Yesterday, I went out for a long solo adventure, and came back a shattered, dehydrated shell of myself. I lost the ability to modulate my heart rate. I was dizzy, and at one point I was genuinely worried I might need a med-evac. I shit you not. Things were going fine, and then things were going very not fine.
The route plan was the 15+ mile out and back of the Blue Hills Skyline trail. It bears saying that in many places this is not a trail at all, but rather a raw rockfall. I have not encountered a more sustained, technical mess of a route in my life. Long stretches are like dancing through a bed of hatchet blades. Others are steep faces covered in slick lichen. You are only ever going up or going down. You get the point. It was a big thing to take on.
I thought the weather, although wet, was conducive, temps in the 70s. But the humidity was off the charts. I thought maybe going alone would help me go at a pace I felt comfortable with and I wanted to do a hard thing solo. I felt confident that it would hard, but also that it was within my abilities. As it turned out, being alone put me in unnecessary danger.
Things were going reasonable well up to about the 10-mile mark. That’s when the humidity caught up to me, physically even though it wasn’t bothering me mentally. Apparently, I was sweating at an unsustainable rate. I blitzed through my liter-and-a-half of water, and thought, “Well, that’s not ideal.”
Then I came to probably the longest, steepest climb on the route, and things went wobbly. I felt weak. My heart rate wouldn’t settle (I was wearing a monitor), and I sat down three times on the way up to try to get my feet back under me. This was a concerning moment, but I thought I’d eat the rest of my food at the top and recover on the way down the next descent.
That worked, to a degree. Once I wasn’t climbing, things settled and I made it down the steep chute from the observatory thinking maybe I was back in the game. The next climb indicated that I was wrong though, and each succeeding climb pushed me further and further into the red, until I was crawling, sometimes literally, up rock piles, stopping over and over again to stop my head from spinning. Any chance I got, I soaked my hat in cold water to try to cool off.
I was stumbling, trying to keep my shit together. At one point, a horse fly stung the back of my head, and the pain actually woke me up a bit. I was grateful for it, not annoyed.
When you’re in trouble like this, two things become important. First, ask for help, which eventually I did, and second, keep moving, because it’s the only way to get to a place where you can help yourself. It bears saying, at this point, that my phone was non-functional. Despite keeping it in a plastic bag, I was so wet, and in fact, everything was so wet, that my touch would not register on the screen. If I could have called for help, I would have, and that should say a lot about the shape I was in.
After crawling along for about an hour, I had maybe covered two miles. I stopped at a trail junction and sat down, hoping to meet someone with water. Very few people were on the Skyline, because, as I said before, it’s not a proper trail. It’s only for lunatics. To my great good fortune, a young lunatic came along shortly, and I asked him how he was doing, and he said, “Great,” and then he asked me, and I said, “Not good, actually. I’m 5 hours in motion, and I’m out of water and badly dehydrated.” I apologized then, and he told me it was ok.
That was a nice moment.
He gave me about half-a-liter of water from his pack, and he pulled up the map on his phone. I was hoping to find a way back to my car that didn’t require climbing any more steep rockfalls. On flat ground, I could just about keep going, but the climbs were killing me.
Unfortunately, the way I was going was the best option, so I sat for a minute and drank water and tried to get my head straight again. I stood up and walked, and in a few minutes came to a road crossing. There I found a bigger map, one I could read without my glasses, and determined that I could end the climbing by walking up the road. While slightly longer, the flat, gradual surface seemed like the best idea, so I got off the trail and onto the pavement.
Steadily drinking water and pushing my way down the road turned out to be life-saving. I made good time, and the last section of trail, the one that led directly to my car, crossed the road again, so I took that, and in a few minutes I was back, albeit still weak, dizzy and struggling to keep my heart rate steady.
Behind the car, I toweled off, changed into dry clothes, and called B to let her know I was off the trail. Then I drove to the nearest store and bought a 16oz Coke and a 12oz seltzer for the ride home. Standing in line at the store, I nearly had to sit down. Walking back out into the parking lot, I nearly barfed.
Obviously, I got home, but this was a fucked up experience on a number of levels.
- I was surprised how quickly things went south. I went from running to crawling in the space of a mile.
- Despite knowing what was going on, I didn’t have the tools to fix it.
- Having a phone and not being able to use it, really sucks.
- It’s a long time since I’ve been scared in the woods.
- I appear to be at an age where dehydration impacts my heart rate quickly. Learning how small my margin of error is, is good but also chastening.
Here’s what I did wrong:
- I overestimated myself.
- I underestimated the weather. I don’t do well in heat and humidity.
- I was too blase about food and water. Needed to bring more than I needed.
- I was alone. This compounds #3.
- I suspected my phone would stop working when I got wet, and failed to make an alternate plan. I knew better. See #1, above.
I’ll be honest with you. When I sat down to write this, I felt sick and a little sad. Embarrassed too. There’s so much I should have known better. I’ve been doing this stuff a long time. But this was actually a different experience. This went pear-shaped faster than any of my other misadventures, and I could guess that’s because I’m just about 50 now.
It would have been a lie not to tell the story, a lie of omission, and one that didn’t help anyone at all.