Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Should You Leave Your Backpack Behind To Summit? It Depends.

Dale Matson

Taboose Pass 11,300'

I was up in the mountains on the Taboose Pass Trail last Monday and Tuesday. Nature is beautiful but it can be unforgiving if you make a mistake. Most people who perish in the mountains are killed by their own ego. Sometimes the top of a mountain can be the same as the belly of a whale. Perhaps the biggest problem in mountain climbing is summit fever. It is hard to turn back if you haven't reached the top. VO2 max decreases by 3 percent for each 1,000’ of altitude gain over 5,000’. This can be especially troublesome for older folks like me who already have a diminished V02 max. The climbers who have fallen off Whitney the last few years have all been in their 60’s and 70’s.  While available oxygen is about 20 percent of the air we breathe at sea level it is only about 14 percent at 11,000’.

I sometimes wonder if part of summit fever is poor judgment driven by hypoxia. I saw a Discovery Channel Video where an expedition leader was pleading with one of his climbers to turn back because the climber would not meet the necessary summit window. At altitude, there is less oxygen saturation in the blood. When it is ordinarily near 100 percent, it can go down to 80 percent or lower at high altitude.

I drove to Bishop on Monday morning and picked up my wilderness permit. I got to the trailhead south of Big Pine and began making a 6,000’ ascent to Taboose Pass. Fatigue began to set in at about 9,000’ and I considered dropping my backpack in an established campsite to climb more easily. The weather was windy and misty and I had on my rain jacket, pants and gloves.  I dropped my backpack at a nice campsite at about 8,400’ and began climbing again with less gear.

After about a quarter of a mile I thought about Wade Brunette, a man about my age that I had been flown in to search for in late October 2009. He had attempted a day hike to the top of Mt. Whitney. He dropped his daypack along the trail at about 13,000’ and continued climbing. The rest is speculation on my part.  I believe he was tired also and thought he could hike more easily with less weight. He wanted to summit but a storm blew in.  Without his extra gear in his daypack, he probably suffered from both hypoxia and hypothermia. Symptoms include dizziness and confusion.  He fell to his death and was found on a ledge 200 feet below the trail.

I thought about this example and went back for my backpack. I still managed to summit but had the option to pitch my tent higher up as the rain and wind increased. There was no view when I got there because the weather had me “socked in” so to speak. The mountains make their own weather. I headed back down and set up my tent by headlamp in the highest remaining campsite (9,600’) about two miles below the 11, 300’ pass. I figured it would also be easier to breathe and less chance of the rain turning to snow at that altitude. I called Sharon on my satellite phone to let her know where I was and that I was ok for the night.

Packed And Ready To Leave The Next Morning

I understand when JMT folks leave their backpacks at Trail Crest for the final climb to the top of Whitney but there are other times when leaving your pack behind limits your options. The pack has your survival gear. What if you lose the trail or are injured?

 The Long Climb Up Whitney

The Knife Edge Near Trail Crest 
No Room For Mistakes!

I was with friends once that summited Mt. Hoffman. They left their day packs about 150’ below the top to make it easier to scramble over and around the final boulders. When they began their descent, they spent 30 minutes looking for where they had left their packs. What did they gain by this? Knowing when to leave your pack behind is part of good judgment. If you are in doubt and by yourself, don't do it!
I have a video of the Mt. Whitney Day hike on YouTube here:

No comments:

Post a Comment