Monday, January 15, 2018

I Climbed a Mountain and I Turned Around. Literally.

Greetings on this Martin Luther King Jr Day.

To commemorate, Arizona waived all state park entry fees this whole weekend.

Sadly, that offer didn't apply to me when I visited a state park yesterday, because I'm not yet a documented Arizona resident. Tourists, travelers, and wanderers had to pay full price, so to get resident discounts in the future, I need to renew my AZ drivers license, which requires a legit address and likely a lease or utility bill, which requires renting a place, which requires a job.

Vacation ended and my job search began Jan 1, and I've applied for a few 911 dispatcher openings. One of them required a computer skills test in the same building where firefighter and police applicants take their written and fitness tests. Right before my test, I was waiting in the lobby with five or six beefy young guys, and an older gent who looked about 40-45 came walking in from the back. He'd just finished his firefighter fitness test and was sweating heavily, and his face was kind of purple. He asked where the bathroom was and headed down the hall. Maybe five minutes later one of the younger guys went to use the same bathroom and immediately came out running through the lobby. Then he and the testing staff ran back into the bathroom, and there was a lot of commotion and yelling.

Apparently the older guy had passed out and hit his head and was bleeding. He'd also stopped breathing and barely had a pulse.

The staff dragged the him into the lobby where we'd cleared the floor of chairs, and they began CPR chest pumps (which is really surreal to watch live). By now this Older Guy was even deeper purple and had yellowish froth bubbling from his nose and mouth. One of the staff had 911 on speaker phone, so I got to listen to a real-time 911 call.

The paramedics were there almost instantly, and they quickly got a breathing mask onto the Older Guy, yelled that he had a weak carotid, cut open his shirt, and shocked him with an AED.

C'mon, you know what an AED is.
I used to teach CPR for the Red Cross, and I've used simulator AEDs on mannequins hundreds of times, but I've never done, or seen it done, on a real person in real life. TV medical dramas show the torso jerking upwards when an AED is administered, but in this Older Guy's case, his torso remained flat on the ground and his arms and legs flailed upwards and stiffened before falling back down.  
Once the paramedics got Older Guy's pulse and breathing stabilized, they gave him an IV, rolled him onto a stretcher, and wheeled him out the front door. Apparently that's when he woke up, because we heard him screaming in agony from outside. He probably had a lot of broken ribs, or possibly some other painful medical condition. I'm assuming he'd had a heart attack, but I don't know for sure.

We testing applicants had mostly stayed out of the way against the wall, but once the paramedics were gone, we put the lobby back in order. Then the proctor came and said, "Welp, who wants to take their test?"

Dude, ME!! I was super pumped. Aaron Spelling could not have dreamed up a more tragically perfect intro to an EMT or 911 dispatcher test than someone needing 911 and an ambulance for real because they are actually in the process of dying. The timing was just so, so weird.

But everyone seemed to calm down quickly thereafter, and I passed these initial written tests and am scheduled for the next phase of testing this week. Since it's a government job, the hiring process is long and drawn out, so I plan on delivering pizza in the meantime.

But now that I've witnessed someone relatively close to my age being retrieved from the edge of death, I've been wondering about my own heart health. The incident inspired me to fill out official state Do Not Resuscitate forms and order a medical bracelet alerting people to the existence of my DNR forms. And yes, I have told family and friends of my wishes. I get that most people have something to live for and do want to be revived, and some people are into the whole "life at all costs" thing; I'm not.

I mean, I would welcome my instant death, but I would NOT welcome being revived against my will and me or my family being handed a $100,000 medical bill for my care. 'Cause that's how it is here in the States where medicine is for-profit, doctors are pressured to order lots of unnecessary tests to increase the bill, hospitals charge $100 for a tiny piece of gauze or two plain aspirin, and the leading cause of bankruptcy is medical bills. When I was living in Hawaii, a doctor misdiagnosed my severe cold as AIDS without doing any bloodwork or anything and I was billed $2000 for practically nothing.

I am not even kidding.

