The Altitude Game

Let me start, for anyone who doesn’t know me, with a bit of history. Four years ago, I attempted to go to Everest Basecamp, but at 4,400m, after a day hike to acclimatise, I awoke in the middle of the night coughing up handfuls of water. I had pulmonary oedema, and I was a very sick girl.

Because of this, I have what I would consider a very healthy respect for altitude, because that kinda tends to happen when something nearly kills you. It was four years before I would go back to a high altitude again, and I won’t lie. It scares the shit out of me.

Many people ask why I still do it. And the fact is, I do it out of love. Some of the most amazing hiking in the world can be found at altitude. I am currently in Peru, and there would be so much that I would miss if I didn’t try. And that is the thing, I try.

Hiking was never something that came easy to me. Even when I was a kid, I was fit enough to dance six days a week and couldn’t run a lap around the oval. Even now, I could go ten three-minute rounds in a boxing ring and struggle to climb a steep hill. Anything that is a repetitive movement and hard work with the lower body, was something I always struggled with. Add to this now that I have scar tissue on my lungs and hiking a hill is an arduous task for me. It is something that I have to undergo in a somewhat meditative state. It is very, very slow. Constantly focused on my breathing and keeping it regulated. Constantly focused on trying to keep my heart rate down and just putting one foot in front of the other. I am like the tortoise in the tortoise and the hare. I will get there in the end, but I get there at a crawl.

My frustration in places like Huaraz, where I now currently stay, is other people. People breeze in, behave like they are experts, have no issues at all with altitude, give everyone advice like they know everything and trek their way up the hill so easy it’s like a piece of cake. I sat here the other day and listened to a group of people moan about having to go on a trip with “people that are just so slow. I mean, if you’re going to be slow, don’t come because you are just going to annoy everybody else because you can’t keep up with us.” I sat there and listened to entire group of people essentially bitch and moan about having to be placed on a trip with me, or people like me. And to be honest, it made me a little bit upset. This is not the first time I have heard it. I am sure it won’t be the last. But for all people out there with this attitude, I have something to say.

You don’t think at all about what you’re doing or the fact that you could be at high risk of sickness and possible death all the time. By the grace of genetics, you managed to skip the hell that many of us face with our bodies when confronted with less oxygen. You don’t consider that for some of us, this is one of the hardest things we will ever do. You especially don’t think about the courage it takes to stare death in the face and to then face that fear and to get back on the mountain because you have never, ever had to do it. You don’t think about how hard it is. It is acceptable, being awful to those that struggle. And yet despite all of the challenges that I face that you don’t know about or understand, I am there and I am doing it. It takes more courage than I could ever expect you to know.

You don’t think about what medications to take or how to balance them to make sure that you are ok, constantly fretting about side effects or what you can or cannot take, eat or drink with them. You go out for beers the night before and get drunk. Or how many days you need to stay somewhere to properly acclimatise because last time you got sick you didn’t have altitude sickness symptoms and that scares you even more because there is no warning sign that seriously potential problems are coming. You laugh, because its a silly game. But this isn’t a game to some of us. What you do think about is how much of an inconvenience people like me are to you on the mountain. As you do your best, I do mine with the disabilities I have been given. And yet you judge me for them and that hurts.

We are all so impatient in this world that we lack the patience required to understand and support the struggles of another. And if I am ever confronted with someone who struggles more than me I usually stay with them and coach them. Because the best thing we can offer is support and not judgement. And I know about judgement from the faces of every single person who looks at me with a face that says ‘she’s not going to make it’ that then turns into surprise when I do because they underestimate my will.

I am about to trial my prophylactic medication for the first time tomorrow. I am nervous. But if it works out for me, it opens more doors for things that I can potentially do. Some people call me crazy. I just feel determined. And yes, I am a little scared. But to be honest, I would be stupid not to be. If I wasn’t scared, I wouldn’t have a respect for the mountain. And that respect for the mountain makes me appreciate it and want it more than anyone. It makes my sense of achievement greater. Because with each small and slow step that I take, I am overcoming something that everyone tells me that I can’t or shouldn’t do. This is my journey. And I am doing it my way. Don’t even try to tell me I can’t or that I shouldn’t. Because if you do, like everyone else before you that has told me this, I will prove you wrong. That much I know. So you can moan and complain about having me on your trip all you like, but I am sticking my fingers in my ears and I am not listening. La, la, la. Because like it or not, I am doing it. And I’m doing it slow.

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