Saturday, August 18, 2007

Into Thin Air

Mt. Rainier From the Skyline Trail

Mountains continue to kick my ass! The latest one to shellac me was Mount Rainier. It kicked my ass approximately 10 times harder than Mount Hood has ever kicked it.

It was a picture-postcard perfect day and Rainier was fully in view (which I understand is actually quite rare--more often all you can see is the bottom fringe of the glaciers; a curtain of cloud hides the rest, like this. You'd never even know a mountain was there, let alone the one that locks up half the glacial ice in the coterminous United States).

With hordes of other hikers we set off on famous and popular Skyline Trail behind the Paradise Inn, launching ourselves toward the Nisqually Glacier. I don't think I've ever been in a more magnificent place. The slopes were ablaze with luridly intense magenta paintbrush and bluer-than-blue lupines. Plus asters, hippie on a stick, and other wildflowers. And green? The slopes were so green. And the sky was super-saturated blue. Duh, I've posted a photo--no need to try to describe it.

Ten minutes later, I collapsed onto a trailside rock gasping for air and feeling as if I might vomit at any moment. B--who is asthmatic, allergic to nearly everything, and three years older than me--was some way up the trail, totally fine. Little kids, old men, chubby middle-aged women, and Germans* passed me by. Fuck! I could not friggin' believe it. Here I was in a place that is actually called Paradise and that truly lives up to its name, and I was going to have to turn around--AFTER TEN MINUTES--and bag the hike. FUCK! Could I possibly be any more pathetic and lame? The hiking book rated the hike as "Moderate." What has happened to me?

As I sat there berating myself, the nausea ebbed away and I started to feel that it was possible to carry on. I plodded up to where B was waiting and continued, perhaps another five minutes (or two minutes), before I had to sit down again. I went on this way, inching slowly up the path struggling against nausea and the sensation that the Sun was turning my brain into a hard-boiled egg, stopping to rest (and prevent myself from puking all over the trail) every five or (at the most) ten minutes.

B was having no such difficulties, nor were all the Germans and little kids, etc., who were breezing right past me, laughing and talking rather than panting and gasping.

It was painfully slow going and B was concerned that it might take us (me) about six hours to finish the five-mile hike. We needed to be at our hotel at 6 PM in order to not lose our reservation. And so after hiking a mere mile of the Skyline Trail we (I) gave up and turned back. I'm happy to report that I did not have to stop and rest on the way down. Now that would be unutterably sad.

I've spent some time scrambling around for excuses reasons that would lead to some conclusion other than this: I am old and unfit and can no longer take temperatures of more than 75 degrees.

And guess what? I found some!

Another hiking book I had with me rated the Skyline Trail as "Moderately Difficult" and emphasized its steepness and the fact that the hike starts at the rarefied elevation of about 6,000 ft. It also mentioned that, since the trail is mostly above the treeline, the Sun can, in fact, be brutal. Yes! Also, did I not ill-advisedly eat a foul-tasting Oh Boy! Oberto-brand Smok-A-roni sausage stick like two minutes before starting the hike? Why, yes, I did. Could not that (along with the Sun and the elevation) explain the nausea and my lackluster performance? And if further proof were needed, did I not the next day do a seven-mile hike under cloudy skies at a lower elevation with energy to spare at the end of it? Why, yes, I did.

So all that is true, but I don't feel that I can let myself that easily off the hook. The fact is that I'm not as fit as I have been in the past, ironically enough, when I was living in hill-less Chicago. Back then, I went to the gym a couple of times a week and did pretty intense cardio workouts (step aerobics [don 't mock] and Spin). Ironic, isn't it, that I was more physically fit then when I rarely got the chance to go hiking? And that on my first day on a hiking trip to Colorado, I could jump right in and do a hike that started at 11,000 feet and not feel in the least bit winded? I was younger, too, of course.

Once I moved out here I figured there was no need to join a gym--I'd get plenty of great exercise because I'd be hiking all the time. Well, I do take a hike about once a week in the summer. And I take walks (at least an hour long) several times a week the rest of the year. And I do yoga and Pilates regularly, but when I really think about it, none of it (apart from strenuous hikes) really gets my heart rate up the same way freakin' dorky-ass aerobics did. Plus, I eat too much fat and not enough leafy green vegetables. Lately, I've have been drinking far too much caffeine. I probably drink too much beer as well.

I have to say that my immediate reaction to doing something positive like eating better is a childish "Ugh!" But I have to do something to arrest the decline! It can be arrested, can't it? How else to explain all the hikers age 70+ I'm always seeing on the trails? Of course, I'd like to think that because I'm reasonably active (and I do think I am reasonably active) that that would be enough and that I could go on my way, merrily eating pizza and guzzling beer with no ill effects. Apparently not. What a bummer!

Anyway, enough of this tedious wallowing and self-pitying introspection! In fact, what I should be focusing on is that B and I had a wonderful time on our very short vacation, despite the sobering realization brought on by my failure to complete the Skyline Trail. Even though I came nowhere near completing the trail, every second of it was glorious, and I enjoyed it in between the waves of nausea. How could one not?

*I don't think I've ever gone hiking anywhere where I didn't encounter Germans on the trail. When I was hiking in some of the national parks in Utah, the only other people we ever ran into on the trails were Germans. (All the Americans apparently just drove through the parks in their air-conditioned vehicles.) Anyway, Germans seem to be ubiquitous on hiking trails, and they are always in tip-top shape and speak English perfectly. I am most daunted by them!

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