A Taste of Summit Fever

A Taste of Summit Fever

Cactus to Clouds is one of those rare hikes that appears as clickbait on both Backpacker Magazine and Buzzfeed internet type lists as the hike with the most continuous elevation gain in the United States packing in a whopping 10,000 vertical feet of gain in 15 miles (one way).  A journey less than a thousand feet short of the elevation gain from base camp to the peak of Everest.  We were 100 vertical feet from the summit of Mt. Jacinto when I sat down and pulled out my traditional Snickers bar and started to gnaw on the frozen lump.

A few months earlier I’d been sitting on the summit block of Sawtooth Peak in the Mineral King valley of Sequoia National Park, this time squeezing a completely melted Snickers bar out of its plastic wrapper into my mouth.  Coming from sea level to the 12,348ft peak left me with a racing heart and ragged breath that was frustratingly slowing down the speed with which I was able to snarf down my summit snack – but what I was feeling was something more than just the effects of physical exertion.  

I feel a palpable change in my body when a trail snakes its way through ever shorter and increasingly scraggly trees to exposed bedrock slabs and loose talus fields.  The sun feels different on my skin above treeline. The rocks exert a magnetic attraction that draws me up and up and up until there is no more up to be had. This attraction manifests itself in a relentless desire to ascend faster; to embrace the two-steps up and one step-back reality of a loose scree field with a pace that feels like a runaway metronome and to jump from boulder to boulder pulling, climbing, and wedging my body between the sun warmed rocks.  I was with my girlfriend of the time on a weekend trip early in the school year. We had been undeterred by the lack of enthusiasm in our normal adventure crew and didn’t want to waste an available weekend when there was time for an adventure.

Sawtooth Peak is a true sandpile of a mountain, especially at it base, and as we began to climb its loose flank I could feel my internal metronome increasing.  A little tricky route finding between alpine lakes had deposited us at the base of the giant sand hill cursed in all of the trip reports I had read. The mountain grabbed me fast and hiking quickly gave way to hands on my knees powering up the lower slope.  Kicking feet into the loose soil as if it was a snowfield, I crested the ridgeline and the sand quickly gave way to small car sized boulders haphazardly stacked upon one another all the way up to to the slanted summit block that poked itself proudly into the clear blue sky.  

Summit fever had me in its grasp and I was fully submitting to it without even realizing what that meant. I was pulling myself up through the small rock chimneys, leaping across gaps, scrambling further and higher as fast as I could move.  Heart racing and blood pumping, I had nothing on my mind but the feel of rock – blistering hot on the exposed faces and icy cold in the cracks – and the knowledge that I was quickly gaining elevation. My internal sense of the passage of time becomes grotesquely twisted at times like this and what felt to me like only a few minutes was likely closer to half an hour or even longer. Two hands grasping the corner of the summit block, I plastered my feet on its angled face and swung my body around. Soon I was perched on the summit block with my head and camera being the tallest point on the mountain.  

Running out of vertical terrain stops my internal metronome in its tracks; with nothing more above me the electricity of the rocks is flipped off with a jolt. Like an electromagnetic that loses its current, I no longer feel like I am being dragged upward. It was a sudden and frightening realization that occurred mid way through taking a panorama of the Sierras with my camera; I had given myself so fully to Summit Fever that the whereabouts of my girlfriend were unknown.  A capable athlete in her own right, she regularly out climbed me in the gym and woke like clockwork at six to train for triathlons while I slept in, but with less experience on talus and boulders I had left her far below. Scrambling down as fast as possibly could, a sinking feeling of guilt and remorse already heavy in my gut, I soon spied her sitting on a flat rock with her back toward the summit.  Alone, unsure of the route to the summit, worn down from the elevation, with me out of sight and sound – she was more than understandably scared and frightened as I sat down next her.

Hiking back down to our car from Sawtooth was a largely silent affair with plenty of time for reflection and analysis of what I had let happen. I had deeply scared myself with how clouded my mental state had become as I had succumb to Summit Fever throwing risk analysis, group safety, and partner responsibility – including relationship responsibility – to the wind without even realizing what I was doing.  Combined with the time warping that often strikes during physical exertion, especially at higher elevations, I had allowed my egotistic desire to be on the summit to dominate and was lucky to have escaped with only emotional injuries from the trip.   

Back on Mt. Jacinto, with the summit in sight, I once again sat down next to her and watched the rest of our group scramble up and over toward the boulder choked summit. I stayed seated. Choosing not to summit was a decision I had made in the days prior to leaving for the trip. For me, it was not an attempt at righting the wrong I had committed, nor an act of self-sacrifice or repentance. Not summiting Mt. Jacinto was my attempt at making myself realize both how much the summit feels like it matters and at the same time how little the summit truly matters.

Here I was, a hundred feet below the summit.  Clear weather.  Headlamps ready in our backpacks.  Plenty of energy bars and water left for the hike down.  No elevation sickness.  Strong legs and energy to spare. The summit called out to me, its magnetic pull having only grown stronger during the hours and hours of hiking.  It was minutes away – my friends would probably be back before I could gnaw through my snickers bar.  To say no to a summit that is in perfect condition with a fully capable group was my way of making myself confront how strongly I am drawn to the mountains.  It forced my to reckon with my irrational desire to stand on top of tall piles of rocks, and the emotions that result from not doing this.    

To say no to a summit for no other reason than to practice what this feels like is something I recommend to anyone who has experienced a taste of Summit Fever.  Find a mountain, climb nearly all of it until you get within sight of the summit and then simply turn around.  Maybe other hikers will even be on the summit. It will suck.  You will not have a summit photo, you will not get to see the USGS elevation marker, your hand will not sign a summit register.  Hopefully it will be a bit of an emotional roller coaster.  You’ll take one last glance at the summit and then turn 180 degrees and head for the trailhead. And on the next mountain when you find that the bergschrund is crumbling, or the weather brewing, or the terrain more technical than you are prepared for, or a friend is suffering; you’ll already have an experience of turning around without any of these risk factors. I can’t guarantee a purposeful non-summit trip will make you a better at risk evaluation or group management, but hopefully it will let you recognize the signs of Summit Fever and the effects it has on your emotions and decision making.   

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