Managing My Chronic Headache, Rainier Bound

Thanks to WordPress’ handy scheduler, as this blog posts I will be in the air, flying to Washington to climb Mt. Rainier, my first non-Colorado peak. Whahoo!

At 14,411 feet tall, Mt. Rainier is a smidge shorter than Colorado’s tallest mountain. But unlike our high peaks, Rainier is a glaciated volcano. It is also the most prominent mountain in the contiguous U.S., which means its elevation gain between the base of the mountain and the summit is greater than any other. (It sticks up more)

Mt Rainier (Credit: National Park Service)

Mt Rainier (Credit: National Park Service) Yes, it is this snowy in the summer.

My team will be climbing the standard DC route, the easiest and most popular.  Over two days, we will climb 9,000 feet of elevation gain. For the top miles we will be relying on ice axes, crampons, and a rope.

The technical skills and endurance required are well within my capabilities. By far my greatest fear for the trip is about my headache. I’ve never before been in a situation where my headache became too severe on a difficult climb, but then again, over the last four years my headache has grown worse, so I can’t be sure it won’t happen this weekend. Certainly being on the top portion of the mountain with the nausea and dizziness that come with my most severe pain would be a bad situation.

Three years ago, I had my closest call when a friend and I drove to Colorado’s San Juan range to climb two peaks, conjoined with a class 4 (nearly technical) traverse. As we hiked through the forest below the peaks, I had to tell him that unless my headache improved, we would have to turn around before the difficult climbing. Blessedly, or maybe just true to hiking’s healing nature, just as the sun rose and we transitioned from hiking on dirt to climbing on rock, my headache improved.

This weekend the challenges with my headache will come partly from traveling. I’ve never before climbed outside of Colorado. The added logistical stress and change to my typical eating and sleeping routine could become a headache trigger.

Then there’s the altitude. I’m well acclimated to 14,000 feet, and I typically do well with the decreased oxygen as long as I continue to move. But for this peak we have to camp. Once I stop climbing and adrenaline drains from my system, I might start to feel worse.

I’m also worried about my pack. Carrying the required technical gear will add about 50 pounds to my shoulders, which can sometimes create enough tension in my neck to trigger a bad headache.

It might also be hard to drink enough water and eat enough food given the mountain’s technical nature and the fact that I will be roped to three other climbers.

If it is too cold on the mountain (Rainier in the summer is similar to Colorado’s mountains in the winter, climate-wise) and I’m not able to sleep, that, too, can trigger my headache.

This week as I’ve prepared for this trip, I have committed to being on my best headache-prevention behavior. I’ve run just enough to maintain endorphins (but not too much to come into the climb with tired legs), slept more than usual including naps, eaten clean and avoided foods that trigger migraines, drank plenty of water, visited my chiropractor twice, and fully charged my neuro-stimulator so that it won’t run out of battery on the mountain.

I also bought proper glacier glasses because so much of the route will be at altitude on snow (read: bright!). Hopefully the glasses will help my light sensitivity.

Certainly Rainier will test my head’s limits. Climbing it is an act of faith that I have enough experience managing my headache and that climbing will continue to abate my most severe pain.

3 Comments on “Managing My Chronic Headache, Rainier Bound

  1. Hi Lynn,

    I will keep all of my extremities crossed for you. Rainier is a beautiful mountain — You will have a great time.

    The first time I did Rainier, I didn’t drink enough water — I paid for that with a nasty headache. I also forgot lip sunscreen and paid dearly for that. Say hello to the Marmots for me; they have a different variety of Marmot there. We have Yellow-Bellied Marmots, they have Hoary Marmots. If I were a Marmot, I would demand a better name.

    Take care, have fun Tom

  2. Lynn, thank you so much for sharing some if your life with us in this blog. I finally caught up reading your posts. I had no idea that your headache has been worse the last four years :-/ As I type this, I already know the outcome of your hike but not the particulars. I can’t wait to hear the details and see the pictures. Thanks for being an inspiration and doing what you have a passion for. Even when you have so many obstacles that can be named and known.

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