From great adventures come great epiphanies. And here is mine. I am not a high altitude kind of guy. Really, I'm not.
Day one was a nice hike. After lunch at the gate, we headed out through the cultivated foothills of the great mountain and then through the rain forest.
Generally it was a pleasent hike, only two things worth really writing home about.
The first was when we were walking up through the fields of corn and other crops planted on the hills. The children would come out and greet us with that most beautiful of greetings, "Gimme chocolate." Most of our crew ignored the requests, but Dorrian, he of the big heart, couldn't resist the little imp in the Spiderman T-Shirt, and so Dorrian gave the child a piece of chocolate.
But the child didn't pull away and eat his chocolate, no, he put it in his pocket, looked back up at Dorrian and said, "gimme chocolate." Enterprising youths, are they not, realizing that a break to eat the chocolate now would cut into their available time to acquire more chocolate. And, if they keep going, maybe they can get enough chocolate to sell to their friends! These kids should be on the Apprentice, I tell you.
Later that night we set up camp, and part of the crew went off to bed. But some of us were not sleepy, and decided to play some cards. So myself, Andy, Ann and Tom set up a table outside and played a few rounds of hearts. From where I was sitting, I looked up over a grove of Aspen trees (or Aspen like trees, at least) at the mountain, whose white snow-covered slopes were glowing in the near-full moon light. It was magic.
The morning hike was fine, but an afternoon rain came in and did not let up all afternoon, making the hike completely miserable. My waterproof pants are not, I discovered, actually waterproof, and eventually even my rain ponco was no longer able to hold out the torrent of rain. Soon everything I had on was soaking wet.
I was also starting to feel the effects of the altitude. I got a headache and shortness of breath. I also felt a little dizzy at times.
I debated taking Diamox, which is a drug that helps with high altitude sickness. You can either take preventively or as a cure when symptoms start to show. My symptoms were quite mild and much like symptoms others in the group were feeling, so I decided to skip the Diamox for now.
Happy Robbie Burns Day, Andy.
Today was a good walk in the morning, but I was moving slower than the rest of the group. Peter (a paying member) and two of the guides, Happyson and Bernard stuck back with me as the rest of the group pulled ahead of me. I was feeling okay, I just couldn't imagine my legs taking me any quicker than I was moving. I probably pulled into camp about 20 - 30 minutes behind the rest of the team.
In the afternoon we went on an acclimitization walk. This is were we walk up a few 100 meters higher than the camp and walk back down. This is to get your body used to the higher altitude, but allows you to sleep in a more oxygen rich environment.
I was fine going up, but as soon as we started back down, I felt incredibly dizzy. I stumbled twice, but luckly was grabbed by Maria and pulled back from the edge. Let me tell you, if you are walking along a ridge with rocky drop-offs on either side, feeling dizzy and stumbling = a bad thing.
Slyvester, one of the guides, came to my rescue, and lead me down the ridge holding my hand the entire way to make sure I wouldn't fall off. Back at camp, I conversed with Happyson. He suggested that I take a full Diamox tonight with dinner, a half one in the morning and we will see how I was doing.
I went to bed, but it was soon obvious that I wasn't going to get any sleep. As soon as I lay down I started to cough, and it wouldn't let up at all for the entire night. Somewhere in the middle of the night, I started to hear a crackling from my lungs. 6:30am came way too soon.
High-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) is a condition that occasionally happens to indviduals ascenting to higher altitudes, especially above 8000 ft. Pulmonary edema is excess fluid in the lungs, either in the lung tissue itself or in the space normally used for gas exchange (oxygen for carbon dioxide). Fluid in the lungs renders them unable to perform their normal task, and thus the victim cannot get enough oxygen. Symptoms include shortness of breath, cough, weakness, easy fatigue (especially when walking uphill), and difficulty sleeping. If you place an ear to the victim's chest, you may hear crackling or gurgling noises. The symptoms worsen at night. Confusion, collapse, and coma follow. The victim may show a fever of up to 101.3° Fahrenheit (38.5° Celsius). Without descent, the prognosis can be as sever as death.
In the morning, after being barely able to walk to the mess tent, Happyson determined that I should go down. I was showing definate symptoms of HAPE. Frankly, I was happy. I couldn't even have imagined trying to climb to the next camp, even though it was only a climb of less than 400 meters. At this point, I was so tired and dizzy and short of breath, I just wanted to go down. The plan was for me to descent as far as Horombo camp (800 metre down) and wait for the rest of the team there.
