Symptoms that may indicate life-threatening altitude sickness include:
– Pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs):
– Symptoms similar to bronchitis
– Persistent dry cough
– Shortness of breath even when resting
– Cerebral edema (swelling of the brain):
– Headache that does not respond to analgesics
– Unsteady gait
– Gradual loss of consciousness
– Increased nausea
– Retinal haemorrhage
Acute mountain sickness can progress to high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) or high altitude cerebral edema (HACE), which are potentially fatal.
So Mount Kilimanjaro, a stunning 5895m of elevation proudly showcasing its size from the Kenyan-Tanzanian border as you drive the 206km (8 hours of actual driving due to road conditions – fun I know) from Nairobi to Moshi – which is the small mountain side town most treks commence out of.
I’m not sure why I originally decided to climb it, I think the middle child in me wanted to accomplish something that nobody else I knew had, bragging rights perhaps, or maybe just the fact that it is considered so commercial I figured I may as well.
The route I decided to tackle is as follows:
The Marangu Route
Day 1: you start at Marangu Gate at 1840m asl (above sea level) and finish at Mandara hut at 2720m asl the distance covered is 8 km and about 4 hours of walking through Rain forest
Day 2: you start at Mandara Hurt at 2720m and finish at Horombo Hut at 3720 m, distance covered is 12 km and about 7 hours of walking through heather and moor lands
Day 3: Is a day for Acclimatization spent at 3720m above sea level with about 3 hours of light walking
Day 4: leaves Horombo and finishes at Kibo Hut at 4703 m through Alpine desert and is about 12 km of walking and takes about 6 hours.
Day 5: leaves Kibo Hut at 12 am goes to Uhuru Peak at 5895m and then descends down to Horombo Hut at 3720 m it’s about 32 km of walking and takes about 14 hours through the summit and glacier.
Day 6: is then the final descent from Horombo Hut at 3720 m to the Marangu Gate at 1840m and is about 7 hours of walking.
Of course because I’m me and tough I condensed the route and decided to do it without the day for acclimatization. Though this is a somewhat common choice (10 percent of Marangu Route users condensed), I also thought I was even tougher as I decided to skip out on the Diamox treatment – which 99% of climbers on all routes take.
So upon my arrival into Moshi I met my guide Daudi, and I assured him, while lighting a cigarette that I was up for the challenge and couldn’t wait for the summit. So as a solo traveler I was grouped with a lovely Norwegian couple who also decided on the 5 day route (however with Diamox) and we proceeded to enter Kilimanjaro National Park through the Marangu Gate for 5 days of soul searching, friendships, victory and laughs.
The climb itself is beautiful from the moment you enter at 1840 m and you hike the entire first day through the rain forest with a constant sound of a waterfall, we seemed to pass about 20 on our hike. There were several steep parts where you felt like you were on the worlds deadliest stair master, otherwise it was very peaceful and soothing and we arrive about 3.5 hours later at Marangu hut for our first night rest in permanently erected huts in a clearing in the woods that houses about 75 hikers per night. Here we got to know each other, discovered the porter snack tradition of tea and popcorn, met our cooks, our assistant guide, and our porters. We also ate the world’s best cucumber soup and rested for our 12 km ascent the following day.
On the second day we woke up to hot porridge, fresh fruit and coffee before we set off on our way through moor land en route to Horombo hut. This hike was also spectacular and about an hour into the 6 hour day as we were exiting the rain forest we caught our first glimpse of the Summit. Speechless as we all were we exchanged looks of apprehension as it finally dawned on us that we’re climbing a mountain. So with new determination and our target visible before us we continued our hike through small valleys, and crossing several bridges over the glacier streams that run down the mountain. Once we finally arrived at Horombo we were allocated a hut for the night, provided a bowl of warm water for washing (yes a bowl, baby wipes become a lifeline) and then give our tea and popcorn snack while we took a 2 hour hike to about 3900 m to help acclimatize, the motto is to hike high and sleep low and it helps assume easy acclimatization. Here at Horombo hut is the first time we really felt the elements as the sun was setting and a cold damp fog set in dropping our temperature to the freezing point despite the 14 degree Celsius we enjoyed during our day. After a lovely dinner including leek soup, potatoes, and beef stew we set off to our huts for a much needed goodnight sleep before our the start of the longest 36 hours of our life in the morning. This stop at Horombo is usually where 90% of hikers spend the extra day acclimatizing and hiking up to about 4300 m during the day to help the body prepare for the shock of the next step of the journey. I, again due to ignorance, opted out of the extra day and went to bed oblivious to the effects of my choice and its consequences over the two days. This is also where my beautiful hike to the summit hit an ugly turn.
