"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious" ~ Albert Einstein

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Mitral Valve Prolapse on Merriam Peak (13,103')

This was a great weekend back in early Fall, 2008.  I spent a few days living out of the car and hiking a couple peaks.  The first day had me going up the Laurel Creek drainage for the first time.  There aren't a lot of Sierra trail heads that require 4x4, but this was definitely one of them.  Overall, it wasn't horrible, with only a couple rough spots.  I went up Bloody Mountain that day, which was a really nice hike.  Unfortunately, the views were really hazy due to a wildfire burning on the west side of the Sierra.

The next day had me meeting up with Charles and Mary for a hike of Merriam Peak.  I think most seasons I end up doing the majority of my trips with company and just a handful that are solo.  This season seemed like it was trending the other way and I was looking forward to some company, especially since Merriam was a bigger hike - just shy of 20 miles and over 7000 feet of gain.  That and I hadn't seen much of either Charles, or Mary, all summer.

Turns out Charles called to let me know they were going to be very late, but I had already arrived at the trail head and was out of cell phone reception.  As the day grew late, I started to wonder where they were. Another car drove up to the trail head a little later. Whoever it was couldn't see me, because I was in the back of my 4Runner.  Some guy got out and proceeded to walk around the parking lot having an unintelligible conversation with his apparently invisible companion.  At one point, he stopped near my car pointing up at the mountains telling his imaginary friend some grand story, while picking his nose with his other hand.  I decided to stay in my car for the remainder of the evening.

I passed out shortly after it got dark and was awoken later to a truck driving into the parking lot. Charles and Mary had finally arrived, but being half-asleep I never did manage to get up and say Hi. I quickly passed out again.  My alarm went off at 3AM and I was up and at'em by 3:05 AM. Apparently I was a little too eager to hit the trail, because I accidentally set off my car alarm in my rush and probably woke up half the mountainside.  Still, though, not a stirring from Charles and Mary.  Strange.  Now, I began to doubt it was even them.  As I walked over to the truck I looked for a familiar sticker, which would ensure me it was them, but I didn't notice it.  I was going to go check anyhow, but then I imagined some couple sleeping in the back of their truck, waking up to some stranger peering over them at 3AM.  I guess that made me decide it wasn't them.  It couldn't be.  The car alarm would surely have woken them and it didn't even appear to be their truck.  I decided to turn the other way and hit the trail, excited to start my adventure to Merriam Peak. 
Merriam Peak, Royce Lakes Basin

My excitement waned slightly as I entered the pitch dark forest on the lower portion of the trail.  This normally doesn't bother me, but made me realize again that I did prefer to be with company this day.  All throughout this portion, I kept hearing small crashes in the bushes off to the side of the trail. I knew it was just some small animal, perhaps chipmunks.  But, that little corner in the back of the mind wonders if perhaps it isn't a mountain lion.  Or, the Boogeyman stalking me.  Or, worse yet ... the nose-picker from back at the trail head - the Booger man.

In my early 20s, I started getting a lot of strange, mostly cardiovascular symptoms.  It took some time, but I was eventually diagnosed with Mitral Valve Prolapse (MVP).  Getting it diagnosed was trickier than it should have been and I was briefly diagnosed with something far more serious and fatal. Tums out, MVP is a condition that a lot of people have, but it's usually asymptomatic and folks often don't even know they have it.  I didn't for the first 20, or so, years of my life.  More rarely though, a case like mine becomes symptomatic.  No one really knows why.  One semi-controversial theory says MVP is associated with what's called Dysautonomia, or MVP Syndrome.  My personal experience seems to match up very well with this.

I eventually learned to manage the condition fairly well, through diet, exercise and general lifestyle changes, as well as taking a daily medication.  It makes me not feel good at some point almost every day, but it doesn't stop me from doing much.  It just slows me down a little.  My wife thinks that might be a good thing anyhow and she just might be right!  The medication, which is a beta blocker, and the Mitral Valve prolapse are both generically described as causing some exercise intolerance.  I found this means I need a good warm up before really hitting things hard and my breathing hardly ever feels quite as free as it used to. 

That morning I was eager to get out of the forest and above the tree line.  Realizing I felt unusually good, I picked up the pace considerably.  This was one of those rare mornings where I felt like I could breathe again like before I had MVP.  My lungs were wide open and free -  power-houses converting the fresh mountain oxygen into instant energy and delivering it to my legs, which felt unstoppable in their pace up the hill. 

Part way up from above the tree line, I saw a light near the forest's edge.  It was Charles!  He must have jumped up a few minutes later and hit the trail too.  I could see his headlamp now, as he was trying to catch me.  Mary must have decided against the early start and slept in.  I started to wonder if I should stop and wait for Charles to catch up.  The workout was feeling great and I was wanting to stick with this enjoyable pace. That and I knew Charles could be really fast.  I decided to keep going and wait for him at the first lake if he didn't catch me by then.  I felt like my pace increased even more, but as I looked down the light seemed like it was moving even faster.  "Man, Charles is cruising!", I thought.  And, the sooner he catches me the better, because some company was still sounding very nice.  I kept checking on the steady progression of the light for some time.  Until, one time, I looked back and the light didn't quite seem to be in the right place.  It was like it was off the trail.  Huh, what's going on?  After a few moments, I realized what I had been looking at was a light from the nearby Tungsten Mine!  Of course, this light could not have been moving at all.  I thought, wow, I must have really wanted some company to hallucinate that whole little scenario.

