Fighting Altitude Sickness on Kilimanjaro
07.03.2013 - 08.03.2013 43 °F
"Get me off this f--king mountain!" I moaned in despair.
"We've gone too far in this direction to turn back. The only way out is to keep going to the next camp." said Tosha.
I winced at the sight of the daunting rock face of the Barranco Wall, the top already shrouded in mist.
"You're kidding me!" I exclaimed.
"No. We have to keep going." replied Tosha calmly.
"F--k it then! Let's go." I said in resignation.
The problems had started the day before. We had left the Moir Hut campsite and hiked for a few hours up to Lava Tower located at an elevation of 4,500 meters. It was a fairly easy walk with a gradual slope covering the 300 meter increase in altitude. Along the way, our path joined with the hikers who were doing the Machame route. They would pass by Lava Tower and hike down to the Barranco campsite at 3,800 meters. Our route instead had us camping at the base of Lava Tower.
During an early morning break, we enjoyed a clear view of the Kibo peak.
Some modern amenities can't be left at home. A solar panel can help power them.
Many of the different routes up Kilimanjaro converged along this pathway.
Our guides recommended an acclimation hike up these slopes towards Arrow Glacier.
We reached the campgrounds at about 11 AM, well before the expected afternoon rains. Several hikers climbed up the Lava Tower rock to an elevation of 4,600 meters. Our guides felt that the rock could be dangerous when wet and instead recommended that we would better be served doing a higher acclimation hike. Still feeling very great, we followed Eli and Frank #2 up the pathway that leads to Arrow Glacier. The walk was fairly steep and we had to take it slowly to catch our breaths. The higher we climbed, the more frost and ice we began to see on the ground. The walk was a bit frustrating. We would near the apex of a ridge, believing that we would be at the top. However, when we reached the crest, there would be yet another ridge above it. We could see some snow covered rocks ahead. Was the glacier nearby? Nope. Eli broke the news that we were at least another 30-45 more minutes away before we could see it. By then the clouds and mist had rolled in obscuring the view ahead of us. Then we felt some sprinkling of rain. We were already up to almost 4,800 meters. Since we would probably not be able to see anything else up there anyway, we decided to turn around back to the campsite.
On this day, we would be higher than Mount Meru (4,565 meters) seen in the distance.
Mist shrouded any ability to see the terrain above us.
As we returned to our campsite at the base of the Lava Tower, I was surprised to find that I was feeling much more fatigued than expected.
Lunch included onion soup, baked beans, rice, and fruit.
After eating, I started to feel much worse, now with a throbbing headache and some nausea. The Wife meanwhile felt rejuvenated. She had washed her hair using some no-rinse shampoo and was happy as can be. I was resigned to wearing a hat for the remainder of the hike as a helmet-like crust now covered my hair. We settled into the tent for our afternoon ritual of hiding out from the rain. To my dismay, I continued to feel worse and worse despite laying down.
"Give me a bag!" I demanded.
"What?!" replied the wife as she looked up from her Judith McNaught book.
"A bag! Now!" I exclaimed as she handed me a gallon ziplock bag.
"Blaaaahhhh!" I threw up into the bag.
"I don't know how good Tanzanian coffee is supposed to be, but it sure tastes awful coming up."
I was glad that throwing up made my nausea and headache go away. The Wife was glad that the ziplock bag didn't have any holes in it. Luckily, I felt well enough to take a nap for the next few hours. During the evening, I was able to stagger out to the mess tent and tolerate a few sips of soup. However, every slurp caused more and more nausea. It got so bad that I had to break out the Zofran (Ondansetron) pills. If it works for chemotherapy patients, then it should work for me.
The Wife had a big pile of mashed potatoes, chicken stew, and vegetable soup all to herself
That night was a miserable experience. My head felt like it was going to explode. Thankfully, we were once again sharing the campsite with only one other group, so there weren't any loud radios playing through the night. Somehow, I was able to fall asleep for a few hours. But my biological clock was still screwed up (no thanks to the frequent trips to the bathroom courtesy of diamox). By 3 AM, I was already awake, laying there for the next 4 hours praying that my massive headache and unrelenting nausea would get better once we descended to a lower altitude.
The next morning, I was feeling better and anxious to get moving. While most groups were busy tackling the Barranco Wall first thing in the morning, we would reach it by late morning. The other group who shared the Lava Tower campsite with us would instead head up to the Arrow Glacier to spend the night there.
We left Lava Tower in pursuit of a lower elevation.
The route down to the Barranco campsite was supposed to be nice and easy. Unfortunately, I felt sapped of all strength. My legs were like jelly and I was short of breath walking DOWNHILL. We had to take breaks every 10-15 minutes for me to gather myself and keep from throwing up. Instead of feeling better as we descended to a lower altitude, I continued to feel worse and worse. The Wife, on the other hand, felt completely normal. That still didn't stop her from slipping and falling on her butt four times during the trip downhill.
(Top and bottom) Giant groundsels have a unique strategy to survive in the harsh conditions on the mountain. When the outer leaves of the plant die, they do not fall off. Instead, they remain to insulate the plant from the cold.
