Days before turning 83 years old, Macon County resident James Pader set the record for the oldest hiker to climb Mt. Whitney in one day.
Starting the hike up Mount Whitney a little after 8 p.m., Pader said the plan was for the group, which consisted of Pader's daughter Olga Lampkin, his son Jimmy and friend Sarah Lowell, to summit early the next day. At 14,508 feet, Mt. Whitney, located in the Sierra Nevada range of California, is the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. “Afternoon thundershowers and lightning is always a risk at that altitude and is one of the dangers of being on the summit late in the day,” said Pader. “Lightning had killed hikers there in previous years. Our hope was to summit before noon and begin our return soon after.”
The 22-mile roundtrip trek gains nearly 7,000 feet of climbing from the base, requiring months of advance planning to summit and return within one day, not to mention the physical preparation required. It takes most climbers three to four days of backpacking.
Hardly an hour after they set out, the group met hikers returning to the trailhead and one of them was carrying two large backpacks. "They told us that the extra backpack belonged to an injured hiker who was unable to carry it any longer and was back up the trail somewhere,“ said Pader. "It was a kind gesture for them to relieve him of carrying his backpack but, as we found out later, they took his water also. When we met the injured man, my son Jimmy shared a pint of water with him, so he was able to hobble along and get to safety. Water is vital, especially when hiking where maximum effort is required. Among other ailments, dehydration can cause a loss of energy, and more important, it promotes the likelihood of altitude sickness.”
Pader said that altitude sickness is one of the hardest things to overcome, and has stopped him from completing the trek previously. “It can affect anyone, no matter how physically fit,” he said. “It occurs when you cannot get enough oxygen from the air you breathe. The concentration of oxygen at sea level is 21 percent. But at 12,000 feet, there are roughly 40 percent fewer oxygen molecules per breath. To keep oxygenated, breathing, even at rest, has to increase. When you are asleep, respiration slows and oxygen consumption decreases causing a decrease of oxygen to body cells. Failure to understand this principle caused me to abort my attempt to summit when I was 75 years old. Altitude sickness can creep up on you without your awareness. It may just be nausea, a headache, a lot of stomach gas, or the urge to have a BM. Or worse, it may affect your ability to think clearly. Poor judgement leads to mistakes, some of which can be fatal. Some drugs are supposed to help, but that depends mainly on the individual. I used a homeopathic anti-gas substance called Charco Caps that worked for me. Two weeks before the hike, I also increased my intake of vitamins A, C and D3, and iron-rich foods.”
According to Pader, many hikers take three or four days to summit. “In a big backpack they can carry a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, rain gear, an assortment of warm clothes, food and water, and first aid kit – about 35 pounds or more of equipment,” he said. “An outpost camp located at 10,300 ft, is one of two designated camping sites in the Mt. Whitney zone. Permits are required to enter the Mt. Whitney zone from any trail. A typical group will hike to outpost camp, spend a night or two, then get up early in the morning to hike the remaining 4,200 feet of altitude to the summit, and then return to their camp for another night's rest, before hiking out. A day or two at outpost camp allows them to acclimate. A number of changes takes place in the body during acclimatization. The depth of respiration increases. Pressure in pulmonary arteries is increased. The body produces more red blood cells to carry oxygen and it produces more of a particular enzyme that facilitates the release of oxygen from hemoglobin to body tissues. Diet is also an important factor. No alcohol and minimize fat. Lots of carbohydrates and drink 3 to 4 quarts of water daily. A problem with long distance hiking is that one loses the desire to eat and, with this knowledge, must make a conscious effort to consume high energy foods. Otherwise, the body begins to slow down and one simply cannot go on. You run out of fuel.”
Another overnight option is to hike to Trail Camp, at 12,000 feet, the only other designated camp site. Spending a day or two at this elevation usually allows one to acclimate and makes the final assent less tiresome. “This is where I had my first setback,” said Pader. “When I was 75 years old, I thought the Whitney hike would be a good challenge. It was! Accompanied by my wife and daughter, setting up camp at 12,000 feet was easy. It was the next morning when I woke up that I was nauseated, dizzy, and uncoordinated. I could not eat. Just the thought of food and I was ready to vomit. Obviously, I had altitude sickness. Going to a lower altitude is the only cure so that's what I did. That was the end of my first attempt to summit Mt. Whitney.”
Two year later, Pader tried again. This time, at the suggestion of his friends, Sarah Lowell, Katharine Brown, and his wife, Olga, the group camped at 10,000 feet, got up early the next morning and summited that day. “Sarah had been there before and was our guide over uncertain more difficult areas. Camping at 10,000 feet allowed us to overcome some of the problems of altitude sickness,” she said. “We took three days and two nights to complete the hike.”
Being able to complete the treacherous multi-day hike, Pader's confidence was instilled once again and he wanted to seek a greater challenge. “After this success and renewed confidence, I was looking for a new challenge and began to wonder if I could summit and return to the trail head in one day – not three days as before,” said Pader. “The altitude change is 560 feet per mile for 22 miles. I would be 81 years old if I reached the summit.”
