The gurgling pain in my stomach woke me up – for the fourth time – around midnight, man, was I sick. I climbed out of my warm sleeping bag and immediately felt the cold air at 17,000 feet in the Andes Mountains of Peru. After some fishing around, I located my headlamp before climbing out of the tent to even colder air, as I heard the distant roar of an avalanche from a neighboring peak.
A week earlier I had begun this expedition with excitement and dreams of success on Peru’s tallest peak with the rest of my team, but each day had become more troublesome. The headaches, typical of the effects of altitude, felt different and much more extreme than I had experienced in the past, and the stomach issue were unusual and had worsened daily and by day three had left me with diarrhea and vomiting regularly. I attempted to treat the stomach condition using my traditional broad-spectrum antibiotic that had always delivered results in the past, but unfortunately, the antibiotic did not relieve the distress and neither was the headache letting go. By this point, I suspected I had picked up some kind of flu … although still believing I could defeat it.
As I walked from my tent, I stared up at the beautiful stars that illuminated the sky. Teamed with the moon, they supplied enough light, that I did not need my headlamp. I walked slowly having been zapped of my energy over the last six days – to find the “perfect spot” to relieve my ailing stomach. I suddenly felt an unusual tingling in my forehead and the bridge of my nose. A moment later, I felt the rush of blood pouring out of my nostrils. I quickly stuffed tissues in my nostrils to try and control the bleeding, but I was going to need more than a few tissues. Blood quickly covered my mouth and chin, the front of my jacket and my hands and sleeves.
I walked back toward my tent, illuminated by my tent-mate’s headlamp. As I climbed back in the tent still trying to manage the bloody nose, I raised my head to find her look of concern. She quickly handed me wipes, and with concern in her voice asked me what had happened. While she remained calm, I could hear the worry in her voice. I explained to her what had happened and told her that I thought it might be unwise to continue farther up the mountain and that it might be time I visited a hospital. She agreed and questioned how I had reached this altitude given how sick I had been to that point. I tried to be matter of fact about it and stay calm, but I knew something was wrong. This was not altitude sickness.
I struggled to find energy the next morning to pack and start the trek down the mountain. I knew what was ahead of me and knew in my condition it was not going to be easy. The two-day trek across a large moraine and climb on a sketchy scree-slope would normally be fun, but, in my condition, I was dreading it. I continued to try and eat and drink water as best I could, but my body continued to reject most of it, adding to my continued weakness. Within an hour of leaving the high camp, we made it to the moraine. I had always found the moraine beautiful and always loved seeing how the glacier had shaped the terrain there. This time however it was just long and exhausting, and I needed to stop every ten minutes. I had lost so much weight that my belt was having a hard time holding up my pants and the constant vomiting and diarrhea was using the few energy stores I had remaining.
I continued to push on, more like a zombie than a mountain guide, my mind wandering. I thought about my father, who had passed away some ten years earlier. I could hear my father’s voice telling me that I needed to keep walking. At one point, I even visualized my father petting my dog, who had passed away the previous year. He was talking to me in a calming voice, reminding me of something that I had heard him tell me many times while growing up, “Dan, if it were easy, everyone would do it.”
I snapped out of this dream and found I had made it across the moraine – not even realizing that I had done so – and was now at the tallest and most challenging scree slope of the day. I clearly remember thinking that I was losing it when suddenly and for no apparent reason I began thinking about the movie “Touching the Void.” My mind raced to the part in the film where Joe Simpson daydreamed his way across the moraine. I knew that I did not want to let my mind go there and struggled to get my head back in the game. I recall thinking it ironic that Joe Simpson’s incident also occurred in Peru. I took a minute to sit on a large boulder, put on my helmet and began to focus on the task ahead as I knew climbing the scree slope was going to be demanding on my weakened body. Boy, how things can be so different moment to moment. A small scree slope was now Mt Everest.
I ascended slowly, being particularly careful with my footing and handholds on the unstable and brittle rock. As I approached the top, I wedged my feet and hands into various holds and pulled myself up between two slabs of rock. I took up a familiar position, leaning over some boulders dry heaving as I continued to battle my stomach. A painful 2 hours later, I reached base camp to the comfort of a tent and the friendship of the porters. The next day was blurry, but I finally made it to the trailhead and, after a two-hour bus ride, I found myself in the hospital in Huaraz. While the emergency room did not exactly resemble one I would find in the United States, at this point I did not care and would have been happy to be treated by a Shaman in the jungle.
I provided the administrative clerk with my passport, explained my illness and was told that it would be $35.00 to see the doctor. I happily paid and within a few minutes found myself lying on a table in an examination room and having my vitals taken by a nurse and speaking to a doctor. After listening to my explanation the doctor advised that he suspected a parasite, but that he would need to take a blood sample to test for this condition. I was also advised that the blood work would cost $40.00. This was apparently a pay as you go system, so I told them to keep my credit card and open a tab – the first time I’ve opened a tab anywhere besides a pub and certainly did not expect to do it in an emergency room! Thirty minutes later, the doctor returned to confirm that I had contracted a parasite and prescribed a series of IVs and antibiotics to treat the illness and dehydration. I felt a sense of relief that I at least knew what had made me so ill and that it could be treated.
Once discharged, I was able to change my airline reservation and get back to the United States. While the antibiotics had stopped the vomiting and dry heaves, my stomach continued to reject food for another four days. Only after getting a check up from a doctor in the United States did the reality of my situation start to soak in. While my doctor advised me that the results of a new round of tests was good, he stated that in his opinion, based on my deterioration and the test results, had I decided not to come down and go to the hospital when I had, I would have been “in real trouble” and he was not sure I “could have survived without immediate medical attention.”
Over the next couple of weeks, I received tons of support from family, friends and fellow climbers all expressing their concerns for my health and how sorry they were about the fact that I had been unable to complete the Huascaran expedition. I found this very comforting, but was a little surprised how many people were expressing their sadness and concern in terms of me not getting discouraged and my disappointment of the expedition having not been a success.
I was very humbled and appreciative of the support I received, but this is not how I felt at all. I was not thinking about all the hard work leading up to the expedition, nor did I feel sadness, or discouragement about not reaching the summit. Climbing for me has always been about the journey and the experience, not about reaching the summit. I really tuned in to the fact that my experience in Peru was not unfortunate, sad, bad luck or a failure. To me, success in the mountains has never been about the summits. The mountains provide a raw and beautiful arena where I have the opportunity to achieve great things and push myself past my comfort zone and find my personal limits. This trip did all that and more. I worked harder, suffered more and overcame mental and physical obstacles like never before and had to reach deep inside myself to find strength and the will to continue. I like the saying, “When life knocks you down, try and land on your feet, because if you can look up, you can get up.” I just kept trying to get back up again and again and in that respect being in the mountains resembles life in general. This trip was far from a discouragement, if anything is has taught me how much more I can accomplish and how far much farther I can go. It really is about the Journey. Even though he might be gone, I can still here my father’s voice, “If it were easy, everyone would do it.”