I don’t normally use foul language, so please forgive me this time.
Today the altitude took its first toll on me. I can’t begin to explain how demotivating that can be, even though I know that all the symptoms I’m facing are still within normal range.
We were supposed to begin our acclimatization hikes today. Today’s hike was from Shira camp, 3800 m, to Lava Tower at 4600 m, where we were to have lunch, and then hike down to Barranco camp at 3950 m to spend the night. This was our first serious test of endurance in thin air. The only positive thing about it was that it was not steep and the terrain was not very challenging. It was our first entrance into the Alpine Desert.
I was aware of the challenge that lay ahead in that hike but I did not fully grasp what it would mean to me. It was like how we see people dying yet feel so distant from it, like it only happens to others. So on that morning I decided that I was a light person and hence had to begin the hike feeling light. I looked around at the breakfast table and I saw sausages, beef bacon, eggs… I thought to myself, “Oh my God! How can these people hike after eating all that fatty food? No way. I’m having my porridge.” So I took some porridge, added a bit of honey, and a single piece of bread just to fulfill my carb intake requirement. I felt so proud and satisfied with this breakfast and on I went to begin the climb.
I immediately put on the Pole Pole act. I began crawling out of the camp and intended to crawl all the way up to Lava Tower. But that wasn’t enough. As we progressed I began to feel lightheaded. I began to sense some pressure over my eyes that kept getting stronger. I felt as if my eyes were bulging and I expected them to pop out any minute. I kept taking as deep breaths as the altitude would allow me, but soon that lightheaded sensation gave way to dizziness and drowsiness.
I recalled all the tips I had taken from Nadia and Omar Samra, our expedition leader, about “quietening” my mind. So the minute it started threatening me with altitude fatality (yes, that’s how dramatic my mind can get) I decided that it must be the sun. We were going higher up under the sun’s burning UV rays, so that’s what was happening. I just needed to tighten my hat around my head a bit more and shed some layers.
It still didn’t work.
I was on the verge of a total crash so I had to shout out for a break. I was lucky to have Baraka and Joseph, two leader guides, with me. “How are you feeling?” asked me Joseph. “I feel dizzy and tired. It must be the strong sun.”
“I would say it’s the altitude,” he replied.
Thank you Joseph. That was very helpful.
I reached into my backpack and, to my miserable surprise, could not find any of the power gels I had brought with me. It was my travel-light-and-feel-light crap day.
I kept drinking water and chewing on some chocolate and resumed the hike.
Soon my dizziness turned into imagery. I started seeing people talking who weren’t even there. It was like a semi-conscious experience. So my body decided to put on a denial act and fall asleep. There were times when I didn’t know if it was my body or me, but I tried to grab the opportunity that the guides weren’t looking and close my eyes and pretend that I was in my bed in Cairo, fast asleep. It was the only technique that relieved some of the misery I was in.
And remember my theory that dry weather would relieve my cough? Not true. My cough became wilder than ever that Ian told me he could hear it almost a mile away. The spitting got more intense and much thicker that I simply decided not to use up all of my tissues on it. So I started spitting on the ground like an annoying cab driver in Cairo. Spit was, after all, organic material that could be left on the mountain. So sorry Kili, but it was a question of survival for me. I either spat on the ground, saved up tissue for my bathroom needs, and breathed my way up Kilimanjaro, or packed my things and went home to sip soup, watch TV and run away from it all. So I preferred the first option.
Yet as the hike continued to what seemed like an eternity my muscles started to feel weaker. I began to pant at the normal step so I had to break it down further.
Diamox began to realize that it had more work to do, so I was answering nature’s call almost behind every rock I ran into. I shamelessly announced it to my climbing buddies and threatened them not to come near my rock, all the while trying to deal with the mess I put myself in as an inexperienced outdoor pooper with diarrhea, while the guide patiently waited in the distance.
By the time we went down to Barranco camp at the end of the hike, I was greeted by a beautiful cloud of mist and, once again, trees. But I felt like all my defensors were shutting down. I went into my tent and tried to pick up some clothes from my bag, but my head was throbbing and my hand was too weak to reach into the bag. I was looking at the clothes unable to identify any of the items. All it took was for Joseph to come to my tent and ask me if I was alright. I broke down into hysterical sobs. It suddenly hit me that I might not actually make it to the summit. I reached out with my finger to him the way a 5 year-old shows his mother a finger cut and asked him to check my pulse and oxygen. My oxygen level was 95, still way above the dangerous 70 mark, and my heart rate was 85, still good at this altitude.
“So why are you crying?” he asked. I think I just needed a shoulder to cry on.
Right now I’m writing this at 11:45 PM. The thick fog that blurred vision in the camp has subsided, and Uhuru Peak, that beautiful monstrous summit of Kilimanjaro is looming before me with its glaciers. The stars are so low I can almost touch them, and the walls of the mountain are so high, so black, and they’re engulfing the camp like it was giving us a warm, rewarding hug after an unforgettable, curse-evoking 10 hour hike.
Despite all of the sickness I felt, I was consoled by the scenery. We were going higher above the clouds and slowly rising to Mount Meru’s summit level. I felt like I was going through a mind and body cleansing experience. I began to fall in love even more with the mountain. I loved every sensation of altitude that put me on the verge of a black out. I loved the unspoken conversation between me and the mountain as I began to feel tired yet so excited to reach my destination as it began to appear in the distance. I felt humbled by the difficulty I was facing and so touched when the weather starts turning in my favor. I loved Kilimanjaro, and something told me that as it watched me get sick and still want to make it, it began to love me too.