Into Thin Air


This blog entry about the events of Sunday, May 02, 2004 was originally posted on May 11, 2004.

DAY 197:  In 2001, Blogreader oogy and I hiked the Inca Trail in Peru to the archaeological site of Machu Picchu, high up in the Andes Mountain Range.  This four-day trail took us to altitudes of just over 13,000 ft. (4000 m.) ASL, but we already started feeling the nausea and head pains of altitude sickness around 12,500 ft. (3750 m.) ASL. 

On Day Three of my Kilimanjaro trek up the Marangu Route, I would ascend into the thin airs of 15,520 ft. (4750 m.) ASL, the highest I had ever been to that date.

THE CLOUDS HAD CLEARED UP in the morning and the sun shined down on the Horombo Huts.  Finally, the snows of Uhuru Peak, Kilimanjaro’s coveted highest summit was in view in the distance.  Finally we got to see what we had come for.  Kenji, the Japanese guy trekking in tandem with me, chuckled with joy.

“Twende,” my guide Jimmy said in Swahili.  (“Let’s go.”)

We started the third leg of the trail with Kenji and his guide Festo just behind.  Waka, Rama and the other porters and cooks went ahead.  The environment continued up the marshy moorland ecosystem, with shrubs that only grew higher than about three feet.  To our northwest stood Mawenzi, the second highest peak of Mount Kilimanjaro.  Like it’s big brother Uhuru, it too was an extinct volcanic crater.

As we ascended along the path, I continued concentrating on my breathing.  I imagined my bronchial tubes were like Krazy Straws and I had to inhale extra deep for all the air to reach my lungs.  I exhaled all of my lung capacity until it was empty of all carbon dioxide so that I could repeat the process all over again with fresh air — all in a matter of a few seconds.  Jimmy must have not been doing a similar Krazy Straw technique because around 13,000 ft. (4000 m.), he was already developing a slight headache.

UHURU PEAK PLAYED A GAME of peek-a-boo with us (or is it “peak-a-boo”?); one minute it’d be in plain sight surrounded by blue skies (picture above), the next it’d be hidden from us by clouds.  This went on all day; when you’re walking through clouds at that height, weather can change in an instant.  Sometimes we’d walk through a drizzle, sometimes the sun would beat down on us with powerful rays — all in a span of ten minutes.  I had to keep on adding and removing layers of clothing accordingly to keep my core body temperature consistent.

I managed to stave off headaches by the time we got to 14,400 ft. (4400 m.) ASL, the site of the last waterpoint, designated by a sign.  It was the last chance to get fresh mountain water from a stream; anywhere higher would be too dry.  I filled my empty bottle for my own drinking.  The porters collected enough water ahead of us to last our stay at the third base camp. 

Almost immediately after the last waterpoint, the environment changed to semi-desert.  If you didn’t know how high you were, you might have mistaken it for the Australian Outback.  The trail undulated up and down through the alpine desert, helping us to acclimatize to new heights.

“Hakuna matata,” Jimmy said, giving me a hard candy to suck on.

“Asante,” I answered.

We stopped somewhere around 14,800 ft. (4500 m.) ASL in the middle of the sandy plain, near some rocks to eat the lunches Rama had packed for us:  a hard-boiled egg, a banana, two jelly and butter sandwiches, an orange, a muffin and some cookies — just what every Kili trekker needs.  Kenji ate his pack lunch despite the look of pain in his face; he was fighting off a throbbing altitude headache.  I continued to ward off the head pains with my Krazy Straw breathing.

It got colder and windier as we continued gradually up the third leg of the Marangu Route through the semi-desert.  Jimmy passed the time by singing some Swahili songs in a falsetto voice.  I continued to concentrate on breathing — at that height it started to sound like heaving snoring. 

I will have to say that one of the best things about concentrating on breathing at such an altitude is that nothing else matters.  All etiquette and need for good manners vanishes into thin air.  It didn’t matter if I farted, belched or spit — a man’s utopia — the only thing that mattered was getting oxygen into my lungs. 

