Jyoti picked me up at 8am. It was an early start to what would be a long day.
We were planning to start at the southerm trailhead, walk to the peak, and back again. Doing the whole traverse would involve having two cars and a bit more organisation. We were taking the slightly less steep route upwards.
We were joined by friends of Jyoti’s, Gretchen, who we picked up, Lisa, who we’d met yesterday and her friend Angus, a young man from England who’s been in Alaska for a month.
The drive south towards Seward was the first drive Liesel took me on, all those years ago. Then, it was December, everything looked white and forbidding to this Englishman so used to seeing less than half an inch of snow once in a while. Today, the sky was blue, the Sun was out and we were going to have a good time.
We saw banks of mist on the inlet, smoke on the water and we saw some beluga whales in the water. Up on the mountains there were dall sheep, but I missed them.
We stopped at a ‘donut’ place for coffee and hot doughnuts, though I could only manage to eat one. This is where we met up with Lisa and Angus.
The views from the road were spectacular. Even the locals were gushing in praise of the local landscapes.
We stopped just a couple times more on the long drive. I was in the front passenger seat the whole way and no-one took me up on my (half-hearted) offers of swapping places.
On arrival at the trailhead, we prepared for the hike itself. Bear spray, water, walking poles, back packs all sorted. I was carrying my ‘manbag’ full of water, snacks, spare clothes, phone, money and notebook. It was heavy, man.
I’m not a big talker at the best of times, and when exercising, getting slightly out of breath, I’m even less inclined to talk at the same time. But this is bear country, you’re supposed to make a lot of noise just to let the bears know you’re there. Luckily, Jyoti can talk and talk. The two of us often found ourselves dropping behind the rest. The trail was mostly uphill, unrelenting at times. On my own, I would have stopped more frequently to catch my breath, but not here.
I learned about someone whose job seemed to be waxing the skis of an Olympic ski champion. What a very specialised job, I thought. But there are several kinds of wax, each used for a different temperature, different kinds of snow, different slopes, different skis.
As we walked higher and higher, the view changed. Lower down, we were looking through the trees, but suddenly I realised, we were above the tree line. That meant one thing: put on the hat to protect my head from the Sun! Actually, it also meant unobstructed views of the slopes, the mountains, the glaciers, the valleys. All larger-than-life postcard images.
I was glad that the path wasn’t maintained perfectly. It is cleared of overgrown vegetation each year for the race along the whole Traverse. But because of all the tree roots, rocks and other obstacles, I was very conscious of picking my feet up more while walking than I would usually do on a residential pavement, for instance.
On the other hand, some parts of the trail had a precipitous drop to one side that I was wary of. I probably wouldn’t fall far if I slipped off because of all the trees and plants growing there, but I did tend to keep to the other side of the track, while my sweaty palms dried out.
As time went on, I had to stop more and more frequently. I started to feel angry. Angry about my inability to catch my breath, about my inability to keep up with the others, about having to watch every footstep to avoid tripping over rather than looking at the view, about the walk being too long and steep, about the medical profession for giving me drugs that seem to have messed up everything in my body (Note 1). Ah, angry, cross, irritated. That usually means I need food. I’m glad I brought so many snacks. I needed sugar. And carbs.
The cotton grass was pretty as were the Michaelmas daisies. And Resurrection Bay way over there!
As we neared the summit, I had to stop more and more often. We caught up with Lisa, Gretchen and Angus but I needed to eat again. The three of them went ahead, while Jyoti stayed with me, deciding not to go all the way down to the lake itself. I’d decided I needed to minimise my exersions so if I could miss out the 3 extra miles to the lake and, worse, back up again, I’d be happy.
We picked and ate blueberries as we’ll as salmonberries, which look like yellow raspberries but they’re not as sweet.
Despite my mood, I loved the views. Jyoti pointed out the hill in the distance that was to be the end of our hike. It looked miles away, the small objects on top were, apparently, people. So much more uphill to go. I need bigger and faster acting lungs.
Jyoti has the patience of a saint, though. She let me walk in front, so I was going at my own pace. I realised it was slightly slower than Jyoti’s, and that one of the reasons I kept getting out of puff was because I was going too fast, trying to keep up with someone else.
We passed and were passed by many other people on mountain bikes and on foot and they all looked like they were having a wonderful time, and here I was, feeling that I was struggling to make it to the top of the longest hike in the world, ever.
In fact, I think I heard myself tell St Jyoti at one point that I never wanted to do another walk like this, ever again, ever.
But I conquered Mount Everest eventually and one of the first things I did was to lie down and have a stretch!
The 360° view was stunning, beautiful: mountains, valleys, glaciers, waterfalls, the sea, Seward and of course, why we were here: Lost Lake, at the bottom of the hill. Next time, I will go down to the lake, but now, today, I didn’t want to push things too far. On the summit, Jyoti and I ate a mix of cheese, breadsticks with cheese, nuts, craisins, pop tarts, bread, chocolate. All the while, looking around and gaping at the view, enjoying the blue skies. Having a nice rest while I reset my brain to get rid of the negativity.
Looking to the south, we could see 11 or 12 glaciers up in the mountains. There were small patches of snow still on the higher slopes. There were signs of many landslides too on the upper slopes. We could see and hear water running down the ravines, but it must have been disappearing into the ground because there was no sign of water where you’d expect to see it at the bottom.
