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The difference a day makes

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Keli J. Morgan
  • 349th Aeromedical Staging Squadron
Editor's note: Senior Airman Keli J. Morgan has two very different passions. One is for his devotion to his duty as a medic for the 349th Aeromedical Staging Squadron at Travis Air Force Base. The other is mountain climbing, and not in a small way.

In the fall of 2013, I reached the summit of Mount Whitney for the second time. As a medic, human physiology is something I've trained to analyze. My two trips up Mt. Whitney were very different in physiological terms. I think my observations, combined with skills and resiliency I learned in the Air Force, have made me a better, and smarter, climber.

Mt. Whitney, in the Inyo National Forest 210 miles southeast of Yosemite National Park, is the tallest mountain in the continental United States at 14,505 feet. Only 30 percent of summit attempts are successful. The trail is 22-miles long, covering 6,145 vertical feet. Access to the trail requires a permit and special equipment (like ice crampons, and bear boxes). Records indicate the first climber to reach the top of Whitney did so in 1873. Since then, scores of climbers have died pursuing the summit. The mountain claimed the life of a man who fell more than 200 feet to his death three weeks before my second visit.

In 2011, I trekked up and down the mountain in one day. It's a recommended two day climb, so my one day was considerably more difficult. At 13,500 feet, my respiration rate jumped to 25 breaths per minute (12-20 is the normal range), and my heart was pounding at over 160 beats per minute (which is comparable to Felix Baumgartner's heart rate during his record breaking skydive). My hands were swollen, I had a headache, my lips turned purple, and I could only take three steps before feeling exhausted. I was clearly suffering from Acute Mountain Sickness, caused by low air pressure coupled with low oxygen levels.

Upon reaching the summit I felt a sense of accomplishment, especially after suffering to get there. I shoveled in some lunch and started my descent. The AMS forced me to cut my time at the summit short, which was frustrating. After dropping approximately 8,000 feet below the summit, the sickness diminished, but my headache persisted for the rest of the day.

With the misery the altitude sickness brings, I resolved to make my 2013 trip to conquer Mt. Whitney a two-day affair.

My climbing group consisted of experienced outdoorsmen from California, Montana, Washington state and Texas. We carried about 45-pound packs, and brought bio monitoring equipment to track our physical performance throughout the climb.

As the group's medic, I would pace the hike. We set off before sunrise, and were able to reach basecamp later that evening, elevation about 11,000 feet, well above the tree line. After a restless nights sleep, the group struck out at 9 a.m., zigzagging up the 99 switchbacks that lay between basecamp and the trail crest marker at 13,500 feet. From there, we reached the summit just after 12 p.m.

The view at the top is amazing. Except for a stone building that seems totally out of place, it is a pristine natural world. The building, a circa 1905 research outpost, has an official Smithsonian register log for climbers to sign. Sweeping views of the Sierra Nevada Mountains provide a spectacular backdrop for a picnic.

As we lunched, I noted the physical and mental condition of my compatriots. I saw nothing abnormal, no signs of hypoxia, edema or altered respiratory rates. The test: the night before, I had referred to Joint Special Operations Command during a conversation.

A couple of people didn't know what JSOC stood for and I told them. On the summit, I asked them if they remembered the acronym and they did. No one had any of AMS, including me.

Our descent was easy and fast. My group of four was able to break camp and hike out in time to grab dinner in the town of Lone Pine. Sitting around our table, we looked at the biometric data from the climb.

On the way up the mountain, our average speed was 3.2 mph, my average heart rate was 131, and I burned more than 11,000 calories. Our pace down was faster than going up, but my average heart rate was identical. The group as a whole reported similar values.

Except for sore muscles and achy shoulders, I suffered no adverse reactions to the climb. Spending just one night at altitude had made all the difference. It took less than 12 hours for my body to acclimate to an environment with only .6 the amount of oxygen found at sea level. In fact, I adjusted so well I found it hard to believe this same majestic mountain dealt me such misery in 2011. What a difference a day makes.