On an ambitious weeks-long ramble with a new boyfriend, a climber becomes mysteriously ill. Her rescue only begins another adventure.
By Leonie Sherman
How do you explain to the cutest, most awesome climber boy that you can’t date him because you are more in love with a mountain range than you can ever hope to be with a human?
My first date with Adam was four days of kayaking around Lake Tahoe and before we even kissed I was already breaking up with him.
“I really like you,” I mumbled. “But I have this dream of mountain-climbing from way south in the Sierra to northern Yosemite.
“I did Roper’s high route three summers ago,” I continued as Adam gave me a perplexed look, “and I’ve been riffing off of it ever since, climbing sketchier and sketchier stuff, making up my own way. This summer I want to spend like six or seven weeks at it. I‘ll be gone all of August and September. I need to stay focused on that and don’t really want to date anyone unless they want to come along.”
Adam’s response was swift.
“Are you kidding me? You’re my dream girl! I‘m in. Where should we start?”
And just like that our second date was set.
Seven weeks later Adam and I left Onion Valley intending to through-mountaineer clear to Twin Lakes in northern Yosemite. During our first week we hoped to set up a base camp in Sixty Lakes Basin, climb Mt. Clarence King and Mt. Cotter, head over to Gardiner Basin and climb Mt. Gardiner before heading out Bubb’s Creek to pick up a resupply at Road’s End.
We knew the first day would be a hump so set to it and found ourselves cruising over Kearsarge Pass around 10 or 11 a.m., cursing our fierce loads, which included a stuffed penguin, a climbing rope, an alpine rack, fishing gear and a baby banjo.
Grumbling about the baby banjo turned audible and a fellow we met along the trail informed us there was a man with a full-sized banjo picking away on top of Glen Pass. We intercepted him about a mile below the pass and sat down to teach each other some tunes.
Imagine our surprise when another man strolled along five minutes later with a baby Taylor guitar! Thus ensued an impromptu trailside jam session that lasted almost two hours. A few hikers shook their heads and kept right on walking, but most stopped to watch in stunned silence as we pulled out tune after tune. I’m a shy and terrible musician, but everything sounds good above 10,000 feet, and some of our accumulated audience asked for CDs.
This delay cost us a little in terms of ground gained so we didn’t make it to Sixty Lakes Basin that evening and had to content ourselves with some random tarn over Glen Pass and in the direction of Sixty Lakes Basin. A glorious sun set over Painted Lady, Dragon Peak and Mt. Gould had us swearing to return next summer to do more climbing.
Cruising into Sixty Lakes Basin the next day was not very strenuous but we figured we probably would not make it up Clarence King that day, and Fin Dome beckoned across the valley. So we dropped our packs, shoved some energy bars in our pockets, got out our gear and rambled over to the base.
Old school 4th class meant about one pitch of 5th-class and two pitches of roped climbing for me, the junior member of our team. David Brower, who put up the first ascent of the route we did in big leather boots, is a badass. The rock was clean and solid, the climbing interesting and fun.
The summit register revealed maybe three parties in the past two years. We brought along our penguin, Penny, and added a game to our Sierra peak backgammon tournament (I won, taking a 3-2 lead for 2011).
The down climb was burly, with true 4th class exposed moves. We straggled back to our packs, and moved to a better set-up for Clarence King the next day.
I woke early and started to feel crappy, but the allure of Mt. Clarence King was overwhelming so we packed a few things and started rambling.
Somehow we missed our chance to get up on the East Ridge and decided to do Bolton Brown’s FA instead. That guy is a badass as well! Cool 3rd-class ledge system across an improbable face and then a sandy slog up to the last 100-200 feet of climbing.
By the time we got to the summit register (empty) I was too worked to even consider the final summit block which Adam scrambled up mumbling to himself. Nevertheless, I did win the contentious summit backgammon game, bringing me to a 4-2 lead.
Two raps down and a couple of hours of wandering over polished slabs, through alpine meadows brought us back to camp where I proceeded to feel truly terrible. I put on all my clothes — wool, capilene, down sweater, puff jacket — got into my 5-degree sleeping bag, and proceeded to shiver the night away.
Adam insisted I was just tired, made dinner and turned in without too much sympathy.
The next day I was unable to eat and alternated between shivering and sweating, complaining of a raging headache. Adam continued to believe I was only exhausted, hung out with me most of the day and caught us some tasty invasive species (rainbow trout) for dinner.
