Into Thin Air with a Teenager

September 3, 2014 7 Comments »

Andes trek
Megan jumping for joy – it was short-lived!

“I’ve lost my desire to Snap Chat,” Megan proclaimed weakly. Now I knew I had a serious issue on my hands. Actually I knew it was rather serious the night before when she lay in the tent napping after our first day of hiking and her breathing would all of a sudden get rapid and heavy as if it she had just finished sprinting. After her nap she had a headache and felt a bit nauseous. Based on my past experience of altitude sickness I knew these weren’t good signs. In fact – these were terrible signs. The only thing that could be worse would be her vomiting – which started happening the next day.

Once again I found myself testing my aunt abilities taking care of a very sick niece in a foreign country. In my frustration, I had to question why I decided it was a good idea to take my niece on a high altitude hike? But wait a minute, I didn’t actually choose this – the idea behind the niece project is that they choose where they want to go and what they want to do. I’m just along for the ride. Megan chose Peru because she didn’t want to be a tourist in a big city such as Paris walking around and seeing sights – she wanted to do something on her trip. However, I don’t know if she fully knew what adventure travel was going to be like. She had done a minimal amount of camping to this point in her 17 year old life and had never really been in the high altitude mountains before. This would be a first for her and nothing got me more excited than one of my nieces experiencing something for the first time – it’s magical.

The long Road or the Short Road

The first day of the Quarry trail trek will certainly test people of any age, it climbs approx. 3000 feet in about 5 hours. This was our chance to get our hiking legs and get used to the altitude as well as our fellow hikers. The Quarry trail can be traversed by horses, so our camp was entirely carried by horses with a few porters and chef. It also came with an ‘ambulance’ – a horse and horseman who followed us hiking in case anyone had any altitude issues or medical emergencies and needed to get down quickly.

Quarry Trail
The steep route. You can see Megan in the orange shirt

After 90 minutes of a tough but gradual climb we were at a fork in the road – we had the choice of a steeper route to see a beautiful waterfall or an easier gradual incline route. Megan and I split up as she took the steep route and I took the gradual route (which didn’t feel too gradual to me). I am quite wary about altitude sickness and I didn’t want to do anything that would push my energy level too much. However, Meg was doing great hiking up with the fast group as I struggled for oxygen behind in the slower group. The two groups traversed up the different routes – each person struggling in my group with the lack of air. It was already starting to happen – life in slow motion.

I was relieved to finally make it to camp as the last one hiking in. I’d like to say I was slow due to my excessive picture taking – but truth is the altitude had me gasping for air. We camped at 12,000 feet that night in a picture perfect setting. As I started to feel better acclimating, Megan started to loose her youthful enthusiasm. She was tired, had a headache and her breathing was sporadic as she slept. As much as I told myself that it was just because she was tired – I had a nagging feeling as we put on all of our gear and bundled up in our bags to try to get some sleep in a very cold tent.

Going Downhill On The Uphill

The face I woke up to…

The next morning she woke up with a sour look on her face. Neither one of us slept well due to the altitude and cold, but she seemed to have some energy once up and moving.. It’s always amazing to me what the camp cooks can make in a little tent on gas burners, we had eggs, sausage, toast, and porridge. Properly fueled, we took off with our daypacks to head over the first pass. We knew it would be a long challenging day crossing two passes taking us to 14,700 ft. and then a treacherously steep scree filled decline to our campsite for the 2nd night also at 12,000 feet.

I remember this feeling. My heart feels like it’s beating thru my chest. I can walk about 30 feet and have to stop. I’m panting. My legs feel as if my feet are cinder blocks. Altitude has struck again and slowed me down to a crawl.
My solution to get through the day was to count out 30 steps and stop. I would then count to 20 trying to steady my breathing again and take off for another slow 30 steps. This is how I got through the entire day and the two passes.

However Megan had a bit of a different experience. Even though the first day she was full of energy, she was slowing down the 2nd day and staying back with the slower group huffing and puffing with us. Altitude sickness has no baring on age or fitness – and seeing her slowly try to climb the pass, fight off a headache and find enough mental stamina to continue was evidence of that.

The higher we went, the more things deteriorated for Megan. Her smile disappeared (except for photo ops), her headache got worse, she was having trouble breathing and was going at a snails pace. I in turn also mentally deteriorated as I worried about her. I was able to maintain my slow pace and stave off my headache from getting worse, but the knot in my stomach was growing tighter and tighter from worrying about her. I had a lot on my mind and was once again reminded me of the immense responsibility that having kids are. I talked to Darwin, our guide, at the top of the first pass to get his read on the situation and he suggested that if she still felt badly at lunch he could give her oxygen.

