Dead Womans Pass – dealing with altitude

The story of my trip to Peru and the Inca Trail would not be complete without mentioning the day of Dead Woman’s Pass. Apart from the first couple of days when I had a splitting headache (and I’m still not sure if that was the trapped nerve in my neck or the altitude, or possibly both) and a lot of very heavy breathing especially as soon as I started going up any hill, I’d been feeling great on the trip and no problems with altitude. On Christmas Day we set off for what we knew to be the toughest part of the trek – the long ascent up and over Dead Woman’s Pass. I felt fine that morning and was in good spirits until our first rest stop at about 10am. I was with the front group of 4 people and although breathing heavily, felt fit. However, hanging around at the stop for a long time waiting for Alison and the slower members of the group to catch up, I got cold, and it was raining. Soon after we set off again, I couldn’t feel my fingers and my hands went white. My breathing got worse and I was struggling. Alison and Lena warmed my hands up and I found my gloves, but they soon got wet and my hands never really warmed up. I then started feeling sick and started getting slower and slower, with more and more difficulty breathing, as reached the lunch stop. My memory is a little hazy here, I don’t remember anything about getting to lunch except arriving in the dining tent where almost everyone was already seated and waiting, feeling terribly dizzy, and going to take my seat at the table. I tried to sit on the stool and fell over backwards, straight into the mud, much to the hysterics of the rest of the group. I think they realised quickly that I wasn’t feeling very well. I ate a bit of soup although I wasn’t really hungry, and we were soon on our way again. Now I was getting slower and slower, and feeling progressively worse. I was walking at the back with Alison, and even she seemed to feeling fitter than I was. Every step was a struggle, and I felt terribly sick. My stomach started to heave, and before long I was having to find quiet spots off the track to visit the loo. I’ll spare you the details, but it wasn’t pretty. Luckily I had a plentiful supply of loo roll and hand sanitiser! After a couple of hours, I was feeling so ill I could barely move. My whole body was shaking, I was stopping for the loo every few minutes, it was still raining, I felt desperately sick and everything ached like when you have flu. In fact, I felt like I had flu and a sickness bug both at once. Sometimes it took me several seconds to lift up one foot and place it on the step above. And all the while we were climbing up the steps. I felt so frustrated, and so ill, I felt like giving up, and had to keep giving myself a stern talking to about not giving in. Alison had long since overtaken me and I was alone with Juan. I could sense his annoyance, but I couldn’t begin to convey how ill I was. I contemplated the options, but knew there were only 2. Carry on somehow until I got to camp, or lose consciousness and be airlifted out, and miss the rest of the trek. Which I was not going to let happen. Juan started pushing ahead, and he got a little stern about the need to speed up or we would never make it before dark. I think his only worry was about the dark, not that I was really ill. But I was getting weaker and weaker, and I was struggling to coordinate my legs, wobbling with every step and walking in a very wonky line. I saw him ahead waiting for me, made it to him and then half fell, half sat down. I had no water by this time and was terribly thirsty. He started talking to me and asking me to repeat his name, and asking simple questions. My head was foggy and I knew his name began with J but couldn’t remember the rest. “Juan” he kept saying. “My name is Juan.” “What’s my name?” I couldn’t do it. “What your name?” Hmm, I couldn’t remember that either. I shut my eyes to blot everything out, and felt everything go warm and fuzzy. Juan kept shaking me and asking me questions. Next thing I knew, I was breathing something violently strong and coughing. Still fuzzy, I then realised Juan was slapping me around the face and shaking me, and my throat was burning. I came to and found he had been making me breathe pure alcohol. Apparently it gets the oxygen back to the brain. A bit like smelling salts in the old days, I imagine. I started feeling better and soon I was on my feet and able to progress. At that point, I realised that Juan was actually quite worried. I felt much better, although still desperately sick. We soon reached the top of the pass but, unlike the others, didn’t have a chance to take it in or celebrate, or even take a photo, it was down the other side as there was still another hour and a half or so till camp and it would be dark soon. I started feeling sick again, and a bit later had to sit down again. My stomach was still problematic, and by this time I was just having to go by the side of the track. Luckily all the porters had long since passed so there was no danger of anyone coming up behind me. I looked up and saw 2 porters coming up to meet us. Juan had radioed the camp and got them to come up and help. One of them took my bag. Moments later, I realised I was actually going to be sick. Finally….. I projectile vomited about 3 litres in one go, and felt much better. Juan never left my side, and the porters had brought tea in a flask, which I was incredibly grateful for! After that, I felt much better and almost ran down the hill to the camp for the last hour, overtaking Alison on the way, who was suffering terribly with her knees, especially on the downhill. I arrived in camp just before dark, and saw Adrian outside my tent. He asked me if I was OK and I burst into tears and gave him a hug, as I was just so relieved to have made it and not to have been airlifted out. Adrian and Haydyn had even unpacked my bag for me in my tent and laid out my sleeping bag and mat for me. What absolute stars!

However, the story doesn’t quite end there….

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