Encountering AMS on Mount Whitney

When AMS turns the most epic adventure into the most humbling experience.

By Katrina Parent (@trineontrail)

Acute Mountain sickness (AMS).  If you’ve hiked any of the higher summits, you’ve at least heard of it- the headaches, the nausea, the vomiting, fatigue.  AMS is a fairly common and manageable occurrence at altitudes above 10,000 feet, unless it accelerates to HACE- High Altitude Cerebral Edema.  Confusion, disorientation, lethargy, compromised mental state, ataxia, and clumsiness all begin to take effect as the brain swells with fluids due to rapid ascent.  HACE is an extremely dangerous and fatal condition if left untreated.  Occurring in less than 1% of people who ascend to altitudes up to 14,000 feet, the odds that one of us in our group would experience it during our ascent up Mount Whitney were pretty slim.  Unfortunately, I was that 1%.

Standing at approximately 14,505 feet (there is some debate on the actual height), Mount Whitney rests as the highest summit in the continental United States, and as such, is an extremely popular destination for summit-seekers.  Those who wish to attempt the summit of Whitney for a specific date must first enter the permit lottery system during the short annual lottery window, with many people being turned away due to the popularity of the hike.  The likelihood of obtaining a permit is much higher during the winter months since most people are less eager to participate in full winter mountaineering (crampons, ice axes, crevasse-evading, self-arresting, praying an avalanche doesn’t happen, all that fun stuff), so it was a no-brainer for our group when we decided to go for it.  Let’s be real- winter mountaineering is so much more challenging and awesome than an on-season day hike. Winter hikes really demonstrate the monstrosity and rawness of the mountains, and there’s much more of a feeling of solitude and serenity out there when surrounded by endless hills of snow.

Recreation.gov distributes two types of permits for Whitney: an overnight permit, which allows you to backpack to Trail Camp at 12,000 feet to provide your body time to acclimate to the altitude overnight before the summit push; or the day permit, which forces you to hike 22 miles with 6,000 feet of elevation gain within a 24 hour period.  While you can state your first choice option when applying, the recreation department ultimately decides your fate.  For this trip, we were given the day permit.  Which to be honest, was pretty exciting- what an awesome challenge!

Making our way up the mountain; 6 hours into our ascent

This past winter in Northern California was one of the wettest, snowiest, and messiest in recent history.  The higher summits in the Sierras received record amounts of  snowfall, leaving most of the summits snow-capped late into August.  Mount Whitney in the dry season is actually a fairly moderate hike; the distance is still long, but the climb reasonable.  In winter, it transforms into a whole new beast; icy slopes, crevasses, avalanches, full winter mountaineering gear required.  The most challenging part of ascending Whitney in winter is once you get to “the Chute” around 12,500 feet, where the normal-season switchbacks become snow-covered and impossible to traverse, leaving only one choice: climb straight up the chute, at a 43% grade.  One slip, and you’re either self-arresting if you were smart enough to prepare and train, or you’re rocketing all the way back to the base at high speed in those slippity-doo-da Goretex pants.  The bright side of the Chute in winter is that you don’t have to spend hours descending switchbacks- it’s just a quick glissade down to the bottom!

hikers traversing the snowfield just below Trail Camp and the base of the Chute

To give our bodies the best chance of acclimatization for our trip, we decided to camp two nights at altitude beforehand.  The first camp we stayed at was Lone Pine Campground at 6,000 feet, before we realized there was another spot we could camp at 8,600 feet, directly at the entrance of the trailhead at Whitney Portal.  Night two we decided to stay at this camp, affording us a bit more acclimatization.  The morning of our ascent started out perfect: we were all awake, dressed, fed, and ready to climb by 2:30 in the morning- the lazy man’s alpine start.  The weather was clear and our group was in great spirits, even when the trail was extremely difficult to locate due to the massive amounts of snow cover (thank the technological universe for Alltrails– our topo map life saver on this trip!).  The view of the rock walls surrounding us during sunrise was something I’ll never forget-  massive walls of rock, golden from the first light of the sun.  It’s almost surreal being so far up a mountain before the sun has even risen.

