Monday, November 2, 2015

Point of decision, Trail Crest, 13,700'

Risk and reward

I'm standing at Trail Crest on the path to Mt. Whitney. It's my third time here. My water supply has dwindled to less than a full Nalgene bottle, my legs are pretty cooked, and most importantly, my hiking partner (a friend and fellow athlete) is in no better shape. The hike up from the valley was longer than usual due to the early softening deep snow and a bad night sleep that has left us both with headaches. It's my first time guiding here and I'm now faced with decision to continue 2.8 miles upward or call this the turnaround point. 
5 years prior when I stood here with my brother and another friend, we watched a lone puffy snow cloud approaching from the West. Two miles of hiking later it spit some lightening at us forcing a hasty retreat. We were disappointed to miss the peak but the reward of reaching the highest point in the lower 48 states was very easily decided to not be worth the risk of dying from a lightning strike. 2500' of glissading down the snow chute was an adrenaline fueled blast and we made plans to return. 3 years prior I once again stood here, again with my brother and this time, two friends. After racing the national downhill mountain bike  circuit that year and spending a few nights at 10,000' Cottonwood Camp to the South, I thought it would be an easy climb. Unfortunately my body wasn't in such good shape, but I battled through a mild headache, and some nausea because we were on our time schedule and I was determined to see the view from 14,454'. The weather cooperated, everyone remained positive as I expected, and we hiked successfully to the top. The risk was moderate and the reward great!

