Stories from the summits

Deaths in the mountains most commonly result from underestimating the risks. Sharing your experience might just save someone else's life. Click here to submit your account of any altitude illness.

Kilimanjaro

Below is an account of HAPE on Mount Kilimanjaro. After one of our research studies ("Jackson et al: Altitude sickness on Kilimanjaro. ") found that climbers generally go up Kilimanjaro far too fast and often get altitude sickness, we decided to put specific information about it online. Don't climb Kilimanjaro without reading our advice on climbing Kilimanjaro safely.

" I’m back from Africa and my hike to Kilimanjaro. I got some great pictures, and quite a story.

" I made it to the top, along with my 2 friends, but I had some troubles along the way. On day 2 or 3 I contracted High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), a life threatening mountain illness. The only remedy is immediate decent down the mountain. Unaware of what I had I continued onward and upward (4 more days on the mountain with this condition), with difficulty breathing, coughing up fluid in my lungs, with a low grade fever and a sore throat that was so dry, I couldn’t even cough without aid of liquid. (These symptoms came and went over the next few days, and were not always present, contributing to my belief that I was fine).

" One of the symptoms is delusion, and I made up a story about my condition calling it a combination of asthma, poor conditioning, and run of the mill mountain woes. It took me sometimes twice as long to complete each days hike, as my fellow climbers. With HAPE fluid builds up in the lungs and makes it hard to function, and thus any exertion is slow and forced. On the last day, I awoke at Midnight for my summit attempt. I felt pretty decent, and was doing great for the first 6 hours of the hike. Then around hour seven, my body quickly deteriorated into moderate, then extreme HAPE. What should have taken 2 hours, took me 5, as I reached the crater rim. At this point the very top of the mountain is 45 minutes away for a normal hiker in good condition.

" I should have turned back, but I forged ahead, coughing up awful stuff from my lungs, and then as I set off, my breath was almost gone. I started to breathe in, but my exhale was light as if on my last breath. It took me 3 hours to reach the summit, at which point I immediately turned around after 3 quick pictures.

" Within 10 minutes of my descent, my guide noticed I was in extremely poor condition. He left me with the assistant guide and raced down the mountain to hail the mountain rescue team. I was seeing skulls and faces in the rocks and clouds, I started to contemplate death, and how it would affect my wife and children. Every step I took needed an immediate rest from the fatigue that was generated by my movement.

" Under my own power I made it from the peak back to the crater rim, if I had my way I would have just curled up and died, but I was forced to go down, slowly with terrible lung ‘pain’. It took 6 hours to get down, some of my own power, most with the aide of two porters supporting me as I walked, and stopped constantly to try and get down before dark. Halfway down mountain rescue took over the task of walking me down the mountain. At this elevation, and steepness grade, the rescue team is not equipped to bring someone down with a sled, or stretcher, or any other means. It is too steep and dangerous, so walking is the only option. With HAPE that is the hardest thing to do in the world. Like a fish out of water being asked to swim on land.

" Finally after an eternity on the mountain (20 hours), fully exhausted, cold, and with this debilitating illness, I made it to camp. A doctor gave me some steroids for my lungs, I was administered oxygen, and within 30 minutes was strapped to a stretcher to be evacuated to a much lower altitude. I slept for 2 of the three hour ride, and when I stepped off of the stretcher, I had my breath back. It was not too strong, and my lungs were still full of liquid, and my throat was still red and raw, but I was out of immediate danger. I slept in a tent for a few hours and continued my descent the next morning on my own two feet."