Embarrassed. It’s the only word that described how I felt about quitting Kilimanjaro — quitting at 12,500 feet no less. Hardly anyone does that.
On what was supposed to be the third day of hiking, I sat in a car with two porters–who now wouldn’t be able to support the rest of the group that continued up without me and I felt ashamed. Drained. Confused. I trained for this – body and mind. What he hell happened?
From 9,000 feet, I didn’t feel right. That first day we’d started around 6000 feet and spent a slow, fun hike (full of 20 questions and “I spy”) getting to know each other before arriving at 9000 feet to the “city” of sleeping tents and mess tents and bathroom tents the porters had set up for us while we hiked. It was incredible.
At dinner that night, I felt rather nauseous and couldn’t convince myself to eat much. I also had quite a headache, which I’d taken ibuprofen for about 1000 feet lower. They took our vitals at the table and mine were “normal” for the altitude, but alongside my nausea and headache they scared me. I had definitely expected to feel the effects of the altitude at some point during the six day hike to the summit, but I was shocked I felt them at 9000 ft. It made me anxious and I panicked. I cried at dinner about it and though I tried to hide it at first, I couldn’t for long. It was embarrassing and stressful to break down like that in front of a group of people who I didn’t really know and who knew each other rather well. They were very sweet toward me but that night I still went to bed terrified. I was shaken and concerned about the rest of the hike.
The next day when I woke up, though, I felt pretty great. And sheepish about my panicking the night before. I apologized to everyone and we all cheered the lifting of the fog and clouds that had surrounded us since our arrival in Tanzania. That morning we got our first glimpse of Kili’s summit above us and the blanket of clouds below us.
My vitals were back up a bit and my nausea was gone so I was able to eat a good deal at breakfast. They packaged up more for me to take on the hike. The hike started off faster than the day before and pretty soon one of the other hikers (tawnya) and I were struggling. At a certain point Jesse, Tawnya and her husband Sean and I broke off into a slower group. Tawnya was really feeling the altitude and gave up her pack to one of the guides for awhile. I was doing fine for a bit but then I started getting a bit woozy and dizzy so I gave my pack up as well. (Which helped immensely — it was amazing.) we only went three miles and 3000 feet that day but it took us 6 hours to do so. The last mile of the hike was pretty rough on all of us. It was interesting to look at the trail and know in my mind that there was nothing difficult about it, but for it to be so hard for my body to do anyway.
When we finally arrived at camp we were greeted with an incredible song from our porters — which definitely made me feel like a rockstar. At lunch, it was clear tawnya felt awful. I didn’t feel so great but my body seemed happier now that it wasn’t moving anymore. After lunch I was exhausted and went straight to my tent, took my first diamox and went straight to sleep. For four hours!
When I woke up I felt worse — way worse. Ridiculously nauseous. Woozy and dizzy. Unbelievably tired. I felt awful. Yet (because of the diamox?) my vitals were totally reasonable. My pulse was about two times its normal rate (which I think is scary but is within “normal”) and my oxygen was at about 90 (instead of the normal 98). I searched myself to figure out whether i was having a hard time with my breath and nausea because I was just panicking or whether what I was feeling had a different cause — altitude. I tried to force food down at dinner, but even bland potatoes and carrots seemed impossible. When one of the assistant guides told me to force myself to eat (you do need the calories), it pushed me over the edge. I was forcing myself to eat! Didn’t he know that I wanted to have an appetite? That I wanted to scarf down food and get seconds and thirds like the rest of the giggling and happy people around me. All I wanted was to feel normal and hungry and good like they were feeling. I felt trapped and helpless. Needless to say, I started crying again (meals, I guess, were tough) and at this point I really started to question whether i should or could keep going up.
My threshold for pain and for risk has always been low. I knew they had oxygen, but the way I understood it, the oxygen was for the summit day, not really for before that. And my numbers seemed fine. It was just my body that wasn’t feeling okay. I was pretty scared about the fact that if felt bad both the night before, during the second half of the hike and then at camp. Would it end? Would I start to feel better at some point?
I was having a very hard time enjoying myself despite the incredible things I was getting to see — like the stars! The amazing stars! I couldn’t even enjoy those I felt so nauseous, so sick.
That night, I told Felix, our main guide, that I wasn’t sure I could keep going up. That I felt awful, despite the normal numbers, and was scared of feeling more awful the next day and the next. I was scared of being further from rescue and help. I could hardly walk to the dinner tent without getting a little woozy. How would I walk up 7,000 more feet? I felt like an idiot and ungrateful and alone and, again, like a drama queen. But going down felt like the safest idea to me that night.
Felix said we should wait til morning to make a decision (we wouldn’t be going anywhere that night anyway unless it was an emergency) so I spent two hours in my tent trying not to throw up — almost every position made me nauseous and made me feel like hurling but I really didn’t want to throw up. Vomiting (persistent vomiting really) is a sign of moderate to severe high altitude cerebral edema). I hoped against hope that once again the morning would bring health and normal feelings. That the worst I would feel was embarrassed
But it didn’t. In the morning I still had trouble eating — one bite seemed like enough. Moving around just a little bit left me dizzy and out of breath. I felt nauseous again. Felix, the main guide, even suggested that even though my numbers were okay, my symptoms and my panic made him think it might be better if I went down.
