Our 4-day backpacking trip had gone like many others. We were northeast of the Yosemite valley in the California Sierra Nevada mountains, high in the narrow valley of the Tenaya Creek with one short hike, only about a mile of mostly downhill walking remained between us and the ride home. The weather each day had been hot, very hot.
Because we were backpacking, we didn’t carry lots of extra clothes, so I wore my beat-up brown T-shirt every day and let it dry overnight, but it was beginning to smell like a single-garment, county-wide-health risk. One boot had finally given up yesterday under the strain of many such trips and the sole had separated at the toe, freeing the small iron shank helped support my foot and making waking for a floppy-toed annoyance. I had some nylon cord that was both small enough and strong enough to make it down the trail for that remaining mile.
I had slept great (always did on these trips) but after breakfast, but I didn’t feel quite right as I pulled on my shirt and lifted my pack up and onto my back. I felt still tired (not possible), kinda weak (not old enough) and strangely thirsty. We had plenty of water from the near by stream, but it just didn’t seem to satisfy.
We had just hit the trail. It took only a few steps for me to start to worry. Something was wrong. My steps didn’t feel right. I was rested but found my legs resistant to movement. They weren’t tired – but they just didn’t want to move, like walking through thick soup. I suddenly felt pushed deeper into the machine of my own body and struggling to make any muscle work and even my chest began feeling odd.
What’s going on? Am I having a heart attack?
Much of my teenaged years my mom would remind me of the death by heart attack of one of her male cousins, but in those days, we really didn’t know what about his life cause it. But, as a cancer survivor herself, she knew that his death statistically put me more at risk. I recalled her telling me to watch how much salt I eat because too much might help cause a heart attack.
I was living in my first home-away-from-home, my apartment in San Jose, Calif. when my good friend Martin, invited me to this 4 day backpacking trip. Backpacking with my best hiking friend, the whole of the north Yosemite mountains as our playground for 4 days – of course I said yes. Those mountains are hard work on any day, but it was also late summer and the heat of each day drove us into any shadows we could find along the trail,
Coming down the steep mountain trail from the Tioga Road on the third day was where my boot sole gave up. I managed to find and save the iron shank (maybe the shoe repair guy could get fix it) but in the meantime, it slowed me down because my boot would slip on the partially connected sole – which on the side of a near-cliff, was kind of dangerous. The cord was barely a good idea, and I never hiked without a strip of duct tape after fussing with that boot.
We made it safely off the cliff trail and I was dripping sweat as we entered the northeast end of the Teneya Creek valley. These mountains are almost completely granite and the creek had cut a wedge through huge flats of white granite for us to follow. We came to a tempting area where the granite has worn a spot down into a bathtub size hole which remained full of water from a small feed from the creek. “Martin, we need to camp right here. Look at this tub, just waiting for us to sit and soak in.”
He came over to consider the idea, but there was only one dead tree nearby so no shade and with close to 3 hours more of full sun shine coming, he was right to decline in favor of a different site only about 200 yards further down where we could camp beneath several full shade trees. Humph – maybe I’ll come back up here after dinner.
As soon as I put my pack down in that shady area, I pealed off that poor brown T-shirt and stretched a line to hang it over to dry. We built a fire and fired up a stove for an early dinner. Afterwards, I re-did my jury-rigged boot. It only had to last one more mile tomorrow. Only then, I thought about running up to that pool, but noticed that some other group had already found it and, “no – are you kidding me?” I grabbed my pack binoculars, and took a closer look at the ridge where I knew the pool was (we were already much lower than it so I couldn’t see it directly) and saw one of the women in the group was heading for it – in her birthday suit. . .
Well – they must be a pretty friendly group, but I think I’ll stay here and make-do with a cold wipe down with stream water- – oh goodie . . .
The next morning I reached to grab my shirt and noticed large white droopy stains all around the top. I had noticed them yesterday, but now they were huge and my shirt crunched when I pulled it over my head. Wow – this has to be body salt and other crud that I sweat out these past 3 days. Body salts certainly would not evaporate when I hung the shirt up each evening. Ick – but it’s time to get moving.