The three of us, Norwegian couple and myself, were placed into a 6 person cabin and matched with a Russian couple who were returning from the summit the night before. As lovely as this couple seemed in the evening by the time my alarm went off at 5 am I was seething. Sleeping directly across from me was the Russian woman, who was probably the worst snorer in the world. No exaggeration because the next morning people two huts away were mentioning that they had heard it and were wondering which animal was being tortured in our hut. I swear the sounds coming out of his woman were unnatural, just imagine a dying raccoon being tortured by a parrot and multiply it by about a million at max volume – not exactly your sounds of nature CD. How this woman is married and I am still single is beyond me.
Needless to say while the Norwegian couple had planned ahead and brought ear plugs, I sadly didn’t get a single hour of sleep and emerged from my hut the next morning exhausted with swollen, red, dry, tired eyes and a resolve not to drink Russian vodka for a year. Through breakfast I wore my sunglasses, drank about 7 cups of coffee, even flavoured my porridge with instant coffee and began to pray I would have enough energy for the 9 km (983 vertical m) ascent to Kibo Hut.
To say I struggled wouldn’t even be an understatement; it would be flat out lying. My eyes were swollen shut and I was walking blinding through the alpine desert as wind was blown into my face (and yes when I first heard alpine desert I thought ski hill with cactus – apparently I should have paid more attention in high school science and geography – how I graduated with honours is beyond me). By the time we stopped for lunch I was a complete zombie and made my first mistake of continuing without a break and at an accelerated pace simply to arrive at Kibo and lay down before I decided to fall asleep in the desert instead. Despite my speed this was likely the hardest part of the walk thus far as you’re in an open and completely barren land walking as wind gusts at 30km/h blast cold air and dirt at your face, so during the last 5 km of the walk I was closing my eyes behind the swelling and sunglasses to avoid further damage and risk permanent blindness.
I did however arrive at Kibo hut (4703m asl) and immediately surrendered my body to what I thought would be uninterrupted sleep. This was at about 2:30pm. As the other groups and climbers began to arrive and the noise level grew considerably, 4 pm was my time to admit defeat and that sleep wasn’t going to be an option in our 12 bunk beds. I was however far too ruined to do the acclimatising hike so instead of taking a two hour walk I lay in my bed willing myself to sleep, to no success. We then had our last carb filled supper at 6 pm, were debriefed about the 32km hike that would takes us to the summit and back and were off for five final hours of sleep.
Let me tell you though, 12 strangers in one dorm room with adrenaline and anxiety running through our blood is not the ideal way to fall asleep. After much tossing and turning I think we were all lucky to get about an hour of actual sleep, and so with about 1.5 hours of sleep in 42 hours I began my ascent up Africa’s tallest peak.
The actual summit hike is at such a steep incline that you have to zig zag up the entire face of the mountain and as you start climbing above 4708 m fatigue sets in an a much faster rate than if you were sleep deprived anywhere lower on the mountain. After about 3 hours and at an elevation of about 5000m my problems really started with a piercing headache, hot flashes and fatigue taking me in and out of consciousness as I stared straight down at my feet focusing only on placing my left foot in front of my right foot and so on. I will say this though, it was an incredibly clear night with no head torches required because the starlight and full moon lit our path as we battled the minus 15 degree temperature.
The rest of the story is what was told to me by my guide (my recollection is very vague)…
By the time I had ascended to 5400 m (about 500 vertical m to go and 7 km left of walking) I wasn’t speaking in sentences and when we stopped for water I had laid down on the ground and removed my gloves to use as a pillow (it was minus 30 outside). Despite the three layers of pants and four sweaters under my winter jacket and snow pants my guide worried and advised me that I was going to suffer from hypothermia, at this point despite everyone urging me to get up and continue I was adamant about stopping and so I decided to turn around and go back to camp. This I remember as it was about 5 mins of inner (or maybe outer) debate and monologue as I decided whether or not to push through the extra two hours, claim victory or admit defeat, listen to my body and turn around and finally surrender to the sleep that I was so desperately needing.