Standing by the golden walls of rock just after sunrise, 4 hours into the ascent

Things started feeling sub-par just after 10,000 feet.  The headache was the first to kick in, which I had already been anticipating from previous experiences.  After the headache came the nausea and total loss of appetite, which turned a bad situation worse after having already climbed for 6 hours at this point with only a bit of oatmeal from breakfast and half a protein bar in my stomach.  I knew I was hungry and needed to eat, but every bite was physically nauseating to swallow.  Symptoms escalated by 11,500 feet.  I kept my symptoms to myself and continued on, quietly and slowly recognizing my situation.  By 12,000 feet I could no longer swallow food or water properly, I was doing and saying things that made no sense, my emotions and behaviors became erratic, I was stumbling, and my motor control was compromised with ataxia.  I remember putting my pack on to continue on at one point, with the zipper fully open and things falling out.  Recognizing the gravity of the situation and my symptoms, I put my head to the ground and watched snow melt.  It was a humbling moment, hunched over with my forehead to the ground, watching the light sparkle through the snow as it melted.  I knew I was in trouble, but as with most cases of severe AMS, I was in denial- a dangerous mindset to be in.

Not yet willing to accept reality, I decided to continue 500 more feet to the base of the Chute as a target point to make my decision.  Those 500 feet felt like they took hours to accomplish.  Gazing up the chute with 2,000 more feet to ascend to the summit in extremely unstable snow cover (snow melt, post-holing through slush, prime avalanche conditions), knowing my motor control was severely compromised, I finally made the heartbreaking but critical decision to surrender to the mountain.  The only way to assure my safety and health was to descend.

Surrendering to the mountain

Having my first DNF (Did Not Finish) on the highest mountain in the contiguous US was one that left me feeling completely hollow and humbled for a period of time up there.  I’ve had these moments during endurance training before, (“in the cave” we call it, referring to a mental cave of misery and defeat) but never on a mountain.  Fortunately I knew that not only stumbling on that slope could be fatal, so could the potential onset of HACE.  I had many more mountains to conquer in my future, and  I wasn’t going to let one bad Larry prevent those acquisitions.

There is no way of knowing who AMS will affect- the fittest person on Earth could experience it.  It could not affect you one climb, and crush you the next.  The best way to prevent AMS is to properly acclimate, and climb slow.  With our day permit, we didn’t have the option of a slow ascent.  As someone with genetic iron deficiency anemia, I grossly underestimated the time I would need at altitude, and that lack of red blood cells created a soul-crushing and dangerous situation for me up there. It was one of the hardest decisions and consequences I had to face, but that decision has also given me the opportunity to continue my passion.  Many people underestimate the risks and challenges associated with these higher summits, putting themselves at even higher risks.   People die out there, often as a result of improper planning and preparation, or while venturing out alone.  We discovered that the day after our summit attempt, a woman who broke away from her group on her descent fell 60 feet down a snow chute.  Sadly, her body was found two days later by SAR.  If winter mountaineering has taught me anything, it’s that nature is unforgiving and anything can go wrong.  It’s crucial to recognize the risk you take when you travel alone out there, and to prepare for the worst possibilities.

This past weekend I set out for redemption, prepared with Diamox and ibuprofen.  I successfully summited Mount Whitney on August 27th, with no symptoms of AMS whatsoever.  This experience taught me that even in the face of adversity, a strong will and dedication paired with proper preparation prevails.  It is my hope that this story can serve as not only a cautionary tale, but as an example of affirmation that while some experiences in life may crush you and leave you feeling defeated, there’s always a way to overcome.  Here’s to learning from our experiences, and taking them to new heights!

For more information on AMS & HACE, visit altitude.org.

Want to do more to protect California wildlands?  Visit the Wilderness Society and consider making a tax-deductible donation, or browse the site for other ways to advocate for our lands.

 

Follow @trineontrail for adventure updates, and as always, happy trails!
-Katrina Parent

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