Despite Peter’s KC, to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary he and his wife had the crazy idea to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Keratoconus started affecting my vision as an adolescent, and I was in my first pair of RGP’s by 10th grade. Like all of us, I have suffered through a variety of contact lens mishaps including poor fittings, trips to the emergency room to fish out a misguided lens, lenses popping out at the worst possible moment, and even swallowing at least a dozen over the past 20 odd years. From the very beginning however, I never allowed the KC to slow me down.
Today, at 40 years of age, I engage in some of the most exciting and exhilarating activities this world has to offer, KC and all. I love water sports and enjoy wake boarding, water skiing and even kit boarding. Scleral lenses combined with goggles assure that I visually enjoy the activity as well. Skiing, snowboarding and rock climbing are also passions where again, special eyewear and a good fitting pair of lenses do the trick. I am always searching for the next adrenaline rush, never even thinking about my KC.
I split the items between our two packs in case one pack was lost or damaged on the climb. The savannah is extremely dusty but my eyewear protected my eyes and lenses making our Kenyan safari for a wonderful experience. We took a short airplane flight south to Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania. An hour’s ride on dirt roads took us to our base of operations in the Keys Hotel in the small underdeveloped city of Moshi where we met our guides.
The first three days of the climb went exceptionally well. In the mornings during the climb, I would insert a pair of RGP’s by the light in my small compact mirror over a spread out white pillowcase. In the early morning hours I would wear the Panoptx amber sealed glasses switching to the smoke as the sun climbed in the sky. When the wind picked up and I needed more protection I would slip on the Bugz goggles, which kept out the dust. During the trip I only lost one lens, which popped out into the dirt during a meal, one of the few times I didn’t wear eye protection. A small price to pay for the experience!
Our guides and crew were excellent. Doreen and I completely enjoyed the African landscape as we watched it change from a tropical rain forest to the dry arid climate of the African moorland. By now we were at about 16,000 feet of altitude. Breathing was beginning to get difficult made worse by a front of very humid air that made the oxygen content even lower than normal at that high altitude. Both Doreen and I were beginning to feel the affects of acute mountain sickness (AMS).We suffered bouts of nausea, vomiting and headaches, but we pressed on.
At 17,000 feet, there is a place called “Lava Tower”, a spectacular massive 400-foot tower of lava from an ancient flow from the volcano’s crater. At this camp we were scheduled for an acclimatization hike where we would hike about 800 feet in altitude and then sleep at the original height to allow out bodies to adjust to the change in conditions. By the time we reached the Lava Tower a storm had moved in. The temperature dropped to the 30’s and the wind gusting to 50 MPH made it impossible to take our acclimation hike. We collapsed into out tents and waited out the storm until morning. That evening I was very sick with a debilitating headache and a very low blood oxygen level and was administered bottled oxygen to help me get more comfortable through the night.
The next morning the storm has slowed but it was still very windy and cold. Doreen helped me get my lenses in and we hiked about two hours and reached a tall 40-foot wall that would mark the point of no return for the climb. Once we traversed the wall one had to climb up to the crater camp at 18,700 feet in order to find safe passage down the mountain even if you wanted to skip the summit. I had been warned against the potential for cornea swelling at this altitude because of the limited oxygen but saw no affect. Both Doreen and I were feeling pretty sick at this point, but felt we could push through it and make it to the crater camp where we would make the decision on a summit attempt in the morning. At the crater camp, we were scheduled for another acclimatization climb. We struggled to the crater camp and arrived exhausted. Doreen was in much better shape than me, breathing rather comfortably versus my labored breathing and racing pulse. At camp I was again administered oxygen. I was simply too weak to make the acclimatization climb. I ate a light lunch and collapsed in my tent for sleep. Doreen went on with our guide on the acclimatization climb. It was already decided that my path would be down in the morning and that Doreen could make a summit attempt and meet me at the Millennium camp at 16,000 feet for the trek down the mountain after her summit bid.
That night all I became deathly ill. My body simply could not adjust to the altitude fast enough and my body reacted with both pulmonary and cerebral edema, which is a filling of the lungs with fluid and pressure building in the skull. Both left untreated result in death very quickly. Doreen was awaken by the gurgling sound of the fluid in my throat and began panicking. Quickly our guides came to my aid and administered oxygen but I was too far-gone for that to help. As luck would have it a very experienced climber leading an international peace mission climb was camped next door. He immediately ascertained the seriousness of the situation. I was unconscious at this point. Not normally part of a medical kit for mountains under 22,000 feet but in the possession of this Samaritan were two syringes of the powerful steroid Dexamethazone. I was 30 minutes from death when he administered the first injection, which saved my life. I became instantly more lucid, but only as long as the steroid could keep my body stimulated. I needed to get off that mountain immediately. The only cure for AMS is descending as soon as humanly possible. This stranger from the darkness orchestrated an effort of eight porters, a make shift stretcher and the heroic efforts of our crew to have me carried off the mountain in the middle of the night. He handed Doreen the second syringe of Dex and told her to administer it in two hours. The eight Tanzanians carried me over treacherous rocks down the mountain in one-half of the oxygen you are breathing right now. Nothing short of heroics were demonstrated as they all struggled to save my life.
Six hours into the decent we were half way down and the group was relieved by Kilimanjaro Mountain Rescue who took over the task of carrying me from that point. All told there were 12 hours of decent and a change of nearly 16,000 feet of altitude. I arrived at our base camp where I was seen by a doctor and prescribed fluids and rest. Thankfully, I have recovered nicely. That night on shaky legs Doreen and I were approached by a stranger who simply said, “You look better than the last time I saw you.” It was the stranger that by a twist of fate was in the right place, with the right medicine, at the right time and to who I owe my life. It was an emotional gathering. He had spent the better part of the evening trying to locate us with the limited information he had about us, but the climbing and guide community is tight and news travels fast in East Africa.
It turns out that the weather had caused many problems on the mountain that week as there were two fatalities and many people were hospitalized with severe cases of AMS. I experienced life threatening problems during this adventure, but none of them were caused by keratoconus.
Doreen and I left the small climbing town of Moshi and found a five star resort in nearby Arusha where we pampered ourselves for the next two days before traveling home. Despite the challenges, the trip was needless to say a once in a lifetime experience. We left Africa with a bit more perspective on life and will be forever changed from the experience. Doreen has demanded a tropical vacation at sea level with nothing but beach and sun. I say the Iditarod!
Pete Richichi lives in Upstate New York with his wife Doreen and their four children Amanda, Ashley, Alex and A.J. He is an executive in a large computer distribution company.