When Summit Fever Takes Over
It’s 2am and we are speeding down a dark, empty highway, less than an hour after our plane landed in Ecuador. In the seats behind a taxi driver whose language I do not speak well, we are completely unaware of where we are or the direction we should be going in. The altitude and anxiety are kicking into full gear just as we finally pull up to the home of our host family. We sigh with relief as a friendly face helps us out of our car and greets us in broken English. Up until that moment, the limits of my comfort had never been pushed so far.
I’m a believer that pushing the limits of your comfort zone helps you grow as a person. My travels have taken me up mountains, to developing countries, and deep into the backwoods. My adventure over this Labor Day weekend, however, pushed my limits like never before. In the High Peaks of the Adirondack Mountains, my experience in the back of a speeding taxi in Quito, Ecuador seemed luxurious.
Starting the Trip
The locals refer to the 46 mountains in the Adirondacks with summits over 4000 feet as the ‘46ers.’ The plan for the weekend was for my girlfriend, Emily, and I to summit 5 of them, via an 18-mile loop with nearly 4000 feet of elevation gain on unmarked trails and up the trail free summits. Upon one last weather check before leaving for the trip Saturday morning, we discovered a rainy forecast for our second day in the mountains, but decided to proceed with the trip since we had been planning it for so long.
Saturday afternoon, we began to ascend an unmarked trail with a plan to camp about three miles in. We found our route on the topo map and had a print out of a hike summary that included waypoints. Day 1 was beautiful; we made it to camp with lots of daylight left, got a fire started, ate dinner and did yoga by the fire to prepare for a challenging day two.
Sunday morning, we woke up to fog and chilly temperatures. I threw on my Allagash Men’s Lightweight Wool 1/4 Zip over a Moriah Women’s Lightweight Wool Crew, anticipating warmer weather as the sun continued to rise. Our morning consisted of steady rain, as we followed a wet trail along the river, only marked with cairns. By the time we approached the steep heard trail that would lead us to the summit, we were soaked.
A Wrong Turn
When we summited our first high peak of the day, we were met with fog and hints of snowfall. We didn’t waste any time to get off the bare peak and activate some hand warmers. By high peak number two, our print out with waypoints was destroyed from the rain and we were relying on memory of the description and cairns.
To this day, I can’t tell you where we took a wrong turn. It took summiting two extra mountains (or false summits, we’re still not sure) and the trail completely ending to realize that we were lost deep in the Dix Wilderness of the Adirondacks. Since the weather was so bad, there was no one else out there. It was about 4:30pm, the Sunday before Labor Day, on the rocky approach to a summit, soaking wet under the persisting rain, where we stood with two dead cell phones, an empty power bank, and fear for our safety like I have never experienced.
We doubled back up, then down two summits into what had seemed like a valley after the descent of what we had initially thought to be our fourth high peak. It was cold, all our equipment was wet, we were tired, and sunset was nearing. We knew we that needed to set up emergency camp and start fresh in the morning. We scrambled to peel off our soggy clothes, and locate the drier ends of our sleeping bags. One pair of leggings and my Appalachia Women’s Lightweight Crew has managed to stay semi dry. After forcing down some food, Emily and I zipped our sleeping bags together and curled up to commence one of the coldest, most uncomfortable nights of our lives.
“We’re lost. Call rangers.”
An early lesson in backpacking is to let someone know where you are going, when you’ll be back, and your projected route before you leave. On Monday morning, when by some miracle Emily’s phone powered on with only 1% battery and a trace of service, we texted her mom the words “We’re lost. Call rangers.” Our plan was to retrace our steps until we crossed paths with other hikers. We had enough food and water for another day or two but we were cold, wet, and exhausted.
As we approached our first summit of day three, to our surprise, Emily’s phone was ringing. It was the rangers’ dispatcher. We quickly described our situation and our plan to retrace our steps. The ranger told us that based on our description, we were so deep in that it would have taken hours for rangers to get to us. He said since we had enough food and water, to keep retracing our steps and to call him when we could. That was the last time we had cell phone service before the phone died.
A few miles later, we encountered our first fellow hikers. A husband and wife planning to submit the peak we had just come down from, and they had a working phone with a GPS trail map! After offering us food and water, and verifying that we were headed in the right direction we went on our way, slowly, but surely self-rescuing.
For the next nine miles, we verified with everyone we saw that we were headed on the right trail in the right direction, the time, and asked that if they saw a ranger, to let them know we were doing alright. Eight hours, nine miles, and thousands of feet of elevation gain and loss, with barely anything left in us, we reached the road, and then the car; we were both in tears. It had never felt so good to take my pack off and sit down. The treads on my boots were gone, my toenails were purple, and I was exhausted. But we had dodged hypothermia and we were alive.
We went to the local gas station and used a payphone to call the rangers to let them know that we were out. It turns out, that with a friend finding application, Emily’s mom could take screenshots of where we were, and the rangers were referencing topo maps to be sure that we were still moving in the right direction. Despite how scary the situation was, knowing that someone knew we were out there and had the knowledge and skill to come get us if necessary was comforting. I am so grateful for the rangers watching over us that day and for keeping our family updated.
The lesson? Always let someone know where you are going, when you’ll be back, and who they should call if they don’t hear from you. Prepare for the worst with extra food, water, medical supplies, and emergency shelter. And lastly, find the person who challenges you to reach for the limits of your comfort zone. The same person who was sitting next to me in the back seat of a taxi at 2am in Ecuador and who stood with me with one foot on either side of the equator the next day, was the person who shared body heat with me when we were cold and wet, lost in the wilderness, then ate pizza and drank a beer with the evening after we were rescued.
For more info on how to avoid Summit Fever and stay safe in the mountains, visit our hikeSafe blog.