OUT ALIVE

Jon Carl­ton, then 38, sur­vived a mas­sive heart at­tack while back­coun­try snow­board­ing on 12,400-foot Esha Peak near Mam­moth Lakes, Cal­i­for­nia, in April 2016.

Backpacker - - Contents - As told to Mon­ica Prelle

STRUCK BY A HEART AT­TACK Jon Carl­ton, 38, suf­fered a mas­sive heart at­tack on the top of 12,400-foot Esha Peak in Cal­i­for­nia—and then snow­boarded back to the trail­head.

I’D BEEN UN­DER THE WEATHER all week, but that morn­ing I felt good. I’d dis­missed my fa­tigue as just a cold, but in hind­sight, maybe it was an early warn­ing sign. Ei­ther way, it was tough to feel too bad the morn­ing of April 4: I had my split­board, four good friends, and a blue­bird day ahead of us.

Our ob­jec­tive was to skin up and ride down 12,400-foot Esha Peak, a stun­ner with steep, north-fac­ing couloirs. I’d done it in the past, but, af­ter years of drought, we fi­nally had enough snow to go back and tag it again.

Our group—all ex­pe­ri­enced back­coun­try rid­ers—set off on the 3.5-mile, 4,700-foot sum­mit route around 8 a.m. The snow was firm, but ski cram­pons made up­hill travel easy. At our first break, I no­ticed I was feel­ing slug­gish. My legs, par­tic­u­larly my left, kept cramp­ing up, so I com­pen­sated by tak­ing slower strides and fell far­ther and far­ther be­hind.

Af­ter a few hours of tour­ing, we met up at the base of the head­wall. By now the cramp­ing had spread to my back. I downed some wa­ter while click­ing out of my boards and strap­ping them to my pack, cer­tain I was just de­hy­drated.

As we kicked steps on our way to the sum­mit, the cramp­ing grew worse. Ev­ery time I looked up, the gap be­tween my­self and my friends had stretched. I could usu­ally hold my own, no prob­lem—I couldn’t fig­ure out what was wrong.

One of my friends, Mon­ica, held up to wait for me, and as­sum­ing I was just bonk­ing, handed me a Snick­ers. Even with the sugar in my sys­tem I was too ex­hausted and in pain to pick up the pace, but I’d been dream­ing of this de­scent for so long. I kept push­ing. When I reached the top, the rest of the crew had been wait­ing on me for more than half an hour.

Ev­ery time I’ve stood on a peak, I’ve been stoked. But that day, I could barely muster a smile as my friends wel­comed me to the sum­mit. What the heck is wrong with me? I thought. I sat down and drank the rest of my wa­ter and im­me­di­ately puked it up. I couldn’t eat any­thing. I felt dizzy, like my skull was full of rolling fog. But I shook off my friends’ con­cern as I pre­pared for the de­scent, hop­ing the cold wind on my face would snap me out of it.

We split into two groups. I de­cided to go down the main couloir, the boot­pack line, be­cause I knew what the snow con­di­tions were like there and didn’t feel up to the quick think­ing I’d need to fig­ure out any new ter­rain. Two of my friends hiked down the ridge to do a line off the west shoul­der. Mon­ica and an­other buddy stayed with me.

As I was walk­ing down to the top of the couloir, the worst cramp I’d ever had hit me be­tween my shoul­der blades. I gasped, un­able to breathe. Fran­tic, I took off all my gear— hel­met, gog­gles, gloves, and jacket—and started to roll my back in the rocks try­ing to re­lieve the cramp­ing. My buddy got me to sit down and breathe while Mon­ica tried to call our other two friends—one, Kevin, was a para­medic, but his phone went to voice­mail and then her bat­tery died.

The edges of my vi­sion be­gan to dim. I feel like I’m dy­ing, I thought. My fin­gers and toes went numb, and I felt my chest con­strict­ing, forc­ing fast, shal­low breaths.

“We need to get down,” Mon­ica said. She said I might have alti­tude sick­ness, and a sim­ple drop in el­e­va­tion would help, but I could hear the forced calm in her voice.

“I can’t get down. I can’t get down.” It was all I could say. The pain was so in­tense I felt locked in place.

The con­stric­tions came in waves. What­ever was hap­pen­ing, I felt sure there was no time to call for a res­cue. If I don’t get my­self off the moun­tain, I’m not go­ing to make it. The thought seemed to oc­cur as if it be­longed to some­one else. I felt de­tached, un­afraid, ro­botic. Man­ag­ing the pain left me with lit­tle room to think about any­thing else.

The en­try to the couloir was fairly steep and nar­row— about 45 de­grees and 10 feet wide—and pep­pered with rocks. I sideslipped for the first 30 or 40 yards while Mon­ica rode in front, point­ing out ob­sta­cles. I had to make a hop turn to get around a boul­der, then an­other to turn back onto my heel edge. The fa­mil­iar feel­ing seemed to set­tle me, and de­spite the mount­ing pain, I sud­denly felt more in

con­trol. Okay, I thought, I can do this.

Then the chute opened up wide, and mus­cle mem­ory took over. For a few mo­ments, my mind was calm, oc­cu­pied only with the turns. Over my shoul­der, I could hear my friends hoot­ing and hol­ler­ing as they de­scended to­ward us.

Then, at the bot­tom of the head­wall, the adren­a­line drained away. With­out it, I felt weak and dizzy. I col­lapsed.

Kevin im­me­di­ately took over. He said it could be a pul­monary em­bolism or a heart at­tack. A heart at­tack. Ly­ing in the snow, strug­gling to breathe, I barely heard the words.

“I watched him ride that line; he looked fine,” Kevin said. “If he can get down on his own we are go­ing to get help quicker.” He sounded dis­tant. “A he­li­copter could take hours.”

There was no cell ser­vice, so one of my friends took off down the hill, plan­ning to drive to the fire depart­ment to get help. The oth­ers pulled me to my feet, took my pack, and handed me a pair of ski poles for bal­ance. I could still snow­board bet­ter than I could walk, but Kevin stayed right by my side just in case. We were quiet on the de­scent—me, fight­ing through waves of pain, and the oth­ers, fo­cused on get­ting me down.

Near the bot­tom of the slope, there was a quar­ter-mile bush­whack. Off my board, I stum­bled through it be­tween lurches of pain and dizzi­ness. I could hear Kevin telling me to stop, to take a break, but I couldn’t—when I stopped, all the pain and con­fu­sion came crash­ing down on me in an over­whelm­ing wave. It was bet­ter to keep go­ing. At the creek cross­ing, I slogged straight through the wa­ter rather than risk stop­ping to find the log bridge. We were 20 feet from the park­ing lot when I saw the fire truck blaz­ing to­ward us. Thank God.

Later, I found out I had a 100 per­cent block­age in my left main artery, which I learned was the re­sult of a ge­netic con­di­tion that makes me prone to clots. It’s the heart at­tack doc­tors re­fer to as the widow-maker. Most peo­ple don’t sur­vive.

Over a week later, I woke up from a drug-in­duced coma, on a breath­ing ma­chine in a hos­pi­tal in Sacra­mento. I had a stent put in, then an im­plantable de­frib­ril­la­tor, and I spent a full month in the hos­pi­tal. Some­times I think it’s all a big night­mare—un­til I try to go for a walk. Ev­ery­thing is harder now, and will be for years to come, but I’m alive.

Jon Carl­ton skin­ning up Esha Peak the morn­ing of the heart at­tack.

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