Carlisle Pryce is a naturalist. Old school. He reserves for himself one day every week and hikes seven, eight, nine miles. He paints and takes photographs. He knows the names and characteristics of all the plants and animals he sees. He knows weather. Three, four times a year Pryce hikes for ten days -- meaning, he drives to the end of the road, parks his Honda, straps on a backpack, and walks into the bush. Walks ten days. Almost always in California, almost always in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Pryce is tall, 6 foot 6, has longish white hair and beard, fierce black eyes with a basketball player's physique, and a Harvard Ph.D. in his back pocket. He's been walking California for the past 51 years. We're sitting at his round oak dining room table talking about the October hike. Kick off was Kennedy Meadows in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains. This time he was accompanied by his son and two friends.
I ask, "You knew you were going to hit snow?"
"We knew we could; we didn't know we would hit it as much as we did. We had three days and three nights of snow and high winds. The wind was a killer.
"The first day of high wind, we walked eight or nine miles. It got pretty bad. We stopped, got in our sleeping bags, only got out to fix dinner. The next morning we stayed in our bags. Finally, at 11 o'clock, we decided we had to move.
"One of the guys was showing altitude sickness. The triggering event was getting chilled to the bone by the wind. I wasn't prepared for the wind. The wind was picking up rocks the size of quarters and skipping them uphill.
"The insidious thing on this trip was, we went in on horses. The idea was to get dropped off and walk back. Going in, your gear is on pack mules, and the packers don't like to stop. And we all wanted to go as far as possible in one day.
"When you're going in, you're going up in altitude. You're in a very dry atmosphere, sunlight is bouncing up off rocks and so on. You're getting significant radiation. Your tissues are going to swell, and the liquids are going to have to go somewhere. At the same time, you're working off the adrenaline and thrill of being on the hike. It's windy and you're perspiring. If you're wearing cotton, the wind will chill you down to your skin."
I can picture that. "And everybody says to themselves, 'I'm not walking, I'm not carrying anything.'"
Carlisle nods. "Everyone pushes it. And once you're there, you run around like a bunch of monkeys because it's so good to be there."
"Were you surprised when you realized you had altitude sickness?"
"No; I was disappointed. My son got it first. I should have noticed. His pace started getting smaller and smaller and smaller. The last three days he was taking 12-inch steps; he was really suffering."
"What are the symptoms?"
"Either your lungs or your brain fills up with liquid. In your brain, you get severe headaches. That's the one to look out for. If that happens, you do whatever you have to do to get him out. You've got to get him down to 7500, 7800 feet."
"Anything. In this case, my lungs filled up as did his. We were coughing continuously. I was coughing up a bit of blood.
"The other problem is, you stop breathing. Suddenly, you're starved for oxygen, and you start breathing very quickly. Then, the next thing you know you're not breathing again. When people get altitude sickness, they're so sick they don't want to eat. You have to force them to eat and drink and rest. Hard to do with grown men.
"I knew we had to get to a lower altitude. We were above the timberline and needed to get to where we could burn firewood. We walked all day and found a suitable campsite after dark.
"We spent two nights there, burned wood, put a tarp around the fire, trying to keep the worst of the wind away. Drank a lot of cocoa and a lot of soup. Finally, it looked as if the storm was going to lift, so we started walking out. We still had to make our way over two passes that were more than 10,000 feet high.
"I chose a route out that was closest to the trail that all the packers use. I was hoping we'd meet a packer on his way in because they carry radios."
"We did. He radioed the office and told them we were coming out. The foreman radioed back and asked, 'Do they look as if they can make it on their own?' Packers are smart; they've seen real train wrecks up there. The wrangler said he thought we'd make it."