I crouched down to take a picture of the ground cover, where the leaves are changing colour from green to red. When I stood up, the world went black, I heard water rushing, and all I could think was, you’re having a dizzy spell, don’t drop the phone and oh no, there’s nothing to lean against. That was my first dizzy spell for many months (Note 1).
The others walked down to the lake which, I must admit, did look inviting. Angus had a dip in the water while Lisa and Gretchen went in up to their ankles.
They re-joined us at the top of the hill and, feeling revived, I braced myself for the long walk back. I expected it to be mostly downhill but I remember from long bike rides that you don’t always notice the easy parts on the way out but they sure bite you on the way back. Today, however, it really was downhill pretty much all the way. In places, I was able to keep up with Angus and we left the girls a long way back.
We again went past the crew who are repairing a part of the trail. On the way up, they’d been having a nice rest, but they were now working as we passed them again on the way down. It would be a terrific commute, walking several miles before doing a day’s work, but they were in fact camping nearby.
We stopped and ate more blueberries on the way down and despite being already weighed down, I picked some to take back for Liesel.
The hardest part for me was crossing a couple of streams using haphazard stepping stones that I just hoped wouldn’t give way or move.
I survived. Yes, I got all the way down without falling over, without getting my feet wet and apart from a couple of skeeter stings, no injuries. Plus, bonus, I only had to pee once in the bushes all day. I commend my bladder.
It was nearly dinner time, and we decided to drive the few miles into Seward for a meal and a drink. I didn’t recognise the town itself, I’d not seen it without snow and ice everywhere. We went to the Seward Brewing Company where I had cauliflower tempura with a spicy shoyu sauce plus a glass of stout, which was served not ice cold, unusual in America. Whoever wrote the menu has a great sense of humour:
It was a long drive back to Anchorage and I’m so grateful to Jyoti for driving. We had to stop at the doughnut shop again where Lisa had left her car.
What a fantastic day, a wonderful hike, great company, superlative views and an enormous sense of well-being.
If you’re not a Fitbit nerd, look away now: go straight to the next paragraph, do not collect £200! I think today’s hike was the longest I’ve done since the day I walked from home in Chessington into London. It was certainly much harder due to the terrain. When I got back home today, I was pleased to see that I’d walked over 30,000 steps, about 14 miles. And I still had to walk upstairs to bed! During the day, I took my 16,000,000th step since I started using the Fitbit soon after my 60th birthday. I fully expect to receive a useless pretend badge from Fitbit soon, it makes all this walking worthwhile.
I felt pretty good when Jyoti dropped me off at home, a bit tired, but no real aches and pains. I stretched all the leg muscles, took a preventative anti-inflammatory, had a shower, a long, hot shower and climbed into bed and chatted with Liesel for a bit. I expected to fall asleep more or less straightaway, but my mind was all over the place, mainly punching the air mentally, thinking what a great day it had been, and, despite what I may have said earlier, I’m really looking forward to the next challenging hike.
Note 1: A recap on my medical condition. I had a ‘free healthcheck’ when I turned 59 and was diagnosed with high blood pressure. This is a bad thing as it can lead to strokes and heart attacks. I was given medication. Very quickly, I realised that I had no energy, no stamina. From completing a 100-mile bike ride, I could barely ride 10 miles without becoming breathless. The GP prescribed a different drug but I was still unable to do as much exercise. I was feeling ridiculously tired after a day at work (I was a postman). I was told that because I was so active, I was aware of these changes to my body. Most patients with high blood pressure are sedentary and can’t tell the difference.
I followed the advice to cut down on salt and caffeine intake and little by little, my BP came down.
But something else was happening too. Now, if I stood up suddenly, or if I ran up the stairs after sitting down for a while, I would feel dizzy. My head would go all mushy and I would have to fight myself very hard not to fall over. I held on to whatever was close at hand, a wall, a tree, a person, until I came back to normal.
This is the sign of low blood pressure, which the GP confirmed is as bad as, if not worse than, high BP. I said, well, can I come off the drugs, then? Not straightaway, she said, but the dosage was halved.
A few months later, after a number of ‘normal’ BP readings, I came off the drugs completely. I thought that I would soon be as fit as I was before. I thought my strength and stamina would return.
And to be fair, it has improved a lot since I came off the medication. But I can’t say I am back to normal. The fact that today, I couldn’t catch my breath for long periods at a time while walking up a long hill and that I had couple of dizzy episodes tells me that my body chemistry is still messed up from the blood pressure medication.
I don’t mind getting out of breath and I don’t mind having limited stamina, but I know what my body used to be capable of, and it’s just not as good as it used to be. And I certainly never used to have dizzy spells. I had two today, the first in many months.
I said as soon as things started going wrong that I was much better off when I had ‘high blood pressure’ but just didn’t know about it. And I still feel that way.
I have a theory that my BP might be ‘high’ by some standard or other, but it’s ‘normal’ for me. And that what is considered ‘normal’ is too low for me. Plus, now, something’s been messed up by the medication, maybe permanently.
Still, it was a good, long, hard day today and I’m glad I did it. I think I learned a lot, and one thing is, I have to tell people if I can’t keep up. They’ll just have to slow down a bit, or at least allow me more frequent stops so I can catch my breath.
This is the background to why I got a bit cross a few times on this hike. And why, despite everything, I’m not going to let this experience put me off doing things.