Too many summits left to climb

  • Posted on 31 October 2004
  • By Wendell Hall

A few thousand feet below me, a vast table of pale rock touches the horizon without a speck of green anywhere. Above, steep rock juts out against the bright blue sky. I'm standing close to the Whitney Notch on the Mountaineers Route almost 14,000 feet up above it all, wondering how I managed to get here.

Six months ago I was on my back in bed recovering from quintuple heart bypass surgery.

Unexpected trouble

The heart trouble blindsided me. I'm 46, active, with a steady exercise regimen, and I'm a staffer with the Wilderness Travel Course. Things like this were not supposed to happen to me!

Author at the summit of Mt. Whitney, six months after heart bypass surgery.

It all started in December of 2003. I was following my normal stair climbing routine at work (66 flights in my office tower carrying a 25-pound day pack). No one ever called me a fast hiker, but I could hold my own on most outings, including hikes of 4,000 to 5,000 feet of gain. But this time I noticed something. I developed some 'issues' with my breath. Plain and simple, I couldn't breathe.

After almost a week of tempting fait by exercising, I went to the doctor. After an EKG and a stress test in his office I found myself checked into Huntington Memorial Hospital--that same day. There were a few days of tests, but before I knew it I had had a five-way heart bypass operation. I was released in fairly short order following the surgery, but I found myself back in the hospital after three days; I had developed pulmonary embolisms-blood clots in my lungs.

This was very interesting time. My best friend became a 6-foot oxygen hose. I could not be separated from my new best friend for more than a minute. I was virtually bedridden. I lost 20 pounds, all of it muscle.

What now?

I was finally released on Jan. 9. The most vivid thing that I remember is that as I walked from my garage up the three levels to get to my bedroom, I had to stop three times to sit and catch my breath.

Wow! How was this going to affect my quality of life? Would I be hiking again? And if so, how soon? Luckily, I had the upcoming 2005 WTC class as a motivator. I'd been teaching the class since 2000 when I joined WTC staff, and I did not want to miss the camaraderie of being with fellow lovers of the wilderness in high places.

The doctor would not clear me for any exercise beyond walking--not even the traditional cardiac rehab program. So I began my own rehab program, beginning with the prescribed five-minute walks, three times per day. I quickly moved to 15-minute walks, then one-hour walks, then three-hour walks. At this point I was getting bored with just walking three hours at a time.

I was seeing improvement, but I realized that I had to take it to another level. I started to load my day pack with eight liters of bottled water and seek out uphill streets in nearby Pasadena. I got a lot of curious looks walking the streets with a stuffed pack on my back. One resident of a very upscale neighborhood even asked me, 'Do you live here or are you just passing through?'

Finally, I started using the Sam Merrill Trail in the San Gabriel Mountains as my conditioning trail. By the day of my WTC group's first conditioning hike, just three weeks after my release from the hospital, I felt good enough to join. No, I didn't expect to finish. But I surprised myself and made it up 2,400 feet of vertical in Mallard Canyon before I had to sign out.

What a great day that was for me, and a real turning point psychologically. After not being able to walk up one flight of stairs three weeks ago, I had made it up 2,400 feet of elevation!

I was able to participate in all of the other WTC outings. I even did the WTC snow camp, which was the first time that I had gone to a higher elevation than the local mountains since the surgery.

A goal emerges

Driving home from the snow camp, a fellow WTC staff member and I started talking about what other challenges I could aspire to. As we looked at the eastern Sierras we got to discussing the Mountaineers Route of Mt. Whitney, the eastern approach to the summit first climbed by John Muir in 1873. 'That's it! I'll do something I've wanted to do for years. I'll climb the Mountaineers Route of Whitney.'

Before the surgery, there had always been another time to accomplish this goal. Now I realized the time had arrived. On the six-month anniversary of my release from the hospital I would be headed up the Mountaineers Route, come hell or high water.

In preparation I started doing hikes from the <Schedule of Activities that were 2,000 feet of gain, then 4,000. I quickly learned that, though I was recovering nicely, I could not keep up with the stronger hikers doing longer, higher climbs. This was most evident on a hike up Mt. Wilson. My pride would not allow me to hold up the group; I had to sign out half way up. I finished the hike and summitted, but at least an hour behind. Damn! It was a blow to my ego, but worse, it made me doubt that I could accomplish my Whitney goal.

The next weekend I joined a scheduled hike up Mt. Baldy. I was able to stay with the group but I was clearly Tail-End-Charley. Damn again! I now realized that in spite of my progress something was different. I felt that I should be much farther along in improving my wind. On my next visit to my pulmonary doctor I found out my lung capacity was still only 85 percent of normal.

Now I started doing Baldy on my own. Weeks later I joined friends who were conditioning for a technical ascent of Mt. Baker in Washington. They understood that I was not going to be able to keep up with them, but I would be along in time. They were a great support system, though they kept widening the gap between my finish and theirs, as they got stronger each week.

I was truly on a plateau in terms of my improvement. We did San Jacinto and Baldy again on successive weekends. I never improved.


Time was running out for my Whitney preparation. The closer the deadline, the more fearful of failure I became. Normally I start getting very excited just prior to a Sierra climb, but not this time. This goal was weighing on me like lead underwear. The week of the climb I decided to go to the Sierras two days early to sleep high and acclimatize. Though my pack was fairly light, I packed and repacked my gear four times, trying to take weight out.

Finally we were off. I huffed and puffed a bit as we climbed, but by noon on the second day, I was on top of Mt. Whitney. I could have floated all the way back down I was so excited. I had done it! This small victory will stay with me the rest of my life.

No, I'm not back to normal yet. I still get winded long before I should, but I will just keep conditioning and climbing peaks, slowly, all the while remembering my Whitney victory. I have too many summits yet to climb to let a little heart operation get in the way.

For the last 15 years, the Sierra Club Angeles Chapter's Wilderness Travel Course has been teaching students how to be safe and comfortable in the backcountry. WTC is offered once a year, starting in January, and includes 10 classroom sessions and four outings. For information and registration for 2005, call 310-967-2029 or visit

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