The First Time I Should Have Died
“Descending is the only way to recover, with a rapid descent of 3,000
feet usually bringing marked improvement.”
The Mountaineers, Freedom of the Hills, 5th ed., p. 396
Looking back on one’s life can be either a blessing or a scourge. Now 73, I often wonder about many of the choices I have made and how they morphed into what psychologists call the “defining moments” of one’s life. As opposed to the “given” of our lives—parents, ethnicity, gender, place and time of birth—every life is filled with “what ifs?” that haunt us as we age, and the further the distance between crucial moments or events and our wondering about them the greater the leverage they may hold on our memories and our sense of a life well lived.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said “Do something every day that scares you.” I wonder now about the wisdom of this adage, while also recognizing its value. Mental and physical accomplishment require risk, and risk is scary. The body creaks, the mind dawdles. But if we value a certain activity—even one as dangerous as mountain climbing—shouldn’t we continue to pursue it as best we can, risks notwithstanding?
As I and my complaining, surgically repaired knees grapple with this question, I ponder a particular mountain adventure that began with high hopes, nearly ended in disaster, and taught me the value of taking risks regardless of one’s age.
We left South Lake camp ground in California’s Kings Canyon National Park at eight AM. We were on a five-day Sierra Club hike in August, 1996 headed over Bishops Pass, through Dusy Basin to LeConte Canyon, through the forbidding grandeur of Black Divide and Ionian Basin to Muir Pass, then through equally rugged Evolution Basin to McClure Meadow. I was a strong, experienced hiker and well prepared, but I had never climbed above 9,000 feet during many hiking trips in the North Cascades of Washington State.
The trail rises steadily, winding past Spearhead Lake and Ledge Lake, then Saddlerock Lake at 11,128 feet on the way to Bishop Lake near the pass, at 11, 972 feet the high point of the trek. The trail is heavily used, as it is the main route into the northern portion of the park. Jagged rock formations mandate careful balance, especially with 25 pounds of gear and food crammed into one’s back pack. Startling views of Mt. Goode and the peaks of ominous-sounding Inconsolable Ridge emerge suddenly around many bends, tempting one to stop for a photo and to rest weary muscles. This section is quite challenging, especially for the first day of a long hike through remote wilderness.
We reached Bishop Pass about four o’clock and paused for a thirty minute rest. As we approached the pass I began coughing and felt some tightness in my chest, and when we reached the pass I had a brutal headache. I knew that headaches often occur in higher elevations, and as we were all in excellent condition we had covered the six miles and approximately 2,000 feet of elevation gain rather quickly, especially considering how heavy our packs were. Our campsite was about 1,000 feet below the pass in a meadow where there was plenty of water and several tent sites. Having already drunk nearly two quarts, I walked a short way from the group to a stream and filled my bottles. I coughed a few times and took two Excedrin, assuming the medication would work at this altitude as it did back home.
After devouring supper and helping Jim, our leader, hoist the food packs up steel poles to keep them from carousing black bears, we all retired early. I again felt unusual tightness in my chest, and coughed up fluid a few times before falling asleep. I was so zonked I did not hear bears rustling around the campsite during the night, as my tent partner, an Irish doctor named Sarah, told me next morning she had.
Day two was a gradual descent from around 11,000 feet through Dusy Basin to our next stop, the camp ground and ranger station at LeConte Canyon at 8,750 feet. We dropped steadily through the 6.8 miles, and while going down was certainly easier on the lungs, several steep switch-backs tortured our knees. My lungs gradually cleared, and the headache, though still present, became less intense, allowing me to focus on the stark, rugged beauty of the landscape. To our left rose Columbine Peak, at 12,662 one of the highest peaks in the northern portion of the park, and Isosceles Peak at 12, 321 feet, two gleaming giants lording over the numerous shallow lakes that dot the basin. At this elevation Kings Canyon is a stony wilderness reflecting the brilliant, scorching white of high country sun. Hikers must protect themselves from the intense, dry heat that, combined with the high altitude, can quickly sap one’s energy and resolve. As we lay in our tents about 8 o’clock that evening, Sarah noted that I sounded better, and I said that my headache was mostly gone. “Good,” she said, and we fell asleep quickly.
At 8:30 on the third day we headed up the combined John Muir/Pacific Crest Trail toward Muir Pass. The 7.9 mile hike rises gradually from the canyon along the middle fork of Kings River until Big Pete Meadow, at about 9,400 feet, from whence it rises more steeply up to Helen Lake at 11,617 feet and then to Muir Pass at 11,955 feet. About an hour after leaving the canyon, I began to walk more slowly than I had the first two days, and I was not sure why. My legs began to feel heavy, though not painful, and I gradually began to realize that in order to move up the trail I had to tell myself how to walk! I stared down at my boots, and said to them, “Right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot.” The normal nerve connections, or “wires,” between my brain and leg muscles that enabled me to walk without “thinking about walking” seemed strangely malfunctioning. As we hiked ever upward I slowed noticeably, and several times I stopped because I gradually realized that I could not remember, from one moment to the next, the instructions I wanted to send to my body. The further I walked the more detached from my consciousness my legs and feet became and, although I did not yet realize it, the more impaired my mental functions were becoming.
At Big Pete Meadow, about two miles from LeConte Canyon, Jim ordered us to fill our water bottles, as there would be little shade for the remaining six miles and we would be climbing steadily until we reached the pass later that afternoon. It was only 10:30, but already the sun was blistering hot. Carrying two bottles I moved about ten yards away from the group toward a small stream that cut across the trail. Perspiring heavily and immensely thirsty, I stood for several minutes staring down at the stream, aware only that I did not know how to open the bottles. As earlier my legs and feet had seemingly forgotten how to move me forward, so now my hands were suddenly immobile, and I could not “tell them” what to do. More “wires” were apparently malfunctioning. What would have been frightening to a normal mind—“After numerous hiking trips I have forgotten how to open a water bottle!”--was now just a vague sensation that I could not perform a simple task I had done innumerable times. I was paralyzed, holding two unopened bottles while behind me my companions chatted and nonchalantly filled theirs. Finally, Sarah and one another hiker came to me and asked if I was all right, and although I said “Yes,” Sarah knew that I was not. She filled my water bottles, put them into my pack, and said that she would walk behind me the rest of the day to make sure that I did not fall too far behind the group.
Before we started, Sarah said “Wait here,” and walked up the trail to Jim. They talked for several minutes, and although I could not hear them, she must have told him that I was showing symptoms of not altitude sickness but edema, a far more serious condition. My slow pace and persistent coughing suggested pulmonary edema, and perhaps Sarah also recognized in my inability to perform simple, usually automatic physical tasks symptoms of cerebral edema as well. Although none of the other hikers mentioned my slowed pace and odd behavior, most of them surely realized that I was becoming seriously ill. Jim, however, did not come back to talk to me. Perhaps he hoped that once we got over Muir Pass and descended into the lower valley my condition would improve. He surely realized that we were now at the midpoint of our route in a vast, remote wilderness. Whether we persisted or turned back, two days of hiking, and more climbing, would be required before we reached a manned ranger station.
The remaining six miles to Muir Pass were torturous. I labored agonizingly slowly, with each step literally trying to remember how to walk. “Right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot.” Each breath was a struggle. As Sarah and I fell further behind the others Jim gradually slowed the group’s pace. About two miles beyond Big Pete Meadow, at a small lake about 10,500 feet, he finally stopped and came back to talk to us.
“Mike, how are you doing? We have to get to Muir Pass. We can’t go back. You have to keep walking.”
I have no idea what, if anything, I said. My headache was fierce and, like walking, talking had become an enormous effort and I was slurring my words.
“We have to go up before we can go down. We have no choice,” Jim said.
He and Sarah again conferred together. He returned and told me to unload my pack, and he distributed my gear among the other hikers. Sarah announced to the group that I was suffering from pulmonary edema, not just altitude sickness, and now everyone knew that my condition might impact the entire trip. As if freed from their uncertainty and hesitancy by Sarah’s blunt statement, everyone gladly loaded some of my gear into their packs and encouraged me to “stick it out,” although the experienced hikers must have understood how precarious my condition had become.
Sarah again filled my bottles. “Drink, Mike, drink!” she insisted. She handed me a bottle but, as earlier, I did not know what to do with it. She lifted it to my lips, and I drank slowly, telling myself how to swallow. As we headed ever upward toward another small lake at nearly 11,000 feet, I sensed that my body was failing me in more ways than I thought possible.