The next morning I felt no better but managed to pack up my gear and stumble about half a mile down before collapsing in a meadow, shivering, fully clothed, in the noon sun. Adam checked my vitals and they sucked. So he set up the tarp for shade, left me some food and water in and ran off to Rae Lakes to find a ranger.
Three and a half hours later, Adam
returned, with our savior Dario, ranger extraordinaire. I was running a 102 fever, my blood pressure was 90 over 50, pulse rate 120 and respiration 24.
Dario looked at Adam, nodded, and in unison they both said, “Evacuation.”
A National Park Service helicopter landed in the tiny meadow in front of one of those Sixty Lakes only an hour later. Lucky for us Adam knew one of the chopper crew and they agreed to take him along instead of making him hike out and leaving me to die alone in Bishop.
They flew us 40 miles along the crest, pointing out bighorn sheep along the way. Even in my delirium I was able to enjoy the view. And 20 minutes later we were at the Bishop airport, where we were greeted by an ambulance that took us to Northern Inyo Hospital.
Ahhh, the soothing atmosphere of emergency room-fluorescent lights, screaming infants, mysterious machines having digital hysterics.
The ER doctor gave me a shot of dilaudid, threw around the words “lymphoma” and “leukemia,” concluded it was probably flu, and released me on foot to spend a bewildered night at the Trees Motel.
For the next ten days, I lay in a pool of my own sweat, moaning in agony and only dimly aware of a world beyond my suffering. We saw a doctor three times, but he kept telling me to go home and ride it out. Finally, 13 days after my initial attack, with my fever at 102.6, and me 11 pounds lighter, Adam drove us home to Santa Cruz.
As soon as the Urgent Care nurse checked my vitals — 103 fever, 80 over 38 blood pressure — she made me lie down, retrieved the doctor, and finally someone took my illness seriously.
Within two hours they did a CT scan, took a spinal tap, and sent me to the hospital, where I passed two semiconscious days hooked up to bleating machines, poked and prodded by nurses, all of which probably saved my life.
On the third day, a new doctor walked in and restored some of my vitality with a simple prescription.
After I had described my nausea and headache and concern over not having eaten in four days, my soft-spoken doctor cleared his throat.
“Would you be offended if I prescribed a pill that, um, mimics the effects of marijuana? It would help with your nausea.”
Thus, I was introduced to Marinol, synthetic THC, which stabilized my blood pressure, tamed my nausea and made me giggle like an 8th grader at a prom.
My doctors believe I have tick-borne relapsing fever, with a side dish of meningitis, all of which matches my symptoms, is geographically consistent with what I’ve been up to (I was in the High Sierra for three weeks or so before I got sick), and necessitates 14 days of intravenous antibiotics.
No matter who you are, an illness of this magnitude can really only be handled by mom. Mine flew out from New England to take care of me.
Before they discharged me from the hospital, my doctors came in for a final consultation. One of them told me I could return to a normal activity level when I got home, but my mom explained that I would be in a climbing harness the next day. The doctor looked alarmed.
“OK,” she said, taking a deep breath. “Most of my patients I need to encourage them to get exercise, but, for you, what I’m going to say is, you need to go home and watch, like, 20 movies.”
The other doctor prescribed 5 mg of Marinol three times a day, plus Percocet (acetaminophen and oxycodone) as needed for the pain. In other words, my doctor’s orders were to stay stoned and watch movies.
As soon as I got home Adam wrestled me to the couch.
“I know how hard it is for you to hold still, so I’ve already decided which knot I‘m going to use to tie you down,” he told me with a grin. “Clove hitch. The harder you struggle, the tighter it gets.”
So recovery would be a bitch, if it weren’t for my incredible friends, concerned neighbors, loving mother, extraordinary boyfriend and Netflix.
Three days later his snarky ex-girlfriend called to warn him that my illness is sexually transmittable (it’s not) and he should exercise caution. I guess jealousy is sexually transmittable as well.
I’m dreaming about getting back to the East Side for a week-long trip at the end of September. I work hard at being positive and learning from life, but a month of bed-rest during prime Sierra season has me somewhat bitter. Until I turn over every morning and see my sweetie smiling at me in his sleep.
Two months ago, I thought Adam was my hot young rope gun and maybe not much more. I may not have gotten my dream Sierra trip, but I got a committed partner, and there’s always next year. We’re already scheming about backcountry ski tours and a climbing trip to Bolivia next June.
Leonie Sherman specializes in mild mountaineering and misadventure. She learned most of her climbing skills from tree-sitting and banner hanging. She has rambled and climbed from southeast Alaska to Southeast Asia and now devotes five months a year to exploring the wonders of the High Sierra.