Monday, June 18, 2012

The death march, redux

                "That which doesn't kill you makes you stronger"
Ok, in all honesty this hike didn't quite go as I had planned.  Somewhere on the Thermalito Trail at Pleasanton Ridge Regional Park nearing the 8-mile mark, out of water, hiking in the 105 degree heat I figured I had made a big mistake.
I headed out for what I thought would be a nice solo hike on Saturday on Pleasanton Ridge.  Alice and I and hiked there in February, I knew the trails and it was close so I figured it would be a quick easy morning trek.  Saturday was also supposed to be one of the hottest days so far with Pleasanton's temperatures topping the century mark.  Undaunted I headed out with my camera and 3 litres of water.

My plan was to make a big loop, head out on Oak Tree Trail to hook up with the Ridgeline Trail to take me to the Thermalito Trail which winds back toward staging area where I would catch Woodland Trail to my car.  It sounded easy, looked good on paper and with my camera and two lenses I set out on the trail.

If you ever have hiked Pleasanton ridge you know the Park is aptly named.  It climbs up and down a series of hills giving you nice views of the surrounding countryside from the ridge top.  I have hiked different parts of the park in the past, including the olive grove they have been nice hikes.  But then again they were in the cool winter or fall months.  I would be tackling the ridge line in the summer heat this time.  And as it turns out I seriously underestimated it.

The summer months are not kind to the park.  The grasslands dry turning yellow in contrast to the deep blue sky.  The trail is dusty and hot and what sparse shade there from trees along the fence line is scatted far between the hills I have to climb.  Rocks and ruts fill the trail along with tire tracks from the mountain bikes that venture this far out.  An occasional biker wheels past me but I am pretty much alone on the trail.  That should have been my first warning sign.  The heat had turned most people away from the trail except the bikers who rush down the path past me.  It's late morning and the temperature on the trail is already nearing the century mark.

It was hot on the trail.  Really hot.  If the air temperature is a 100 bump it up a few more degrees from the heat radiating back from the sun-baked trail.  As I hiked I was sweating pretty good early on, sipping water  and trudging up the hills ahead of me.  I was taking frequent stops for pictures but I was starting to feel the heat.  Whatever breeze I had felt like the air coming out of an open oven door.  I wasn't keeping my usual fast hiking pace but that was ok, it was hot I thought to myself.  Take it slow and easy.

I reached the turn to head for the Thermalito Trail and start the back part of the loop.  I was already beat.  It was hot, a lot hotter than I expected and climbing up the top of the ridge had taken something out of me in the heat.  I was breathing fast (later I was told that is my body trying to cool off by blowing hot air out, like a dog panting) and I tried to slow my breathing.  I sipped more water to fight the cotton-mouth as I headed for a new set of hills, not as steep as the Ridgeline Trail but still enough to make me work.  Map in hand I followed the trail and checked my route at the various trail markers along the route.

If you have hiked Pleasanton Ridge it is a carefully marked park.  Along with the trail names they use a numbering system to make things easier for the novice trail visitor, you can navigate from number to number.  I started out at 1 and the turn to Thermalito Trail was at the 20 marker.  Heading back descending numbers would chart my progress back to the final turn to head off the ridge and down to the parking lot.  But I was soon to have a problem.  I was getting hot.  Dangerous hot.

The temperature on the trail felt like it was climbing and the hot breeze wasn't making matters any better.  Somewhere on the back half of the loop I guess I began to overheat.  I know I didn't feel good.  I had a weird sensation that would race through my body like a chill, I was starting to get a little light-headed and I was still breathing way too fast.  I would stop for a couple of minutes at whatever shade I could find from a random tree along the trail but I knew I was starting to not feel well.

