Thirst

Is there a sense that's more powerful? We'll let you be the judge.
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Is there a sense that's more powerful? We'll let you be the judge.

A college buddy of mine liked to say, usually on Sunday mornings, "If I'd known I was going to be this thirsty this morning, I'd have drunk more last night." He didn't know from thirsty. I didn't either--not yet, anyway.

That all changed years ago on a Wyoming peak called Wolf's Head. This long, traversing alpine rock climb, notorious for tricky route finding, also lacks a straightforward retreat. In other words, the kind of climb that can punish overambitious rookies. Hours after draining our bottles, my pal Monty and I summitted, the last sliver of daylight slipping over the horizon. We quickly ruled out bivouacking on that dry mountaintop. Nightfall and ignorance of the descent notwithstanding, we were going down to find water.

Hunger is a specific ache, one you can place. Your stomach feels hollow, maybe it rumbles. Big deal. Thirst, by contrast, permeates your cells and consumes your flesh from the inside out. Going hours without water, while exerting at elevation, the dryness in my mouth seeped throughout my throat and sinuses until the skin on my face felt drum-tight. I lost the ability to swallow or produce spit, and had the unnerving sensation of my throat constricting. Even as we made scary rappels down an inky gully full of loose rock, one thought overrode all: I need to drink.

Water accounts for 60 percent of a man's weight, half of a woman's. Lose 5 to 10 percent of your body fluid and you suffer moderate dehydration; deplete your tank any more than that and you're closer to a raisin than a grape. Hypovolemic shock follows, and blood pressure may drop so low it cannot be measured. Damage to the brain and vital organs follows. The Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine reports in elegant understatement that at this point, "anxiety, restlessness, and thirst increase." Yuh. And forget chugging Gatorade for a quick fix; the body can absorb only 1 to 1 1/2 liters an hour.

Monty and I didn't collapse. (And we didn't drink our urine. Not only is that unhealthy, but by the time you're desperate enough to consider that repulsive act of last resort, it's probably too late; we both went at least 15 hours without peeing.) But after getting off Wolf's Head, we did stumble and fall repeatedly while staggering for hours toward camp. We reached our campsite at dawn, as friends readied a search. All I could manage was a croak for water. I have known many powerful yearnings: For a woman who left me. (Okay, more than one.) For revenge. For another taste of something at a party. But nothing touches real thirst. It commands your attention; you can think of nothing else.

I pound water these days, even at my desk, out of habit. It always tastes delicious.