15 years and 20+ blood tests later, not surprisingly, I don't have AIDS. I never had AIDS. I've had similarly ridiculous misdiagnoses over the years, so imo the American medical system is full of shit and I don't trust it to do the right thing at all. Doctors are too often in a hurry, they don't care, they don't keep up on major studies that are published, they're very negative and dismissive, they don't ask relevant questions, and their answer to everything is more antibiotics, opioids, and steroids from Big Pharma. That's what you get from a system that profits from illness.

So I'm highly motivated to take care of my health problems myself. And I have the luxury of saying that because I'm young and all my health issues so far have been very minor and not life-threatening. However, that Heart Attack Guy made me realize that wow, I've eaten a LOT of pizza in my life. And I don't mean veggie pizza with tofu cheese. I mean meat lovers' pizza with real cheese and the pepperoni curled into little bowls with crispy edges and a tiny pool of grease in the middle.

God, I fucking love pizza.

And bacon. Lots of bacon. And burgers. And chocolate. Heart attacks are usually 10-20 years in the making, and an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as the saying goes. So should I start taking red rice yeast now...?

I've never been a fan of salad until a few weeks ago when I learned techniques to make a really good one--how to properly mix it, which dark leafy greens go best with which toppings, and how to make simple but excellent dressings at home. (See this and this.) I never thought I'd be caught saying this, but now I crave salads. At least the ones I make myself.

Okay, pizza and dark leafy greens. I can do that.

I also figured I should do more fun physical activities to combat "sitting disease." I'm staying near Superstition Mountain, east of Phoenix, and while attending a didgeridoo performance there recently, I noticed a park map illustrating a trail leading to the top of Mordor.

A growling didge with Superstition Mountain in the background.

The very top is a small plateau called "The Flatiron," so I planned a future trip there.

That trip happened yesterday. I climbed my first mountain yesterday, all by myself. 

Since I'm on a budget (when am I not on a budget?), I didn't buy any special mountain climbing gear. The park pamphlet said that while the trail to Flatiron was steep and dangerous, it did not require rappelling gear and could technically be hiked the whole way. So I made do with a cheap wire-rimmed straw hat, Walmart socks, and pleather knockoff Uggs that were on clearance at DSW for $30, to keep out gravel and sand.

I already owned khaki shorts, a waist bag, and a thin snood to cover my hair, so to all this I added two $5 bottle slings to carry a total of three liters of water with me.

Let me explain why you should not buy these.

I arrived on the trail at 09:30, and the first 1.5 hours through the foothills were flat and easy. The main trail to the top was pretty crowded, and I was surrounded by people almost the entire hike. We were all moving along at a good pace until we hit a very smooth canyon floor slick with dust.

Those people way up there? They're slipping and sliding and fighting not to turn ass over teacup.

And see that hazy triangle off in the distance, rising in the center behind everything? That's Flatiron Summit.

I managed to bear crawl up this slippery slope and come to a crest, and once I stood up, one of my slings whacked against a rock and a full water bottle slipped out the bottom. It bounced down the entire length of the large canyon I'd just climbed, hitting every possible rock on the way down and making a big ruckus. It gained so much speed so quickly that it became a blurred projectile, and at least five people scattered behind me held out their arms, football-style, trying to catch it, but that bottle was on a mission.

"Sorry!" I shouted down the canyon. "I'm sorry! I'll get it on my way down!" Down...down...down, my voice echoed.

It was kind of hilarious, and thankfully I had two more liters on me, but I also realized that if I slipped and fell, my body would do the exact same thing--bounce down the entire length of the mountain, hit every possible rock on the way down, and gain speed to the point where neither person nor prickly pear could possibly catch me. Not so hilarious. And I'm kind of bony, so I wouldn't have much fat to cushion the blows.

After the slippery canyon, the "trail" vanished into a mess of cloven boulders and narrow ledges. That's when I was swarmed from behind by a troop of Boy Scouts in plain clothes (not their uniforms). Some scouts were climbing way ahead, while others lagged behind at the back, which left me in the middle with, you know, the dads. Well, you had the nerdy dads with their eyeglasses and sunscreen and professional walking sticks and aerated hats and expensive shoes specifically for climbing, and their nerdy sons with names like Liam and Byron who were similarly outfitted and spewing geology facts. Then you had the military dads who looked weathered and tanned, wearing battledress pants and desert combat boots, and calling their sons Bud or Buddy. "Where you goin', Buddy? Trail's this way." You can tell the nerdy sons are going to end up in AV Club and become programmers and engineers, and the military sons will join the military or become cops or firefighters.

