Altitude sickness: symptoms may begin to occur during a rapid ascent to an altitude above 8,000 feet. Most commonly it is characterized by shortness of breath, dizziness, a pounding headache, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting. In extreme cases a pulmonary or cerebral edema can occur and if left untreated can cause death. Compound the effects with any health issues and you’re really taking a gamble.
The most common of the unpleasant symptoms is what I was feeling as I lay my head down on top of a bag of gifts I had placed in the empty seat beside me. I could feel the vibration of the bus as it laboured up the highway with 6 hours left to go on a 22 hour ride before reaching Cusco. I skipped dinner at the last stop…no appetite and a headache. To compound things my nostrils burned and each time I swallowed I could feel an uncomfortable pain at the roof of my mouth where the nasal cavity meets the throat. Great, it was the beginnings of a cold. Just in time for my Inca Trail trek in five days.
The Inca Trail trek is something I booked back in March. In February, as I sat with my feet up on the arm of my loveseat trying to figure out the next steps I wanted to take in my life, I opened a book called ‘501 Must-Take Journeys’. At that time I had closed my eyes and asked the question out loud to whoever was listening, “Where do I need to go?” Fanning the pages with my thumb I opened the book to the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu trek in Peru. The idea stayed with me for a while through my move and after I settled into my friend’s basement, I investigated it further. When I finally decided to book only one spot remained on August 29th, the end of the dry season, so I emailed the trekking company and in return they sent me a payment submission form that I had to send back within 48 hours. 24 hours had passed and I was still undecided. At bedtime, I asked for a sign or an answer to my question, “Should I go or not?”
That night I didn’t have the dream I hoped would shed a bright light on what I needed to do and lay my uncertainty to rest, so I got ready for work, poured myself a cup of coffee, sat down at my computer and typed, ‘Travel Fear’ into the Google search engine bar. The first thing that came up was a blog titled, ‘Please Don’t Be Afraid to Travel’. I clicked on it. As I read and scrolled down, a heading appeared and a photograph. It posed the question, “Have you ever wanted to go somewhere like Machu Picchu?” There it was again, the ancient Incan ruins projected before me on my computer screen. It was the sign I was looking for, however this wouldn’t be the last time I would ask myself if I should go or not over the next several months.
The idea of traveling to South America on my own scared me. My fears were compounded each time a friend or family member shared a horror story such as the one about the bandits that boarded the bus and robbed and shot innocent people or the one about the mud slide that wiped a hiker off a cliff as they lay asleep in their tent, or of earthquakes, taxi abductions, disappearances or an attempted raping on a remote hiking route. There was no shortage of stories out there to scare a potential traveler back into their comfort zone. I changed my plans several times, but each time I decided on a place to go I heard more stories, or my worried father would break out his iPhone and suggest we look up the most dangerous places to travel. It seemed to me that anything could happen anywhere, so I reverted back to plan A, Machu Picchu.
On the bus, my gut churned and my head pounded as the altitude steadily increased with each wheel rotation. I sat up. My head felt like I had just stepped off the Tilt-a-whirl. Then I stood up, steadied myself in the aisle as the bus rolled up the highway and I made my way towards the onboard toilet. The window was open inside. The wind felt cool against my flushed face. I always hated this feeling, but I succumbed and let my gut have its way with me.
Once in Cusco, I retrieved my pack from the storage compartment of the bus and taxied to my hostel. I dug the Diamox out of my first aid kit and popped half a tablet. This is something I should have taken that morning, but I didn’t think the attitude would affect me so quickly. My head pounded throughout the night, but eased the next day.
While I acclimatized at 11,000 feet in Cusco over the next few days, with the help of Diamox, lots of water and coca tea, my cold grew worse and spread to my sinuses. Mucus filled my sinus cavities, the pressure building against the back of my eyes, nose and head. Each time I blew my nose, I sneezed and the cavities filled up again. It was like my head harboured a giant snot monster that didn’t want to leave. It just kept reproducing snot babies that grew to full adulthood in a matter of seconds. Ugh!
The same question that troubled me months ago, “Should I stay or go?” crept back into my mind, into that little corner I reserve for doubt and fear. Thoughts of my head exploding with sinus pressure compounded by lack of oxygen, gut-wrenching nausea and vomiting or worse at 15,000 feet on the Inca Trail polluted my mind with uncertainty. After consulting with friends and other travelers, I see-sawed between going and not going. Finally, on the day before I was to leave I walked to the trekking company office and consulted with them whether it was wise to go in my condition or not. “It’s up to you,” is all they could tell me, “We can’t advise you on that.” They told me I had until 11:00am to make my decision…only another hour away. My eyes welled at the thought of not going and the dam broke. The tears came which caused the snot monster to spew more babies. Upon recommendation of the trekking company I consulted a doctor.
Dr. Victor Paredes was thorough and he spoke English…a relief. He peered up my nose with his scope. My nostrils were red and plugged, but the mucous was clear…a good sign. He checked my ears…ok. He asked me to open wide and say, “Ahhh” as he checked my throat with a tongue compressor…a little red, but not too bad. He listened to my breathing and checked my blood oxygen levels. Both were good. He even said my oxygen levels were better than his registering in the mid-90’s. My blood pressure was normal. When I asked him if my sinus congestion could magnify any altitude sickness he said it’s possible, but with my high blood oxygen levels he didn’t think I would have a problem. He said I was acclimatized to Cusco now and that I could go off the Diamox until the second day of the Inca trek when we would climb to the highest point at 15,000 feet. His advice to me was to breathe in steam, take decongestants three times per day, nose drops twice per day and drink lots of water and coca tea. With my courage restored once again, I decided to go and paid my balance with the trekking company.
Upon returning to the hostel, I boiled some water in the bar, poured it into a mixing bowl and added a couple of Halls cough drops to it. I carried the steaming bowl to my six-bed dorm room where I sat in the middle of the floor cross-legged for 15 minutes with it in my lap and a towel over my head, blowing every now and again to create more steam. The decongestants and drops didn’t entirely rid my head of the snot monster, but I felt more confident that I would make it…and I did.
More to come on the Inca Trail, an ancient path to sacred place.