Oh, the joys of living 230 ft above sea level. Breathing is quite easy for most of us in Ottawa. I never realized I took advantage of oxygen until a simple task like rolling over in my sleeping bag took my breath away.
To give you perspective, the elevation of Mount Kilimanjaro is over 19,000 ft. At summit you’re breathing half as much oxygen as you are at sea level. So, what does that mean? Doing everything at high altitude is laboured, strenuous and difficult.
Altitude was the biggest unknown and also the scariest thing for a lot of us on the Dream Mountains team. You cannot train for altitude – unless you visit a place at high altitude for a long period of time, or you’re one of the African porters/guides who has summited Kilimanjaro over 400 times (no exaggeration).
Our lead guide and Dream Mountains Founder, Shawn Dawson, advised us that the following would help prevent/battle altitude sickness:
1. Drink 6+ litres of water per day
2. Don’t stress
3. Go slow
Sunday, April 2nd we started our ascent up Mount Kilimanjaro. We were 30 clean hikers excited and a tad nervous to see what the next 8 days on that giant rock would bring.
After a fun and somewhat slow first trek through the rain forest, the first night at Machame Camp (just shy of 10,000 ft) was my first taste of the affects of altitude.
I’m also going to factor the new food and water into account here – but I was up 6 times running to the little tented portable bathroom that night. When I curled up in my sleeping bag, it felt as though my stomach was rotting from the inside. I vividly remember trying not to cry too loudly so I wouldn’t wake up Vicky next to me. I remember thinking there was no way I could do the next 7 days on this stupid mountain. I wanted to go home.
The next morning I felt a bit better, told our guides in on my issue, and one of our African guides, Bruce, kept a close eye on me the rest of the day and advised me to only eat only toast and rice. Our hike was much slower that day and moving/lots of water/good company healed me.
I ended up feeling MUCH better but throughout the climb I also suffered normal side effects like headaches, fogginess, nausea, loss of appetite, and a lung-crushing feeling near the summit. The higher we went the harder it was to breathe, walk, drink and change. Bottom line: the less oxygen we had the more labouring it was to do everything.
To be fair I’d also like to point out I got off lucky – there were others who were in MUCH worse shape than I.
Yes, there’s a lot of negative crap that altitude does to your body, but it also affects your ability to be a rational normal thinking human. Being in high altitude is sort of like being drunk; everything is hilarious, having a conversation is tough, you don’t remember much and peeing a few feet from your friends doesn’t phase you.
There were countless moments of brain lapses, but one moment in particular stands out. To be honest, I’ll even blame to altitude for forgetting what day we were on.
There were a few of us sitting in the mess tent after a long day of hiking. Our teammate Paul McGuire was sitting across from me and I was wearing a Sens toque similar to this one:
There was a piece of lint on the “O” and Paul thought it looked like a “Q”, which I corrected him and said it was an “O”. He then asked me what the “O” stood for. Blank stare.
I had forgotten what the “O” in Ottawa Senators stood for.
This is just one small example of the ridiculous and delusional moments the 30 of us felt in that week.
You may be thinking “This sounds terrible, why would someone choose to put themselves through that?”.
Shawn told us there’s something called “altitude memory loss”, where after you get home you forget a lot of the tough moments. I can’t help but agree with him and think that all of the blissful and euphoric moments override the unbearable ones.
So I’m going to choose to forget that taking my pants off was the hardest thing I’ve ever done at 15,000 ft and start thinking about hiking Everest Base Camp next spring.
Lots of hiking love,