Oxygen for Lunch

Even though we had expended a great deal of energy and calories by the time we got to our lunch spot Megan had no desire to eat. Another sure sign something was wrong. She ended up having oxygen for lunch. She lay in the sun sleeping in a miserable state. Darwin and I decided that it was time to call in the ambulance and put her on a horse to get her through the next pass. However he warned me that after the pass she would have to walk as the descent was too steep and unsafe to be riding on a horse.

altitude sickness
Megan getting oxygen

As Megan rode ahead on the horse I felt helpless – I couldn’t keep up with the horse to even be near her as I was still trying to make my way through the terrain in slow motion at 14,000 ft. I tried to keep a close eye on her balancing on top of the horse while Darwin reassured me that she would be ok. As expected she had get off the horse and try to find the energy in her own two legs to get down the backside of the steep pass. All I could think of was that it would all get better now – we were going downhill and she was bound to get better by the time we reaches camp at 12,000 feet. After all – the cure for altitude sickness is to go down.

Read about 3 ways to minimize travel disasters

The roller coaster of my emotions were taken for another loop when she started vomiting on the way down. How could this be happening she was supposed to be getting better at lower altitudes – not worse! We slid our way down and as I had a little more energy and speed with each step, she was still inching along. We took a shorter route to get to camp so that she could get to the tent and sleep. My happy, energetic mature Megan had disappeared completely. All of a sudden I had a sick, stubborn little kid on my hands – something I know very little about. She was cranky, refused to eat or drink anything, and was in tears most of the time.

Quarry Trail Peru
Megan stopping to rest on the way down.

The vomiting and lack of appetite continued at the lower camp but we had gone as far as we could and had to sleep there for the night. I felt that I had just jumped into advanced parenting as I became really good at rubbing her back as she dry heaved her way through the next morning. When you watch your own kids grow up you get used to this stuff over time I would guess, however I felt as if I were thrown into advanced parenting trying to figure out how to get her better. Something I wasn’t accustomed to as an aunt. But mainly I was confused as to why she was still deteriorating even at lower altitude – and so was Darwin.

Out of Thin Air

The next morning Meg put on all of her warm clothing including a stocking hat, mittens, and multiple layers of coats and stumbled her way down another steep section. It wasn’t that cold at all, but her body was shutting down. It was no longer just the altitude plaguing her – but also the lack of nutrients in her body. Even going downhill at altitude is taxing to your body and requires energy.

It finally happened at 9000 feet – Megan came back to me.

“I liked that part about the blood” Megan said
“What? What blood?” I replied
“When I was laying down on the rock napping I was listening to Darwin explain about the Incas.” She answered.
I was astonished, as she laid on the rock napping bundled in every piece of clothes she had with her and recovering from yet another episode of dry heaving, I heard not a single word of what Darwin said. Instead I was in major planning mode. How was I going to get her down faster, how could I get her to a doctor to get some fluids into her and ensure that she was going to be ok. We could miss Machu Picchu if we had to I told myself – the priority was to get Megan well – that was my complete focus, I had tuned everything else out.

Since she had suddenly decided she was feeling well enough to talk again I asked her if she wanted to eat a Gu packet for a little energy. To my surprise she took it. After Darwin’s talk that I didn’t hear, we still had another 45 minutes where she would have to walk down the mountain before we could safely get her on a horse and rush her to see a doctor. She wobbled her way down the mountain and suddenly stopped. I thought she was going to be sick yet again as my heart sunk lower. However she instead said she was hot and wanted to take off a layer. A sign of some sort of normalcy returning? Please, please let it be so.

Her pace picked up, her footing became a bit more stable, and when we reached the horse we all stopped for a snack. I pulled the Oreos out of our snack bag and asked if she wanted any. A smile crept across her face, something I hadn’t seen for a day, and she said yes. This was the first bit of food that I didn’t have to force down her. Maybe just maybe she was getting better.

altitude sickness Peru
Megan riding the horse ambulance

We put her on the horse for the remaining 2 hours down and I listened happily to her chatter again about teenager stuff as each foot descent seemed to bring more life into her.

Before I knew it we were in the village at the end of the trail. We bid our ambulance goodbye and walked into town. We went to sit at the local café and wait for the others to arrive on foot. I celebrated with a big cup of coffee and beamed when Meg ordered fries and a coke. I had been so frustrated with her not eating and wondered if she’d ever get her appetite back so seeing her eat made me immensely happy. She even let out a little squeal when she realized there was wifi at the café. As she tried to fix her hair and give the perfect pouty lips to her phone camera facing her I knew she was fully recovered from the altitude sickness – she was Snap Chatting again

Visit Peru’s Mountains, Machu Picchu, & Amazon

Megan and I took the Intrepid Inca Trail and Amazon Trip. Read about the full Inca Trail and Amazon itinerary and learn more about the alternative Quarry Trail here.

Disclosure:  I was a guest of Intrepid Travel as part of the Niece Project, however all opinions expressed here are my own. This post contains affiliate links.

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