AS SEMI-DESERT TURNED INTO HIGH DESERT, where absolutely nothing grows, we ran into a lone Japanese guy on his way down.  He had actually made it to Uhuru Peak that morning — the first person out of the eight we encountered that had actually made it to the very top.  He showed us his walking technique for the final leg — one foot in front of the other, very, very slowly — and it gave Kenji and I some sort of hope.

I finally started getting a bit lightheaded when we arrived at the Kibo Hut, the third and final base camp at 15,520 ft. (4750 m.) ASL.  As my breathing returned to a state of normalcy — it’s hard to concentrate on Krazy Straws when you’re unpacking — my lightheadedness turned into a full-fledged pounding headache.  Drinking tea and eating popcorn became harder to do than a New York Times crossword puzzle on a Sunday.  Nausea set in and all I wanted to do was pass out in my bed — but not before adding to the graffiti underneath the top bunk.

Kenji and I awoke in our shared dorm room when dinner was served in the tables inside.  Although we had both taken altitude sickness medication, Kenji only had a headache, while I was still battling nausea.

“Do I have to eat?” I asked Festo and Jimmy.

“Yes, you lose your appetite above four thousand, but you have to force some food down,” Festo advised.

“It’s normal,” Jimmy added.  I told them how nauseous I was.

“It’s normal to feel like vomiting,” Festo said.  “Up here there is only half the oxygen than normal.  But once you vomit, you will feel like you have new energy.”

They really wanted me to eat something to keep my energy up so I stumbled to the table, still in my sleeping bag and sleep sheet.  I started eating the hot mushroom soup with pieces of bread I broke floating inside the bowl.  It must have triggered something in my digestive system because I felt a certain unpleasant feeling in my esophagus.  Feeling the inevitable, I emptied the nearby bowl where the two other slices of bread were.  Five seconds later I vomited into it, three upchucks in a row (without commercial interruption).  The bowl overflowed with my own regurgitated food, but as Festo predicted, I immediately felt a lot better.

I sat there a while staring at my own vomit and thought, Oh well, what’s done is done.  I just nonchalantly continued eating my soup from the other bowl like nothing happened.  Kenji started laughing but then went off to get my guide.  Jimmy came to my aid as I was eating soup from the bowl next to the other filled with puke.

“Could you take a photo of me?” was my only request.

AFTER EATING MY SOUP, I went over to the staff hut to ask about cleaning up.  “How are you feeling?” Festo asked.

“Oh, you’re right.  I feel a lot better after vomiting,” I said.  “I’m a new man.”  I kicked my heels in the air like a dork.

Waka came over to help clean up the mess.  He wrapped the bowl of vomit in the tablecloth, but it was so full that some vomit just spilled onto the floor.  I helped him clean up using some of the precious water from the last waterpoint.  The watered down mess on the floor was disgustingly smeared away with the sweep of a broom.

I went to bed shortly thereafter, but not before writing an addendum to my graffiti under the top bunk: 

(Sorry about the mess.)

Next entry: Surviving Kilimanjaro

Previous entry: Harder Than They Say

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.

Comments for “Into Thin Air”

  • ewwwh, I see tuna & crackers !

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/11  at  04:14 PM

  • why oh why did I click on the barf pick.  Yuck.  How could you possibly barf that much??!!  At least you feel better now wink

    Posted by Liz  on  05/11  at  06:14 PM

  • The boy is back!  Multiple Barf pics!
    You da man E.


    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/11  at  08:48 PM

  • so is erik frodo and kenji is sam wise?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/11  at  09:33 PM

  • Yeah, I second Liz’s comment - why, oh why did I click on the puke?
    Glad you feel better and thanks for sharing. Ugh.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/12  at  12:57 AM

  • I learned my lesson long ago. Think before you click. eew.

    SUSPENSE… subsiding…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/12  at  01:19 AM

  • i am sure i can speak for everyone who clicked on those barf photos…“WHY DID I CLICK ON IT!!”

    good post. great pics.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/12  at  04:57 PM

  • dude, did you even eat that much stuff to vomit up? are you sure you didn’t accidently puke up some internal organs?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/12  at  05:12 PM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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Next entry:
Surviving Kilimanjaro

Previous entry:
Harder Than They Say


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