This is part II of a series on hiking Barr Trail. Read part I.
The temperature on the trail was around 50°F at 2:00 AM and didn’t get much warmer; by the time the sun had come up we were above 10,000 feet where the air temperature would have been colder anyway. Wind temperatures varied from a nipple-stiffening 0° Kelvin (subjective estimate) to occasional teaser gusts of warm air, maybe 65° F. I wore shorts and a polypropylene top, and felt underdressed. At some point I donned a fleece, which I exchanged for a windproof jacket toward the summit.
The final three miles are the hardest on the trail. The grade is steep, the air is thin, the sun is bright (with no tree cover for shade), and we’d been working hard for over six hours on little sleep. The third-last mile took 40 minutes… the second-last took 50… and the final mile took over an hour.
We lost a half-hour in there somewhere, too, when we missed a switchback and tried to traverse an ice field. We were acting on bad advice and tried to climb up a 25% grade of hip-deep snow. Then I nearly sprained my shoulder trying to pull my boot through the leg of my snowpants. All in all this was the sorriest episode on the mountain, genuine evidence of misfiring synapses at high altitude. In a nutshell, we’d overlooked the trail and were cutting the switchback because we didn’t see any other way.
Finally, my companion and I reached the summit at 11:22 AM, 9 hours 12 minutes after leaving the trailhead. This is dreadfully slow — it works out to 1.3 mph, a respectable speed for the “16 Golden Stairs” in the final mile, but an embarrassing average for the day. I’ll have to do it better next time.
The altitude was a bigger challenge than the climb, I think. During the last three miles, I would get winded after two minutes’ exertion. I pushed through, but on my own I probably would have taken many short breaks. I noticed that after each break, I’d feel fine for the first few minutes, and then came a sort of uphill full-body-heaviness, and a realization like I sometimes get when I drink too much and in a moment of lucidity think, “Ugh, I don’t want to drink any more.” That’s what it felt like: I didn’t want to climb any more. But then I’d rest for a moment and feel better. The air at 14,000 feet is half as dense as the air at my house. (My unofficial calculation: at 14,111 feet, the atmospheric pressure is 56% that of sea level.)
The lack of sleep combined with oxygen deprivation to cause a few curious mental blunders. First was the missing-trail syndrome described above. Next, about a half-mile from the summit, I realized with a shock that I’d run out of water. This seemed impossible, that I’d already drunk three liters since Barr Camp, but I checked all my bottles twice — they were all empty.
Then at the summit, in line at the french fry concession (give me a break — this was the only vegan food item to be had), I unconsciously pulled a bottle from my pack to discover that it was still full. A tourist nearby barked out a laugh and made a sarcastic comment about me hauling un-needed water all the way up the mountain. He found this hilarious, that I could be so dumb. He would have been even more amused to know that although he was incorrect that the water was so much surplus weight, I’d been so addled that I hadn’t drunk any because I’d believed the bottle to be empty.
There was even more fun at the summit house; read part III.