When Dying Feels like Living

I was dying. At least that’s what it felt like. We were moving downhill, but that didn’t matter. It took focus to not stagger or drag my feet. The backpack felt like it weighed 3,000 pounds, not 30. I had no moisture left in my mouth but an ocean streamed from every pore on my body.

What am I talking about?

I’m talking about the time my husband and I (his idea) hiked down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River.

We started at 6 am and had intended to arrive at the bottom well before sunset.

We ogled the soaring cliffs. We peered into the dusty crevasses.

Due to the fact that I thought I’d been drinking enough water but it ended up had not been drinking enough water, I became dehydrated and we barely made it to the campsite before sunset.

Cue: earlier description of my zombie-like behavior.  At that point, I did not even have the strength to ogle anything anymore. I just focused on not stopping. Because we did not have $10,000 to helicopter me out of there.

One might be surprised to know, however, that there are cabins and a restaurant at the bottom of the Grand Canyon called Phantom Ranch. (And amazingly, flush toilets, too).

After we set up camp, we attended a hearty stew dinner that we’d signed up for months ahead with a room full of other guests, the majority of whom had ridden down to the bottom on mules.

In the morning, we headed back up, hiking halfway out, and camped. The next morning after that, we hiked the rest of the way to the top.

Fast forward to several years later.

A couple of years older but none the wiser, we fought to get into some kind of shape again, this time to summit Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 at nearly 15,000 feet.

The first attempt took place in the fall, around September. Thinking we’d skirt the crowds and still avoid winter, our gambling did not pay off, and we got stuck with dangerous snowy conditions at the higher elevations.

Please forgive my horrible edit job on my husband in this photo; he doesn’t want to appear anywhere in my blogs (or online) so I “deleted” his head. But that’s a shot of the narrow thruway bordered only by a thin wire railing that leads to the switchbacks that are higher up.

We had already slipped on the icy snow there, grabbing at the rail, our walking sticks useless, surprised by a sudden loud silence. What was the silence? Our hearts had stopped beating. At that point, due to the near-death experience and a descending hiker informing us of storms ahead, we abandoned ship and headed back down in defeat.

By the way, in this photo where I’m crouching on the snowy trail, what looks like little puddles of water way down below actually are huge, full-sized lakes.

At the camping site that night, the temperatures got to about -14 farenheit with frigid winds blasting through our tent. My husband and I, fully clothed, with our sleeping bags zipped together, clung to each other…and never once that night were we able to get warm.

Who had suggested avoiding the hiking crowds? What kind of nightmare was this? But man, oh, man, was it gorgeous.

Shoot forward eight months later, late spring.

We finally made it to the moon!

Seriously, though, the top of Mt. Whitney does look like the moon, doesn’t it? We had returned during a temperate month, avoided winter altogether, and finally made the summit.

The hike started early in the morning before sunrise and took all afternoon, with us returning to camp a little before sunset. We had small oxygen canisters that we never had to use because our training at Mt. Gorgornio (11,500) and Mr. Baldy (10,068) had helped immensely to acclimate our lungs and our bodies to altitude sickness. We passed many people on the way up gasping for air, unable to continue, some even vomiting. It was advised, once you acquired a headache, not to take Ibuprofen or Aleve and keep going. It was advised to turn around and go back.

It had been no easy feat. I remember one training period at Mr. Gorgonio where we were heading back to the car after camping and summiting the mountain. At some point, I realized I was making a weird sound that I couldn’t control. I was whimpering. Because every step I took felt like knives were slicing through my feet and straight into my bones. Knives made of lava and sprinkled with shards of glass. I could not believe how much my feet hurt. Could not believe it.

But then weirdly, amazingly, once we reached the car and started driving home, within ten to fifteen minutes, they were completely back to normal, as if nothing out of the ordinary had even happened.

Back on Whitney, we stared out across the stark moonscape into the vast horizon, humbled and staggered. We’d felt much the same in the Grand Canyon. The pain and suffering had been immense, but we didn’t regret it. We’ll never be able to experience those places in that way again, and the beauty that wasn’t ours became ours for a moment, having been so hard won, making it somehow more piercing. Elevated. Sublime.