On his third attempt, Pader had a stomach bug that hindered his trip. “My son Jimmy and friend Sarah started out strong,” he remembered. “I was already suffering from a stomach flu that I got on the flight to Las Vegas, and not at my best. Having a bowel movement while hiking along the Mt. Whitney trail is a unique experience. When you get your permit at the Ranger Station in Lone Pine, Calif., they give you a “wag“ bag. Your job is to deposit your feces in this bag – if your aim is good, and carry it out for disposal later in a special container at the trail head.”
Unfortunately for Pader, being sick with the stomach flu, by the time he reached 12,000 feet, altitude sickness set in and made him worse. “My pace was even slower than usual as I was loosing my electrolytes through watery bowel movements. I could not eat enough to renew my calorie drain or drink enough to replace electrolytes, and was rapidly deteriorating. Four BM's later, and by the time I reached 13,000 feet, about half way up the 97 switchbacks, my forward progress had slowed to a crawl,” said Pader. “I knew that it was decision time. The summit was only another three miles.“I might be able to make it," I thought. “But I didn't think that I could get back down, and I did not want to be hauled out like some baggage. After moments of consultation with Jimmy and Sarah, I swallowed my pride and turned around. We started back down.That took another eight hours and more BM's. I had to borrow Sarah's wag bag, since mine was full and now I was carrying two bags. In addition to being sick, I was depressed and disappointed. Another failure. The mountain had whipped me again.”
Fast forward two years. In 2012, as part of Pader's training, the ambitious Macon County resident who had lived an eventful eight decades on earth, hiked 432 miles, much of it alone, some of it at night, trying to build strength and endurance. “I began by establishing an relatively easy 10-mile section that I hiked without resting in an attempt to build endurance.
After doing that section nine times I decided to increase the difficulty level,” he said. “I began a 12-mile section with more elevation gain and hiked that section 13 times, some times all night. Then I did two, 20-mile hikes which would begin in the dark and end in the dark – over 15 hours on my feet. For safety reasons, I hiked trails that had some cell phone coverage at different points, and called in when possible. My family is very concerned when I hike alone, especially at night since my mother, father and brother all died of heart attacks. I am considered a prime candidate but so far have beat the odds.”
Having hiked more than 400 miles in the mountains of North Carolina and the Smoky Mountain National Park, Pader was ready to once again try a one-day Mt. Whitney hike. “I realized that this would be my last chance. I would be 83 years old then and not getting younger,” he said. “The training was grueling and I was getting tired of it. It was now or never. But I was reluctant to give up. I am running out of time – and money. It costs a lot of money for airline tickets, rental cars, and motel rooms, plus equipment, meals and other expenses. It was a little different each time, but expensive all the same. This would be my fourth attempt. I couldn't help but feel a certain amount of doubt in myself, and desperation with past failures. But I would try - one more time.”
After giving the disabled hiker some water to ensure his safe return, Pader's son Jimmy, daughter Olga Lampkin, and East Franklin coach Sarah Lowell, and Pader continued along Lone Pine Canyon and reached the log crossing near Lone Pine Lake. “This is a group of six, 30- foot logs that extend above a swampy area. The stepping width on these logs is about eight inches, just enough for one foot in front of the other,” said Pader. “Some logs are separated by a three-foot gap. Not a big deal in the daytime but we had to forge them at night. Any misstep and the least you can expect is to be knee deep in water and mud. Not a good prospect to hike in wet boots for the next 20 hours. Passing cautiously, we skirted the south side of Big Horn Park and were on our way to Outpost Camp.”
Their next challenge was to pass through the area where the hiker walked off the path into a canyon unconsciousness in 2011. The terrain is indistinct and the trail sometimes leads off in several directions. Rock steps are frequently 20 inches high - like trying to step up on a chair with one foot and onto a table with the other. “We did that exercise many times with great exertion,” said Pader. “Sarah was in the lead as the guide. Staying a safe distance behind, I followed her among the rocks and the trail, saving extra steps and avoiding the danger of what a wrong turn would mean. Some switchbacks later, past Mirror Lake and Trailside Meadows, we came out above the tree line.”
Long before daybreak, the group passed through Outpost Camp and Trail Camp at 12,000 feet, where several tents could be seen scattered about. “Jimmy tried to get water there but due to low lake level, decided to try elsewhere,” Pader remembered. “Beyond Trail Camp is where the 97 switchbacks begin. They would lead us to Trail Crest at 13,700 feet, the junction with the John Muir Trail and intersection with last two-mile section to the summit. Still in need of water, Jimmy went ahead and faded into the darkness to search for a spring somewhere ahead. We continued on with reduced water rations.”
Above 13,000 feet, Pader recalled the wind velocity being a steady 20 mph gusting to 35, and temperature below 35° F with ice on the the trail. This is not what the weatherman had forecasted for their journey. “We should have known better and not be so trusting. Strong winds pushed us around dangerously, and one time Sarah dropped to the ground hugging her knees for safety,” said Pader. “The wind-chill factor was unknown – but cold. Jimmy said the wind was blowing so hard it whistled in my hiking poles. I was focused on the trail, and ignored the noise.”