Paul was assigned to get me down the mountain. Paul is a great guide and without him I probably wouldn't be writing this right now. I just wanted to say that, because in the telling of the story to follow it may seem like I am making light of Paul or questioning his methods. That is only because as it was happening to me, my perception of the whole thing was a bit off. He did everything he should of, and I thank him for it.
The first thing we did in going down the mountain was to climb up. Unfortunately, Mawenzi Tarn (4330m) where we spent the night was in a bit of a valley and the only way out was up. We started the hike, and about half an hour in Paul was obviously distressed.
"You are moving very slow. We will make Horombo very late at this pace. I think perhaps I should have a stretcher met you, and we will take you right down and to the hospital." And thus plan number 2 was born. I was getting off the mountain totally today.
To meet the stretcher, though, we would still have to make our way partially to Horombo and the paths of that route. That would mean working our way around the Mawenzi peak, which to me meant at least half a day of staying at altitude and climbing up and down ridges to get to the other side of the mountain.
Paul enlisted some help, and together the two of them carried me in a drunk man carry. I was in the middle with my arms around the guides on either side of me. They would guide my steps and set the pace, and I would blather on like a drunk. It was a position, I am ashamed to say, that I have taken up before, not due to altitude.
This is where a struggle of the wills started. I wanted to sit and rest. Paul wanted to get me down. I know he was willing to pull me down the mountain if he had to. But I was conscious, and thus made it much harder to accomplish that. I would keep pleading for a stop, and when we stopped, I would stretch the stop out much longer than Paul wanted. "You must get up," he would say, "resting is no cure, only going down is."
Sure, I would think, then why aren't we going down?!? We're going across this mountain! We are actually at a higher altitude than when we started this morning!!!
Because of being still above 4200 metres, my symptoms were getting worse. Soon, in addition to my coughing, I was spitting up gobs of yellow-brown liquid from my lungs. My legs were so tired, I could barely take 3 steps on my own without wanting to sit. Paul often ended up dragging me for 20 or 30 feet just to make sure we at least made some progress between my constant rest stops.
Finally at 2:30pm, approximately 6 hours after setting out, we reached the "saddle" and started our way down. One of the guides with us ran ahead to find out where the stretcher was, and we continued to walk.
About an hour later we met the man in charge of the stretcher - one of the Kilimanjaro Mountain Rescue Crew. The only problem is, he didn't have a stretcher. There wasn't one available. However, they were working on getting one. I voted to stay where we were and wait for the stretcher, but the Mountain Rescue Crew had other ideas. They were going to get me down the mountain if they had to carry me.
And so, they tried to carry me. First the main Mountain Rescue ranger (I don't know if they are really called rangers, but I am going to call him that) tried to carry me on his shoulders, much like a father might lift his daughter to see the Santa Claus Parade. He tried to lift me, and got me about 3 inches off the ground.
"How much do you weigh?" he asked.
"About 200 pounds," I replied.
"What is that in Kilos?"
I did some quick math in my addled brain. 200 pounds. 2.2 pounds per kilo. 100 kilos is a safe number. "100 Kilos."
He then made one of those sounds that indicates that he thinks I am full of horse droppings. "More like 120 kilos." Great. Bad enough that I am having to give up on my dream to climb Kilimanjaro. Now you have to make me feel fat.
They tried a few other ways to carry me - me sitting on two mens interlinked arms, me sitting on 4 mens interlinked arms, me lying across the interlinked arms of 8 men. All of them, apparently not enough to support my 120 kilo mass (maybe I weigh more at altitude - I don't know).
So, we went back to the old standard. We walked, me between two guides.
Finally, around 4:30, when I had been walking for abour 8 hours, the stretcher arrived. The stretcher was a board with side-bars, mats and straps for carrying me, and the whole thing was balanced on a single wheel. Like a unicycle with a bed for a seat. They strapped me onto the board, but my too fat frame made it impossible to fit both my arms inside the bars, and so I had one arm hanging over the side. But that was as good as it was going to get. With 4 men manning the device, they started rolling me down the mountain.
