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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.

Ten minutes later, after I've finally caught my breath, the rest of the climb proceeds with surprising ease. The trail to E's first false summit is swept free of snow and nearly level. With each false summit thereafter, my confidence only grows. At one point, giddy, I take out my tape recorder and sing, Julie Andrews-style, "The hills are alive!" Alas, my attempted falsetto, unreachable in the cold, comes out as a manly bass. Treble was I ere I saw Elbert, I croak into the recorder, feeling in some small way Napoleonic on the brink of conquest.

After rounding a final switchback, it's there: the last, indisputable peak of E. You are a summiteer! I tell the recorder. Not just a false summiteer! A real one!

The wind, gusting at 40 mph, drowns out the boast, but I'm confident I'll remember it even without voice notes. I haven't felt this exhilarated in years. If I can make it back down the mountain, there's a 50-50 chance I'll return someday to climb an even more challenging 14er. Then again, I could just buy a Segway and never have to take another step under my own power.

I'm mulling such options when suddenly something flaps toward me from the horizon. It's a solitary raven, black as night, bobbing through the turbulence like an untethered prayer flag. It swoops overhead and gives me a quick, curious look. It almost seems he's quothing something about my future as a mountaineer, but I can't make out the sound over the noise of the wind.

Then, as if having reached some tentative conclusion, the raven turns its head and banks its wings to the left. In an instant, it glides into the vast cleavage separating Mt. Elbert from Mt. Massive and the limitless peaks beyond. I follow the flight as long as I can. Somewhere by the Continental Divide, which looks unimaginably vast from here at the top of the world, I lose track of the raven altogether.

Beautiful bird, the raven, and so dark: I'm sure I'll see another soon enough. For now, I envy the ease of his descent as my breaths come deep and quick in preparation for my own long way down.

A National Magazine Award winner for his health reporting, Jim Thornton often takes unorthodox approaches to his subjects–like the time he laid down with dead cows in the Chihuhuan Desert to see if vultures would land on him.

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

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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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