By Craig Boddington
The first afternoon we hiked up a gentle ridge, glassing a big band of rams at an impossible distance, little spots shimmering against the snow. These were the first Marco Polo argalis I’d ever seen. I should have been more excited, but I was glad they were out of reach.
Already I wasn’t right. I figured being out of breath was normal (it is), and I put the pounding headache down to exhaustion. We’d had a miserable 30-hour drive from Dushanbe, bouncing in a Russian 4WD van. What passed for a highway was rutted gravel, often blocked by small avalanches.
On the walk back to the jeep I knew I was in trouble. I’d drift off the trail, fall asleep for a few seconds before snapping back. The clinical term is cerebral edema or fluid buildup around the brain. Just one form of altitude sickness. I was in the Pamirs of eastern Tajikistan, this camp about 14,000 feet; Afghanistan to the south, China to the east.
You’re right, not that high. I’d been much higher, no ill effects. Except: The insidious thing about altitude sickness is, it’s random, almost nothing to do with age or overall condition. It has killed experienced climbers on their umpteenth ascent.
That night the headache was brutal. I couldn’t stay awake … and I couldn’t sleep. Several times I stumbled out to throw up. Then I’d get up to do something else. My memory is foggy, but the Tajiks recognized the symptom. They wanted to take me to a lower altitude, the only correct course of action.
There is a rumor that a great sheep hunting writer went into Afghanistan for Marco Polo, got altitude sickness, and was unable to hunt. He never wrote a word about it (we might have been better served if he had). In his defense, he was in his 70s and was a lifelong smoker. I was mid-40s, still a serving Marine, and in great shape. No way I was gonna quit!
I did two things, one smart, the other stupid. I had Diamox with me, a standard prescription against fluid buildup, common for glaucoma, often used for altitude … but I hadn’t taken it. I didn’t need that crap, right? I started popping it.
The other thing I did I only vaguely remember: I pulled my bunk into a corner and loaded my rifle, saying I’d shoot the first SOB who came near me. I think they believed me because I was left alone to die or get better.
I do not recommend the latter course of action, but Diamox proved a wonder drug. After 24 miserable hours, I started to feel better and continued the hunt. I got a nice old ram but the details are sketchy.
Ever since, I’ve started Diamox about three days before ascent. I went back in 2003. Few people go back for seconds on Marco Polo sheep; it’s high, cold, and tough. Since that 1999 hunt is fuzzy, I wanted to do it right. The second try, I did better: I didn’t have to threaten anyone!