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Mt. Healy, High Blood Pressure, and Not COVID – July 2020

In late July, Cat and I attempted to hike Mt. Healy via Bison Gulch, just south of Healy, Alaska. It gets added to the list of failed attempts on my list for 2020. This just isn’t a good year.

This year has been kicking my butt. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve had to come to terms with not being able to complete a hike because my body simply can’t do it. I can only remember a few times in my life where I bailed on a hike. Once because another party member was seriously ill. I’ve had a few others where the weather of other outside factors made it impossible to continue safely. But, it’s never been because I physically can’t. Only now as I’m writing this in late August am I starting to accept this. I’ve had some depressingly frustrating moments over the last few months.

Part of the problem is the “mystery” illness I had in April, where I could barely get out of bed for a little over two weeks. I went well over a month before I could walk down to the end of the driveway and back. I suffered from a persistent cough and had great trouble breathing (later I tested negative for COVID-19 antibodies). I lost a lot of muscle mass in that time and gained a fair amount of weight. It wasn’t until June that I could really do anything that resembled exercise.

The sickness was compounded by the litany of medications I’ve been trying over the past 8 months in an attempt to get my blood pressure under control. Right before I fell ill I had an increased dosage on one (a beta-blocker called Metoprolol). About a month later I started having really intense heart palpitations. That led me to a cardiologist’s office where I had to wear a monitor for a while and get an ultrasound and have a stress test done for my heart. The conclusion was my heart was fine, despite the palpitations fluid build-up in my legs, and the inability to exercise anywhere near the levels I could earlier in the year.

View of the Park's Highway from the Bison Gulch Trail on Mt. Healy
The view of the Parks Highway over the Nenana River from the Bison Gulch trail

The heart palpitations seemed to increase right around the time I was due to take my Metoprolol, so we figured maybe the drug was running low on my body and causing my heart to skip its beat. Since the drug seemed to be also be causing some weight gain, and definitely fluid build-up, I decided I wanted to try reducing the dosage.

My doctor agreed, and we cut the dosage in half. Immediately I had more energy, lost a few pounds, and the swelling in my legs and feet came down. I was excited to start trying to increase my exercise levels.

CamelBak New Arrivals

So clearly, my first thought is, “let’s go climb Mt. Healy.” In my mind I graduated from being able to walk down the road being able to do a 9-mile hike with well over 4,000 feet of climbing in the first 3 miles. I was so completely wrong. I completely understand that I was super eager to get out, and hopefully start making up for lost time. Part of it is muscle memory, I was perfectly capable of this 6 or 7 months ago. I’m still coming to terms with the fact that recovery is going to be slow.

Well, we tried. This hike is incredibly steep. Steep and persistent. And the wind was incredible; it must have been blowing steadily at 40-50 mph, with faster gusts.

Hiker on the Bison Gulch Trail on Mt. Healy
Cat on the initial climb, trying not to get blown over. The trail gains over 1,300 ft in the first mile.

The trail levels off slightly after 1.5 miles, the steep sections getting steeper higher up, but for shorter stretches. The wind abated somewhat. Time was becoming a concern as we had to get home to rescue the dog in a few hours.

I was “feeling the burn”. My legs were tired and incredibly weak, I was starting to wobble a bit. A little over three miles (and 4020 ft. of elevation gain), we were on the last shelf before the summit climb. I felt like I may be able to make it, but was also very aware it was going to take me more than an hour to hike the last mile. This was definitely my turn-around spot. As it turned out, I may not have made it if I had tried.

The rocky summit of Mt. Healy viewed from the Bison Gulch Trail
View of Mt. Healy from our turn-around
Views of the western ridge near Mt. Healy
Incredible and unique terrain in all directions

After descending a very steep talus slope, we were back on the trail. I noticed early on that I was needing to pause every quarter of a mile or so on the descent to rest my quads. As we continued, the intervals between rests were getting shorter and I took longer to recover. About 1.5 miles from the car, the fatigue turned into pain. Every step my quad muscles stung and my knees wanted to buckle. I thought I might fall, not from losing my balance, but from my legs buckling.

One mile from the parking lot, a marmot came out to sunbathe. This was the perfect excuse for me to sit down for a bit and get my telephoto lens out. I spent about 10 more minutes watching him and taking photos than I normally would have.

Hoary marmot along the Bison Gulch Trail on Mt. Healy
Hoary marmot on a rock along the Bison Gulch trail | Purchase Print

Muscle recovery after the rest was short-lived. The pain turned back on quickly, and every step was excruciating. I regretted not using my trekking poles from the start, rather than just on the downhill. Less than a mile from the car and I was questioning whether or not I could finish.

I was taking short, slow steps, pausing to rest about every 50 feet. It’s not often that my uphill speed outpaces my descent speed. I remember that in the last quarter-mile, my head started getting wacky, even wanting to stop and sit in the mud as I’m staring at the roadway just a little ways through the alders. I managed to fight the urge to give up, less than 300 yards from the parking area.

After the drive home, I had the daunting task of walking up the seven steps to the front door of our house. The next two days were fairly miserable, especially if I found myself on any kind of a slope. I think it was about six days before I felt recovered from this hike. I’m sure that even at my best, I would have been a little sore for the next day or two, after all, it is a challenging hike. But, I don’t think I’ve ever taken a week to recover from physical activity. It put a damper on my running training.

Since this hike, I’ve halved my Metoprolol dosage again. And again, I’ve lost a bit of weight and water retention, and I’m starting to feel some strength gains, or at least a lack of fatigue. I’m excited to come off of it entirely in a month, especially if it’s the main culprit in my exercise woes. I’m slowly learning the lesson that I’m not invincible, and despite what I’ve always told myself, I can’t do anything I put my mind to. Sometimes I need to listen to my body.

You can find the rest of the photos from this day here: 2020-07-30 Photos

I haven’t posted a guide yet for this hike (I usually like to post them complete), but I may since this is a common spot to turn around.

Here’s another hike on Mt. Healy from the Denali National Park side:

Blog Comments

Long time reader, probably first time caller. Sorry to read about your troubles hiking. If you had Covid 19, it can cause heart damage. See https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/covid-19-can-wreck-your-heart-even-if-you-havent-had-any-symptoms/ and https://www.emsworld.com/news/1224673/jama-three-quarters-adults-covid-19-have-heart-damage. Show these articles to your doc and get a better cardiac workup. Many docs are not up on the latest findings. The pain that you describe sounds like you hit your lactate threshhold, which the Covid probably lowered substantially. I’m aware of lactate threshold because mine is extraordinarily high…about equal to my VO2max. I basically don’t feel pain no matter how much I exert, which has its own set of problems and risks. Wishing you the best

Thanks for the insight and the links! I’m also a climber and climbing coach and I noticed a few weeks ago that it seems my anaerobic lactic energy system is totally failing me. I have about 8 to 10 seconds of almost normal power output and then nothing, almost complete muscle failure after that at high exertion. I plan to mention it at my next visit in a few weeks. Seems like something is going wrong with my glycolysis process somewhere.

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