After a particularly difficult crevasse, one of the nerdy dads said to me, "If a 10-year-old can do it, we can do it!"

In climbing strategy and planning, yes. In flexibility, metabolism, and energy, hell no! I was definitely feeling every one of my 35 years right then, and we weren't even halfway to the top.

Not even halfway up.
I kept up with the Boy Scouts for a bit, but they eventually passed me and moved on. See: 10-year-olds and their bouncing-off-walls energy. It was funny listening to those kids encourage each other with Scout phrases. "You gotta challenge yourself! You gotta test the limits of what you can and cannot do!"

Indeed, challenging myself was the primary reason I chose this activity. It was supposed to be an exercise in pushing myself through something hard, through terror and anxiety and doubt, and not giving up at the first obstacle. I'm not very good at that, and developing persistence is one of my goals for the year.

The easy part of Siphon Draw "Trail."
I've hiked eroded volcanoes and large hills named "mountains" before with no problem, but I never climbed a true mountain until yesterday. Nothing where I was balancing on tiny rock ledges and hiding my panic every moment for hours, where I had to pep-talk myself inch by inch, or where I had to rest every few minutes not due to physical fatigue, but to calm my nerves and steady my breathing to prevent a panic attack. I've never had a panic attack before, and I certainly didn't want my first one right then. The fact that red medical helicopters were periodically buzzing overhead was not helping.

Like I said earlier, I would welcome instant death any time. I wasn't afraid of that. What I was of afraid of was tumbling into a ravine and breaking my neck and becoming a quadriplegic, or getting a compound fracture and being nibbled on by rats or vultures until I could be airlifted out and then needing numerous surgeries and being slapped with enormous medical bills that I could never hope to pay off in my lifetime and having to declare bankruptcy.

THIS is what I was afraid of:

Something like what happened to basketball player Kevin Ware. Or getting pinned under a boulder like climber Aron Ralston and having to slowly hack my own arm off.

So I rested frequently to gain my composure and not puke from fear. And for the first time, I understood what it means to be "stuck" in climbing terms. For those who don't know, when you're ascending a mountain, you can only see the next few ledges in front of you, and not the overall path where you're headed. You're forced to just take one single ledge at a time, then another, then another. You scoot and wiggle and crawl up the next ledge, with a gaping abyss below, only to realize that there are no more footings or grips to move any further, and you can't go down the same way you came up without performing an even more dangerous stunt like sliding backwards on your belly (and probably tumbling off an entire rock face) or jumping a great distance (and probably missing and breaking your back).

But then I saw the really experienced climbers practically skipping up and down the mountain at 3-4x my speed. Sometimes I stopped to wait and see how everyone else was gripping through the tricky parts, which was helpful. But as I neared the top, there were fewer and fewer hikers, and longer and longer periods that I had to wait under the guise of "resting" to observe how others were maneuvering through these precarious passages so I could copy them.

If I had known the trail was that dangerous, I would have put effort into finding someone to go with. Yes, the park pamphlet did say the trail was steep and dangerous, but with trivial warnings on everything these days, it's hard to tell which warnings are real and which are just there to prevent frivolous lawsuits. Like when you rent an easy dance instruction workout video from the library or something, and the entire back cover is printed with warnings: "Consult a physician before beginning this or any other workout regimen!! This video is for entertainment purposes only!! It is not intended to treat or cure any disease!! These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration!! This item contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer!!"

So honestly I wasn't sure if the park pamphlet was a warning to healthy people or a warning to 90-year-old diabetics in wheelchairs. Clearly the experienced climbers there did find it easy or only slightly challenging. Mountain goats would have thought it a cakewalk.

