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I just wanted to keep up with the boys. . . .Little did I know that my bravado would jeopardize my life—in the mountains of Siberia. . . .
Camping and rafting Class III, IV and V rapids for a week on the Katun River in Siberia’s Altai Mountains sounded like Adventure with a capital A.
No matter that I had never camped before, that my whitewater experience was limited or that I spoke less than five words of Russian. I could learn.
Tossing wetsuit and water shoes in the duffle, I joined the group in Moscow. During the flight to Barnaul, Siberia, I checked out the other American rafters-- young and middle-aged men. I was the only female.
In Barnaul, we joined the Russian rafters and staff, all young men except for two females, one about 22, the other about 30. No girl company my age. OK, I’ll show them that small middle-aged American women can pull their own weight.
And pull I did. Every evening my tent was the first up and every morning the first down. I joined the hand-to-hand brigade, passing supplies from shore to rafts in the morning and back again in the evening. No matter than some bags weighed almost as much as I did. I never missed a pass.
And on the river, I paddled hard, following the oarsman’s commands as we surmounted the Katun’s rapids, eddies and whirlpools. Even the nightmarish Class V Shabash rapid failed to daunt us. Russians and Americans stroked as one, turning the potential nightmare into a rafter’s dream.
“Hey, Princess! You did OK!” I turned around. Rafter Bruce, a podiatrist from Michigan, smiled at me. “Katun means ‘princess’ in Altai and Ivanka could be your name in Russian. High-five!” And we saluted with our paddles.
On our “down day,” we put in at a primitive camp area to hike, explore petroglyphs, kayak, and generally hang out.
Sasha, the group's leader, suggested a short morning hike up a mountain 300 meters high. Only 1000 feet? Piece of cake. I stuffed a nearly full 500 ml. water bottle in my hiking pants, pulled on heavy hiking boots, a T-shirt over sports bra and baseball cap and ran to the trailhead. It was 8:15 AM.
Soon, the 20-something guys passed me. Then chubby Dale, five years older than me, and 68-year-old Doctor John, a surgeon from Utah, lapped me.
Mouth dry, I pulled out my water bottle and drained it in one swig. But I was still thirsty.
Forty-five minutes passed. Sasha said the trek was a half hour up and 15 minutes down. Sure enough, three were already returning to camp—at a trot.
"How much farther?"
"About another 10 minutes!"
But a half hour later, I was still climbing. I found Bruce chatting with Sasha on a boulder. I stopped and caught my breath.
“Your face is red,” Bruce noticed. “Here, have some water," and handed over his one-liter bottle. Guiltily, I drained it. I was still thirsty. But I wanted to get to the top, just like the boys. “I’ll go with you. The trail’s kinda steep and rocky,” offered Bruce.
Twenty minutes later, we summitted. The views were gorgeous! We snapped pictures then began our descent. My mouth was really dry. But it was downhill. What did I have to worry about?
By now it was 11 AM. The August sun beat mercilessly on the treeless trail. Bruce silently offered me the last of his water. Guilty but grateful, I drank his bottle dry. In minutes my mouth was dry again. And my head felt weird.
I tried to figure out how long the return trip would take, but my mind couldn’t do the arithmetic. So I concentrated on putting one heavy boot in front of the other. “They’re making new boots lighter,” offered Bruce tactfully as my five-pound, fifteen- year-old leather hikers stumbled.
“How much farther?” I asked when the trail widened and flattened. By now my hiking pants constricted with every step and my baseball cap, cotton T-shirt and sports bra were soaked. Good sign, I thought, remembering that lack of perspiration is a sign of fatal heat stroke.
But my head pounded, a classic symptom of dehydration.
“We’re about half way,” Bruce said quietly.
“We’ll miss lunch. You go ahead,” I offered.
“I’ll stay with you. Leda will save something for us,” he said, referring to our camp chef.
I took a deep breath and continued.
There was no shade. I stumbled, even on flat terrain. My head throbbed worse than a migraine. I visualized drinking water. I’m just dehydrated, I thought over and over. No one ever died of dehydration or heat exhaustion. I’ll be OK when I get water. I won’t go into heat stroke; I won’t. I kept walking.
Just as my head began to swim, the camp came in sight. It was 2 PM.
Camp was deserted. But Leda had kept lunch for us. I gulped six cups of vegetable soup and fruit and herb punch, both made that morning in her black iron kettle. With no wood to fire up the water heater in the banya, the bathhouse, I showered quickly in tepid water. Bruce met me at my tent with a full water bottle and two little tablets. I downed the acetaminophens with half the water, crawled in my tent, lay my throbbing head on my backpack and closed my eyes.
I awoke to a scratching on my tent fly. It was dark. “Hey, Princess, you OK?” It was Doctor John and Bruce. “We didn’t want you to miss dinner. It’s almost over.”
They walked me to the nearly deserted dining tent where they’d saved a plate for me. “It’s salted trout, good for retaining water,” advised Doctor John. “By the way, have you peed yet?”
I shook my head. “Headache gone?” Bruce asked.
It was. I felt almost normal. I served myself more trout and downed a third cup of water. Bruce and Doctor John said tactfully, “We’re glad you’re better. We were a little worried, you know.” They were right. I was stupid to start the hike with so little water. Had my symptoms progressed to heat stroke, I could have died. By drinking Bruce’s water I put him at risk as well.
“Thanks for your help,” I said. Then I felt a pressure in my abdomen. “Um, excuse me, guys, I need to, um. . ..”
“Congratulations!” they chorused. “You’re fine now!”
I picked my way to the far end of the campsite where the latrine’s smell revealed its location before the flashlight did. But I didn’t care what it smelled like. My body was normal again.
The Princess could pee.
Inadequate fluid in the body results in dehydration. A person can lose as much as two pints (one liter) per hour of sweat during exercise, says William Forgey, MD in his Practice Guidelines for Wilderness Emergency Care. He advises beginning the exercise period with 500 ml (one pint) of water and continuing with at least 300-500 ml. every hour. Simply relieving thirst is not enough.
Dehydration may progress to heat exhaustion and ultimately, heat stroke. Heat exhaustion is characterized by “weakness, inability to work, headache, mild confusion, nausea, faintness, anorexia, dyspnea and rapid pulse. Skin may be warm or cool with sweating. . . .” Wilderness treatment includes removal to shade, oral rehydration and cooling of the skin by wetting and fanning.
When untreated heat exhaustion progresses to heat stroke, a true emergency exists. The body core temperature has exceeded 40 C (104 F), putting the body’s renal, hepatic and nervous systems in danger of collapse. Sxs include hot, red, usually dry skin, “although sweating may be intact,” confusion, bizarre behavior, loss of muscle control, rapid heart rate and breathing. Wilderness treatment must be aggressive for this potentially fatal presentation. Rapidly cool the body. In addition to the above treatments for heat exhaustion, Dr. Forgey suggests cold packs at the groin, neck and armpits—unavailable in the Siberian campground-- as well as “massage of extremities to return cooler peripheral blood to the core.”
I’m a retired EMT. I knew better. But I wanted to keep up with the boys. I’m not making that mistake again.
Reference: Forgey, William W. MD, editor Wilderness Medical Society Practice Guidelines for Wilderness Emergency Care, Second Edition, 2000. Pp54-5.
c. Wilderness Medicine Society Magazine 2007. Used with permission.