Wednesday, August 31, 2016

When socks become corsets (and other adventures in rheumatoid arthritis)

On the summit ridge of Rocky Mountain in the Bob Marshall
Wilderness over the past weekend. 

I had the humbling and utterly premature - by at least 50 years - experience of being dressed by another person this morning. Linds had the distinct honor of playing the part of my arms and hands as I clumsily, and quite painfully, ticked off the rudiments of my morning rituals. Left to my own devices, I would have been contented to go about my day in nothing more than boxer briefs. And, in the immortal and wholly sacrosanct words of Kurt Vonnegut, "so it goes."

To be fair, I could have dressed myself. It would be misleading to suggest otherwise. The process simply would have taken five times as long and been rich with more four-letter words than should be uttered before 7:30 on a Wednesday morning.  

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a strange beast. As with many conditions, particularly those whose symptoms are rooted in chronic pain, its manifestations are as wide-ranging as its keeper. Imagine: pain as unique as the innumerable snowflakes that descend from the heavens. Beautiful. Painfully and tragically, beautiful. 

It has been a solid four or more years since I have experienced anything like a major symptom of RA. That all changed in the middle of January when distant, yet distinct, twinges of pain begin returning to my hands and arm joints. Not unlike the topography of the Wind River Range in Wyoming as one moves closer to its central thrust, the peaks of the pain have been steadily rising and the valleys along with it. And so it is with RA, and I imagine, with all chronic pain: the intensity of pain in the valleys grows to match the initial levels of pain first experienced on the peaks. Over time the pain simply exists in the background. Some days it is infuriating and many days it is mild nuisance, like doing dishes. The past eight months have been marked by a movement towards the central thrust of - what I hope to be - the highest peaks of this wholly metaphorical pain experience.

So it was today that I found myself on the verge of helplessness as I readied for the day. It is indeed a strange feeling to find oneself sitting on the edge of one's bed engaged in a stare-down with a pair of socks wondering, "how in the hell do I get those things on?" Confounding. The socks may as well have been a corset, an item of clothing of which my knowledge base begins and ends with its spelling. Utterly foreign.

Here's the thing: in spite of struggles and warranted moments of sincere frustration, I am happy. First off, it could always be worse. Cancer, neurological disorders, diabetes, heart disease, asthma: all these things, all threatening life to varying degrees, scare the hell out of me. And people suffer from them! Bah! Yes, it could be worse. 

Secondly, it could probably be better. Yes, it - life absent of chronic pain - would be better. When deeply mired in the pain, as I am now, this equates to hope. It WILL get better. It always has and always will. I know it will. Empirically I know this to be true and as a hopeless optimist, I highly suspect it will come to pass. 

And back to the first point, about my circumstances being worse, they could most assuredly be! I do feel an infinite level of gratitude for the continued health of my legs. In spite of all of the upper body pain, my legs and hips continue to perform pain-free and gracefully. With my first love being mountain travel, I am incredibly grateful that this is the case. In my early days with RA, my knees would routinely balloon up with fluid and require draining and cortisone shots. 

What's next? Well, I have an old friend, Humira, an injectable RA med, waiting patiently for me in the refrigerator. Tonight, we will be reunited and I will humbly accept the circumstances in which I find myself.

Onward and upward,


P.S. I am nearing the 100th summit mark (2,000 feet of ascent or better) for 2016. Additionally, I am a couple of weeks out from standing on top of Mount Sentinel for the 600th time and on top of ol' Stuart Peak for the 50th. Stay tuned throughout the next couple of months as I reinvigorate this blog with tales from the mountains! In spite of the RA setbacks this summer, it has easily been the richest in terms of mountain travel. 

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Tour de Sentinel 2.0

The redline traces the route. The first lap followed the route left to right with the second lap reversing the route. 
First lap (ascent): Ridge Trail (M trailhead) to north summit to south summit
First lap (descent): Pengelly Ridge to Maurice Ave. Trailhead
Second lap (ascent): Pengelly Ridge to south summit to north summit
Second lap (descent): Ridge Trail (M trailhead)
Distance: ~9 miles
Vertical: 4,000 feet
Time: 2 hours 12 minutes (1h 8m on the first lap and 1h 4m on the second lap)

Tuesday marked the start of a new chapter in mountain travel. The past six months have been, in effect, recalibration units, each month serving as an opportunity for retrospection and identification of the way forward. It was six months ago that an old injury flared up and prevented me from going on a fabulous twofer climb of Gannett and Granite peaks with my friend Phil (Phil succeeded in summiting both Gannet and Granite in less than a week's time, a remarkable effort).

