Humbled at 10,000 feet

10/08/2019 - Kim Kapustka

This is part three in a blog series about a backpacking trip I did a few years ago in the Southern Sierra with a group of friends. We’d be out for nine days. On the eighth day, I was humbled and learned the importance of my team.

We’d spent seven days rambling around, doing short hikes from one mountain lake to another. If you read my earlier posts, you’ll remember that we had to change our original aggressive plan that included a lot more mileage and some technical climbing to a trip with shorter hikes and no real climbing because some of my friends were having physical issues. I was annoyed but got over it and was enjoying my time mostly above 10,000 feet.

Late in the afternoon of the seventh day we had a snowball fight as we went through a gentle pass at 11,500 feet. The world was all granite and snow — a stunning mix of grays and blacks and white against a startlingly blue sky. The air was light and warm. A sunny day in late July.

We made a turn and the sky opened up. We were at the highest point for miles. We stopped on a cliff and looked to the west, to lower granite peaks and then rolling hills and, in the distance, hundreds of miles away, a smudge of gray. The Pacific Ocean.

Below us was a bowl. Granite on three sides and a flat plateau. A waterfall coming off the snowmelt plunged at least 700 feet down the cliff-side to a small lake on the floor below. A small stream flowed out of the lake, through boulders and then disappeared off another cliff below.

We followed the trail, snaking down the cliffside to the plateau and set up camp beside the lake. This would be our home for the night. While our kitchen was setup among tall, thick foxtail pines on the west side of the lake, most of us set up our individual camps away from the main campsite. I chose a spot about a 10-minute scramble among huge boulders. I wanted time to myself.

We shared a dinner of pasta with olive oil, pine nuts and piles of parmesan cheese. Afterward, most of us jumped in the lake. It was bone chillingly cold. Like bathing in ice water, which it was. But, no one complained. We all knew the joy of washing a day’s sweat away and then putting on warm clothes—thermal underwear and fleece. In the high country, the daytime temperature can be in the 80s and then drop into the 30s overnight — sometimes even lower.

When I walked out of the lake, the world tilted and then corrected itself. It was a strange feeling, like I’d lost my anchor to the ground, but because it went away quickly, I ignored it. If you read the earlier blog posts, you might remember that I had had the flu the week before. I was tired, but otherwise had recovered just fine. I was the strong one. One of the pack leaders. I chalked up my unhinged feeling to lingering flu symptoms and made my way to my sleeping bag among the boulders. I fell asleep to the sound of a light breeze through the trees and a sky rich with layers of stars.

The next morning, I woke and sat up. The world pitched and spun. I was nauseated. I was confused, but my bladder was full. I crawled out of my sleeping bag into the cold. On hands and knees, I made it behind a boulder to pee. I vomited, which relieved some of the nausea. I crawled back to my bag, where I sat, hoping that the world would right itself. It didn’t. It whirled and pitched, swinging from side to side.

One of my friends walked up. He said good morning and stopped. I tried to focus on him. His shape moved in front of me like a windshield wiper, swinging from one side to the other. I closed my eyes. He asked me if I was okay. I said I was fine, and he walked away. Then he was gone and I so wanted to call him back.

Mild panic set in. I knew that our campsite was to the left. To the right was the stream and the cliff. The night before I’d hike out and looked over. It was at least five hundred feet down. The cliff above and this one were like giant stair steps carved out of granite. If I didn’t stay to the left, I risked plunging off that cliff. I knew it was less than two minutes away at a fast walk. I put my Tevas on over my thick wool socks and then headed to the left, crawling through boulders that flip flopped and bounded. It took me 45 minutes to make it back to the camp site. I crawled in and sat silent against a downed log. My butt in the dirt. No one witnessed my quiet crawl into camp.

I had learned over the past hour that the more still I was, the less the world flip flopped and the more I could control the nausea. I sat quietly while oatmeal bubbled on our camp stove and coffee was served all around. My friends Heidi and Chris sat beside me, talking, while I tried to get a grip on the world.

Then my quiet, observant friend, Frank sat down across from me in the dirt. He was also silent. He tilted from side to side and then righted. He watched my eyes. Then he asked, “how are you doing?”

I explained.

Then consternation. Frank’s an EMT. Heidi’s a doctor and Chris a nurse. The prognosis? An inner ear problem, possibly brought on by the cold of the lake the night before.

Then the, “what do we do?”

We had a satellite phone. Frank wanted to call in a helicopter to take me out. He didn’t think it was safe to allow me to climb down the steep cliff face to the valley floor and our last campsite. I said no. I wanted to walk out. Everyone agreed to wait a few hours to see how I was doing.

At 10AM, everyone circled me. I stood. I could walk, not in a straight line, but I was upright. Frank still wanted to call the helicopter, but I resisted. The group had decided to empty my pack. The “weak” ones who earlier had forced us to change our trip because they had trouble climbing over a steep pass, now carried pieces of my gear. A sleeping bag here. A stuff sack full of clothes there. Then we set out, one huge guy in front of me and one behind. Every time I swayed, or was about to take a misstep, I’d feel him grab my backpack and put me back on the trail (thank you, Joseph, for not letting me pitch off that mountain). A few times I stumbled forward into the pack of the other big guy, Frank. I’d just hold on until I was stable. Down the mountain we went. A trip that usually would take only 30 minutes took about two hours, but we made it. I made it. And, by mid-day I was feeling close to normal. My crew was so proud of me, and I was so grateful to them.

You see, I was always the superstar, physically. I helped other people. I lead the pack. I always wanted to push harder and farther and, despite my first blog post in this series, got frustrated when other people’s limitations held me back. Then came the eighth day and a flip-flopping world.

That night we sat around our campfire listening to coyotes howl. I have never felt such a feeling of communion with friends. Deep gratitude leads to deep connection. I could tell that they were feeling the same—deeply grateful for being able to help me and for my wellbeing.

Why does this matter? What did I learn?

You don’t always have to be the superstar. Sometimes it’s okay to let your team carry you. Everyone has situations and times when they are not at their best. Build or become part of a team that you can trust and then carry each other. Trust each other. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and ask for help when you need it. You and the team will be stronger for it.