I Got Brutal Altitude Sickness While Trekking In Peru—But It Was Still the Best Trip of My Life
Maybe your vacation needs a little more adversity. And a little less oxygen.
Butt in the dirt, leaning against a lichen tie-dyed rock, I lounged while Jesus and Saul (two of our Peruvian trekking guides), slipped an oxygen tube around my ears, into my nose, and told me to take deep breaths. I channeled my inner Headspace meditation monologue and tried to absorb every bit of O2 possible. Someone else handed me some fruity water, bubbly with a fresh hydration tablet.
“This is like a spa!” I joked, as I tipped my head back and closed my eyes. All I needed was a fluffy robe and some slippers. And to not feel like death.
After three minutes luxuriously slurping from the oxygen tank, I was nudged back to reality. “How do you feel?” asked Jesus, my actual savior at this moment in time.
The mountain peak sitting in front of me—our first glacier sighting in the Ausangate range of the Peruvian Andes—visibly crystalized in front of me. I felt like I’d been walking all morning with 20/40 vision, and finally slipped glasses on.
“Actually, wow, way better.”
“She’s back!” I heard a fellow journalist chime from across the hilltop, where the rest of the group was resting on their daypacks, snacking on dried fruit and stuffing coca leaves into their cheeks (an Andean hack for energy and altitude relief). For a moment, I felt like I was back at sea level—or, at least, not at 15,000 feet of elevation—and had all my usual energy of a three-cup-a-day coffee addict.
It wasn’t long, however, before that feeling wore off and I remembered what my poor body had just been through.
Quick rewind: In the prior six days, we—me and three other journalists, trek leaders, and a photographer on the newest REI Adventure trip—had toured the ancient Incan city of Cusco, stair-climbed Macchu Pichu, and explored small Andean villages. Then, we drove up about 14,000 feet to begin the final leg of our trip: A five-day trek, hiking from Andean Lodge to Andean Lodge nestled among glacier peaks, without cell service, internet, heat, or electricity. It was on the first night of the trek (at the Chillca Lodge; 14,300ft altitude) that my body decided that it is not a big fan of being up high.
I had woken up in the middle of the night, shivering around the hot water bottles that local women placed nightly in our beds, and knew shit was going down. My body spent the next five or so hours expelling everything I had inside me. Without electricity, I had to use my headlamp to stumble back and forth between my bed and the bathroom, and spent so much time doing exactly that, that I resigned to just sleeping with it on my head.
The next morning, I oozed out of bed (shaking, pale, and with all the strength of a hungover butterfly), shuffled toward the communal fireplace and croaked, “Estoy enferma/I’m sick." Our guides told me, without missing a beat, “it’s the altitude.” Of all the things I’d worried about in the weeks leading to this trek—having the right gear, being strong enough to hike back-to-back days, not drinking the tap water, avoiding raw fruits and vegetables, not petting the stray dogs in fear of fleas, keeping an eye on my cranky left foot that's been acting up the last seven months—the one thing I had not worried about was the altitude. I’d hiked two “fourteeners” last fall in Colorado and didn’t have any issues. (For the uninitiated, that's the nickname for peaks that sit above 14,000 feet.) I’d skied in towns where the lifts topped out at 11,000 feet. I work out often. I’m goooood, I thought. (Cocky.) The altitude was the least of my concerns.
But sure enough, one night into our off-the-grid trek, altitude clotheslined me with her 14,000-foot-tall arm. I was KO’d—and I only had four more days, a couple thousand more feet of elevation, and 27 miles of trekking to go.
If you’ve never been at altitude (and are confused why it sucks so much) here’s a little explainer: As you gain elevation, the atmospheric pressure decreases; this means that the air you breathe into your lungs contains fewer oxygen molecules in each breath. At 14,000 ft, the air has 43 percent less oxygen than at sea level, according to the Institute for Altitude Medicine. Considering oxygen is, ya know, essential for the human body to survive, this deficit tends to cause some problems.
The CDC lists headache as the cardinal symptom of acute mountain sickness (or altitude sickness), which is sometimes accompanied by fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, and occasionally vomiting (as I can definitely attest is true). But even if you don’t become acutely sick as I did, altitude can still take its toll.