Staying home back in August reminded me of the fragility of this whole mountain-ascension enterprise. It seems that sidelining injuries are just a part of the game. It is the love for mountains and the drive to go up them that continues to propel me through recovery.

I entered the New Year in good health, my legs strong as ever and rheumatoid arthritis controlled. Per tradition, I established a slew of mountain-related goals for the upcoming year:

- Stand on top of Stuart Peak each month of the year (an ongoing, 3-year's old goal)
- Climb the southeast and northeast faces of Stuart in under a cumulative hour
- Stand on top of Mount Sentinel at least 100 times (an ongoing, 4-year's old goal)
- Aim for a double (under 2 hours) and triple (under 3 hours) dip of Mount Sentinel from base to summit
- Take a stab at Granite OR Gannett during the summer months
- Take a stab at Mount Whitney and Mount Hood in the late-spring

This set of mountain goals has become pretty standard over the past 4-5 years.

Back to Tuesday's new chapter. It was a new chapter in the sense that I pushed myself physically within a standard that accounts for my whole health. Far from myopic, before the enterprise, I asked myself if I was in condition to undertake a speed-double of Mount Sentinel, and, if I did, how would I fair post-outing? Although I couldn't have known the answer to the second question, I based the answer on how I have recovered in the past given my current state of health.

So, I went for it.

I disembarked from the M Trailhead at 6:02PM. I arrived on the north summit of Sentinel ~26 minutes  and 2,000 vertical feet later via the Ridge Trail. Although not my fastest time, I felt confident and strong with the time and especially reassured that I would not have to do the ridge again on this outing (I have done laps on the Ridge Trail in the past and it can be a challenging mind game on that steep trail).

I carried on to the south summit as the last light of dusk cascaded into the West. Icy in spots, I noted that without a headlamp - which was my situation - the return journey down to the saddle would be a treacherous one on the ice that was tucked away in the forest between the summits. I crossed up and over the south summit of Sentinel and carried on down the Pengelly Ridge with a smile on my face.

I love descending the Pengelly Ridge. As a power-hiker, I can take full advantage of the relatively shallow angle and lengthen my stride and increase my overall speed. I cruised! ~30 minutes later I had covered the ~3 miles back to the base of Mount Sentinel at the Maurice Avenue Trailhead. I tagged the garbage can, checked the clock (7:10PM), pulled an about-face and headed back up the mountain.

I was pleased that I had covered the first lap in 1 hour and 8 minutes.

The shallow slope virtue of the Pengelly Ridge trail extends to the ascent as well. I enjoyed lengthening my stride and adjusting my posture to power up the trail. I felt strong and giddy from the effort: laughter and smiles abounded.

The ascent up Pengelly, although enjoyable, was relatively uneventful. As I crossed over the south summit for the second time Tuesday evening, I checked my clock: 7:45PM. I was pleased to have covered the ~3 miles up in 35 minutes.

As expected, I had a heckuva a time descending through the wooded saddle without the aid of a headlight. Truly stubbornness is at play here. I have probably summited Mount Sentinel over 350 times at night without a headlamp. It is a matter of principle. What that principle is founded on, who knows? Pride? Probably. Anyways, I used my trekking poles to feel my way through the woods, losing the trail here and there, but always maintaining the generally trajectory of my next destination: the north summit.

Finally, I cleared the woods and took the final steps to the north summit. Hurray! It was all downhill from there.

On the summit for the second time that evening, I felt strong, happy and contented. I felt like I had done exactly what I was made to do. It is hard to express how much joy is generated through these types of challenges. It is the culminated of thoughtful planning, dedicated training, natural beauty and endorphins that make these types of experiences truly transcendent.

I enjoyed the descent down the Ridge Trail. Steep equals expedient. I listened to my Ridge Trail descent standards: "Untitled 4" and "Untitled 8" from Sigur Ros' "Untitled Album." I reached the M Trailhead - and the end of my journey - before "Untitled 8" concluded. The time read 8:14PM: 2 hours and 12 minutes total (1 hour 4 minute second lap).

I was pleased with the time. I had been aiming for a sub-2 hour 30 minute finish. What's more, I was pleased with how I felt: strong, durable and accomplished.

What's next? Time will tell! I am aiming for a sub-3 hour triple round-trip in March. I am fully committed to calling the endeavor off should my body protest. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to do the double on Tuesday.

Onward and upward,