I stood there in the dark, somewhat confused.  Suddenly, the large canyon I was hiking up seemed awfully lonely.  At the same time, the sudden wide-open loneliness of the canyon made me more aware of its details.  The distant roar from a waterfall echoing off the canyon walls cascaded into my awareness and lifted my mood almost as fast as it had sunk.  I love that sound.  It's like the ocean.  Noisy as hell when you stop to think about it, but very calming and peaceful at the same time.  The whole absurdity of the obvious blunder I made also gave me a good laugh.  My spirits quickly picked up and my pace picked up again even faster.

I got the first 5-6 miles of that hike done in what seemed like a flash.  It was like a quick, lively dream you might have during a 5 minute nap, hardly believing you had time to fit it in.  But, now, here I was - wide awake - at Honeymoon Lake, with the sun rising above the distant Inyo crest, bringing with it the new dawn and enlivening me with energy.   I stopped to fill my water bottle back up and get a snack before the easy cross country that leads up to Royce Lakes basin.  I was still surprised at how good I felt.

I finished my snack, grabbed my backpack and started out again.  After only a few moments, a wee bit of a sluggish feeling came over me.  Not too long after that, I started to really drag.  The terrain was less steep, I just re-fueled, but I was crashing.  Pretty soon, I was almost settling into a sickened rest step - move a few steps forward, stop and try to breathe, move a few more, stop and try to breath again, ad nauseum, literally.  I feel a little bad on almost every hike at some point from the MVP, but this was worse than usual, especially given the contrast with how great I felt on the way up.   I was well acclimatized by now too, given that this was the last trip of many this season and having already spent two nights at some altitude prior to the hike.

I finally crested the Royce Lakes saddle and was left breathless by the beautiful view.  Oh wait, I was already breathless, but the view really was gorgeous

View of Feather Peak as One Enters Royce Lakes Basin

I stopped to sit down and rest.  It was then that I realized just how bad I felt.  I was having some chest discomfort/tightness, breathing was irregular and labored, and my head felt kind of light.  Not too mention, I was completely alone up here.  I started to get a bit concerned. 

I weighed my options.  I still had a ways to go to climb Merriam Peak.  I was probably 7 miles from the car.  I didn't feel like I could go forward and it was really going to suck to have to go back after coming this far.  I just sat there not sure what to do and not really feeling like doing anything.  I wasn't even totally sure I was okay.

It eventually occurred to me that I was originally playing with the idea of returning from the other side of the basin.  The Royce-Merriam saddle, which I had to surmount if I was going to climb the peak, was in the middle of this loop.  I could head in that direction to check it out and, if I still don't feel well, I could just keep going and head back down, while hardly adding on any mileage.  Lastly, if I was about to blink out of earthly existence, I couldn't think of a better place to check out of this world.  This lovely alpine lake basin almost looked like Heaven anyhow.

I shouldered my pack and inched forward very slowly through the basin.  It didn't seem like I was feeling much better with the rest I just had. As I made my way around the next lake, I felt a little better just as Royce-Merriam saddle popped into view.  I'm not sure if that timing was devious, or fortuitous.  Either way, I thought, hell, I might as well try to get to the saddle, as some unknown force pulled me in that direction, further from my car, but closer to adventure - maybe more than I was looking for, though.  The terrain looked nasty from a distance, but turned out to be not all that bad.  As the going got steeper, I actually started to feel a little better and I made it to the saddle and the gorgeous views of La Salle Lake on the far side.

I still felt pretty crappy and the slope up Merriam looked long, steep and tiring.  But, I was less than a mile away.  I had to try.  It probably took over an hour to do that final slope, crawling slower than a turtle up and over each boulder, but I finally made it to the summit.

I rested and enjoyed a good re-fueling, while soaking in the views.  It was hard to believe I even made it.  After a while, I headed back down.  I was looking over at Royce Peak on the other side of the saddle when a thought came across my mind to try that one too.  Just as quickly another thought crossed my mind, "Hang on there big guy!  Be grateful you didn't have a heart attack, now get your dumb-ass down the mountain."  Suddenly, the unknown force was pulling me down the mountain.  Or, perhaps that was just me no longer fighting the force of gravity, but rather was going with it.

Heading Back Down Merriam Peak
That was the first time I ever felt better as I headed up higher into thinner air.  I still have no idea what was going on that day, but continued to feel better as I headed down and was completely rejuvenated when I got back to the car. I've never had such a striking contrast between feeling so unusually good and so unusually bad, while out hiking/climbing.  The mysterious nature of living with Mitral Valve Prolapse.

I later found out that it was Charles and Mary in the parking lot.  They had managed to sleep through my car alarm and thought I was still sleeping when they woke up.  They hung around in the parking lot, waiting for me to wake up. Until, Charles went over to my car around 7AM, only to find out I wasn't in there!  We decided to put a bit more effort into planning our meet ups from then on.

One thing I enjoy about these trips is planning them.  Sitting at my computer and playing with Google Earth and the Topo maps and figuring out where to go next is always enjoyable.  I guess that takes some mystery out of it too, but it's fun.  I may have explored more of the Sierra in my imagination, than I have on foot!

Google Earth of Merriam Peak Dayhike

Topo Map of Merriam Peak Dayhike

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