Hearing that and all the encouragement from the rest of the group, though, made me want to keep going up. So I told him I wanted to try. The hike that day was to 14,500 feet and then back down to 12,500 — an acclimatization hike. If I could make it through it and back to 12,500, then I figured I’d have one more full day to get used to the altitude. So I filled up all my water bottles and camelbak and started up with everyone else.
Aaand I did not get far. As we walked I felt tired and lethargic, my eyelids drooped and I felt dizzy and unsteady. I kept going a few more slow steps, doing the breathing Felix had told us about the day before — two normal breaths followed by a long one. I asked tawnya how she felt and she said fine. I didn’t feel fine. I searched myself.
Was I just panicking? Were my symptoms real? These are questions that have often plagued me since my anxiety reared its ugly head however many years ago. How do you tell the difference? I don’t know if insucceeded. I was scared. What if I got hurt because I was unsteady? What if I got worse along the way and getting down to help was more difficult? But then again, what if i didn’t? What if I was really fine? What if I had to tell every person who was rooting for me, who supported me, who donated to the AFCA, that i hadn’t made it?
About 200 yards from camp, I called it. I told one of our assistant guides, Eligy, that I wanted to go down. The rest of the group, which had walked about 20 paces away, waved goodbye and started up again, while I turned and headed down. A little ways down we intercepted Felix, found out which porter was holding my bag and Eligy, my porter (whose name I didn’t catch) and I started down to the camp station.
There I wrote my name in a logbook that tracks who goes down from that camp. There weren’t many people on the list. Most were porters (you had to list your profession). From there we hiked down to where a car would meet us — turns out there are roads up a lot of Kilimanjaro and helicopter landing zones as well for urgent situations.
The car that met us only had one seat in the front and I got it, relegating Eligy and my porter to the open bed of the truck, the wind, the dust, and clouds. I felt awful, like I should be the one in the back– I’d caused this. Why should they suffer?
Back at one of the gates of Kilimanjaro, I signed another logbook to note my descent. There were more people on that list from the same day and before, but it’s unclear what elevation they were at when they descended.
We caught another ride to moshi with the same car which meant Eligy and my porter again had to sit in the back. I made some conversation with the driver, Emmanuel. He had a wife and three kids in moshi (“no more,” he said…”okay maybe one more” hahaha) and he (at least during busy times) only got to be home with them five days a month! Five days!! Later on another driver (who did safaris) told me that between June and August he generally didn’t see his families at all since he took groups on safari one after another.
After a few stops (during which me and a kiddo made funny faces at each other) Emmanuel dropped me and Eligy and my porter at the Park View Inn, which I can only describe as very insulated. Big gate in front. A pool. A restaurant. Beer. Air conditioning (!). A shower separated from the toilet (a picture of a shower not separated from a toilet is below). Hot water. A big queen bed. Real sealed windows. It was, if I was in America, a nice room. But in moshi, where I knew things were not like this hotel at all, it felt pretentious. However, the SENE employees who came to meet the three of us there said that Mhabe farm (where I was initially scheduled to return to on aug 10) was full and I’d be staying at the park view inn for four nights — they’d already made the reservation ($67 per minute for b&b). It wasn’t a totally unreasonable price but the place felt wrong so I asked if I could stay at a hostel instead. I think they were confused by that (“no one has ever stayed at a hostel when they’ve come down.”) They said they could keep an eye on me better at park view, where they have connections, so I agreed to stay. (The next day they moved me to a less expensive, much cuter place that I like a lot more.)
I still feel embarrassed. Why couldn’t I do it? Was it just a panic attack and I turned it into a reason to go down? I feel embarrassed that everyone will know I didn’t make it up. And what a low altitude I was at when I came down. I feel embarrassed that a group of people who didn’t know me well now think who I am is who I was on the mountain: a cranky, irritable, tired, panicked drama queen unable to recognize the beauty we were gifted on our hike. I imagine it was a relief for them when I went down — it’s hard to manage someone who feels so poorly, who can’t really be helped with kind words of the look-at-the-bright-side variety. Many of them we’re so kind when I felt bad — Anne, Donnie, Tawnya, Jesse –but what could they really do to improve how I felt? Unfortunately, not much.
…and yet, my embarrassment is also tinged with a bit of a shrug. Like a I-tried-it-and-it-didn’t-work-out-but-I-did-my-best-for-who-I-am-and-what-I-felt-like shrug. Like, maybe I do have a lower altitude threshold than some people, or maybe it was anxiety that caused my symptoms. And maybe I should have started diamox sooner rather than later to improve my chances. Maybe I could have kept going up and maybe I would have made it. Or maybe staying up was unsafe for me and I made the right choice.
And maybe I shouldn’t play the maybe game. Because I went down. And I can’t take it back, even if I wanted to.
All I can do now for the next few days is enjoy the sides of Tanzania I fell in love with last October — how nice and helpful the people are, the animals on the side of the road just trotting along, the other visitors I meet, the feeling of being a minority.
And when the rest of the group comes down from Kili after reaching the Roof of Africa, I will hug them and cheer for their amazing success and raise a glass of wine to them. And be the person who I wanted to be but just couldn’t muster on that mountain.