Heat Exhaustion on Luahna, August 20 (and 21), 2009
This is a cautionary tale of hubris … and bushwhacking. It includes bloodletting, cramping, vomiting, relentless flies, and an unplanned night in the woods. In other words, an allegory for life itself. Oh, and did I say bushwhacking?
A few years ago, despondent over my failings as a father and human being, a friend offered these words of wisdom: “No life is truly wasted. You can always serve as a bad example for someone else.”
Maybe I need to upgrade my friends. My point, however, is that this idea applies to my trip to Luahna: No trip is truly wasted; it can always serve as a bad example for someone else. Maybe this trip report will deter someone else from being lured into this “direct” route up Luahna.
It all started out pleasantly enough. I took a day off from the daily grind to pursue this relatively obscure mountain with a sweet-sounding name. (“It’s like ‘Luna’ with an ‘Ah’ in the middle,” noted a non-climbing friend.) The mileage and elevation gain – advertised as 20 miles and 6100’ – seemed slightly easier than other recent day trips. I even slept an extra hour and did not drive up to the trailhead until 7:15 am. I told my wife I’d get back to the car and call her around dinnertime.
With overconfidence like that, I should have known right there I was in trouble.
Everything looked good up the mostly dark and wooded White River trail, #1507. At 4.1 miles trail #1562 splits off on the right toward Boulder Pass. This alternative route takes one to sheep trails and over Clark Mountain – an approach to Luahna that, while longer, would involve high grass meadows but no bushwhacking. I should have gone that way.
But I kept straight on trail #1507 for another 2.3 miles to where the trail bends north at 2800 feet and a prominently marked tree promises a footpath toward Thunder Basin. I found this footpath on the way down, and it saved me much misery. On the ascent, however, I wandered too far to the west (climber’s left) and thwacked my way through vine maple before dropping down to Thunder Creek at 3600 feet. Call this Round 1 of my morning Bushwhack. I thought vine maple was bad. But as I was soon to be reminded, when it comes to bushwhacking Hall of Fame properties, vine maple is a piker compared to the slide alder up ahead.
I’ve read that a footpath crosses Thunder Creek at 3800 feet, but my lower crossing at 3600’ – across a quarter-mile swath of avalanche and spring runoff destruction – led to a faint path in the trees to the east (climber’s right) of the waterfall gully coming off from Luahna’s SW slope. Things went swimmingly until avalanche debris sent trees sprawling like Pick-Up Stix at about 4700 feet. I found the path again at 4900 feet, until at 5100’ it branched down and to the left. This branch once led to a broad meadow at about 5000’. But avalanche debris now swallows up the path before you get to the meadow. So I stayed in the trees and ascended the south ridge that comes off Point 7970. This put me into meadows high on Luahna’s SW slope, where I picked up the route that traverses over from Clark.
This all sounds pleasant enough, except that I left out Bushwhacking – Round 2. Most of the gain from 5300’ to 6100’ was via brush. I kept exploring game trails to the left, expecting them to lead me to the promised land of high meadows that I could glimpse above. But the deer and marmots who put in these paths, it turns out, are friends of the evil doll Chucky. As each trail petered out into a tangle of alder and thimbleberry, I could hear the animals’ little chuckles: “Look, Horace, we got a human to actually follow that bogus path…”
Which brings up an observation about game trails. They are great – for going where deer want to go. Deer, however, do not suffer from climbers’ OCD-driven need to go straight up a mountain. Deer are usually content to contour around the mountain. They like water sources, which unfortunately so do thimbleberry and devil’s club. In other words, deer do not build highways for us. This is terribly inconsiderate of them.
Not that game trails always are short-lived dives into heavy vegetation. There probably once were tremendous, miles-long game trails going to useful places – like from Easton to Denny Creek to escape summer heat and bugs. The trouble with these game trails is that people liked them too. We liked them so much that we took them over and kept improving them. We turned them into people trails, then railroad routes, and then into I-90 and U.S. 2. We call this progress. The deer probably call it something else.
