I opened my eyes. It was still dark. Bursts of wind beat against the fly of my tent and caused a flutter. I shivered and scrunched deeper in my bag. But I did not go back to sleep. I waited another hour or so, caught between the need to pee and the desire to stay in my warm bag. Finally, I heard the sounds of the camp shaking off the night. I pulled on my outerwear, put a Diamox tablet in my zipped pocket, and slipped outside.*
Through visible breath I scanned the Shira. It stretched from the crater rim behind me to the base of Kibo in front me. The whole of it was crystalline. Yesterday's mud crunched under my unlaced boots.
I went over to the splash bucket where warm water had been prepared by the porters. I did the morning dab. The wind nipped at my wet skin. I dried it with the sleeves and tail of my shirt. Then I headed to the mess in hopes of finding more hot water for drinking. It was on the table in a carafe. This Kandoo crew is good, I thought.
I poured and sipped a mug in the tent, resisting the urge to stir in the powdered coffee. I knew that Robert would be around soon for "health checks" and didn't want to do anything that would elevate my heartbeat. Robert had warned us that these checks would be taken every morning and every evening. The vocalized reason was client-care, but I suspected company liability was also at work. Oddly, I didn't fear the cold or the altitude as much as the thought of being escorted off the mountain for having a rabbit heart.
Elevation does funny things to the human body. Breathing patterns change. Heart pump volume decreases. Oxygen saturation in the blood plummets. The sense of taste is altered. The digestive system slows. Sleep becomes increasingly difficult. Fatigue, fuzzy-headedness, and headache are common. With time, most people adapt to these changes. Or go down.
According to the canon of the sport, Kilimanjaro qualifies as "Extreme Altitude" (anything above 18,000 feet) but does not penetrate the "death zone" (above 26,000 feet). In the case of the latter, the human body seemingly reaches the ceiling of adaptability, which is why summiting a Himalayan peak is essentially a race against time. One must get up and down through the "death zone" before conditions overcome conditioning. Somewhere inside my head I hear a Rob Hall voice saying "Human beings simply aren't built to function at the cruising altitude of a 747."**
With the exception of summit day, most of the work of climbing Kili happens inside the envelope designated "Very High Altitude" (11,500-18,000 feet). Our approach increases the odds of a successful summit by slowing our ascent rate and by doing successively higher forays (and descents) that allow for acclimatization. Charting the heart rate and blood oxygen levels is one measure of monitoring our progress.
Other members of the team made their way to the wash basin, the tent-loo, and mess. One by one, Robert worked his way around the table with a portable finger pulse oximeter. While waiting for a reading he asked a series of reflective questions: "How are you feeling?" "Did you sleep well?" "Do you have a headache?" Answers were recorded on a chart along with the numbers produced by the oximeter. Each of us had a page in Robert's book.
I took some deep breaths, answered the questions, and got a positive review. Robert moved on. I fished the Diamox tablet out of my pocket and threw it down. Then I reached for powdered coffee and dumped a generous dose into my mug. Two or three cups later, my day could officially begin.
The rising sun warmed the landscape. The porters gathered around our mess tent and lifted it up over our heads as we ate. They carried it away, eager to move on. We shared a good laugh. We finished our breakfast of finger millet porridge, bread, and eggs.
The path for the day will take us across the Shira. Kibo is in full view now. Each step brings us closer to that elevated challenge.
*Diamox (Acetazolamide) helps prevent and reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness. On the down side, it is a diuretic that flushes your system and can accelerate your heart rate.
**If you are contemplating a Kili climb (or even hiking that hill behind your house!) you should probably not watch the movie Everest (Universal, 2015). But you can see trailer here.