Deadly Dehydration

Deadly Dehydration

Don’t Let This Happen to You

Against the pale blue canopy of a cloudless sky, Thunder Mountain at dawn is a luminous layer cake of challenge. Red-rock cliffs girdle its base. Above them a jagged white dome of sandstone bulges to a height of nearly 1,900 feet over the Coconino National Forest outside Sedona, Arizona.

Studying this epic heap from the kitchen window a mile away, I suck two cups of strong coffee to get my energy up. I’ve trekked up Thunder Mountain before in less than two hours and then made it down in less than one hour, but I was scrambling to make impressive time. And that was 20 years ago – when the weather was cooler and I was in better shape. This day is supposed to reach 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40.5 degrees Celsius) in the shade. As a sedentary doughnut-belly of 53 years, I expect to need four hours at least.

Everybody else is still in bed at 7 a.m. when I put two plastic quart bottles of water in the backpack. I add one walkie-talkie to the pack and leave the other one on the counter. The pack is not too heavy, and surely there’s water enough to reach the peak without too much dehydration, and who needs water on the downhill anyway? Some people, maybe. Weaklings.

One water bottle is half empty by the time I’ve torn myself through the mile of thorn-choked gullies to Thunder Mountain’s base. It’s completely empty an hour later when I reach the top of the red-rock layer through a cleft between the cliffs. During the final ascent of white sandstone, on a trail that’s sometimes faint and sometimes disappears across rock faces, the desert air is windless and the sun is shining at full blast.

I remember having read that the body rids itself of heat in three ways: radiation, convection and evaporation (sweating). Also, when the body really heats up, the blood vessels at the skin surface dilate in order to let off more heat. But above 95 F (35 C), I now recall, you can no longer lose heat by radiation or convection. That leaves sweating. Sure enough, sweat is dripping off the end of my nose, my T-shirt is soaked and my billed cap feels like a wet washrag on my head.

At the top before 11 a.m., all of the water now gone, I spend an hour exploring the mountaintop and circling its rum to see if there is another way down, just for variety. Less than a hundred yards from where came up, I discover a near-vertical gorge that takes off in a different direction and appears to go all the way to the valley floor – and to water.

I realize suddenly that I am extremely thirsty. My heart seems to be racing all out of proportion to my stroll around the rim. One effect of dehydration is that the blood volume drops and the heart has to work harder to supply the body with oxygen. The gorge looks like a fast route, and I decide I’d better take it. I plunge downward, boulder-hopping and heel-surfing down chutes of scree, dropping down little rock walls that block the way.

An hour later, the gorge ends at the brink of sheer cliffs that drop perhaps no more than 100 yards, but I’m clearly at the end of the line. There is only one trail down, I realize too late, one opening in the cliffs. It’s the one I came up, and I’m not on it. I look back up at the way I just came down, 1,000 to 1,500 feet of climbing back to the top where I can rejoin the faint trail that can get me down. Rubber-legged and trembling with fatigue, my tongue and the inside of my mouth scraping against each other like two pieces of leather, I feel a sudden fear that I won’t be able to make it.

Looking down again, I can see, across a rolling expanse of National Forest scrub land, houses and the blue sparkle of swimming pools. I think about jumping. Its afternoon, and the family’s probably wondering where I am, but my house is on the other side of the mountain. The walkie-talkie won’t connect until I reach to the top. Should have brought the cell phone? Whatever. Didn’t. But going up is not going to be as easy as going down.

I’d heel-surfed down the slopes, but now it’s like climbing a steep sand dune where each step slides backward. I’d dropped down little cliffs. Now I have to climb the thorn-choked gullies between them, lunging numbly through tangles of “cat claw” and “crucifixion thorn” that shred my T-shirt and quilt my arms with scratches, cuts and smears of dried blood.

Suddenly I realize I’m getting clumsy and disoriented, falling against hedgehog cactus and prickly pear, tripping and sprawling and cracking my head against rocks, and the funny thing is I hardly feel it or care. As the blood volume falls with dehydration, it slows the supply of oxygen to the brain and muscles. Heat exhaustion attacks the brain too, as the body loses its ability to cool itself.

The back of my shirt, which had been wet with sweat beneath the backpack even when the rest of me was no longer sweating, is now bone-dry as well. No longer sweating at all?

“That’s pretty late on, when you’re going into heat stroke,” a doctor told me later. “That’s pretty profound dehydration, and you’ll be flat on your back by that point. You probably will have fainted, and somebody’s dragging you off.”

Panting continuously now, the dog-like last recourse for heat loss when the sweat fails, I crawl against a bounder for shade and take off my hiking boots and socks to relieve the heat a little. The white stone gorge is focusing the sun’s energy like a solar oven, and an eerie unreality haunts the landscape. The ocatillo and agave plants loom in the wavering air like giant stick-insects waiting to pounce.

If it really is 105 F (46 C) in the shade down in the valley, I realize, then it could easily be 115 degrees where I am.

According to Physiology of Man in the Desert, by Edward F. Adolph, a wonderful book, unfortunately out of print, based on research done for the U.S. Army during WW II to help service members avoid excessive dehydration, someone working vigorously for 8 hours will require:

  • About 3 quarts of water on a day when temperature peaks at 70 F (21 C).
  • About 7 quarts of water on a day when temperature peaks at 90 F (32 C).
  •  About 13 quarts of water on a day when temperature peaks at 110 F (43 C).
  • About 16 quarts of water on a day when temperature peaks at 115 F (46 C).

Now going into my eighth hour of extremely hard work on just the two quarts I finished long ago, it’s a striking thought. Am I really down by 14 quarts? Three-and-a-half gallons? The flush of a toilet? Is that me laughing? The wheezing, lunatic sound of it is sobering.

I put my socks and boots back on and begin a slow upward progress punctuated by slumps in crevices or under the edges of bushes. This is the end, I think each time. Even a helicopter might not spot me crumpled in some small corner of this awesome gorge on this vast mountain. I regret the book I’ll never get to write. The title, I decide, would be “I Am a Fool.” And there’s that laughter again. Creepy.

Each time I lie down, a powerful apathy argues against getting up, another reputed sign of dehydration. But there are people waiting for me, and my field of vision keeps closing on an imaginary glass of water beaded with condensation. Ice cubes clink against its sides as I take each imaginary sip.

By the time I reach the top and walkie-talkie down to rasp and gibber at the worried family members who have been trying to spot me with binoculars from the house, I’ve checked the contents of my wallet in preparation. I fully intend to offer the first person I meet $20 for a drink of water, but the only movement on the mountain is of the occasional flitting bird or drifting insect.

During the endless, trembling crawl back down the sun-stroked cliff trail, its clear how easily the mind might glaze, footsteps falter and fingers slip their hold. On the long rest stops in the canyon leading to the bottom, it’s obvious how easily the brain might slip from daze to doze.

After a leaden-legged march around the skirt of the mountain and across the National Forest flats to the edge of town, I look at the street signs, walkie-talkie my location to my wife and ask her to bring buckets of water. I flop in the ditch and fall asleep, hoping the spectacle won’t upset people looking out their windows from the nearby houses: A sunburned middle-aged man sprawled in the ditch, smeared with grime and blood, fat belly bulging from a T-shirt torn open to the armpits, to all appearances drunk or insane.

“Disgusting!” they might be muttering. Sensible people, after all, might easily fail to realize that this mess in the ditch just climbed Thunder Mountain. Sensible people might think it crazy to go up that mountain in this furnace heat, and idiotic to do so without bringing enough water.


The trusty Mayo Clinic has a great overview on the topic of dehydration.

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