already be killing me.

I’m frightened by the reality that I drove myself to the ER. I wonder how many people exclaimed about the drunk driver on the road. Truth is, the whole thing is a little fuzzy. They had me in a wheelchair in seconds, and with a line in me in minutes. They had dropped two liters by the end of an hour and I thought I may be feeling better. They watched me for another hour when the whole thing returned with a vengeance. I had felt this before, it was from heat provoked dehydration after a failed triathlon in Richmond a few summers ago. The river had been 91 degrees Fahrenheit and the air not much cooler. I made it to the second mile of the run to be overcome with a similar god awful feeling. Later that day I writhed in pain on the living room floor, with my aunt and mom watching helplessly. It was hellish, pain so disorienting you could forget where you are.

The nurse came in to check on me, shocked to find me speechless, once again curled up, internally screaming, barely able to squeak out the “no” when she asked if I was feeling better. Not one to overestimate pain, this was a 6, would eventually rise to a 9 before the narcotics kicked in. They had reserved a room for me at the Econolodge down the road, probably with the sanitation that would have induced vomiting in even healthy individuals. The doctor came in, worriedly said, “Okay, we’ve cancelled your hotel room, we’re keeping you here tonight. Okay?”

I could hardly whimper a teary, pain ridden word of agreement before he said, “It’s okay, don’t cry, it’s okay,” and walked out. I was ill, desperately ill, but more than that, I was alone, and that was competing as the worst part of the whole ordeal.

They started the third bolus before I had peed for the first time in seven hours. It would be four liters before I would see that trickle of Guinness colored urine expelled from my body. Another dose of anti-nausea meds, some narcotics, and something to calm the anxiety. I guess at this point I was having a full blown whack out episode.

I swore I wouldn’t let something like this happen to me again. I reassure my parents every time, “I’ll be more careful, I promise.” Truthfully, care and patience probably could have prevented this, as they could prevent nearly all of my disasters. The Appalachian Trail hypothermia incident could have been solved with the reassuring thought, the AT isn’t going anywhere. The Gros Morne mountaintop gale predicament could have been halted with the simple reminder, the summit will be there tomorrow. All of my triathlon dehydration, heat stroke, burned feet and broken bones could have been reassured with the guarantee of another race, another season. But I am young, I am naive, and I’ll probably get impatient again.

I’m typing this from a shoreline in northern British Columbia. My tent is set up in the thick evergreen woods behind me, flourishing with life. The tide just rolled in and pushed me from my perch on an outcrop into the Pacific Ocean. Alaska is on the horizon with the sun setting behind it. It is incredibly beautiful, mind blowingly beautiful. It’s 930pm and the sun moves slow here. It won’t be midnight before it is dark. In reality you can find its rays crawling just below the horizon at 2 AM, a sort of everlasting sunset. Eventually it will make its way back to be seen on the opposite shore. It smells of the remnants of low tide and the crabs scurry under stones as soon as they see me pass by. Everything moves, everything is alive. And I would say in this moment, I am perfectly content. But in life these moments are precious and I imagine after a few months back in school I’ll yearn for this place, for mountaintops and alpine snowfields, for open ocean and wild solitude as I did three months ago. This is my life, wax and wane, and if I make it through the first days of an adventure, I am certain to attain the satisfaction I was searching for. I imagine at some point I’ll be able to establish a life here, maybe in the Pacific Northwest, but anywhere wild will suffice, maybe as the town doctor, maybe at the local ER, one day possibly comforting a lone adventurer from another coast just like me. But for now I’ll accept the life I have chosen and return to civilization, leaving behind this barnacle cakes wilderness for something safer and more secure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *