Day Three: Shira 2 Camp to Lava Tower to Barranco Camp
Hike: 6 miles
Altitude: 12,500 feet to 15, 190 feet to 13, 044 feet
The mornings are cold and misty. And this morning, particularly, I’m worried. My little friend, Bronchitis, just loves to jump on the open road with me. Argentina, Vietnam, New Zealand…now, Africa. Of course, I’m prepared; my lungs are forever a travel headache, but I’m hoping to swig a Z-pack and feel better very quickly. It’s clear Kili doesn’t stand for shenanigans on her watch. Case in point: Eric.
Max’s son is being taken down after two days of hardship. Besides Eric, the night provided for a chorus of gags and vomits. Everyone points fingers at the food. But Oforo, our head guide, takes great offense to such an accusation. It’s altitude sickness, and he swears by this. To be fair, the mountainside meal selection has been surprisingly great – porridges, daily soups, stroganoffs, chicken, burgers, and fried bananas for dessert. It ain’t Blue Ribbon, but it’s worlds better than mere camping grub. (As if I really know this…)
I decide to take my bronchial issues like a man (or strong camper girl) and grin and bear it. Even though today’s a long hike day – over six hours – to the highest point outside of summit, I’m convinced I’ll survive. That logic holds until after lunch…
About a third of the way through, the altitude begins to wreak havoc on my psyche. “Be free with the mountain,” says Richard when I break down in hysterics and leave the group. I’m so tied up in my physical condition, that I’m losing sight of the big picture. My daypack disentangled from my back, I set back out “pole, pole” for the rest of the way with a gaggle of concerned guides. I have to reach the Lava Tower, the highest altitude we’ll hit outside of the summit. Slowly, I move forward. Two more breakdowns, many more pep talks, and a descent from the Lava Tower later, I arrive at Barranco Camp. Everyone’s clapping as I stumble in. I have fever of 101.6 and I can barely breathe; every other gasp for air collapses into a coughing fit. Richard turns to me sheepishly and says, “Please…do not cry.”
As if on cue, looking at my surroundings, Kili looming in the background, my chest rising and falling, the tears roll. I’m almost halfway there.
Day Four: Barranco Camp to Karanga Camp
Hike: 3 miles
Altitude: 13, 044 feet to 13, 106 feet
I guess I was hoping for a miracle. After taking dinner in my tent and sleeping through the night, I was sure I was going to be fine. So, when Darryl tells me not to look in the mirror, I’m a bit disheartened. Then, I look. And, I’m mortified. My face looks like I had an allergic reaction to living; it’s puffy and bloated beyond recognition. I have pus-filled bags atop and underneath my eyes, and thick, crust in all facial orifices. My hands and feet are swollen, and while I’m down to 99.7 temperature, my head is throbbing and I feel completely confused. After documenting such ugliness on my iPhone for my sister (a very important step in diagnosing altitude sickness, yes), I call the guides. They insist it’ll pass and I must go on to Karanga – a two-mile hike – rather than be carried back (on a stretcher!) down yesterday’s route to Shira for descent. I’m embarrassed to come out of my tent. I look like a circus freak, and everyone’s curious for a peek.
All of a sudden, I can’t think straight. I’m on the ground next to my tent, and all I can remember are the visual of everyone’s shoes. I’m crying. Again. I can feel the tears streaking down my face, but I have no idea why I’m crying, or why I’m climbing, or what’s going to happen next. I’m holding onto Darryl and I feel blank. Which makes me frightened. Sorry, which makes me terrified.
I don’t quite remember who convinced me, but someone advised me to listen to our guides and go forward, not backward. So, after a bit of downtime to compose, I begin again. Isn’t it over yet? The Barranco Wall looms large, and true to their word, it’s good for me. It’s a steep mountaineering climb that takes my mind off of my blubbery face and my congested chest and on my foot placement and ability to balance. Before I realize it, three hours have passed and we’re at Karanga Camp. It’s been an amazing few days, watching my body fail, recover, fail and recover again. Unsure how I arrived, I’m just happy to be on solid footing again. Most importantly, when I look in the mirror at sunset, my facial structure has returned to normal.