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Out of breath on top of Africa


When the world stopped spinning and the nausea relented, I attempted to catch my evasive breath.  I peered down at my feet and realized if they had moved a few inches to the left, I’d have slid down a 1,000 ft sheet of ice and died on the -20 degree rocks below.  Instead I looked forward at my guide and trudged onward, following the 3 others in my group.  My feet, frozen into icy blocks, instinctively followed the footprints laid down in front as my eyes adjusted to the glacier-reflected sun of 19,000 ft. 

My mind, starved of oxygen and not working well, lost all track of time.  I know my body leaned focused on movement and movement alone, and I recall how trivial the monument marking the roof of Africa seemed.  I know from photos that I was breathing so fast I couldn’t swallow, as most pictures include a string of drool along my black, down alpine coat.  I know after 8 days of hiking, climbing, rain, snow, dry heaves, vomiting, endless butt-ripping diarrhea, and bloody-chapped lips swollen to Angelina-Jolie proportions, I shed tears on Uhuru Peak. 

I had literally scaled a continent. 

But for all the enormity of the experience, my starved brain does not recall how much time I spent at the summit, or even if it was as profound as I expected it to be 8 days ago.

It’s 1983 and my parents buy into Reagan-Era Conservatism with junk-bond appeal.  If Ronnie said so, it must be true, which includes vigilant policing of all television, lest it unduly influence us with graphic images of violence and news reports of murder and African drought.  Until Bill Cosby freed our television to roam to NBC, we were communist media consumers – one channel only.  PBS was considered safe, but daily I witnessed murder by lions on the Masai Mara, with bleeding Thompson’s Gazelle staining the beige African veldt red.  On PBS I saw animals die, starving children die and learned about restoration from Bob Vila.  PBS was more perverted than any other channel.  My first recollection of sex-ed, NOVA’s documentary on THE SECRET LIFE OF THE HUMAN EMBRYO, was, at age 9, a topic I wished they’d kept to themselves.  By keeping TV “safe” they also kept it boring, preventing one from living vicariously through it, unless you wanted to be an embryo or doomed wildebeest. 

Tanzania was just opening to Western tourism and Kilimanjaro seemed in every photo, inviting people to try.  Africa still held an unexplored, forbidden and mysterious quality back then, the snow-capped glacial peak seemed it’s crown jewel – the remotest place on the remotest continent.  This appealed to RV producers, who on PBS broadcast a documentary on a summit attempt via the Western Breach trail.  This reality-TV ancestor held me transfixed for 2 nights as pink-skinned hippies with foaming beards, red and yellow headbands and socks up to their knees traveled upward, fighting the terrain, climate and altitude with fleece-naked cotton and wool gear. 

I sat, slowly sinking into the crevasse created between the 2 twin-sized mattresses that my parents lashed together on a king-sized bed, learning about the ravages of altitude sickness, intractable nausea, poor judgment, unrelenting vomiting.  22 years later, roughly 10,000 people will attempt the climb each year, with about half reaching the top.  However, because of the rainy season and colder temperatures at the summit, only about 150 souls are naïve enough to climb in April.  And since each attempt requires the expense of a housing down payment, they tend to be a gambling and spirited group.

Which is exactly why I started my climb April 10th.

It started raining about 3 hours into our first day in the forest.  The unrelenting rain that soaks you so quickly there’s no time to care, because it’s time distracting you from making sure you don’t slip on mud-slicked rocks.  Mile for mile Kilimanjaro is an ecological wonder, as all temperature zones from savannah to glacial ice are represented.  So we begin our climb in lush green rain forest where the air is thick enough to support wide-bore tree trunks, flowering plants and Tarzan-thick vines.

Simon, our local guide, told us as the rain started that “climbing the mountain is a privilege not a punishment,” a notion we rejected as the memory of dry hotel rooms, warm socks and plumbing were still in the forebrain. 

But as first night fell and the mileage increased, it would become harder and harder to tell the difference between the two.

The Big Tree campsite is easily obscured, not a clearing but merely a space where trees aren’t piled on another like Lincoln Logs.  There is a small Ranger Station, soft dirt and not much else.  At evening check my heart rate was still normal and my oxygen level a respectable 95%, a level where altitude shouldn’t be too great a concern.

Then why is my diarrhea so explosive it could substitute for jet propulsion?

