Previously while trying to climb the Utah High Point, my stomach couldn’t handle the iodine I used to treat stream water and I ended up lying in my tent for a day feeling unwell.
Watch out for Rustlers!
This time I planned a shorter route to the top and was armed with a UV-light designed to sterilize the water.
I arrived at the trail-head (45 minutes from the nearest paved road) at 4:15pm. A thunderstorm had already passed. My original plan was to camp at the trailhead, but sunset wasn’t until 9:00, so I figured I’d try and hike to Dollar Lake (about 7 miles in).
Base Camp at 11500 feet
I was the last person on the trailhead that day. The incline was consistent, but not that steep. I made Elkhorn Crossing by 7:00pm. Only a couple of miles more to the lake. But I had worked up quite a sweat and now a cold wind was blowing. I started to get symptoms of hypothermia: a little dizzy, trouble navigating the rocks in the trail. So about the 6-mile mark I gave up and found a secluded spot to set up camp.
I had a terrible time sleeping (altitude was 10500 ft ASL). When I dragged myself out of my tent the next morning at 7am, I knew I was too far to make an attempt on the high point that day (10 miles one way). My idea was to leave the tent behind, carry a daypack and scout out locations to camp on this side of Gunsight Pass (maybe 6.5 miles from the high point). And then move my campsite to the new location.
With the lighter pack I made good time. I ran into an older couple who had camped short of the pass and they directed me to an excellent camp site with trees for shade and a lake for water, and not far off the trail.
I went back, bundled all my stuff up and carried it to the new campsite. I only got 3.5 miles closer that day, but I was still on schedule, since I hadn’t planned to make any progress on the day I arrived.
Once again I slept terribly (this time I was at 115000 ASL). I didn’t fall asleep until 3:10 in the morning and I was up and on the trail at 6:05.
I moved at a good pace and was on top of Gunsight Pass in 30 minutes. From here I had two choices. The longer (6 mile) trail would take me down into Painters Basin where I would give up 700 feet of elevation and then pick up the High-Line Trail to Anderson’s Pass. Or I could try a short cut following the cairns along the side of Gunsight Mt., and navigate the boulder fields while not giving up any elevation.
I had read plenty of trail journals of folks who took the short cut and save much time, and even more accounts of people who got lost trying to follow the cairns and exhausted themselves trying to find the proper path. Adding in the fact that I was alone, made it an easy decision to take the long route through Painter’s Basin.
Boulders all the way to the top!
The trail led down to green, alpine meadows and then up a rocky incline. I saw a couple of guys on the side of the mountain taking the short cut. I met one guy at the intersection of the trail and the shortcut. It took him 35 minutes on the shortcut, and he was waiting for his friends who took the long route. I told him he’d have to wait a bit longer. It took me 2 hours on the longer route.
Altitude was about 12000 ASL at this point. I slogged my way up the rocky trail to Anderson’s Pass (12500 ASL) where the ascent to Kings Peak starts. There isn’t much of a trail, just scrambling over boulders. At this point I had 1 more mile to go and had to ascent 1000 vertical feet.
I tagged along with a couple of guys as best I could, watching where they climbed and trying to duplicate their movements. I was having trouble catching my breath and when we came to a flat spot, I stopped to rest while they pushed on.
Another group of 4 (2 brothers and their sons) came along and I asked if I could tag along with them. They said sure and I inserted myself in the middle. I made it about 50 feet before I said I was quitting. The heights were pretty intense, and we were in the side of the mountain with nothing stopping from falling off. I dare not look down and I had serious concerns that even if I made it to the top, I would be too fear-struck to come back down.
The four encouraged me to keep going. One guy said “Just look at my heels, nothing else”. So I pushed on. But I still had trouble catching my breath.
Forty-five minutes from the pass and about 100 vertical feet from the top, I had to stop. I couldn’t catch my breath. The route to the top seemed to be straight up. I found a little bowl in the rocks to curl up in and told my companions I would wait for them to come back down.
I was at 13444 according to my GPS. The summit is 13528.
Rocks Assembled by Glacial Activity
Thirty minutes later my new friends returned and I followed them back down. Even though we were descending it was still slow going. Plenty of times I would get on my butt and scoot along the rocks rather than stand and put myself in a position where I could go tumbling over the side.
The group passed me by. I felt a little dizzy and felt some tingling in my legs. I caught up to them when they rested at the flat spot where we had met. They wanted to push on, but I was still hunched over trying to breathe. They offered to stay until I was better, but I told them I had made it to this spot on my own, so I was sure I could make it down to the trail. They wished me well and departed.
Goats at Elkhorn Crossing
Slowly and carefully I descended to the trail. I was still gasping for air. I sat there for maybe 20 minutes, but I still couldn’t catch my breath. Frustrated that I wasn’t getting better or making progress I decided to press on. My legs wobbled. My head spun. I stumbled on the switchbacks. After 1/4 of a mile I decided to sit down again. My arms, chest, and legs were all tingling now.
I took off my pack, but had trouble with my fingers trying to unzip it and grab a drink. My legs went numb, followed by my arms. I couldn’t move any of my limbs. I was terrified.
A group of four hikers stopped and asked if I was okay. I swallowed my pride, said I needed help, and explained my condition.
They lined up to make some shade for me, offered me some Gatorade, a cliff bar and some jerky. But the most important thing they did was get my breathing under control. After 15 minutes or so feeling returned to my limbs. I could now use my hands and move my legs.
Sunrise over the mountains
The four advised me to wait 30 minutes before starting out again. Plenty of people were on the trail, so if I needed help again I’d have someone to ask.
At 1pm I rose to my feet. I had 8 hours of sunlight to go 5-or-so miles back to my tent. I resolved to take it easy and and at the first sign of heavy breathing to stop and rest. I got lucky with some cloud cover (but no rain) to take the heat off. The trip back to the tent was all downhill, except for the climb of out Painter’s Basin to Gunsight Pass. I paced myself, stopped frequently and was at the top of the pass by 4:30.
From the top of the pass I saw a helicopter land near Dollar Lake. I presume someone needed evacuation. They just don’t fly in there for fun. Fortunately it wasn’t me who needed the lift. When the helicopter took off instead of flying over the mountains, it flew through the pass. Obviously, the pilot knows more than I do, but I would feel better knowing I was higher than all the mountains, rather than snaking between them.
Up to Kings Peak
Thirty minutes later I was back at my tent. There was a couple camped over the next ridge. She lived in South Philly for a few years. I told them what happened and asked them to check in on me the next morning.
Even though I was dead tired, I still had trouble sleeping. I spent the whole next day recuperating, eating, drinking and reading on my kindle.
I hiked out the next morning. Took me only 4 hours total to go from my campsite to the trailhead. I got a room at a Motel 6 in Evanston, Wyoming (6700 ASL) and slept like a baby.
View from where I quit
My best guess as to what happened on the trail was I had a panic attack. I couldn’t catch my breath due to overexertion and the altitude, and was on the verge of hyperventilating. I had visions of suffering altitude sickness or being trapped and then just fed into my fears. The lack of sleep didn’t help. Plus I was probably dehydrated and undernourished. Once the guys got my breathing under control that solved the problem.
I am also very happy that I stopped where I did on the way up. If I had pushed through to the top, I probably would have had my attack in a boulder field on the side of the mountain and that could have proved very dangerous.
I am biking from Philadelphia to Quebec in August.
As for high-pointing, I am going to re-evaluate my plans, but one thing is for sure: no more long, strenuous hikes by myself.