By 14:00 I was thisclose to the top of The Flatiron. It was right in front of me. The experienced people coming down were saying it was only 20 minutes more. Which at my turtle pace, was about another hour. All I had to do was scale that vertical 12' wall, they said, the one with no footings or grips, and I'd be on The Iron.

The vertical 12' wall?? 

Gee, I forgot my rope made of bedsheets tied together. WTF.

Another red medical helicopter roared overhead, close and loud, since we were so near the top. I was right around 4700 feet, and the summit was 4800. Sunset would come at 17:40. I looked at my $30 shoes and thought about my water forcefully hurtling through the canyon. I looked out at the houses, tiny dots in a haze on the horizon. I already had such a long, long way to go back down--hours and hours. Could I afford to tack on an extra two hours to make it fully to the top and back, or would I end up lost in the mountains after dark? I'd wanted to turn back 100 times during the ascent and somehow pushed myself this far. Why not keep going? Did I have time to keep going?

I saw my reflection in the dust-covered hills, til the landslide brought me down.
I hadn't gone to the bathroom in almost five hours, and there certainly wouldn't be anywhere to discreetly pop a squat on a plateau full of lunching climbers. (And yes, I've tried a GoGirl before and hated it--it was way too floppy to make a tight seal without standing funny and making it totally obvious.)

I thought about the medical helicopters and the American "health care" system, and I looked at my scraped knees and dusty hands pricked from thorns, and I was so thankful I'd come this far without any real injuries. Could I make it several more hours back down without injuries? If I did sustain a bad fall, I knew everyone would be shaking their heads about how stupid I was for climbing so high and far all alone without good gear. What an idiot. Doesn't she know she's supposed to gradually build up to this?

I sat there, so close to the top, staring into the distance, trying to calm my nerves and my knotted stomach. I positively stunk of fear. I had the tangy fear stench. I could smell it. And maybe I was green. Or purple. Or cross-eyed. I don't know.

"Are you okay?" a hiker asked as they passed me.

"Yep, just taking in the view."

"It's a 360 view at the top!" they chirped, and continued skipping up the vertical wall.

Oh, shut up.

I scooted down the rock I was on, and began the descent.

Oh my god, that was such a relief. My entrails instantly unknotted and settled themselves. It was mentally a lot easier going down, because I could see the big picture of where I was going and wasn't taking wrong turns like I did going up.

One thing I didn't expect was the visual fatigue of concentrating on rocks for almost eight hours straight. Sure, I'd look out at the horizon each time I rested, but especially going down, my eyes just got so tired and bored from staring at the same shapes and colors for hours on end. Safety depended on me staring at rocks. And more rocks. And more rocks. I wondered how expert climbers put up with staring at rocks for such long treks. I could feel my optic nerves getting duller and duller. Were the views worth it? Eh, not really. They were okay, but nothing I haven't seen before out of the window of an airplane.

I never did find that stupid bottle on the way down. It's lost to the wilderness. Or maybe someone a few miles down the trail did catch one liter of Evian falling from the sky and were like, "Hey, the gods sent me some water in the desert! #blessed!"

Basically I crab-crawled all the way down to the basin, and from there I hobbled through the foothills for another 1.5 hours because my quads were melting. By some miracle of the universe, I wobbled and lurched to my car without injuries just 20 minutes before sundown. My legs were so exhausted that I couldn't support my body weight anymore without intentionally locking my knees backward with each step. I probably looked very drunk.

I'm glad I didn't go to the very top. I certainly wouldn't have made it back before dark, and I wouldn't have had the strength to walk that last bit through the foothills. I was amazed I made it as far as I did with zero climbing experience. With nothing but a cheap hat, cheap shoes, some water, a few granola bars, a jacket, and a phone, I climbed ~2700' up and 2700' back down my first try, without having to be airlifted out. I consider that a win. A good-enough win.

And, as I stumbled to the restroom, got some food, went home, showered, took two ibuprofen, and went straight to bed, I've never been so happy to see shapes and colors other than gray rocks. Yellow lines on the road, a neon bar sign, a fuchsia shampoo bottle. All so beautiful.

I'm glad I climbed the mountain though, because now I know for sure to put the kibosh on any future social invites that involve mountain climbing. How about a dance video from the library instead?