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Medical condition ends hike
As some of you know, I recently departed for a cross-country walk. It is
with regret that I have had to terminate it so soon due to a medical
condition I did not realize I had. Words of condolence will of course be
sadly accepted, but especially I would like to hear if others have had
similar experiences. All the books are written by those who succeeded at
long hikes. No one writes to let everyone know that he fails.
My condition would have been life threatening if I had not been in a warm
place in the company of a competent experienced hiker who knew what to do.
I had done everything right, I had played by every rule I know of, and yet
I ended up with hypothermia. Had I started from Springer instead of Boston,
with the weather conditions I've recently read about in Georgia, I would be
We've all read about hypothermia. We all know getting wet or cold can bring
it on, and so can running out of food in those conditions. No hiking book
I've seen though warns that a weak digestive system can also instigate it.
It is something people need to know about. I hope it never strikes any of
you; if it should, I pray your reading about it here will make you realize
what it is, how serious it is, and that you had better get off the mountain.
Following is an "open letter" I have sent to my friends and others....
To all of you who supported me and cheered me on, and to those of you
who helped me along the way....
It is with great disappointment that, due to a medical condition, I have
returned to San Francisco.
I set out on my hike on March 13 from Boston, and for three days it was
wonderful. I was enjoying it even more than I had thought I would,
primarily because of all the great people I had met along the way. I was
eating very well also, with restaurants available to supply me with hot high
calorie meals that mountain trail hikers only dream of.
On the second day of the hike I met an avid Appalachian Trail hiker while
enjoying such a meal at lunch time. He lived ahead on my route, and he
invited me to look him up, which I did when I got there, late on the
following day. It was then 35 out and raining, and he offered to let me
sleep on the floor in an unheated part of his building, which was a store
selling outdoors gear and clothing. Dry, and at about 50 degrees, it sure
beat being outdoors! I retired warm and snug.
I awoke in the middle of the night chilled, and by daybreak, no matter how
many layers I put on, I could not get warm. My host put me in his office, a
room at 80 degrees, with two sweaters on and a space heater blowing on
me. He brought me food, but it seemed so unpalatable that I could hardly
eat it. He talked to a doctor who came in as a customer to the store, and
he called another doctor who was one of his hiking buddies. We all four
pretty much came to the same conclusion: I had hypothermia.
For those of you who are not into hiking, you may not be familiar with
hypothermia. It is a condition where the body has completely run out of
energy. It usually occurs if a hiker is caught in wet or cold without
adequate clothing, or if he runs out of food and is unable to produce body
heat in those conditions. We were all perplexed because I had eaten well, I
had all the appropriate gear, I had carried my pack 200 miles before
starting the hike to get in shape, and I was not wet or even in a place very
A major factor in my making such an effort to get in shape was that I had
had similar situations of getting tired in the past, and I had assumed I was
just "out of shape". As a result, I had gotten in shape more than most
people do when starting such an adventure. I had taken my fully loaded
pack out, covering 10 to 14 miles in a day, each time taking on 1000 feet in
elevation gain. I had done this 3 or 4 days a week for the month before the
After several hours I was not getting better. I thought maybe getting some
sugar in my bloodstream would help, so I walked across the town square
to get a large ginger ale. I returned to the store and downed it. Within
about 20 minutes my color returned and I felt like eating again, though I felt
very weak. My host said he had seen me walk across the plaza, and that I
definitely walked with a shuffle, a definite sign of hypothermia.
His doctor said it appeared my digestive system was not up to processing
all the food I was throwing at it. Everyone has a limit as to how much food
their system can process. If you were to wolf down a pie a day maybe
you'd gain a pound a day from the fat, but if you were to wolf down ten pies
a day, you wouldn't gain ten times as much, because at some point, your
food input exceeds what your system can process. Well, from what I've
read of other hikers, seen what other hikers say on the Internet, and heard
from others, my hike was not too much to expect from my system. Many
hikers walk more miles than I was walking on rough trails up and down at
high elevations. I was walking smooth roads at near sea level. So we
concluded something was not normal.
I was perhaps only able to process enough food to provide energy for half
a day of hiking, and that thereafter each day I was dipping into my spare
energy reserves. The spare energy reserves are like a bank account where
the bank never sends you statements, but, as I was learning, boy do they
let you know if you are overdrawn! After three days of dipping into them,
they were empty, and I no longer had enough energy to keep warm even.
The doctor suspected diabetes or low thyroid, either of which would not
provide my innards with the chemicals they need to process food. He said
it would take several days to run the tests. If either of these were the
problem, they were correctable with medication, and I could soon be on my
There were no medical facilities nor motels in the town. I had said I would
not accept rides on the hike, except in emergency, but this qualified. The
best bet seemed to have Ellen (my sister-in-law) come and take me over to
where she lived in Jaffrey, 22 miles ahead on my route, where I would have
a place to stay and where their doctor could tend to my needs.
The Jaffrey doctor suspected the same problems and ran tests. I rested up
for several days, half hoping it would be thyroid because a simple pill
would fix that, yet hoping also that it was not, because no one wants to
have something wrong with them. Well, the tests came back normal. The
doctor said in that case there would be no "fix," and that my digestive
system just has a lower capacity than most people's.
I could not quit without giving it one more try. I had Ellen take me back
those 22 miles and over a day and a half I hiked them forwards along my
route to Jaffrey. This time I paid especial attention to my body, and how
tired it felt. By the time I got half way there, I already felt some tiredness.
The evening I got to Jaffrey, near bedtime I started shivering violently. I
turned up the heat from 70 to 80, and I alternated drinking sodas and hot
water out of the tap. It was hypothermia again, but I caught it early, and by
morning I felt tired, but otherwise I FELT COMPLETELY OK! I had carried a
40 pound pack 22 miles, and my back didn't hurt at all. My legs didn't hurt.
My feet had developed nice smooth callusing and they felt great. Except
for the tiredness, I felt fabulous. I realized I truly was in shape. But
inside I was exhausted.
After much thought, comparing that week's hiking with many other hikes I
have done, it became apparent that in the long run I can only hike about ten
miles a day because energy for that is all my digestive system can process
in a day. Covering that distance would mean that I would be done hiking
by 10:30 a.m. each day, and that I'd often end up in a place where I'd have
nothing to do for all the remaining hours. My days would cease to be fun.
Furthermore, I would at that rate need two years to get back to San
Francisco, and I'd never make it southward before winter sets in. With
much sadness I admitted that the hike is not something physically possible
for me to do.
I just could not allow myself to be thrust back into San Francisco at jet
speed, so I opted for a slower pace. I took four days to make the trip. I
took Amtrak. I thought this would give me time to reflect, but actually it
gave me something much better. With new scenery to see and new people
to talk to at every turn, it was a great way to get my mind off the whole
affair, and it turned out that is what I wanted to do. In all the conversations
I had on the train, I chose to never bring up one topic: the hike.
Somehow, knowing I physically cannot do the hike has taken my mind off it
for the first time in many years. I now know I must get on with other things
in my life. This is something I would have done when the hike ended, of
course, but now I am doing it earlier. No, I cannot do the hike, but I have
not solely suffered loss. I have gained one thing at least: a year in my life,
a year to do something else instead.
San Francisco, Calif.