The problem was that there were no shocks on the stretcher, and the mountain is very rough. My head was bouncing up and down like a rubber ball, and soon I was developing a bad headache. Which, I wasn't sure, should I attribute to altitude sickness (it is one of the symptoms) or this constant banging?
Just before dusk (6:30), there was a grinding noise and the stretcher keeled over to the side. Apparently, the wheel had fallen off. Just like with the shock on the truck, there was some arguing for a while until someone picked up a rock and beat the arms holding the wheel back into shape and reattached it to the stretcher. I was strapped back in, and we were off again. However, the wheel would get progressively worse the entire night. It fell off two more times, and by the time I got off the stretcher, it was angled over on it's side at about a 30 degree angle. That, I thought, is not great for tread wear.
Finally, aching head from the banging, and aching muscles from being confined, I was able to crawl out of the stretcher and into the waiting ambulance at 11:00pm at night, 14 and a half hours since setting out in the morning from Mawenzi Tarn.
But the night was not over yet. Because I was still short of breath and had been coughing, Paul wanted to take me to the hospital to get checked out. But first, the ambulance had to drop off all the guides and Mountain Rescue Rangers who helped me off the mountain. So I sat quietly as we drove around Marangu and Moshi towns dropping everyone at home.
We arrived at the hospital sometime after 12:30am, which means that as I was walking into the hospital, somewhere near the top of the mountain, the rest of the group was starting their walk up to the summit. I wished them luck on one of the plentiful stars in the sky, and walked into the doctors office.
The doctor checked me out, gave me a shot and a prescription for Dexamethasone, a steroid that is used to treat HAPE. They figured I was well enough to go, and so we headed back to the hotel. This was around 1:30am. Given that I hadn't slept the night before, I was incredibly tired, and this was the best news I had heard all day.
But one last curve ball would be thrown my way. On the way back to the hotel, we passed a hyenna. The driver stopped, turned the car around and pointed his headlights at the hyenna. Everyone in the car watched the hyenna. Everyone, that is, except me. I, I was staring at the driver, trying to use my vast mental powers to crush his head. I WANT TO GO TO BED!!!!
Finally, 2:30am, I crawl into bed at the Kibo Hotel, and with just a slight cough, am able to fall asleep.
So, that's my mountain adventure. That is why, you can see, that my great epiphany is that I am not a high altitude kind of guy. This experience, along with my troubles in La Paz, Bolivia, have convinced me that really, truly, I need to take up activities that happen at or around sea level. Like water polo. So I think my next vacation will be a water polo retreat in the Bahamas.
And now a serious note. It wasn't until I was down the mountain and talking with some of the rest of the group that I realized how serious things were. The Mountain Rescue Crew trying to carry me without the stretcher of course plays like farce in this story, but they did that because they felt that getting me down BY ANY MEANS as quickly as possible was what was needed. The others in the group climbing with me said that for the morning I departed, the group was silent, realizing how serious the entire endevour of climbing a mountain close to 6000 metres high is.
So, for all their help, I offer my thanks (and apologies if I offended in the passage above at all) to Paul, Happyson, and the rest of the porters and guides of African Walking Company, The Kilimanjaro Mountain Rescue Crew, The staff at Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Clinic and the ambulance drivers for getting me off the mountain when I was truly sick. Thank you for saving my life.
Back in Marangu, Tanzania and The Rest of the Group Report
Just to close out what happened to the rest of the team. Everyone in the group made it to Gillmans Point, which is on the crater rim of Kibo, the big peak of Kilimanjaro. For that, they all received certificates.
In addition, Tom, Andy, Audrey, Jim, Ann, Maria, Dorrian and Peter made it to Uhuru Peak, the highest point on the Kibo crater rim, and thus the highest point in all of Africa.
Congradulations to all! Even though I didn't make it all the way up, I feel like you guys carried me up there anyway.
We had a hell of a piss-up at the bar of the Kibo Hotel, let me tell you!
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I was given, as I mentioned, as subscription for dexamethasone. For those of you who remember the movie Vertical Limit starring Chris O'Donnell, "Dex" is the drug that is so highly valued to save his sister, but the evil dude in the film is hoarding it for himself, even though he isn't sick.
I bought 2 tablets of 8mg each, enough to last me 4 days. It cost me 200 Shillings, which is around $US 0.20. Chris O'Donnell should do his shopping in Tanzania.