A Day on the Incredible Hulk
Surviving an epic in the mountains – By Walker Emerson
Shivering in the sun on a granite cliff I watch my yellow puke drip down the sparkling rock.
Pieces of oats and a brown paste streaked with melted chocolate chips stain the ledge at my feet. I’m embarrassed. Amy and I are climbing for the first time together. The route is steep and I’m out of sight for the time being. I take up the rope as she approaches. My head feels thick with a sludge. This was supposed to be an easy fun day!…. I accept the situation.
We had crossed an invisible ceiling and were paying dearly for it. Eleven thousand feet above the sea and I was experiencing altitude sickness.
Amy and I had started the day like any other weekend adventure; fatigued from the long drive and the brutal 5:30 am start. Packs stuffed full of cams, rope and exuberance we trotted down the trail in the early light towards the great Incredible Hulk.
A thousand foot small wall in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, with pitch after pitch of continues train track cracks that follow cookie cutter corners to the sky. A four and half mile hike gaining three thousand feet gets you to the base of the wall at just about ten thousand feet. We were feeling good, both having spent numerous prior weekends high in the Sierras; the hike felt casual.
As we approach the wall we see a group of people swarming around the start of the most popular route and our objective – Positive Vibrations. It is now nine am and the route is eight pitches long. Every one seems fit and fast, no problem. Since we arrived last, we’re the last to climb. Two bearded YOSAR fellows from Yosemite are ahead of us and a strong party of young guns lead the way.
Amy and I move quickly, she takes a few leads and everyone is grooving.
As the day goes on the sun intensifies and the cracks become slimy. But the climbing is beautiful and I am thoroughly enjoying it. The vibes are really positive.
I pull onto a sloping ledge and look up at the long final pitch to the top. One of the YOSAR guys has found another belay a few feet ahead to avoid crowding, real pros. We chat a bit but I start loosing focus; I can’t make sentences and start to feel very nauseous.
Cody seconds up the last pitch as I belay Amy. Coming to my senses I call up to him. “Hey Cody, I just puked, I think I have altitude sickness, what should I do?” I thought it would be wise to let professionals know the situation in case it turned sour. Cody asks me a few questions, how much water have I drank, have I eaten, etc. I reply “about a liter since we left the car and one bar.” I stare at the sandwich hanging from my harness and puke again. It hits me like a locomotive.
I curl on the ledge still belaying Amy up the previous pitch. She pokes her head over the last bulge smiling. I tell her that I think I have altitude sickness and had just puked a minute ago. She replies that she is feeling it also and is relieved to know she is not the only one. Bud, the other YOSAR guy, yells down from the top,“Do you need us to send you a rope?”
In my delusional state I decline the offer. I’d rather climb than jug a fixed line.
The dilemma here is that our route only has bolted anchors for the first half. Then you must climb the remaining four to the top, or bail sacrificing your gear at each belay.
We are 200 feet from the summit, one final beautiful 5.10 splitter to the top. The decision was easy.
I take the cams and set off, forgetting to unclip my daisy, it goes taught and pulls me downwards. Amy asks if I’m ok. I respond, “I’m not ok but we have no choice.” I push on to the top, like a zombie, and climb the steep continuous cracks to the summit. The climbing distracts me from my stomach.
I am in a wonderful AMS cloud of bliss (acute mountain sickness), floating along the tips of the Sierras, unconcerned with the distance of my last piece.
Safely I pull onto the shoulder of the Incredible Hulk. I curl into the fetal position and belay Amy to the summit. Yelling words of encouragement from my slumped position, she slowly follows and joins me at the belay. She crumples into the corner next to me. I have given into the ledge, I want nothing else than this slanting ledge.
I stare into the distance; I can see the town of Bridgeport 20 plus miles away. I scan the surrounding peaks and watch the shadows drift across the valleys below. We lay here maybe 30 minutes, maybe an hour. Suddenly I sit up and said “We have to get out of here.” Some how I find the strength to turn on the autopilot.
Just 50 feet to our right is the rap anchors.
With our extreme states this simple task has become difficult and dangerous. Having to untie from the rope and use it to descend, trusting that it will pull free from the anchor above each time without getting caught on the sharp rocks that jut out along its path. Luckily the descent goes smoothly and I let Amy take the reins as we approach the ground. She is feeling better than me at this point and I feel I can trust her with getting us to the ground.
An hour later we hit the ground a thousand feet below. Both relieved that we did not perish on the summit of The Hulk!
Still feeling the strong affects I sit and peel an orange; the juice dribbles down my chin and the citric acid stings in my stomach. I look up and Amy has packed the majority of the gear into her pack. I can’t find the energy to argue. I shove my sandwich into my pack thinking that if I had eaten this earlier maybe all this could have been avoided. But the thought of food makes my stomach churn.
I start down the trail desperately needing to take cover from the beating rays of the sun. I approach the shade line and sink into the sandy ground leaning against a rock. The cool air flows into my lungs and settles my stomach.
Amy kneels next to me with a caring confidence and hands me the rest of her water. I sip the water and let the oxygen flow back into my brain.
Walker Emerson is a contributing writer for the PG Blog. He also sets routes at Planet Granite under the alias ‘Smash’. When he’s not plugging grips and jugging lines, he can be found on weekends clipping bolts at Jailhouse or sailing the granite seas of Yosemite.