Six times the fist night, I unzipped my sleeping bag and like a snake molting, shimmied out from layers of moist fleece only to rummage through a dark tent to find half-soaked boots.  Once contorted out of the tent, balancing myself with one foot as the other was never quiet in the shoe, avoiding stepping into mud puddles with a bare sock and achieving Yoga-like positions, a 2 minute recovery was needed.  The altitude wasn’t a problem at rest, but even this small work was equivalent to aerobic exercise, so you stood in the rain catching your breath so as to have enough energy to forage your wat to the outhouse tent.  Untouched by electricity and absent moonlight, you kept your eyes open out of habit, arms outstretched to brace your inevitable fall over a stubborn tree root into the soft, brown, moist staining ground.

 The outhouse tent is a rectangular tarp-covered structure in which resides a plastic bucket, a cross-wire metal frame topped with an oval-shaped piece of wood.  The roof of the outhouse, straining under the weight of the rain, added fear of impending outhouse-collapse to the discomfort.  It’s natural to try and life the canvas top to drain water and lighten the load, but there is only so much you can do half-naked and bound at the ankles by your descended pants in India-ink darkness.

Low on oxygen and total body water, I stumbled again out of the outhouse and into the muddy earth, rummaged through the darkness in search of the tent, knelt again in the cold puddles and wriggled back into the sleeping bag.  15 minutes later, I’d start all over again.

Repeat 6 more times.

Over the next 23 hours, I’d need 9 liters of water to replace the fluid, my intestines, with the help of Diamox tablets, let go.  It was only the first night, could I take 7 more without quitting or getting so sick my guides forced me down?

“At least it’s not coming out the other end,” Simon said.

“Remember, climbing the mountain is a privilege, not a punishment,” Steven, another guide reminded.

“Whatever. . .just pass me more toilet paper.”

Simon was right though.  Vomiting and nausea are the first subtle changes of altitude sickness, which is epidemic on Kilimanjaro as climbers ascend up to 2000-3000/feet per day.  Sixty percent of people will experience some form of altitude sickenss above 10,000ft.  To prevent this, guides constantly scream “Pole, Pole!” Swahili for slowly, to remind climbers that slower ascents allow for more acclimatization and 6 times a day we were we asked about “N,V,D.”

Still, 36 hours ago I was in my element on a scenic jogging path planted squarely at sea level along New York City’s East River.  Less than 10 days later my goal was to be almost 4 vertical miles higher.  Simply put, altitude can kill quickly, as small blood vessels in your lungs leak, drowning you in your own frothy blood and fluids.  It doesn’t happen often, but this fluid, called pulmonary edema can be fatal if not immediately treated.  According to news reports, Jennifer Mencken, a 53 year old librarian died several years ago and in 2005 a 38 year old Canadian woman, Normande Langevin dies of brain swelling brought on by the dilation of blood vessels in her brain as a response to low oxygen levels. 

Statistically, altitude isn’t the most dangerous element of the climb, you are more likely to sprain and ankle or dehydrate (injuries common on any hike) than anything else, making the chance of dying on Kilimanjaro less than 0.1%.  But this danger, to which we voluntarily expose ourselves, is always downloaded into a corner of our mind.  Less than 3 months ago, Kirstian Ferguson, and engineer from Colorado was crushed to death forcing closure of the Western Breach, where several rockslides had caused highly publicized incidents, and that was in IDEAL climbing conditions. 

We were climbing in rain and cold, slowly breaching the mountains defenses.  Kilimanjaro was now, less a “benign and inviting dome” as one writer described, and more a potentially perilous obstacle. Which is part of what brought us here in the first place. 

Amongst the four climbers, none of us were anything but armchair adventurers, living through the Discovery Channel.  An executive, journalist, physician and nurse, all had taken the straight and narrow – immune from life’s critics.  In the mountain’s snow and harsh conditions, were doing as irresponsible an act as our conscience would allow – literally walking away from civilization, responsibility and expectations into mild, but real danger.

And it tasted good.

Like the child who in a tantrum climbs up a tree to avoid dong chores, we scaled the most remote place we could find to revel in the unpredictability of nature about the clouds, where the only expectation placed upon the group was to keep walking, keep breathing and keep hydrating.  It’s expensive to run away from the world by climbing 19,000 feet, but it’d be far more costly to my sanity had I gone anywhere else.

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