And that when things got weird. As we starting that last mile, both my legs, my chest both didn’t feel right. It was strangely hard to balance with my pack on. I was experiencing some disorientation, but thought that was just all in my head – was I really scared that I was having a heart attack? I knew that real heart attacks caused huge gripping pain as you fell over. I was nothing close to that, so whatever this was – it was confusing and creepy but I doubted it was a heart attack.
Keeping hydrated in the kind of heat we had each day I knew could be an issue, but I love water and had been drinking plenty – but to make sure, as I scooped up another cup from the stream – it tasted fine, but did not feel refreshing as it should have. My legs were still fighting me and I was beginning to feel clumsy. Not helpful when backpacking. This weird chest cramping was also worrying me.
What do I know that could explain all this? Already, I was sweating in the morning heat because we were out of the shade already. Some of the sweat ran into my eyes and you know what I noticed? It did not sting as normal – – and that could only be because it was not as salty and, ah – that hat to be it. Low amounts of salt in my body – that can’t be good. I was so anti-salt that I didn’t even pack a salt shaker for meals.
Partially because of my mom’s warning about eating too much salt and the fact that I really never salted anything I ate, I had to be uncommonly low on the stuff. So now, I had to make it down the hill to where I could find some place to get salt before my muscles and chest just seized up and refused to move me. Only for a few minutes did I consider dampening and sucking on my shirt. There had to be more than enough salt to save me, right there on my chest – but can you imagine how that would have tasted?
I told Martin what was going on and how I was struggling. His advise was to get down this trail fast, but I had to be really careful with each step because one slip and – damn! There goes the sole to my other boot. I don’t believe this. I kicked the boot with the new gap between the sole toe and the rest of the boot and sure enough the second shank shot out and landed in some small bushes. Forget it. I’m done with these boots and I left the shank.
I held on to anything I could reach for the rest of the trip down. That last mile felt more like three and I could feel my muscles malfunctioning more and more often. My ability to respond to each small surprise was getting worse and worse and I was beginning to think about different ways to continue safely when we went around a giant granite boulder and “Thank God” – there was the parking lot and off to the left a park restaurant.
Any other day, I would have freshened up before storming the place, but smell notwithstanding, I barged in and ordered a hot dog and soda. This bought me the right to sit at a table and cozy up to the salt shaker. By the time my drink came, I had licked up about 3 teaspoons of the precious sodium nitrate crystals and actually stirred more into my drink before downing it. It worked like magic. I could feel it spreading across my body and making things right. In less than 15 minutes, I was back to normal and just feeling bad about being so dirty in the restaurant.
Martin’s wonderful wife, Sue, was the manager of a hospital lab and knew all about what I’d managed to do to myself.
She said, “What you had is called, hyponatremia and it means your blood sodium was too low.” Of course, I couldn’t recall that word 10 minutes later and had to look it up for this story, but the point is that this is a real thing and because salt tends to distribute itself evenly in your blood and body water, my drinking lots of water actually made it worse by reducing the density of salt in each unit of blood/water. Who knew? I actually had to teach myself to add some salt to my diet when I was in hot areas and or make sure I ate some salty foods.
“Gary, you should take this seriously. You can die from hyponatremia. It’s a good think you figured it out when you did and got to that restaurant.”
It was several years later when I was working on a painting team in Washington state, earning my tuition for college during the summer break and my buddy, Tom and I had been doing 10 + hours a day, running and sweating like mad, hustling through a huge apartment complex painting job.
One particularly hot day, I was on the outside of a building standing on a narrow ledge with an airless gun spraying the soffits, two stories up. It was a hard stretch and exhausting, sweaty work. I must have looked like any other painter that you never wanted to touch. Right around lunch time – I felt a familiar muscle weakness and resistance to motion. My chest felt weirdly hollow and tight.
Ah – I know what’s going on. How could I have forgotten? “Tom, I need to take a real lunch break and will be back in about 45 minutes.”
“Okay. . . He answered, clearly wondering what was up.
“Ill explain when I get back,” and drove myself to a nearby McDonald’s where I got some kind of burger and their biggest side of fries with a handful of salt packets. I downed all the fries and salt right away and felt better immediately.
“So?” Tom asked when I got back.
“Have I ever told you how therapeutic salted french fries can be?”
“Right. I’ll bet there’s a story behind this.”
“Well, I was on this backpacking trip years ago and . . . ”
So, salt and I have been better buds ever since.