If you’ve ever gotten to the point of a workout where you would consider your breathing rate to be “sucking wind,” that’s a pretty good representation of what it feels like to do any sort of exercise at altitude. While hiking up inclines, I felt my heartbeat pound in places I’ve never felt it before (ears, throat, eyebrow hairs). But it’s not just your physical abilities that suffer. A majority of the group I was with also suffered from insomnia. Brain fog clouded out any of the Spanish I remembered from high school and made remembering jokes or brain games (for hiking amusement) a complete lost cause. Exhaustion sunk in deep (similar to when you’ve been out in the cold for so long that your bones themselves feel chilled). Even superficial wounds wouldn’t heal; the bug bites I’d gotten a few days earlier at Machu Picchu ripened to a somber dark purple, and the knuckle I’d ripped up while boxing a few days before the trip remained completely open, with no hope of sealing up. Our eyes all puffed up as if we were permanently hungover (and it wasn’t the pisco sours!), and it felt like there were tiny llamas in my skull, slowly marching in circles, tightening a tourniquet wrapped around my brain, resulting in an incessant dull headache. The lack of oxygen stalled digestion and left what felt like a rock sitting in my stomach. The human body, resilient as it is, sends a helluva lot of signals that we are not made to survive that high up. (Don’t believe me? Even local Peruvian women, who've lived in the mountains their whole lives and are acclimated to the altitude, head down from the mountains when they're pregnant because the fetus can't get enough oxygen.)
The day after I, let's say, became enlightened, I subsisted solely on hydration packets (hey, DripDrop and Nuun, you legit saved my life). I made it through those seven miles of hiking that day partially thanks to the hit of oxygen our guides gave me at our highest point, the horses that carried my pack for the afternoon, and one of our guides who coached me through a slow and steady pace—but, mostly, the fact that I had no other choice. There was no “pick me up and take me back to Cusco” option, or an “I’ll just stay in bed while you guys hike” option. Each day, we’d wake up and moving to our next lodge, and if I didn’t huff it on foot, I’d get left behind.
While huffing it, I resigned my thoughts and breathing to a steady meditative rhythm that, if I broke, would leave me winded again. Every time we paused on the trail, I’d sink to the ground, desperate for a break. My legs were noodles. I was drained. At one point, I fell entirely asleep lying down on my pack in the dirt like a narcoleptic while the rest of the group drank chamomile tea carried by one of our local porters. Eventually, though, we made it to the lodge; the sweetest relief. I immediately curled in front of the fireplace and slept for hours.
Over the next four days, I slowly felt my energy and appetite resurface. Eventually, I joined in on the conversations with my fellow hikers (“Would you rather have to listen to the same song on repeat forever, or never listen to music again?”). We went entire days without seeing another human being on the trail (bliss for a New Yorker) aside from our llama caravan, which hauled our overnight bags from lodge to lodge. We crossed mountain passes over 17,000 feet high and then sledded down their snowy slopes on our butts like kids. We battled the tourists at Rainbow Mountain and saw too many llamas and alpacas to count dotting the hillside. We passed through innumerable different climates (Peru has 20 of the 34 known zones in the world) and resisted the urge to take photos at every single corner we turned. We cuddled around the fireplace, fitting four people to a loveseat, hot tea in hand, playing Heads Up and learning Columbian and Peruvian slang. We made offerings to Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the Ausangate mountain, sprinkled llamas with blessed wine, took selfies with locals, and were roused in the morning with women singing traditional Peruvian songs at our doors.
By the last day, I was finally feeling close to my usual self—acute altitude sickness tends to go away after 48 hours or so—but was relieved to finally descend back to Cuzco at an oxygen-rich 11,000 ft. While I’ll forever feel humbled by the high-alpine environment and certainly do not look back on that first night of the trek fondly, I’d do it all again for the chance to stay in some of the highest mountain lodges in the world, off the tourist-trampled path, in the kaleidoscope mountains of Peru, with a group of new friends I’ll never forget.
And, hey, there was one victory during the whole ordeal; despite the dramatics, I resisted the urge to hop aboard the Andean Ambulance, a.k.a. the horses and llamas that trekked just behind us and carried the oxygen that saved me on that hilltop.
I may have been the one that needed a hit of oxygen, but at least I wasn’t the one that had to ride the llama all the way home.