Big Mountain, Little Scaredy Cat

As a highly anxious person, I have an unfortunate inclination to fixate on things until I get to the edge of paralyzation. Honestly, sometimes I get sick to my stomach just from overthinking something I have to or want to do. It really sucks. My fixation du jour is altitude sickness.

I’m heading to Mount Toubkal soon to trek to its 4,167m high summit. My friend and I tend to get carried away with our travel plans lately. See, travel is like a drug; the more you do it, the more intensely you want to go at it each time (also, drugs are bad, spend your money on travel instead…and never do drugs while traveling, lest you end up in some Brokedown Palace/cockroach in your ear type situation).

So anyway, we’d planned to fly to Germany, with Eurail passes in hand, to make our way through all the hot spots between there and Estonia, ending with a ferry ride to Finland.

How delightful.

Delightfully safe.

Delightfully mundane.

“Hey, what if we squeeze in a side trip to Belarus? You need a visa to go…and that’s all I know.”

Hey, yeah, that sounds interesting…

“Heeeeeeey…what if we scrap the whole thing and go to Morocco instead?”

Aw hell yeah, now we’re talking!

“And check this out, there’s a nearby mountain we can hike! Done!”

It was only weeks later that our American brains, unaccustomed to measurements done in meters, realized that 4,167 meters is 13,671 feet. Um, wait…that’s uh, pretty high. In fact, Mount Toubkal, as it turns out, is the highest summit in Northern Africa, sooooooo…yeah, well, like, how high is that, really?

I am not at all in shape for this

I mean, the truth is that I really am probably too out of shape for this. I really like laying around on the couch in my pjs. I’m also super fond of pizza and beer.

Knowing I have about two months to prepare, I’ve decided to get myself back to the gym. Ha, I said that as if I ever used to go to the gym. No, I’ve decided to get myself to the gym.

Real talk….the other day, caught in a bad rain storm, I ran from my office to my car (5-10 min) and, as a result, was coughing and hacking the whole way home, and for about an hour after that. So that it worrisome; clearly my lung capacity is not at all what I’d like it to be. So I’m trying to focus on cardio in the gym, for obvious reasons.

What if I get altitude sickness?

Improving my lung capacity is squarely on my mind because I’m so worried about altitude sickness. But the problem is that altitude sickness is just so damn random, no one can really know if it will effect them until they’re actually in a high altitude situation.

In my case, this isn’t exactly a “fear of the unknown” situation because I actually have been to a high altitude before and was not at all a fan of how it made my body feel. In fact, that memory is not only permanently embedded in my mind, but also immortalized in this lovely photo.

Why yes, those are high tops and a Raiders jacket, welcome to 1994.

I was 11 or 12 when we drove up to the summit of Mouna Loa (Hawaii) to see the observatory (and its accompanying snow of course; a pretty exciting thing when you grow up in the tropics). I’m pretty sure that was the first time in my life that I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Just walking around a little was enough to have me gasping for air. I don’t remember much, but I remember that well. Oh and guess what?

Mouna Loa – 13,684 ft / 4,171 m

Toubkal – 13,671 ft / 4,167 m

I wouldn’t even have realized that these two mountains were so similar in height if I hadn’t made a spreadsheet to find out where Toubkal ranked, elevation-wise, in relation to all mountains in the world (It’s 488th tallest, by the way. Yay, spreadsheets!).

You might be asking yourself why I made a spreadsheet at all, well basically, because I like to (read more about my love affair with spreadsheets here) and organizing information also calms my anxiety. More importantly though, I was trying to get some perspective on what an elevation of 4,167 meters might actually be like.

I remember driving through the Alps with my parents when I was in high school and being astonished by the height of those mountains; looking up through a closed car window, I could barely see the tops rising up beside us. They seemed impossibly and endlessly vertical. Well, it turns out, the famed Mont Blanc of the French Alps, which is indeed the tallest peak of the entire range, comes in at a whopping 15,771 ft. Which is really tall, but only 2,106 ft taller than Toubkal. Eeeeesh.

Before we lose track of the point here, I’ll remind you that the common thread through all of these mountains is that their elevations are 100% ripe for potential altitude sickness. Yuck.

And it turns out, all the exercise in the world won’t help you fight against altitude sickness if you’re one of the unlucky people who just happen to be prone to it. Since I’m pretty sure I’m one of those people, I’ll be looking to prevent or mitigate the symptoms anyway possible. After searching around the internet, and ruling out homeopathic remedies (look, serious situations warrant serious solutions) what I’ve gathered so far is that I need to:

  • Hydrate! I’m the worst about drinking enough water. In bootcamp they used to yell at us to “Hyyyyyydrate!” but then always quickly followed that up with, “BUT NOT TOO MUCH!” They drilled it into our heads that too much water would make our brains swell and kill us (a condition known as hyponatremia). So, yeah. I will remember to hydrate…but not too much.
  • Take Ibuprofen. I read about a study some science guys did which showed a positive correlation between taking Ibuprofen 6 hours before, and then every 6 hours during, a planned hike into high elevations. As opposed to prescription drugs which are similarly preventative, Ibuprofen’s possible side effects are much less serious (and numerous), and I’ve taken it before so I can generally expect no bad reactions.
  • Eat ginger chews. I’ve never had a ginger chew in my life, and kind of expect to hate them, but they are purported to help with nausea so I’ll give them a try if I feel queasy. The brand Chimes makes them in mango and orange flavor, so I’m hoping that will help tone down the gingeryness of them.

And that’s pretty much it. The only other preventative measures of merit seem to be things like getting enough sleep and acclimatizing over time by stopping over night every 1000m (and really, ain’t nobody got time for that).

What’s the weather like up there?

A side issue I’m stressing about is trying to find a balance between packing too much and not having enough warm clothes for the stop over at the refuge (which sits at 3,207m) and the summit (4,167m). I’ve read so many comments in forums regarding the weather at the summit in the summer and advice ranges from “I wore shorts!” to “bring gloves, winter hat, and long johns”. Ummm, right…all I do know for sure is that typically the temperature in Imlil (the town at the base of Toubkal and starting point of this little adventure) is 40 degrees warmer than it is at the summit. Brrr.

I thought that looking at pics of people taken at the summit in July of various years would help in that I could see what they were wearing, but that exercise has actually left me even more confused as literally everyone seems to have gone with totally different levels of coverage (particularly confusing was one pic in which a man was wearing shorts, puffy jacket, no gloves, no hat, and a woman was wearing capri leggings, windbreaker, and gloves….wtf people? That doesn’t even make sense).

Carrying a 36L backpack as my only luggage for two weeks of travel, I just don’t have room to drag around bulky winter items if not necessary. For now, my strategy will be to pack up everything I’ll need, see how much room I have left, and then stuff the rest full with cold weather gear (and Ibuprofen and ginger chews).

If you have had an experience with altitude sickness or have advice to share, please help out your fellow travelers by leaving a comment below!

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