(A true story of a harrowing night spent fighting the symptoms of altitude sickness.)
I wake with a start. It is eerily quiet in the inky blackness of the moonless night. My mouth is parched and my head throbs with a dull ache. Wondering what time it is, I fumble with the light on my watch to discover that it is only 9:30 PM. In my sleepy state, it takes a few minutes to remember that I am in the White Mountains where I’d come to photograph the ancient Bristlecone Pines, home of the oldest living things on earth. I ponder what possessed me to be here, at 11,000 feet, in a tent on the side of a mountain. I can’t imagine how I’m going to get through this night.
The White Mountains lie in the rain shadow of the larger Sierra Nevada mountain range. The Bristlecone Pines have adapted well to their dry, wind-swept habitat. The oldest of them – the Methuselah tree – is over 4,700 years old. Although they have a long lifespan, these trees don’t achieve the enormous dimensions of their Sierra Nevada neighbors – the Giant Sequoia. These hardy survivors grow less than one inch per year over their lifetime. They survive on the tiny amount of precipitation that escapes the grasp of the Sierras, mostly from snowfall.
The Patriarch grove is the higher of the two groves that make up the Forest. It sits atop the crest of a steep mountain at about 11,400 feet above sea level and requires a 12-mile slow crawl over a dirt road through a virtual moonscape. Low-growing sage carpeted the tree-barren rolling hills over the entire course of the meandering road.
Once I arrived at the desolate trail head, I tossed what I needed into my backpack and attached a few extra liters of water and my tripod onto the outside of the pack. I turned on the tracking feature of my GPS unit and set off in search for a flat area to pitch my tent.
Upon finding a camp spot, I shucked off my pack only to find that the weight of the extra water bottles had unzipped a flap and the contents had scattered behind me. Already tired from the long search for camp, I grabbed the GPS and proceeded to backtrack looking for the lost gear. The scramble back up the loose rocks proved exhausting as I trekked all the way back to my car without finding the pack’s lost contents. I was completely done in by the time I made it back to camp.
Through pure force of will, I set up the tent. I didn’t feel well and realizing that I hadn’t eaten since breakfast that morning, I decided to fix a pot of noodles and then rest a bit before heading up the mountain for some evening photography. By the time the noodles were ready, I could barely choke them down. Abandoning my plans for the evening, I settled for the comfort of my sleeping bag by crawling in.
Two hours later I awoke in the pitch-blackness of the tent. Guzzling water to quench my thirst, I contemplated my situation. I recognized my current state as the symptoms of hypoxia – altitude sickness – where the air is much thinner than at sea level. I had gone from sea level to over 11,000 feet in just a few hours. Now my oxygen-starved brain was starting to play tricks on me. I became delusional, imaging all sorts of irrational scenarios. I gulped down some water and laid down, hoping my anxieties would be chased away by sleep. But sleep wouldn’t come.
Minutes seemed like hours. I yearned for the moon to erase the blackness of the night. There were endless cycles of drinking water and relieving myself. I tried to pass time reading but couldn’t concentrate. I prayed for sleep. When the moon finally peaked over the crest of the mountain, it was of little consolation.
After what seemed like hours, I decided to document my predicament by photographing my campsite by the light of the moon. Setting up the camera was a chore but I managed to capture one image before finally giving up.
I devised a plan to get back to the car in the morning. I would head out of camp early with only my camera equipment and then after shooting the Bristlecone Pines at sunrise, leave the equipment at the car and return for the camping gear. I spent the next hour meticulously arranging my camera equipment for the morning trek, set my alarm for 4:30 AM and once again tried to sleep. After a time, sleep finally came.
The alarm jolted me awake and I peeked through the tent flap. What I saw was too much for my oxygen-starved brain to handle. The sun was rising in the north! I knew that I was confused but I felt sure which direction was east, so I consulted the GPS. I was wrong and it was too much to grasp, so I lay back down and drifted off to sleep.
A few hours later I mustered the will to head back to the car. Now that my plan was blown, I resigned myself to the fact that I must carry all of my stuff out in one trip. Slowly the tent came down and the pack was filled, all the while mulling over what seemed like a life or death decision–do I carry some water or do I pour it all out to save weight. Agonizing over the choices, I finally gulped down all the water that I could drink, poured out the rest, and headed back to my car, in the direction my GPS indicated.
What should have been a seven-hour drive home took ten hours with frequent stops to guzzle more water and relieve myself. Finally home at sea level, I crawled into bed and enjoyed a sound night’s sleep.
Reflecting on my experience, I am surprised by the intensity of the emotions I felt during the long night and that knowing my mind was playing tricks, did little to lessen the intensity of the experience.