Imagine a mule deer version of Alex Haley, tracing his ancestors’ routes as part of a deer family Roots project. As the young buck rediscovers the old trail leading over Snoqualmie Pass, he might puzzle over the incredible trail improvements. I mean, the old path now is brushed out pretty well. It is even graded and paved. The deer, pondering these improvements, then gets smacked into oblivion by an 18-wheel truck.
We’ve improved these useful game trails to the point where it’s not safe for the game anymore.
Back on the SW slopes of Luahna, I had begun to wish for an improved game trail. Even pavement would have been welcome. Feeling energenic, I had launched into the brush for Round 2 of my morning bushwhack with perverse enthusiasm. This was full-on thwacking: hanging onto branches over my head while feeling for foot placements – onto other branches, not ground – below. Stepping or pulling on one branch frequently levered another branch onto my boot or into my torso. Early on, I unweighted one branch, only to have it release a second branch that whipped across my face and impeccably flipped out my right contact lens. I proceeded with blurry vision the rest of the day.
The slow progress through the vine maple, then avalanche debris, then slide alder started to take a toll on my plans for the day. I had hoped to summit around 1:30, but it was nearly 3:00 by the time I emerged onto meadows and scree below Luahna’s summit.
It was then that I experienced the first symptoms of heat exhaustion. It was a warm day, although not scorchingly hot like in the lowlands. I had been pushing water, and still had two liters for the summit scramble. There were lots of places in the SW basin to get more water, so carrying two liters seemed like a large margin of safety.
Nonetheless, my legs started to cramp, then my hands. I had never experienced such cramping, although I’ve climbed with others who carry electrolyte tablets to ward off cramps. I did not have tablets, but I had Gatorade powder and plenty of food. Each time some body part started to cramp, I stopped to rest, guzzle some Gatorade, and try to choke down some food. Here is where I had a second new experience: I could not get food down my throat. A saltine cracker with cheese balled up into a dry gag. Nuts felt like razor blades going down my throat. Dried mango chewed like leather. I knew my body craved fats and salts, but a piece of cheese nearly caused me to lose the few nuts I had managed to get down.
I had pushed past the point where I could stomach the nutrients I needed. My layperson understanding is that, under intense physical stress, the brain’s sympathetic nervous system shuts down the digestive system, putting scarce energy into feeding the fight-or-flight instincts. By choosing the bushwhacking approach so cavalierly, I had underestimated the physical demand, and time, required to get through the brush. I also made a mistake by not pushing more food into my system earlier in the day, instead relying on a couple packets of Gu.
By this time I was close to the summit and a short but fun scramble at the top. I rested at the top tried to gnaw on a corner of an energy bar. Needless to say, the views made it all worth it:
Many nwhikers have signed the register:
By this time it was 4:20 pm – way past the plan – and to get back to the car before dark I had to find a different way down than the way I had ascended. I started by aiming straight SW off the summit to the basin and a large snowpatch at about 5000’. There was no way to avoid all the bushes, but this kept Round 3 of the day’s bushwhacking to about 400’ of vertical loss. Again, this was full-on Grade V bushwhacking, but it was shorter and more direct than my approach route further to the east. I shimmied around the cliffs guarding Luahna’s upper slopes and dropped into the basin at 5000’. Ah, that seemed better.
Or so I thought. From the basin, I would have to traverse eastward a good quarter mile and downhill for 200’, all across the large swath of trees downed like Pick-Up Stix, to find the path I had followed on the way up. After 30 minutes of climbing up, over, around, and under hundreds of fallen logs, I gave up locating the path and aimed straight down into more … slide alder. Earlier in the day I had moved into the bushes with a Zen-like calm. But that was gone by now. I cursed the absence of a good path and found my eagerness for wild spaces waning just a little. There is nothing like a little misery to make us yearn for the comforts of civilization.
Of course, the more I tried to move quickly through the bushes, the more abuse I heaped on my body. The whipping of branches through my pants and against my skin cumulated, like a Lilliputian flogging, into a series of tiny lacerations. New branches hit the open sores of earlier scratches, inflicting tiny razor-like cuts all over my arms and legs. It was like having to handle endless sheets of fine-edged paper with hands full of paper cuts.
