The December 6th news article said “Tennis legend Martina Navratilova embarked Monday on her attempt to summit Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro in an effort to raise funds for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, a charity helping disadvantaged youth worldwide through sports-based projects.” Sounded great, even though the publicity stunt of hitting tennis balls off the top was a bit much.
Navratilova sounded aware of the issues, saying she was “petrified” of failing to reach the summit “because then the whole world will know.””I know I’m in good enough shape to get to the top, but will the altitude get me? That’s something you can’t predict until you get there.”
She’s right and, unfortunately, the tennis star did not make it to the top. She had trouble breathing while on the mountain, a doctor ordered her to descend, and she was hospitalized with fluid in her lungs.
I thought I would post here a few thoughts about Navratilova’s experience based on my trip last January up Kilimanjaro.
First off, the group was on a good route. None of the news reports mention this but the group was on the seldom-traveled Rongai route. My first thought when hearing the story was she was probably on the “wham, bam, thank you ma’am” Marangu route (also called the Coca Cola route), which because of its fast ascent causes greater altitude issues. However, the Rongai route (like the Lemosho Route we use) is a more gradual, better choice.
Second, Martina only reached 14,800 feet of the 19,340-foot mountain. That means she never got to the difficult part of the climb, the final nighttime push to the summit followed by a long daytime hike most of the way back down. Her problems had nothing to do with her fitness and probably had nothing to do with her breast cancer (diagnosed earlier this year) or a spot of traveler’s disease she had before the climb.
Instead, she basically succumbed to what almost everyone is at risk of succumbing to – altitude sickness. Altitude sickness can affect anyone and usually starts at over 10,000 feet. Most people feel some effects of altitude, such as headache or nausea, and still do fine on the mountain. Much less common but not rare is to have the altitude sickness develop into pulmonary edema (fluid buildup in the lungs) or cerebral edema (fluid buildup in the brain).
Third, as I would entirely expect on ANY climb of Mount Kilimanjaro and especially so on one with a retired tennis star, the local team made the right decision and ordered Navratilova to descend. If you get edema from altitude sickness, you go down – period.
Fourth, I also want to commend Martina herself. She recognized that even though she is in shape, anyone can get altitude sickness and that might affect getting up the mountain. She also was smart enough while on the mountain to tell her climbing team (guides and doctor) that she was not feeling well. This is why every night of the trip, we at Zephyr Adventures ask each person “how are you feeling?” And we expect an honest answer because it could save your life.
Finally, while most of the news reports talked about the difficulty of climbing the mountain, most people don’t suffer what Martina suffered. On our January trip this year, nine of ten travelers (plus me) reached the summit. And while everyone felt some altitude issues, no one had to be hospitalized or sent down early. So while the risk is there and you should be aware, I encourage you not to quit before you even start.
As Martina said after she was released from the hospital, “I always said the only failure is when you fail to try.”