Friday, September 30, 2011

Lessons from the Mountain (Longs Peak, The Sequel)

I climbed Longs Peak a couple years ago and posted a bit about it here. I went back up with my friends Zach and Nate earlier this month. Neither had done it before but Zach rides his bike to work everyday and Nate is a rock climber, so I figured they'd keep pushing me up the mountain. This climb was more difficult in some ways and less difficult in other ways compared to last time.

More difficult: I was seriously sleep deprived this time. Working on London time from Boulder, and working a few too many hours each day, I was barely sleeping the two weeks before this climb. But I was excited and determined to climb. I packed the right energy foods and electrolytes. I was all but physically prepared for a 5,100 foot elevation gain and scrambling up steep boulders at altitudes above 12,000 feet. (Longs is 14,259 ft. and the highest point in RMNP). Unlike last time, the altitude and sleep deprivation made me almost pass out in exhaustion/exersion at one point on the way back down from the summit. At one point, I stopped to sit down, and when I would blink, I would fall asleep. I couldn't sit and blink without the blink turning into unconsciousness. That was kind of concerning for safety reasons and the ensuing schlep back down was an exercise in mind over matter.
Also, there was some slippery/icy/snowing conditions on some of the already very tough scrambles for about a thousand vertical feet below the summit.

Less difficult: The weather at the keyhole was relatively mild and pleasant, but because we were climbing later in year, it was cold all the way up and down. I didn't take my fleece off the entire climb, no matter how hard I was hoofing it. Also, I knew where I was going and what I was doing this time, so my preparation made for a better and quicker climb. I think I was in better climbing shape this time too. But that was pretty much cancelled out by not starting with enough rest.
The thing that blows me away about this hike/climb is how long it takes to get back down. Our descent was almost as long as our ascent, which can be baffling, considering how tough the ascent can feel. I think it's slow coming down for two reasons:

1) The same scrambling that is tough and dangerous on the way up is tough and dangerous on the way down. "Slip and die" situations are just as much "slip and die" going down as they are going up. The ice and snow don't help to speed things up coming down.
2) We were energetic and stoked going up, so we made good time, even if I was backed up on 2 weeks of sleep. By the I was 9 hours into a grueling day and my only fuel was the 500 or so calories I could stomach (but lots of water, don't worry), I was reminded of the true clinical definition of exhaustion.
The lessons a climb like this teaches / reminds me:

Some things need to be done, not despite them being incredibly difficult but because they are incredibly difficult. You learn things about your own abilities on days like this. Especially when you start with the physical handicap with which I have to admit I started with, if I'm being honest about how stupid my experiment in sleep deprivation was. I've done this and other difficult climbs before and the life lessons and principles don't ever get diluted. Conquering a peak like this leaves you exhausted, but confident in other challenges in life. It proves that you can do things that others can not (or will not). Let that carry over to your personal and professional life, attack challenges smartly and with the tenacity of a 14th century Scottish warrior and you can do most anything. But starts and stops with the will.

Physical preparation is important, but mental strength conquers all.
All things are relative. I climbed the standard full Half Dome trail (in Yosemite) a couple weeks before this climb. Some of my party on that hike didn't make it to the top. I felt great and made it to the Half Dome summit well before the rest of my party. That's a 14+ mile round trip hike with a 4,483 f.t elevation gain rising from about 4,000 feet to 8,483 feet, then back down again, of course. Except for the cable climb at the end, Half Dome is pretty much just a giant, fair weather StairMaster walk with incredible vistas all the way. No real adverse high elevation effects.

Longs Peak on the other hand starts at a trail head elevation above where Half Dome tops out. Longs Peak is also a 14 mile round trip day, and it gains 5,100 vertical feet, only about 600 more vertical feet than Half Dome, but the similarities stop there. Elevation makes a huge difference (to most mortals with normal lungs, hearts and brains affected by altitude). Also, the nature of the largely trail-less scramble up Longs' Keyhole route makes for a more strenuous experience on top of the effects of altitude. Longs Peak's high altitude struggle makes Half Dome feel like a lovely stroll through the Garden of Eden (which it is, by the way, and that's what's great about it).

Here's the elevation profile for Half Dome (round trip):

And here's the elevation profile for Longs Peak (just from the trailhead to the summit (notice the start and summit elevation difference):

Wilderness if good for the soul. 'Nuff said.

In conclusion:

"Whether you think you can, or you think you can't - you're right." Henry Ford
My mom read me The Little Engine That Could a lot when I was a little boy. Thanks, mom.

Now, go climb a rock.

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