Making the most of our time in Colorado, Beth and I set plans to climb Humbolt Peak (14,064 feet); my 17th peak over 14,000 feet. Beth is not fond of the idea of a 2AM start time, but after considering the drive time, elevation gain, mileage, and goal to be off the mountain before afternoon thunderstorms, she begrudgingly agrees.
We pack the night before, wake at 2, and on the road by 2:15. The 4WD road to trail head is somewhere between thrilling and disconcerting, but I know the Bronco II (nicknamed “Eddie”) will make it up having driven it twice before.
Boots are on the trail by a quarter after 4AM. Other cars are parked at the trailhead, but we don’t see anyone else on the move at this time. The morning cool makes for quick progress to treeline. We pass campsites near Lower South Colony Lake right as their inhabitants start to rouse to the morning alpenglow.
7:30am finds us at the saddle of the final ridge to the Humbolt summit. We’ve made good time with a steady pace. With the saddle at 12,850 feet we still have a long push ahead of us; especially considering the increasingly thin air and our Californian acclimatization. Within a few hundred vertical feet, as we start to scramble over car-sized boulders, Beth begins taking breaks every 10-20 steps. She’s not feeling well but it’s unclear if it is just the normal exhaustion a person experiences during their first 14er or the onset of acute mountain sickness (AMS).
Within a few hundred feet of the summit and it is clear that Beth is suffering from AMS. She’s moving slowly, but deliberately, and still upward. On the summit block her symptoms boil over; it’s the most severe case of AMS I’ve seen. Tagging the summit we begin the fastest descent we can safely execute. It’s roughly 9:30am and it appears that we’ve made first tracks on the summit for the day.
We are descending in spurts with breaks for her to settle her stomach. Back at the saddle, we take a long pause for food, water, and rest. Continuing to descend, the AMS symptoms are coming at Beth in waves. Every few hundred feet of vertical we are hoping we’ve dropped below an atmospheric threshold were she can start to recover; we continue to be disappointed as she gets hit with another wave.
At treeline Beth and I are greeted by mosquitoes large enough to bite through most of our clothing. In spite of our need to descend, progress continues to be slow as stops are frequently needed. Our return to treeline occurred sometime after noon and we aren’t to the upper trailhead (permanently closed to vehicles) until after 1:00pm. It is another 2 hours before we are at the car with the full heat of the day upon us. We’ve been on the trail for 11 hours, the majority spent on the descent.
We bump down the ragged 4WD track and make it to the valley floor. Now at ~8,500 feet, and after a 20 minute nap in the car, Beth is back amongst the living; a textbook example of treating AMS simply (but urgently) by descending.
In the rear-view we watch the afternoon thunderstorms roll over the Sangre de Cristos as we head East over the Wet Mountains.