I was happily enjoying the stunning views at 5000m altitude after climbing the majestic volcano Cotopaxi, when all of the sudden I started to feel very nauseous and dizzy. It came out of the blue, but I was feeling so bad that I knew I had the first symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). That is the thing with AMS – you can be perfectly fine one minute and then feel like you are going to die the next minute (ok, maybe not die – immediately, anyway).
At 5,897m, Cotopaxi is the second highest summit in Ecuador. It is also one of the highest active volcanoes in the world and since 1738, Cotopaxi has erupted more than 50 times. When we went to Quito during our trip around Ecuador, Cotopaxi was constantly looming over the skyline and so we couldn’t miss the chance to go hiking on this beauty. We didn’t have enough time to attempt to summit Cotopaxi as that involves an overnight stay towards the summit, but we had a day to hike through the surrounding national park and up to a refuge at 4,800m which in the circumstances was high enough for us.
I was feeling great on the day of the hike, almost elated. I felt very light on my feet and was ready to attempt the steep hike up to the refuge. Once I started the ascent I soon wasn’t feeling quite so light on my feet though as the air was getting noticeably thinner the higher we got. I was certainly huffing and puffing a bit but for once I wasn’t the slowest hiker in the group and I reached the refuge after about an hour (note – the hike didn’t start at sea level, for those of you wondering if I’m a super-hero who can climb 4,800m in one hour!).
Our group still had a bit of energy left, so we asked our guide if we could climb a bit higher up to the glaciers. It was very icy and because we didn’t have crampons we had to watch our every step. The views were getting more and more spectacular with every step we took though. Once we reached the glaciers we knew we had also reached the 5,000m mark and that is when I started to feel really ill all of the sudden. I had read about altitude sickness before but never thought that it would hit me so hard. It is a weird coincidence that I always start to develop AMS symptoms at almost 5,000m altitude, just like I did when I encountered serious problems on my Everest Base Camp trek. Maybe this is just the limit my body can take without proper acclimatization, but I am starting to feel like I am doomed to never hit 5,100m!
The only cure for AMS is to descend as quickly as possible so that’s what we did. When we finally reached the car park I couldn’t take it anymore. I discretely hid behind a car and started vomiting (too much information?). All of this was much to the bemusement of Chris who of course told everybody where I’d gone and even considered taking photos of me. I shot him an angry look and that’s when I think he realized that it might be better to leave me alone. Tip to any husband: don’t mess with your wife when she’s got altitude sickness!
Back in the car I immediately fell asleep and when I woke up we had reached our hacienda at the much lower altitude of 2,500m. I was feeling perfectly fine again proving that a little rest and reaching lower altitude was all that my body needed. Chris however went to bed immediately as he had developed a pounding headache (also due to high altitude). So he curled up on his bed in front of an open fire like a little AMS baby. That, and the fact I’ve just posted this, will teach him. 🙂
Have you ever had altitude sickness? Tell me in the comment section below.