I was too damn hot, I kept taking off my hat to try and get some air flowing over my head but that didn't help.  I tried to drink more water but that didn't seem to help.  My legs were tired, I had that rubbery feeling as I walked along.  I stared at the ground as I continued on, watching the rocks and dirt pass beneath my steps.  Then I had he first bad sign hit, I had to relieve myself and looking down at the stream of urine I saw it was a dark yellow, almost brown in color.  I was dehydrating fast.  Not good.  I headed back on the trail knowing I didn't have too much longer to reach the parking lot. 
Now this is the point where my hike went from bad to seriously bad.  Somewhere on the backend of the hike as I neared the turn for home, battling the heat and dehydration I started to get sick.  It's not anything I can look back and say that was the moment I got sick  but sometime later after my bathroom pit stop I started inching toward the danger zone.  I know I was getting more lightheaded, I couldn't find a comfortable position to carry the camera, the hat made my head hurt, I took it off, put it on, I walked with a wide wobbly stance.  That I remember fine.  What I don't remember is what happened next and the part that troubles me the most about the hike.  Crossing the 10 marker and headed for the last turn for the gate toward the trail for the parking lot I lost sight of where I was and entered Ridgeline Trail again.  I missed the turn for home and began the entire loop again heading into the steepest portion of the hike all over.
If you look up heat stroke or heat exhaustion one of the symptoms is confusion.  Absolutely correct.  I missed the navigation and blindly just followed the dirt trail.  Minutes passed and I remember I kept wondering where's the gate?  How come there are more hills?  In my lightheaded stupor I ignored the 11, 12, 14 and 16 trail markers.  I never saw them or I saw them and they didn't register.  I wound up staring blankly at the 18 trail marker just shy of the turn to head on Thermalito trail.  After a few minutes of cursing and trying to figure out what happened I turned and headed back for second time along Ridgeline Trail.  
And then my water ran out.
Dazed, out of water, feeling sick, dehydrated and a long way from my car I kept shuffling along the trail.  I had stopped taking pictures a while ago.  I didn't care, this was just about surviving the trail long enough to get to my car.  I knew just before where I had missed my turn there was a water station, a  faucet for bikers and hikers like me in an emergency and that was my main mission now.  I was hiking unsteadily, my legs were weak and I was taking hills in incredibly small, slow steps.
I eventually reached the faucet and refilled my water bladder, wetted down my hat and headed for the 
nearby bench.  It was in direct sun but I had to sit.  I tried closing my eyes but I was just feeling sick.  I texted my friend Alice who I though was rock climbing in Yosemite with her son.  Alice is a nurse and had stayed home this weekeend.  I told her what was going on with me.  We exchanged texts and she came to the conclusion that I was in a bad way.  I rested at the bench for a few more minutes and then headed back on the trail.  I was tired, dizzy, dehydrated, slightly queasy and apparently well on my way to a mild case of heat stroke.  My core temperature was climbing and I had to push on.
I had stuffed the phone into my pack and missed the texts where Alice had said she was heading to the park's parking lot to check and see how bad I was before I hit the road home.  Going as slow as I could I found the marker and made the correct turn toward the parking lot.  The last half mile mile was spent hiking with a lean to my right as my stomach was now hurting and a stitch in my side was making my steps hard.  I could finally see the gravel road leading to the parking lot and then 4 hours 17 minutes after heading out I leaned on my car to catch my breath.  I had hike 9.66 miles in over 100 degree weather and I was paying for it.    I stripped my gear off and sat in my car waiting for Alice.  I couldn't drink water I  just kept sipping and spitting it out on the gravel lot to rid the horrible dry mouth sensation.  I couldn't catch my breath, I sweating just sitting still.  My teeth felt like they were going numb.  Yeah I was paying the price.
Alice arrived shortly and took stock of my condition.  I was clammy, pale and dehydrated.  She quickly gave me a potassium pill, salt and fluids.  I would have to wait until my dizziness and lightheadedness passed before I could drive.  Over 30 minutes of sitting in my car and when Alice checked my pulse it was near 100 beats a minute instead of the 60 to 80 for a person at rest.  My heart was working overtime trying to cool my body.  Alice gave me icepacks for my neck and side as she tried to drop my temperature down.
After an hour or so and I was feeling good enough to hit the road and followed Alice back to Tracy.  Safely back in my home I took stock of the hike result.  A terrible headache and blisters on my feet from the trail were reminders of my close call.  I dumped my memory card and headed for a cool shower as I tried to figure out what went so wrong this hike that I had to be rescued in the parking lot.
What did go wrong?  Well the obvious answer is it was just too hot for a hike on such an exposed ridge line.  The fact that there were so few people on the trail should have been a good indication it was unwise to continue.  Maybe I should have taken more than 3 litres of water.  Maybe I should have taken 5 or 3 litres and some frozen Gatorades.  I should have packed some energy bars or food  but I was in hurry, I spent most of the night before covering the bullfights and threw the hike together at the last second.  Live and learn.  Like the saying goes, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.  I learned a couple of good lessons from the hike, had a good friend save the day and I live to hike another day.
Now I just have to think of a hike for next weekend.  Mount Diablo or Los Vaqueros?   Hmm, both could be challenging...


Cheri said...

Come out to the coast for a hike, silly!

Andy said...

Come on Glenn; if the lack of other hikers wasn't a good clue, the circling vulchers should have been a better one.......... They knew what was happening, while all along you thought they were just trying to stay cool......

Kerry said...

Great narrative and reminder about the dangers of overexertion. Especially on solo hikes. Now as for your question - go to Diablo! I'm headed up Saturday - weather is supposed to be much better, topping out around 80 or so. A rare opportunity to do a summer hike around the 4 Summits(Eagle, Diablo, North Peak, Olympia). Happy Trails, and be safe!