I am still not sure how my logic won over my stubbornness but I turned around, and will never regret that decision until the day I die as the moment we had descended about 10 m I lost all control over my body – that’s the thing about mother nature, despite how much you exercise (which I don’t – my form of exercise is having a cigarette as I walk two blocks during my lunch to buy butter chicken) and push yourself to your limits at home, on the mountain it is ultimately Mount Kilimanjaro that decides your fate.
So 10 m down the nausea started, and the fits of it were so violent that I started to crawl down the mountain and got progressively worse to the point that my assistant guide who was escorting me down had to hold me upright while I was ill to prevent me from falling face first into a rock or my own vomit- Let me tell you, a strange Tanzanian man who speaks no English but holds you up and your hair back as you’re vomiting is quite the bonding experience – poetic even. With his help though I was finally able to descend back down to Kibo hut where I could rest. However rest didn’t come as I was sick the whole night – if anyone has climbed and been to Kibo – trust me you would much rather bathe in a sewer than be sick in that outhouse).
By the time 9 am reached – after about 3 hours back at Kibo I finally stopped vomiting – likely because I had nothing left inside of me and my fever stared climbing – I eventually stopped and stayed at 42.8 degree Celsius while I was still wearing all of my gear snow pants, jacket, hat, gloves and all and shaking uncontrollably from the cold in my sleeping bag (it was only minus 5). At this point (or when they noticed that my eyes weren’t focusing) the cook and assistant guide tried to feed me so I would have energy (the assistant guide brought me breakfast in bed – that’s how close our mountain top bonding moment was but neither food nor water decided to work with my system and everything was refusing to stay down. An hour later they were finally able to spoon feed me chicken broth that I was able to keep down and they decided that due to my fever not subsiding it was imperative that I be taken down to the lower hut and elevation at Horombo. I was too sick to sit, eat let alone walk so my cook had no choice but to carry me down.
It probably took about 400 vertical m (5 km) before my fever lowered and I remembered who I was and what I was doing. I still think that had Gabriel (my cook) not gotten me out of there when he did I would have been sick to the point where permanent damage could have occurred. The headache that exists with high altitudes feels quite literally as though somebody has a vice grip around your skull and is slowly tightening it – not fun.
When we reached about 4300m, the nausea stopped almost as quick as it had started, I was able to walk again, and Gabriel snapped the photo of me holding the sign I had wanted to summit with. When we finally reached Horombo hut (I was able to control my legs below 4300 m and while holding on to Gabriel zig zagged my way down). I lay down and finally was able to give my body the rest it had been begging for the last two days. I woke up the next morning at 5 am, oblivious that the Norwegian couple had rejoined me and was worried about the grey skin tone I had adapted, but I was finally well.
I think had I slept the night we had with the snoring beast I would have been able to summit, but as we started our final descent I couldn’t have been more sure that I made the right choice and turned around, out of the 56 people who began the climb to the summit August 26, 22 of us had to turn back, (19 of which were on a 6 day hike). I even met the Indian Air Force who was doing Kilimanjaro as number 6 on their quest for the seven summits, and they said that the conditions we had were worst then the day they reached the Everest summit, so I don’t feel so bad.
It’s a mountain, a big one at that, and despite how commercialized it’s expeditions are, at 5895m Kilimanjaro is not to be taken lightly. When we finally reached our gate I promised myself I will never take Mother Nature for granted and will return next summer – prepared, conscious of the task at hand and ready for next and final chapter of the Ivona vs. Kilimanjaro saga. My plan is to come back with Diamox already in my system, with time on my hands to complete the feat in a minimum of seven days and with no delusions about how invincible I am.
I will be back Kilimanjaro and I hope by that point mother nature will have forgiven my arrogance and ignorance of it’s power and I will be able to claim success with a photo at Uhuru Peak to remind me for the rest of my life that despite what you set out to do, if your goal isn’t consciously being planned out and worked towards it will never be achieved.