Pacific Crest Tales: Elevation, elevation, elevation

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Part of a series of Pacific Crest Trail Stories.


The Mysterious Stroke

Blisters and bad knees aren’t the only ailments that can befall thru hikers on their journey to Canada.

These little buggers will make your life hell.

Pinky blisters are pretty common among thru hikers. That doesn’t make them any more bearable.

We played trail leapfrog with one hiker in our pack, a thirty-something we’ll call Mitch.

Before leaving the trail angels Ziggy and the Bear’s (mile 211) house, we ran into Mitch again, as we often did for the first few hundred miles. He was glued to his chair, a bit out of it and complained of feeling dizzy all day, with no headache or nausea.

Was he drinking water, we asked. He showed us the cup of water he was holding.
What about salt, I questioned. He’d had a salty meal for lunch.

Reaching the end of our medical expertise and time limit, we said goodbye and headed out to the trail.

Less than a week later, as we relaxed in one of the living areas of our hostel in Big Bear (mile 266), in walks Mitch, looking certainly perkier but with a strange tale. He’d just hitched in to Big Bear from Cabazon, after spending several days resting in and out of the hospital.

“I had all the signs of a stroke,” he said. “It’s better now, but this whole side of my body was weak and unresponsive. I’m finally getting my grip back in the one hand.” The hospital tested for stroke in light of the symptoms but found nothing.

“What did they think it was?” we asked.

“They don’t know. There’s nothing in my brain that looks like it was a stroke, but they don’t know what else it could be. It’s possible it’s because of the altitude.”

It was true, before descending into Cabazon and Whitewater to get to Ziggy and the Bear’s, the trail had climbed to some of the highest elevation yet, including San Jacinto at almost 11,000 feet. But I remember seeing Mitch that day, and he didn’t take the side trail up to San Jacinto, and he looked to be doing fine then, that night and the next morning.

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It’s hard to say how your body will react to the altitude; everybody is different. Here, Indiana and I rest at the top of Mount Baden-Powell.

Altitude sickness is one of the more common ailments that can affect thru hikers, especially in the Sierras, where the elevation changes are frequently fast and quite drastic. Symptoms are usually shortness of breath and windedness at first, and often fade with acclimatization or can worsen depending on the individual.

Stroke symptoms however, seem highly unusual and severe, especially given the gradual pace of our ascent and descent. You can never tell how the trail and its environments will affect you, and ailments and illnesses beyond the standard aches and pains are rare but do happen. What’s more, they don’t seem to pick on just one type of hiker- it can happen to anyone.

We haven’t seen Mitch since Big Bear but hope that, wherever he is, he’s ok.

A Tasty Treat at 10,000 feet

Thru hikers get a preview of the Sierras on the trail out of Idyllwild. The path is a steep, winding ascent through an alpine-like forest and includes an optional excursion up to the highest elevation on the trail yet- San Jacinto, at almost 11,000 feet. I insisted we climb it.

San Jacinto from about 25 trail miles away. It's one of the tallest peaks and can be seen for miles around.

San Jacinto from about 25 trail miles away. It’s one of the tallest peaks and can be seen for miles around.

The climb to San Jacinto was a personal triumph for me. Not only did I have zero asthma symptoms or problems breathing in the sharp increase in elevation, but Indiana was slightly hungover, and it was the first time I encouraged him through difficult trail, instead of the other way around.

Indiana was encouraged at the prospect of a vaguely disturbing snack he would award himself with at the end of the hike: mini Snickers bars and half a block of cream cheese wrapped in a tortilla. He’d seen something similar on a PCT blog before leaving for the trail and had been eagerly anticipating it ever since. It was a bizarre combination, yes, but you have to take into account that he still has the culinary palate of a college student.

The hike to the peak was about 3.1 miles and 1,900 foot elevation gain and the side trail to the top of San Jacinto was hard going. Obviously incredibly steep, but also covered with huge granite rocks that often required clambering over with hands. I was astounded that, when we finally reached the top, almost 5 hours had passed since we began the hike that morning.

5 hours later, we made it!

5 hours later, we made it!

We stashed our packs behind some large rocks, grabbed the cream cheese, Snickers and tortillas and headed up the pile of rocks that was the peak.

After taking in the views at the top, we settled on some sit-able rocks with a group of men who looked to be in their 60s and 70s. They gave us props for hiking the trail, cast some curmudgeonly glances at other day hikers and watched with amusement as we made our bizarre, celebratory snack.

Behold, the mythical Snickers and cream cheese burrito. Only found at high altitudes in Southern California.

Behold, the mythical Snickers and cream cheese burrito. Only found at high altitudes in Southern California.

The snack itself wasn’t that bad. Interestingly, Snickers and cream cheese together taste like what I imagine room temperature, but unmelted ice cream would taste like.

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