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Backpacker Magazine – May 2008

Climb Higher

With the right preparation–and a little help from a half-dozen friends, two exotic techno-gadgets, and one very sweaty hypoxic chamber–can a sea-level-dwelling rookie climb the highest peak in Colorado?

by: Jim Thornton

Photos by Tomas Zuccareno
Photos by Tomas Zuccareno
The author simulates 12,000 feet on a queen size.
The author simulates 12,000 feet on a queen size.
The author tests his blood oxygen level...
The author tests his blood oxygen level...
...A lower saturation, common at altitude, can hurt.
...A lower saturation, common at altitude, can hurt.
No false summiteer: The author atop Elbert.
No false summiteer: The author atop Elbert.

From Sea Level to Summit | You, At Altitude | The Kili Cure | How to Reach Your Peak

Continuing with baby steps up the ever-steepening slopes, I plod across an avalanche-scoured meadow strewn with boulders and felled trunks. After one last stand of pines, I finally reach treeline at 10:37 a.m. and celebrate with brunch. There are no elk to join me, but an odd chipmunk-squirrel chimera seems fascinated by my baggie of gorp. I layer back up and start the final 2,400 vertical feet.

The steeper the slope, the babier my steps become. Within another 10 minutes, sun-melting slush has turned into ice, then an inch of snow, then six. The path is barely visible, crisscrossing through outcroppings of windswept rock. By 12,500 feet, the air has grown noticeably thin. Perhaps it is hypoxia, but with each grueling switchback, I expect to see prayer flags and empty canisters of oxygen.

By the time I hit 13,000, the snow is a foot deep, deeper still in the frequent drifts. Twice I've had to guess which way the official trail goes; twice I suspect I've guessed wrong. The internet experts had all promised Elbert would be a "walkup" for 14er novitiates. I realize too late they meant a snow-free Elbert, an Elbert in the salad days of summer.

This is, alas, no salad day. I take refuge behind a boulder, my legs quivering, my diaphragm sucking in breaths as fast as it can. Readings now: 79/148. Inside my summer boots and cotton socks, snow has wedged itself around my toes, temporarily melted there while warm blood still circulated–and now refrozen with the closing of my arterioles.

I have developed, in other words, cold feet–that vanguard of self-pity and defeatism. For the first time today, I seriously mull the possibility of turning back. But then I take a look at the surrounding panorama, which is nothing short of spectacular. To the right and far below, at the base of a green valley dappled with wildflowers, sit a couple tjörns (better known to non-ancient-Norse laymen as "ponds"). A dozen miles in the distance, the town of Leadville–North America's highest incorporated municipality–resembles a craft shop miniature of Whoville. Faced with such beauty, I'm rejuvenated. Soon, my oxygen is back in the upper 80s, my heart rate has settled under 110, and I've regained my will to summit. I'm just about to re-start when I see five young Marines descending toward me, the middle guy green-faced. "It's bad up there," says one. "There's a demoralizing series of false summits before you even see the real one."

They wish me luck and resume their speedy march towards less nauseating air. I resume my own slog in the opposite direction. In minutes, the snow drifts are so deep I have to posthole each excruciating step.

From Sea Level to Summit | You, At Altitude | The Kili Cure | How to Reach Your Peak

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Reader Rating: -


Star Star Star Star Star
Jan 10, 2014

Great article. It was entertaining, informative, and very well written.

Mr. Meowington
Jun 27, 2012

I thought rapid breathing (Hyper-Ventilation) decreases O2 in the body because of dead space. I thought the best way to optimize O2 intake is to take deep more efficient breaths.

Aug 19, 2008

Why was a man using using personal o2 sensors, writing for a backpacking magazine, committing the ultimate sin of wearing cotton socks, in the winter no less? Not another 10 bucks in the budget for wool?

Jun 07, 2008

Interesting article.

Would like to know a bit on were to purchase the unit, thus wish that had been a web link inserted into the article.


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