Mount Ruskin via the East Ridge and Pulmonary Edema Round Two

  • Updated: July 04, 2015
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

July 2nd to 6th 4th, 2015
Mount Ruskin (12,920')
[Pics] [Map]

The 4th of July is one of those work holidays perfectly positioned during Sierra climbing season.  I always try to take a few extra days off and go run amok in the high country somewhere and this year was no exception.

This time the trip was over Taboos Pass which is an eastern Sierra trailhead that's somewhat notorious due to the fact you climb about 6000 ft in roughly 5 miles.  Efficient!  But once you make it up that it's a spectacular area and there's a number of really awesome peaks.  This time we were aiming for Ruskin and Arrow along with whatever else we could manage.

But before you think it all sounds too idyllic I should say this was the second trip this year planned as a 5 day where things happened and we had to come out early.  And this time the cause was a second round of high altitude pulmonary edema aka HAPE.

But more on that later.

We weren't able to reserve a permit so Jen (being a teacher and on summer break) volunteered to drive up Wednesday morning to get a walk-up permit as soon as they became available.   Kristen and I followed up after work only slightly resentful at having been stuck in town longer.

Driving up the east side there was an amazing electrical storm.  At least every 30 seconds there was another bright flash or crash of thunder.  And it just didn't end.  It made for an entertaining drive as it lit up the sky and mountains and once we arrived made it a bit hard to sleep.

We found Jen sleeping in her car at the Taboos Creek Campground due to the periodic rain.  We set up a tent and tried to sleep but I don't think there were 30 seconds without a flash from the point we arrived until 4 am.

So we were a little short on sleep when we got started.  As usual  And it was going to be hot.

In addition to being 6k of gain the Taboose Pass trail has the annoying feature of starting really low down.  The first mile and a half of so is actually across the desert floor.  And the forecast had it as a very hot day down low so we were in a hurry to gain some altitude.

By the time we got to the trailhead and got moving it was already damn hot.  And humid!  We spent a good chunk of the day just soaked in sweat.

While there is a lot of gain the trail is pretty good and climbs steadily.  Jen remembered it being really loose and dusty last time (I recall differently but I climbed it several years before) but if so the moisture removed all of that.

There are periodic water crossings along the way so you don't have to worry about carrying a lot.

We also had an incident where we brushed against some of the vegetation and ended up getting a bit of a reaction.  I was never able to identify which one it was that caused it.

The temperature dropped a little as we went up but it was just goddamn muggy.

By the time we hit the pass we were looking for a place to stop.

The impressive peak in the background is Arrow.

The pass is big and flat and gives you epic views.  It was also a long day for us and we were loosing daylight so we decided to stop earlier rather than hike several hours get to our original planned camp at Bench Lake.  We struggled to find a campsite as everyplace we looked either had no flat spots or we would have been on vegetation.  Finally we found a patch of sand in the middle of the meadow near where the old trail was before it was rerouted off to the side.

We made one of our evergreen backpacking meals asparagus and goat cheese pasta along with some very well earned red wine.

Sometime that night we had another intense electrical storm though this one moved past us rather than hanging over us like the previous night.  Nothing like laying in a tent while lightning goes off all around you in a large open area...

The next morning we decided we'd do Ruskin from our camp and then move over to Bench the following day or the day after depending how the day went.  I'd had some stomach issues as we came over the pass and was feeling a little slow that morning.

We're on sand here I promise
You can see Ruskin in the background.

We headed down the west side of the pass and soon joined the JMT.

We had a stream crossing here and after trying to find a place we could cross with boots on gave up and waded across.  Even then we had to take care due to the slick rocks and fast moving water.

Some of us had an easier time than others.  Jen was able to plow right across while I had a few near slips and finally just threw my approach shoes back on and waded across.  (Normally I'd have crocs for that but I don't usually carry those on summit day.  Doh!)

There were a fair amount of mosquitoes about so we hurried up the far side of the canyon as quickly as we could.

Looking back at what we'd just come up

We eventually got into the drainage we'd been aiming for.  We just had to climb the ridge to the right and Ruskin is the big bump at the head.  Easy, right?

We looked at a few different options before doing something that was 4th class if you ask me.  It wasn't hard but a fall would have gone a pretty fair distance and likely broken my record.

Looking back down the ridge

Once on the ridge things are pretty straightforward with only one known spot where it gets tricky.

I was struggling to keep up my usual pace.  I wasn't in the best shape of the last few years but I'd been doing other trips this summer.  It didn't feel like altitude sickness or like I was out of shape I just couldn't move very fast.  We discussed a few different theories and crawled up the ridge at the pace I could manage.

The summit is back behind that bump

This is the tricky bit.  It wasn't hard, far easier than our route getting up on the ridge, but it's not a place you'd want to fall.

From there you're basically at the summit.

The views aren't bad.

Reversing the one tricky spot was actually easier than we though.

We had dark clouds were were keeping an eye especially after the storms the last few days.

We went down into the same drainage dropping down not long after the tricky spot.  It was an easy (-ish) boulder scramble and an easy descent back to the JMT.

This time at the stream crossing we managed to find a log and were spared having to take our boots off.

I was slowing us down to the point where moving camp to Bench Lake that night just wasn't going to happen.  I was struggling just to make it back up the easy side of the pass.

Me looking slightly less than joyous

We did make it back to camp just as the last of the daylight was done.  We were all exhausted and decided we needed a good nights sleep more than we needed an extra peak or two.  We decided we'd move camp in the morning.

So you can imagine the levels of joy when I woke up sometime around 2 in the morning with a rather familiar cough.

5 years ago on one of my first few Sierra Club trips I had a mild case of pulmonary edema while climbing Lyell and Maclure.  At the time I didn't know what was happening and thought I might have come down with a sudden case of bronchitis.  That time I hiked out, struggling the entire way, and ended up at an ER in Bishop.  A little bit of supplementary oxygen and a few hours and I was all better.

I had the same cough.  Pushing all the air out of my lungs made the familiar gurgle / crackle and the weakness on the ridge the day before suddenly a little more sense.  You're muscles just don't get enough oxygen and feel tired in a way that's hard to describe.  I climb mountains for fun and I'm used to pushing though tired muscles but this is harder.

I woke up the girls and we decided we had to bail.  Bench Lake would put me on the wrong side of the pass and if I got worse we were talking a helicopter rescue.

By 3:30 we were walking with the girls taking more than their share of the weight.

The hardest part was getting up and over the pass.  We were camped a bit below and it took us indeterminable hours to climb over.  I kept my head down an occasionally sat on the ground gasping.

We made it over about first light and I started doing better gradually once we were headed down the far side.

I did a lot better during the descent but it was depressing not getting Arrow.  I'd planned a trip to do Arrow, Ruskin, and a few others a few summers back only to have an extended illness force me to cancel completely.  But hey, 3rd times the charm right?

By the time we (finally) made the cars I didn't feel the need to go in to an ER.  Also south of Bishop I'm not even sure they have an ER for several hours.

The reoccurrance of HAPE is rather worrying just because I spend a lot of time in the mountains and some of those trips go to places where it's not real easy to get back out.  I was on edge for next few trips after the 2009 incident but since then I've done at least 90 Sierra climbs (based off picture set counts) including ones that camped higher or pushed things a lot harder.  Nevermind how many non-Sierra mountains I've been up on top of that.

I had 4 more trips this summer and none of them had any issues like this.  I'm quite frankly at a loss and I'd love to hear from anyone with similar experiences or any ideas.

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