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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?

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

By 11:30, I’m forced to a standstill at 13,280 feet, my legs knee-deep in snow and burning with lactate. It’s not the snow, however, that makes me stop: Rather, it’s a boulder the size of an industrial refrigerator. There’s no way to walk or even crawl around it. My only choices: retreat back and choose a better route, or try to lift my bulk over it. I doubt I have the strength for the latter, but I know I’m too tired to descend and reclimb. I decide the only hope is to go for it.

Stalling for time, I take inventory of my symptoms. Chief among these is a bone-deep weariness. It’s official: I’ve now set a new personal best for physical exhaustion, eclipsing the old mark established seven years earlier during an ill-fated blowgun monkey hunt in the Amazon. But when I attempt to inventory more subtle excuses for whining, I’m surprised to find a dearth of usual suspects. Conspicuously missing are headache, nausea, or any related hangoverlike symptoms so common in unacclimatized climbers and/or the hypochondriac fraternity.

Clearly, I can’t credit a surfeit of oxygen here. My pulse oximeter readings: 72/152, the stuff of death beds. Perhaps my parents did adopt me from a Sherpa couple back in 1952. More likely, a summer of hypoxic discomfort in the CAT tent in Pittsburgh is what’s helping me overcome the misery: a kind of pre-suffering on the installment plan. Whatever the cause, I just don’t seem to need much air any more. I feel like a 6’1" anaerobic bacterium.

Muscle exhaustion, of both the leg and cardiac variety, is another story. My hands are now too cold and tired to write, so I use a digital tape recorder to document my increasingly erratic stream of consciousness. In between lung gasps, I record: Must keep reminding myself…the Atlantic sea whelk…is not used to…these conditions…My slimy molluscal feet…must necessarily move…at a literal snail’s pace…with plenty of rest…No headache yet…but must not let down guard prematurely…the metaphor itself may…indicate early signs…of HACE…HAPE a threat too….Must keep checking self…for pink and frothy…sputum.

After three minutes of rhythmic pressure breathing through pursed lips, my oxygen saturation finally climbs back to the low 80s. I grab a crook on the boulder, wedge my right foot into a high cranny, inflate my lungs, and give it all I’ve got. Halfway through the hoist, I can feel my legs quivering. The alleged musculature, trained all summer in the art of a baby-stepping Everest Shuffle, is not prepared for heavy lifting.

Midway through my attempted heave, my right quad muscles stall out completely. My upper extremities are poised on the cusp of total failure. Throughout my entire musculoskeletal system, a cacophony of nerves fire frantic messages of surrender to my brain: Give it up! they harp. You are no summiteer. You’re not even a false summiteer. Time to descend to low country for rest and relaxation! Soon enough, you’ll be lying even lower!

As I hover in midair, it occurs to me that I don’t want to give up. Sometimes trying is not enough. Either I finish today’s assault on E–or leave knowing, for the duration and for certain, that it is E who has finished me. Who knows where a second wind comes from? Perhaps it is the result of summit fever; or a baser drive to avoid humiliation; or a middle-age guy’s first genuine intimation of mortality. Regardless, my physiology suddenly rallies–from pulmonary gas exchange to mitochondrial energy production, the whole cascade upticks in concert with my will. Ever so slowly, the twitching bulk–that is to say, me–resumes its upward trajectory. With one final push, I make it over the boulder’s top and collapse in the snow.

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