North Arete 5.7
Trip ReportNear Demise (?) Attempting Matterhorn Peak
This is one trip report I really wish I did not have to write, but on the flip side, I am quite glad I am here to write it. I decided to share this experience here for a few reasons. First, I am hoping for feedback and thoughts on what may have happened to me and if any one knows or heard of something similar happening to someone else. Second, I hope it can be educational to others venturing out on their own who may be putting themselves in a similar situation. Finally, and probably most important, I think it is an exciting story of a close call worth sharing, though I still have not shared it with my whole family or most of friends.
I had planned to do this trip over two days, so I needed to make camp somewhere. I wanted to make camp high so I could tag the summit, or at least get high enough to where the winds turned me around, and get down early the next day. Just after 12 PM I made camp at approximately 11,000ft. It was a little high, but having spent two days on Mt. Shasta just 72 hours earlier, and made the summit with no issues. I figured the altitude would not be an issue. I made my camp under a large boulder in a boulder field. There was a bit of space underneath one particular boulder as it was propped up on one side by a smaller boulder. I used my shovel to level out the snow under it so I had a flat space, out of the wind, for my bivy sack.
At this point I was having a difficult time holding on to my ice ax and I doubted my ability to self arrest if I found myself sliding really fast down the snow, but I had no option other than to start glissading down, with crampons on. As I lay back with my feet out in front of me sliding down the snow I continued to focus on my breathing and tried to relax every muscle I could to conserve energy and oxygen. The thought that this could some how be hypoglycemia, a condition I have never had, crossed my mind. Fortunately I had a pack of peanut butter crackers in my pocket and was able to open the pack and eat them as I glissaded down. By the time I reached the bottom of this snowy slope, about four of five hundred feet high, the feeling in my lips was coming back. I also felt as though I had a little more energy.
I was able to get on my feet and walk, rather wobbly, around a ridge and though a few trees to the top of another snow slope. On my way up I had seen only one other person and I had seen him here, at the top of this snow slope. He was getting his skies on at the time I saw him and had his dog with him. As I began to glissade down this slope I saw his ski tracks and his dogís paw prints in the snow and knew he was long gone. Once reaching the bottom of this slope, about 1,000 feet in height, I staggered over to a large boulder and hid from the wind. I was feeling much better, but still a long way from normal. My hands and most of my arms were still very numb and difficult to use. While lying down behind the boulder I decided to eat a few packs of gummy fruit snackes that I had in my bag and drink some water. The numbness was slowly going, and my energy was coming back slowly, but I felt I still needed to get down further. The next and last snow slope was about three or so hundred yards away, across a talus field. As I was staggering across the last few hundred feet to the slope I felt the numbness in my hands and feet returning and fast.
Once reaching the bottom of this last snow slope, at about 6 PM, there was only brush and boulders with some short, well defined, trails ahead to navigate. I decided to walk a few feet off the snow to get myself behind a few trees that would shield me from the strong winds as I took off my crampons. I also decided to take the time to get a second pair of pants on to keep me warmer. As I am doing all this, the numbness is coming back up my arms and into my face and I am feeling weaker and weaker by the second. Just as I finished getting my boots back on the weakness was so great I was unable to stand. I decided the only thing I could do was to rollover onto my back and get my feet propped up on my pack. I laid there watching the clouds swirling and changing shape overhead as my body felt as though it was slipping away from me as it became numb and felt like it was vibrating. The muscles in my arms began to feel very tight and looking down at my hands, I saw my fingers curling in to a clenched position as most of my body began to tremble. I still had full control of my breathing and continued to focus on deep-pursed lip breathing. I was also still able to shout. I gave out one shout for help, but found it very scary and unsettling to hear my own voice in distress so I chose to save my energy. I also knew there was little to no chance that there was anyone there.
As my body continued to slowly slip away from me, I started to think that this really could be it. I would have never thought I would die lying on my back in the middle of a trail from some sort of metabolic mechanism that I didnít understand. If I am going to die young, I would have guessed it would have been from a rock fall that snuffs me out while climbing, a shark taking a bite out of me while surfing, maybe sliding my motorcycle into an embankment while racing around in the hills or drowning after getting stuck in a sieve or strainer while white water kayaking. Laying there staring at the clouds unable to feel my body I thought about my parents, friends, coworkers and this girl I just met from some online dating site, ha. I felt bad for their loss, but not for myself. I was bummed that I would not get to go on more adventures, but I was stoked for all that I had already done.
After about 15 to 20 minutes of nearly complete numbness and waiting to have the lights fade out on me, things started to take a turn for the better. I was getting some strength back, but still had very little feeling. I decided I should reach down to my pack and get my foam mat out and roll myself over onto it. This way if I was to pass out I would have a little bit better chance of staying warm and hopefully waking back up. A few minutes later I had enough energy to reach back down to my pack for food. As I clawed at my bag for food a can of condensed soup came out. I was not able to pull the top off with my hand, but I was able to pick up my ice ax and use the spike to pry the can open. I also used the end of the ice ax to shovel some of the soup into my mouth, as I could not reach the spoon, but did not have the energy to take more than a few mouthfuls. The next thing I thought I should do was to get my sleeping bag out and slide myself inside.
Once I was in the sleeping bag I started to figure out what might be happening to me. I came up with a good list of possibilities, but the hypothesis that seemed to be most likely was that I had become hypoxic. At first it seemed unlikely. I had been to fourteen thousand feet a number of times and even as high at nineteen thousand feel once and never had an issue with altitude sickness or symptoms like what I was experiencing. In thinking about this a little more I remembered that I had read once that one of the human bodyís reactions to elevation is for the kidneys to start peeing out bicarbonate. Now I did not know how that helps the body acclimate to altitude, but I did know that bicarbonate is the bloods pH buffer and without it the bloods pH must be more labile and susceptible to change. Seeing how I had spent a few days on Mt Shasta, at an altitude of ten thousand feet and higher, only 72 hours earlier, my kidneys had already dumped some of my bicarbonate and it is unlikely that 72 hours is enough time to replenish what I lost. In addition, my muscles were really sore and full of lactic acid after Mt Shasta. Not only had I just climbed Mt Shasta, but I spent three days climbing in Yosemite Valley right before Shasta so every muscle group was feeling a little to very sore when I started up Matterhorn Peak. I hypothesized that the hike up to the base of Matterhorn Peak worked a lot of that lactic acid out of my muscles and into my blood which was unable to maintain its pH, due to the low level of bicarbonate, thus making my blood acidic and compromising my hemoglobinís ability to hold and transport oxygen. This is why I was having such a severe reaction to an elevation that has never been an issue in the past. If this is what really happened to me the best preventive measure I see to take is simply to be better rested before heading up in altitude. I need to allow my body more time to clear out the lactic acid and build up my bicarbonate buffer between high altitude trips.
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