Six hours, four miles, and nearly seven hundred feet of elevation later, Sarah and I straggled to the edge of Helen Lake, about 300 feet below Muir Pass. I took off my pack, sat down, and gazed at the lake’s shimmering surface. I knew that I was hiking somewhere in a huge mountain range, but I did not know where. I believed that I would never leave that spot, for I no longer knew how to make my body move. Deep breaths were impossible, and every shallow breath produced audible crackling sounds. By this time both Sarah and Jim must have realized that I was definitely suffering from not only pulmonary but also cerebral edema. The swelling in my brain was gradually shutting down all the wires.
Sarah and Jim lifted me to my feet and we trudged to the hut at Muir Pass, arriving about 5:30. Because of my extremely slow pace, the 7.9 mile hike from LeConte Canyon had taken us nearly nine hours. We rested for several minutes and then headed down the back side of the pass for half a mile and stopped about five hundred feet lower in a broad, flat area.
At the campsite I sat motionless while Sarah set up our tent. No one talked to me, not just because they knew that trying to articulate words was difficult for me, but also because now they all knew how seriously ill I was. We had now hiked much too far for anyone to walk me easily to safety. McClure Meadow was still 9.5 miles away through equally rugged terrain, and for most of that trek we would not be much lower than 11,000 feet. All I remember of that night is Sarah feeding me supper and then crawling into my sleeping bag well before sunset.
Several hours later I sat bolt upright, gasping for air. The crackling in my lungs as I gasped for air was far louder, my chest was heaving, I was spitting up the bloody fluid flooding my lungs, and in absolute panic I started screaming inarticulate sounds. Sarah shouted for help, and she and two other hikers pulled me from my sleeping bag and dragged me to a rock where they sat me down. I was terribly cold, shivering uncontrollably, and I could barely keep myself erect. They held me straight so I would not collapse into a ball. Sarah said “Hang on,” urged me to take short, quick breaths, and said that Jim had gone for help to a work camp half a mile away. All the hikers were now awake, and several huddled around me trying to keep me warm and assured me that I would be all right. As we waited for whatever rescue we imagined possible, I slipped into unconsciousness, the last phase of edema before death.
A hideous noise awoke me. Search lights flooded our campsite as the terrifying steel bird screamed toward us, a monstrous Deus ex Machina invading the wilderness. It landed behind us amid swirling dust and stones. Sarah and several other hikers picked me up, and a fellow named Tom carried my back pack that he had been filling with my dispersed gear, hoping that help was forthcoming. At the door of the chopper Jim told me that now I would “make it,” and shook my hand. I was crying. He and Sarah lifted me into the belly of the bird where a park ranger strapped me into a chair and immediately applied oxygen. Ironically, I would have to go up—way up—before I could go down. As we lifted off I mumbled into the mask “I wanted to finish.”
In the Fresno hospital emergency room I learned that when the chopper arrived I was within an hour of dying. “You’re lucky,” a doctor said. “At that altitude, for three days, once the edema set in, you should have died.”
In late September Sarah sent me a letter, with several photos, assuring me that edema can strike anyone in the mountains, and that no one blamed me for getting so ill. She added that although Jim had seemed unresponsive to my illness, he knew that area well and realized that we had only one choice. Given our route, once we had hiked well beyond LeConte Canyon the only spot where a helicopter could land was below Muir Pass. That was why he had said to me, “Mike, we have to get to Muir Pass.”
Jim died of a heart attack in 2011. I never did hear from him. He had bet that I could walk over Muir Pass and either improve or be rescued. He won that bet, but only because someone at the work camp knew how to contact a rescue team. I will never know whether he knew that camp existed, much less whether he knew anyone there had a two-way radio. Perhaps he preferred not to acknowledge the risks he had taken.
As bizarre as it may seem, I realize now that this near mis-adventure has been immensely valuable to my life. Because it almost took my life, the allure of wilderness remains irresistible to me: emerald lagunae nestled beneath gigantic spires in Patagonia; the stunning peaks and deep valleys of Grand Teton National Park; climbing Glacier Peak in North Cascades National Park beneath billions of stars and summiting at sunrise; the terrifying yet wondrous solitude evoked by the sheer vastness of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I continue to venture into high mountains because I am reconciled to the necessity of risk in my quest for such rare, ferocious, and fearful beauty. Completing such ventures may take longer now, but the sheer joy of getting there increases with every year of my life.