Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, No Drugs Allowed

Top alpine skiers endure altitude sickness and won't do anything about it

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U.S. downhill skier Julia Mancuso has won an Olympic gold medal and spent considerable time on the podium during the rigorous World Cup ski circuit. Britain’s Chemmy (“Shemmi”) Alcott has made her mark as one of the most consistent female skiers the U.K.’s ever produced. You’d think that these women, of all the people in the world, would rock their way up the flanks of 19,335-foot Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa. They’ve got phenomenal leg strength. Their aerobic capacity is highly evolved. They know from grit and pain. They spend the entire winter and some of the summer in the mountains and at relatively high altitudes (Aspen’s downhill run tops out at over 11,000 feet).

Turns out that none of that matters at truly high altitudes. Last week, Mancuso and Alcott climbed Kili, and on both their blogs, they explained how the summit push was the single most tortuous thing they’d ever done. Harder than holding an edge at 90 mph on an icy downhill course, harder than months of strength-training. The altitude-induced headaches were skull crushing, and the shortness of breath and weakness surprised both of them, considering that they felt okay earlier that night in basecamp.

“We are used to pushing our boundaries when we race but this, this is a completely new experience,” wrote Mancuso the day before the summit climb.

Alcott almost didn’t make it; the pounding in her head caused her to almost give up but she pushed through and made the summit. Here’s how she described it on her blog posted by the UK Telegraph.

“Three quarters of the way up Kili, my head felt like it was going to explode, but because of doping control, there was nothing I could take to relieve the pain. I broke down. I cried.”

When I read that Alcott nearly gave up over worries about a dose of Diamox or some painkiller showing up in her urine and leading to a possible racing suspension by the anti-doping hawks, I cringed. Here was a very strong woman trying to do something right, climb one of the Seven Summits and raise money for school sports programs in Tanzania, and she’s worried about quitting because of a doping concern. I also cringed because here was a very strong woman who was almost shut down by altitude.

I’d always heard that altitude was the “great equalizer” that took the super fit and made them no more powerful than a couch potato, but for some reason, Mancuso’s and Alcott’s relatively benign climb brought the message home.

This got me to thinking, how many people could really climb Kilimanjaro without access to drugs?