By the time we reached the Barranco campsite, I was exasperated. We had descended 700 meters and I felt worse than before. It made no sense. We were at the same altitude as two days before. I should have been feeling like my normal self. I questioned whether it was an altitude issue at all. Maybe it was a stomach virus or some other gastrointestinal infection. After all, I was feeling the same kind of reflux and nausea that I had experienced in Egypt the year before.
I knew things were going from bad to worse. In the last three hours, The Wife and both guides had all taken pit stops at least twice behind some of the big rocks. Despite taking 750 mg of diamox, I had absolutely no urge to urinate. I knew that I was severely dehydrated. We had been told countless times to drink at least 4-5 liters of fluid/day. But, in the past few days, I had been losing so much fluids out of practically every orifice that I got really behind. The problem now was that I couldn't rehydrate because I could barely keep anything down.
If I had an option to leave the mountain, then I would have. I felt so sick that I didn't care about all the time and money that we had spent for this trip. But as Tosha pointed out, the only way down was to go up first. So the decision was made for me. Tosha offered to carry my pack. I refused several times before relenting. I knew it was the right thing to do as that 15 pound backpack now felt like 100 pounds. But, no guy ever wants to admit defeat and hand over his gear for someone else to carry.
We slowly made our way up the Barranco Wall. All I could do was focus on trying not to vomit. I was so disengaged from the experience that it was mostly a blur for me. It was a shame because, in retrospect, it would have actually been one of the more enjoyable parts of the trek. There were several areas where we had to climb over rocks hand over hand--a good break from the tedious uphill walking. By the time we made the ascent in the late morning, the rain had already started to come down, making the rocks very slippery and potentially dangerous. How the porters could do this while carrying heavy packs is an amazement to me. Since she can barely do something as simple as walk downhill without falling on her butt, I was surprised that The Wife was able to navigate these rocks fairly easily.
The view down from the Barranco Wall underscores the steepness of the climb
After what seemed like an eternity, we finally made it to the top. We found a nice rock wall to shelter us from the winds and had lunch. In our packs, we all had a boxed lunch that contained a boiled egg, cheese, fried potato cubes, pakoras, and a juice drink. I refused to touch mine because I knew it would induce more vomiting. Luckily Tosha was carrying a thermos full of carrot soup of which he gave me a cupful. After taking a few sips, I closed my eyes and rested my head between my knees. The next thing I knew, hot soup was splashing on my ankles and shoes. I guess I must have fallen asleep sitting up.
We still had a 30-45 minute hike over much flatter terrain to the Karanga camp at an altitude of 4,000 meters. The few minutes of rest must
have done the trick, because I felt much better afterwards. I asked Tosha for my pack back, but he just gave me a polite shake of his head. I know what he was probably thinking: "Too bad, wuss. You already had your chance to be a man, but you embarrassed yourself in front of your wife."
During the walk, we spoke with our guides about what my options were once we got to our next campsite. One option was to abandon the climb and spend the next day hiking down with Eli for about seven hours until we reached the bottom of the mountain. Then I could spend the next two days in Moshi (with a hot shower!) until The Wife finished her climb. This plan sounded very enticing at the time, and a reasonable option if we were doing a group trek. However, with just the two of us on a private trek, it would be a very lonely climb for her if we were separated. She would have been safe with the guides and porters, but would have no one to complain to and be miserable with. The morale boost provided from camaraderie can be invaluable.
As we checked into the ranger station at the Karanga camp, we met The Happy German. He was a climber who had slipped earlier that day on the Barranco Wall and had dislocated his left shoulder. He said that his three friends were nice (or mean) enough to ram his shoulder back into place. Although he had his arm in a make-shift sling and was still in considerable pain, The Happy German remained upbeat and smiling. We discussed both of our predicaments and we agreed that the only solution was to keep going up.
The Wife and I crashed in our tent for the next few hours. Since our group was the last ones there, we got the worst spots. Our tent was on such a steep slope that our sleeping bags kept sliding downhill. If the tent flap wasn't closed we would have slid out the front. I downed a cocktail of antibiotics just in case my problem was infectious in nature. I also popped a Zofran to hopefully help with the nausea. Frank #1 brought some tea and coffee to our tent for us to drink. I was feeling much better so I had several cups. Stupid mistake.
When we left our tent to go to dinner, I took only a few steps before I felt a massive wave of nausea. I ran to the bathroom tent (which was thankfully only a few feet away) and threw up everything that I had drank for the last several hours. I couldn't stop heaving for quite some time. I was afraid I was going to get an esophageal tear and start puking blood. Thankfully that didn't happen. Once I was able to regain my composure, I rejoined The Wife in the mess tent. She was happily enjoying a nice beef stew with carrots and potatoes as our cook had gotten resupplied at this campsite. I couldn't eat anything, but I knew I had to have something to drink to stay hydrated. I forced down some tea and hot chocolate.
After dinner, we settled into our tent for the night. No sooner had I laid down, then I felt another massive wave of nausea.
"Bag!" I exclaimed.
I puked my guts out into the ziplock bag that The Wife handed me. Unfortunately, this one had a small hole in it which started to make a mini mess.
The Wife asked, "Are you gonna be okay?"
I lifted my head up from my dripping bag of vomit and moaned, "Get me off this f--king mountain!"