So here we are, tired, pushing the plan limits, low on water, and looking at a long hike back down. It isn't my first time toeing the line between risk vs reward and it definitely won't be the last that I have to make a decision greatly effecting health and happiness. These are the times when I need to have the best understanding of myself and my partner. How will our moods change as we push past the comforts of the known? How long will our energy reserves last after the last energy bars hits our stomachs? What are the distance, time and altitude limits of our bodies? How about our bodies after the water possibly runs out? Can we carry each other or affect a rescue, and to what success, if an accident occurs? All of these questions and many more, less potentially threatening, are much easier to understand and answer with confidence when a person can listen and respond to their bodies signals. I find that being an athlete, spending time focusing on my senses in different environments, and sharing information with other like-minded people is invaluable when faced with these situations. 
In this case, my friend and I took stock of and our situation, gave ourselves an additional time limit, minimal time to enjoy the summit view and a rapid hike/slide down to Trail Camp. It worked and we enjoyed a fantastic view of the John Muir Wilderness, Kings Canyon, and the Sierra Crest towering over the Owen's Valley. The descent provided deep potholing, difficulty locating a water source due to the thick ice coverage, and 40+mph wind driven ice crystals...and it was worth it for both of us. 
To be fully transparent, there are many other questions required for big mountain (or short easy day) hikes that you need to answer. Questions concerning gear, nutrition, weather, activity skill level, medical knowledge, prior experience, etc. I am focusing here on decisions that are directly related to how well you know your body and your physical limits. 
If Mt. Whitney, or a similar big goal, isn't on your bucket list you may be your wondering if this post applies to you. It does. There are very few people who have no interest in a health or athletic  goals, even if that means a commitment to walking more each day or doing that long talked of 5K run. No matter what your personal goal or reward is, you can make it more manageable by learning how to read your body. Here are my top five things I suggest to my athletes in order to understand their bodies more thoroughly:  
1.     Stay properly hydrated. A good basic daily recommendation from multiple sources is to drink 6 to 8, 8 ounce glasses of water per day. This of course varies depending on your weight, activity level, and location among other factors. If you are outside for work or play I suggest following the guideline of the American College of Sports Medicine to "..avoid dehydration, active people should drink at least 16-20 ounces of fluid one to two hours before an outdoor activity. After that, you should consume 6-12 ounces of fluid every 10 to 15 minutes that you are outside...When you are finished...another 16-24 ounces (2-3 cups)." If you are going big, you need more fluids. Climbing in the sand dunes on vacation requires little more than the above guidelines, climbing a class 3 scramble up a mountain at 13,000' takes a bit more. Here are a few signs to look for while exercising that can be pointing at being dehydrated: Very fatigued, maybe more than normal. Not hungry, maybe even a bit lightheaded. Flushed skin, even more than normal. Feeling overly hot for the temperature conditions. Dark urine. If things are clear or light colored, keep rolling, if not, stop and hydrate.
2.     Eat healthy foods. To current successful athletes, this is obvious because they feel a decrease in energy and performance with lower quality foods. Many people new to health and fitness activities are not as aware of how much impact the items we ingest have on our daily energy levels and overall health. There are many basic rules to keep it easy but I'll just pass along my top two. First, if you don't recognize and accept all the ingredients, choose something you do. And second, the closer you eat to the organic farm the more good nutrients and less crap (preservatives, pesticides, herbicides, GMO's, binders, fillers, etc.) you will pollute your body with. People who eat healthy have fewer health problems and everyone reading my blog I hope is trying to lead as healthy a life as possible.
3.     Do complete workouts. Get your body ready for the activity by being hydrated and having enough energy. I don't like to eat much before I workout so I will usually eat a small healthy snack or drink a full glass of water mixed with Beachbody's Energy and Endurance formula. Next is a proper warm up. Ditch those ridiculous static stretches you were taught in grade school and use dynamic stretching. You want to warm up your muscles and signal your body that your going to warm up. Static stretches do the exact opposite. Now get your sweat on! If you are not breathing hard, sweating or you can hold an easy conversation during the's not doing you much good. 20 minutes minimum unless you are doing a 10-15 minute high intensity workout (i.e. Box jumps, sprints, etc.) and now do a short stretching session or lighter activity to bring your body back to normal heart rate and breathing. 
4.      Following one and two above, you now know what you are putting in your body and what you are doing with your body, right? If you're anything like me, I doubt it. Time and changing interests can cloud the memory of even the best thinkers. Keeping a basic journal may be the best thing you do to improve your health this year. You choose what goes in it but here are my suggestions: Anything you put in your stomach. Any exercise, from work-related to full on adventure level. Any health related information such as feeling tired, feeling super energetic,feeling depressed, sick or maybe elated. And of course, include specific big and small goals, thoughtful reflections, and any information that you want to remember down the road when all your activities and days start to blur together.
5.      PAUSE. Seriously. So many of us are go, go, go and fully engaged in getting things accomplished in our day to day routines that we fail to pause even briefly to notice our bodies and surroundings. It is imperative to read your body and your bodies reactions to the changing environments. To that end I strongly suggest Yoga, meditation, quiet time alone in many different environments, or whatever allows you to minimize distractions and focus on yourself. Go ahead, be selfish and pay attention to only you. The world can wait and you will be a much better equipped person for having listened. Maybe start by simply putting aside 10 minutes in the early morning or evening to start and update that journal. My big three "me" times are Yoga at my local rock-climbing gym, solo endurance exercise, and either a little time at the beach or in the mountains. Maybe your times include sitting in your car during the daily commute, people watching time between flights, or while partaking in an artistic talent. Whatever gets you in touch with your body is an improvement. Here are a few more suggestions: Foam rolling your muscles, day hikes in as many weather and topographic conditions as possible, tensing and releasing each individual muscle starting in your face and working down, turning off the headphones for today's activity, fully chewing your food and feeling it actually go into your body, and taking the stairs instead of the elevator. 
Reward is something we seek for many reasons including happiness, perceived health level, and challenge. Rewards rarely come without any risk and despite our best preparations, may not able to be obtained. The reward may even be removed or postponed due to factors beyond our control such as accidents, weather and other people involved.  Risk is something we want to be able to manage and hedge our bets on. In order to do so we want to have as much information related to that risk as possible. I hope my post helps you take more responsibility for the risks and therefore the rewards in your own life.