From Trail Crest to the summit is 1.9 miles and perhaps the most difficult section of the whole hike.The trail, when it can be found, wanders through a jumble of large refrigerator size boulders and rock slides turning the hike into a scramble and climb. “Only two miles to go,” Pader thought to himself, and put his thoughts to the task. “Just put one foot in front of the other. Don't think of how far you have to go. Just one foot in front of the other. I repeated to myself over and over. My body strength was fading, but my resolve was firm. No matter what, I was not giving up now. Only four out of ten hikers that begin this hike reach the summit. Of those that fail, 75 percent suffer from altitude sickness and the rest incur injuries which make them turn back. I remembered this when we still had the toughest section to go.”
Jimmy was shivering in the cold. “Waiting for me at my slow pace, he was moving slower than he needed to. To maintain his body temperature, I could hear him doing his Yoga breathing in an attempt to keep warm,” said Pader. “My temperature was up due to heavy exertion but there was nothing that I could do for him except be grateful for his patience and thankful for his suffering. Each step was a struggle. Extra caution was paramount due to thousand foot drop-offs on either side and strong winds pushing us around. Olga and Sarah were each in their own kind of misery with the cold and wind and exhaustion. Everyone was quiet, except for the sound of heavy breathing. No talking. No energy to be wasted. Maximum focus on the trail. Just keep moving.”
Lowell was the first to reach the top. “Then, a little further on, I was able to get a glimpse of the hut, still about a mile away,” said Pader. “Just a faint outline in the distance. Only half the hut is available to hikers. We shared that small bare room with six others, standing or sitting on the floor, as best as one could. No one complained about being crowded since body heat kept all of us warm. During his thawing out, Jimmy remarked, “It's the coldest I've ever been." He came close to hypothermia. Surprising all of us, my daughter Olga, pulled a package out of her backpack containing some home cooked meat balls and chicken bits. It is hard to describe how delicious they tasted after 13 hours and 20 minutes without rest, eating trail mix, energy bars and jells.”
Now it was decision time. The group had to leave the comfort of the hut and began their descent. “Going down may seem easier than going up, but that is not true on this mountain,” said Pader. “Diligence must be maintained. The pull of gravity must be restrained and focus on each step must be precise. We still had 11 miles to go, and to add anxiety to the mix, our water supply was dangerously low.”
The return hike may seem anticlimactic but that is when many injuries occur. Hikers are pulled by gravity and the thought of a giant burger at the trailhead cafe. It is easy to hurry, but the dangers are no less than before. “We had reached our goal at the summit and now, carefully, we were heading home,” he said. “The 20-inch steps that we had to climb on the way up were no less a challenge to step down without falling off balance. It was not easier and perhaps, even more dangerous. I had to carefully step down sideways each time, with my hiking poles thrust forward to avoid tumbling. It took just as long to get back to the trailhead as it did to reach the summit. Total time on our feet was 27 hours and 30 minutes.”
With his 83rd birthday in August, Pader was “happy, proud and grateful,” to be the oldest man to make this hike in one day. “This was really a family activity,” he said. “My wife handled the logistics and travel coordination. My son, daughter and Sarah were the support team and I could not have accomplished this task without them. All along though, I felt that it was me against the mountain and, this time, the mountain let me pass.”
Not all are so lucky. Three weeks after Pader's Mt. Whitney hike, Pader said he got word that a young man, only 60 years old, made one mis-step, had fallen off the mountain, and was killed. “How tragic,” he said. “One mistake that was fatal. The mountain is impersonal, impartial and unforgiving.”
When asked why he decided to make the trip, a question Pader said he has been plagued with often, he struggles to find a quick answer. “I find the answer hard to explain in a few words,” he said. “But I notice that people my age lose a purpose for living. They settle back into lethargy, finding that it is easier to do nothing – and grow older – and grow less able – and lose interest in anything that requires effort – and they die. They talk about “how it used to be” but never “how it can be.” They live in the past and have no future. They talk continually about their ailments, aches and pains, and their ailments, aches and pains grow worse with the attention given to them. Yes, I too, have ailments, aches and pains – but I deny them the right to control my life. I still have dreams and a need to fulfill them. I have a desire to live but I am not afraid to die. I still take chances and am not afraid to fail. The things that I want to do is what motivates me to exercise an hour each day, eat a sensible diet, and hike 10 or 12 miles (or more) per week. Without a goal, without a purpose, I would be like some of my peers that are drifting aimlessly. That situation I resist. I try to see the good things of life even if sometimes they are momentary. I am grateful for the little pleasures that most take for granted. Even in my frailty, I feel that I am part of nature's wonders and I try to enjoy life each day as much as is permitted. The way I see it, today is the first day of the rest of my life and I plan to make the most of it.”
“So, if I live to be 84, you may find me hiking the Grand Canyon – Rim to Rim – in one day,” Pader concluded.