Have you ever heard of ferret-legging? This is a sport in which contestants – I am not making this up – tie the bottoms of their pants legs closed and drop a live ferret into their pants. Underwear are not permitted. I do not want to imagine what a ferret might do a little higher up, but I now have a picture of what a ferret might do to a ferret-legger’s legs. Here is what my legs looked like after getting home and cleaning them up:
Finally I emerged from the bushes at about 4200’ and dropped down to Thunder Creek on rock just to the east of the stream that empties Luahna’s SW slope. I crossed the creek at 3600’ and found the footpath that had eluded me on the way up. By this time it was dusk, but the path went nearly all the way down to the blazed tree on trail #1507 at 2800’.
Near the trail, however, I realized that I was not going to get out that night. Part of this was because the trail itself is overgrown until the Boulder Pass turnoff, and sticking to it at night would not be easy even with a headlamp. Mostly, however, I just needed rest. My body needed a break, to stop working in overdrive and to accept some calories. Fortunately, the forecast for a warm night proved accurate, and I spent a peaceful night gazing through tall cedars at twinkling stars – using the eye that still had a contact lens in it. I puked one last time, irritatingly losing the last of my Gatorade, but otherwise let my stomach relax. I slept fitfully, but it was rest.
The next morning I rolled out to the car and began the long, enjoyable process of getting my gut accustomed to taking in food. A gigantic mocha milkshake at Sandy and Mark’s Bigfoot helped, and before the day was over I ate about five mini-dinners.
I never felt in danger of more severe symptoms, e.g., heat stroke or a severe electrolyte imbalance. But I clearly made mistakes that turned an otherwise exhilarating trip in a beautiful area into an unpleasant slog. In particular, I believe my biggest mistakes were:
1. Not pushing enough food earlier in the day, particularly high-quality carbs and proteins, and relying too much on Gu and Gatorade.
2. Accepting a bushwhacking route too readily instead of spending more time looking for the alleged (and in at least one case, actual) foot paths.
3. Not being prepared for cramping and nausea simply because I had not experienced them before. I’ve been with others who dealt with these symptoms, but had discounted their relevance for me. (I read that cramping is more common as you get older.)
But I also did a few things right. I knew the weather forecast was favorable, and I had everything I needed to be relatively comfortable at night (no bag or tent, but my rain jacket, hat, and space blanket kept me toasty warm). I avoided rushing to beat the coming darkness, instead moving slowly to accommodate my low energy level. And I kept nibbling on bits of food and sipping water to force calories in, usually stopping short of an amount that would cause my stomach to reject it.
All in all, an interesting day (plus 1) in the mountains. But one I’d rather not repeat.
Elevation gain: Counting the bouncing up and down on the slide alder?
Mileage: More than one day's worth, as it turned out
One contact lens
Pants ripped to shreds
Gatorade pollution left in the woods
I "enjoyed" reading of your trip. I was on the 8/4 expedition but didn't summit with my two more capable compadres. We had approached via the sheepherder trail from Boulder Creek, climbed Clark, and descended towards Luahna. Things went ok up to this point. On our last day, we tried dropping down the sheepherder route and followed it about half way until running into some confusion.
At this point, the forest was open and downhill travel pretty easy. But that all changed! We tried to intersect the path where you were, at Thunder Creek... but we must have been about 10 feet away and could not see it. By this point the brush was as you describe -- thick and dense and nearly impenetrable. But we gave up on finding the ancient and venerable trail. Instead, we spent 6 hours battling the brush to go one mile. I still have scars and scratches. We all lost gear in our battle -- trekking poles, sunglasses, water bottles...
It was the worst bushwack I've ever done. Good times! Thanks for bringing up the memories!
well written ... most educational .. and captivating .. i read every word ... thx for sharing .. the heat last week gave us some troubs too .. not on your scale ... but enough to realize we had to scale back fm our original plans .. and water .. availability was an issue too .. anyhow i enjoyed and learned much fm your tr .. that area still intrigues me
In 1999 trying to bushwhack up from White River toward TenPeak I was defeated by the brush, no nausea, no summit, lots of bugs, lots of heat. Great determination and keeping your head when losing your guts.
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