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Not Happy with HAPE

Tennis icon Martina Navratilova defied age to win major doubles championships after 40. Despite her renowned tenacity and training regime, summiting Kilimanjaro is not yet part of her legacy.

In a well publicized charity climb in early December, Navratilova failed after three days while trekking the Rongai route. Rongai may have been the wrong route for Martina, according to Tusker’s founder Eddie Frank who sees her climb as a valuable lesson for anyone planning a Kilimanjaro expedition.

Acclimatization is a key variable for a successful ascent and Frank would have put Navratilova, a breast cancer survivor, on his 11-day Lemosho trek. Rongai is a shorter six day ascent and has a much lower summit success rate.

“I would have advised her to take the 11 day Lemosho route and take more time to acclimatize. Acclimatization is the key, no two bodies act the same under the same altitude conditions,” Frank said. “The fact she was a breast cancer survivor was not the issue; her body was not acclimatizing fast enough.”

On the third day of her charity climb for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation Navratilova’s breathing was labored and her lungs were filling with fluid. Early on day four the two doctors on her 27 person climb sent her down and she spent two days in a Nairobi hospital recuperating. She was diagnosed by hospital doctors with high altitude pulmonary edema or HAPE.

“I was just disappointed, frustrated. I thought, ‘Damn it, this was supposed to be a really fun experience,’ but nobody really had fun — it was just survival, just pure survival,” Navratilova told Snow and fog made conditions difficult but 18 of the 27 did summit.

Would Martina have had a better experience with Tusker? Frank is not guaranteeing she would have summitted, but says her odds would have been much better and she would have gotten top care medical attention while on the climb.

“On the longer route our summit rate is 98 percent. Our team does twice daily medical exams and we listen to our climbers’ lungs with a stethoscope to see if fluid is building up in the lungs,” Frank said. “Martina’s team did the right thing by taking her off the mountain, but her chances would have been better on the longer route.”

Acclimatization is a strategy from day 1 on Frank’s Lemosho treks. After day 2 at 11,500 ft., on day 3 the group ascends to Moir camp at 13,600 feet.  The next day Tusker’s clients lunch at 15,000 feet then descend to sleep at Barranco camp at 12,800, then creep up to Karanga at 13,200 ft., and spend two days there. The plan is to hover in the “HAPE zone” 12,000 and 13,200 feet for 5 days, before camping at 15,000 feet and then going to the top.

The Mental Game

Martina may have made several mental mistakes common to tennis players and Kilimanjaro climbers. Overconfidence and not giving your opponent due respect can come back to bite you. In her prime, Martina was exceedingly confident and seldom had to adjust her powerful serve and volley style. Other players had to adjust to her.

In tackling Kilimanjaro, Navratilova said she altered her training methods doing more biking and running but was almost dismissive of the challenge confronting her. “It’s just a basic hike,” she told several publications before the trek began. Although she lives part of the year in Aspen she had never been above 12,000 feet. She planned to hit tennis balls off the mountain’s peak after she summitted. Tennis players can’t assume they will win nor can Kilimanjaro climbers assume they will summit.

Frank said that breast cancer survivors who tackle Kilimanjaro have so much confidence after beating breast cancer that it can work against them on the climb. They assume it will not be challenging.

“There is a myth that Kilimanjaro is a walk in the park. I met a climber from Malaysia who had done six of the seven summits and only needed Kilimanjaro. He brought the wrong clothes, got cold and with ice at the summit he didn’t make it. Less than 50 percent of all the climbers on Kilimanjaro make the summit. And many more of them get AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness).”

Due Diligence

Amy Frank, Eddie’s mountain climbing wife and Tusker partner, has been instrumental in helping to raise much of the $8.3 million generated on charity climbs under the Tusker banner, for various breast cancer charities. A breast cancer survivor herself, she understands the ‘I can conquer the world attitude’ her clients carry with them on their Kili climbs. These women are building new bonds pushing their physical and mental envelopes to become healthy and fit. Still high altitude can be a real downer.

“How someone’s body responds at altitude is the real x-factor. Some people are predisposed not to adjust to altitude. In Martina’s case did her treatment predispose her to pulmonary edema? We don’t know if her lungs were radiated as part of her treatment,” Amy said.

“But let’s cast light on the 18 of the 27 who did make it on Martina’s climb and celebrate there achievement. For the others who didn’t summit, perhaps next time they will choose to climb with Tusker because of our medical training, our world class guides and our vigilant focus on the well-being of our clients.”

During her charity climbs Amy Frank has led over 40 breast cancer survivors on the trips. Only four didn’t summit and it wasn’t because of pulmonary edema. Sprained ankles and asthma were the causes although she did have one male climber who developed HAPE during her climbing career.

This coming August, both Eddie & Amy Frank will lead a climb on the Lemosho route and they recommend that any climber including celebrities such as Martina Navratilova should do their homework before signing on.

“Climbing Kilimanjaro is one of those things that people want to check off their bucket list but many don’t do their due diligence. They assume if they see something in print that’s all they need to know. You would never run a marathon without looking to see what the course challenges were. Read all the blogs and see the challenges others have had.”

Kilimanjaro Comeback?

For Martina Navratilova climbing Kilimanjaro has been an ambition for years. She had visited Kenya but couldn’t see the cloud enshrouded Kibo summit. Discovering it became “something I always wanted to do.”

Now that she has tried don’t be surprised if she tries again. Throughout her tennis career she faced huge challenges and overcame them. As a teen she had the strength to leave her parents in Czechoslovakia and defect to the U.S. As a player she had to overcome sexism because she was a lesbian. She was seen as the villain in her matches with American idol Chris Evert, but was able to turn those jeers into global reverence. She came out of retirement in her 40s and won three more grand slam tourneys. After retiring she tackled breast cancer and won. What’s left to accomplish? Summiting Kilimanjaro.

“I hope she will come back to Kilimanjaro and trek with us. She will raise more money and will go with a company with an established track record,” says Eddie Frank. “I invite her to climb with the best company on the mountain.”

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Steve Ginsberg is a journalist and a tennis coach. He has been over 16,000 feet in South America and has traveled with Tusker’s Eddie Frank in Zambia and Tanzania.