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Sunrise from Mt. Belford

Mt. Princeton and Mt. Yale from Mt. Belford, Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, Colorado

Mt. Princeton and Mt. Yale from Mt. Belford, Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, Colorado

The last of the three Fourteeners I planned to do on my May 2013 Fourteener shoot was Mt. BeIford. I had saved the easiest peak for last. All I needed to do was follow the broken track I’d created the previous day from my camp at 12,500 feet to 14,000 feet on the south ridge of Mt. Belford, then break trail the final 200 vertical feet to the summit. Based on my pace the previous two days, I figured I could gain about 500 feet per hour, which meant the climb should take about three and a half hours – three hours for the elevation gain, plus half an hour to traverse the nearly flat summit ridge. I wanted to summit about 3 a.m. to give myself an hour before astronomical dawn to shoot the Milky Way. I left camp at 11:30 p.m. For reasons I did not yet understand, my pace turned out to be much slower than on the two previous ascents. I stopped on top of a knoll at about 13,990 feet when it became clear I wasn’t going to make the summit in time to shoot the Milky Way. A large cloud bank was advancing quickly from the south, but I managed to shoot a few frames before the clouds swallowed the stars. I packed up and continued to the summit, where a fierce easterly wind drove me to seek the shelter of a nearby rock outcrop as I waited for sunrise.

Only a few hints of warm light kissed the clouds at sunrise. Slowly I headed back to camp. The day had warmed rapidly and the snow was already soft by the time I reached my tent around 10 a.m. Rather than pack up right away and head down, I decided to stay one more night. Instead of battling bottomless slush at midday, I’d get up early, skip any sunrise shooting, and head down on well-frozen snow that would make travel easy. My lack of appetite meant I still had plenty of food and fuel. 

The afternoon proved to be quite stormy. The snow anchors I had buried when I first made camp had melted out in the warmth of the previous day. Now they pulled loose. Snow was falling at a rate of an inch an hour. For a time I tried bracing the tent against the powerful gusts, then finally resigned myself to pulling on boots and shells and venturing out into the storm to secure the tent with my ice ax and snowshoes. Dinner was a packet of freeze-dried eggs, eaten without appetite. Slowly I was realizing that something was wrong beyond mere fatigue and lack of sleep. I developed a cough, but couldn’t cough anything up. When I took a deep breath I could feel a faint gurgling or rattling in my lungs. The feeling was worse when I lay down, and worse still if I lay on my left side instead of my right. I began to suspect I was developing high-altitude pulmonary edema, a potentially fatal accumulation of fluid in the lungs. 

I knew my enemy well, since I had developed pulmonary edema at 16,400 feet on Alaska’s Mt. Foraker back in 1983. My condition worsened as the night dragged on. I grew increasingly short of breath. Even rolling over in my sleeping bag made me pant. I got up at 5 a.m., ate a little breakfast, and began to pack. The slightest exertion made me struggle endlessly to catch my breath. I began to count the number of breaths it took me to recover enough to perform the next simple task – first 30, then 40, then 50. I thought about sending an SOS on my Spot Connect, an emergency locator beacon that communicates via satellite, but decided I could make it out.

With everything inside my tent packed up at last, I crawled outside into a cold wind. Digging the tent anchors out of the now-frozen snow took tremendous effort. Finally I had everything stowed in the pack and lashed on outside. Even with most of the food gone, the pack was still heavy, with a camera body, three lenses, big tripod, multi-row panorama setup weighing four pounds, winter tent, warm sleeping bag, hanging stove kit, and on and on. I made one attempt to hoist my pack and get it on my back, got it as far as my knee, and dropped it. There was no way I could carry that load down 3,000 vertical feet. I thought about putting the tent up again and waiting for rescue but decided against it. Surely I could walk out under my own power if I didn’t have a load. Waiting was likely to make my condition deteriorate still further. I knew that the only sure cure was descent. I took the key to my truck, my wallet, the memory cards from the camera, a pint of Cytomax, a map and compass, the clothes I was wearing, and started down.

Each step was an effort, but at least I was moving in the right direction, and with each step the air got a tiny bit thicker. Still fighting for every breath, my mouth and throat grew terribly parched. Every fifteen or twenty minutes I collapsed in the snow to rest. At length I reached an open section of stream and could drink my fill. The snowpack thinned at last and I removed my snowshoes. It took me seven hours to descend 3,000 feet over a distance of three miles and finally reach my truck. After sleeping in the truck for an hour, I drove home, arriving feverish and exhausted. In the morning I felt better, but was still short of breath. After a few phone calls, I found a mountain guide in Leadville who agreed to retrieve my gear for $250. Fortunately, no one stole the camera gear before he could get to it.

High-altitude pulmonary edema normally strikes people who climb too high too fast, and is uncommon in Colorado, where even the highest peaks are still 4,000 feet lower than Everest basecamp. I had already spent one night at 9,500 feet and three nights at 12,500 feet before I became sick. Did I develop some underlying respiratory infection? I had gotten sick on mountain trips in Colorado before, but never like this. Whatever the cause, I was determined not to let it happen again. On my next Fourteener shoot, in June, I planned to slow down the pace and do one peak every other day, with a rest day in a hotel in between.

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