[It is important to keep a record of this article available. Since the Ottawa Citizen seems to have removed all record of their article from the internet, here it is in its entirety:]

The Ottawa Citizen - Section D - Tuesday, February 22, 2005


[Image of climbing party]

'Mountain sickness' takes life of Ottawa woman on Kilimanjaro

African guide failed to recognize symptoms; second Canadian nearly died from cerebral edema

[by Dave Rogers] After more than two years of training, an Ottawa couple hoped their week-long climb to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak, would be the adventure of a lifetime.

Instead, last month's trip ended in tragedy for Normande Langevin and her husband, Denis Caron. On Jan. 8, Ms. Langevin, an account manager for Spring Canada and a scout leader, died suddenly from brain compression caused by acute mountain sickness.

The 38-year-old woman's death, and the near-death of another climber, has stunned the others in the six-member climbing group because all of them have considerable experience in outdoor adventuring.

Yet five of the six climbers - four from Ottawa and two from Gatineau - suffered the effects of mountain sickness, including lethargy, disorientation and vomiting. Unfortunately, it seems their African guide didn't recognize the symptoms, or have the equipment to deal with the illness.

The group's misadventure began on Jan.3 when they commenced a seven-day climb to the 5,895-metre summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, south of the equator in northeastern Tanzania. After several days of climbing, they were approaching the upper reaches of the mountain in an area known as the Western Breach. Late at night, after the fifth day of climbing, Mr. Caron gave his wife a diuretic because she was coughing and he was concerned about pulmonary edema.

"Normande kept feeling bad and the guide said she should go down at once," he said. "It took four of us to dress her, because she couldn't sit up. The last words she said to me were that she had difficulty thinking."

"The guide and a porter took her 500 metres down the mountain on their shoulders. A little while later, the porter came back and told me he was scared. When I arrived, they had an oxygen mask on her but the tube was pinched and she was not breathing."

Ms. Langevin wasn't the only member of the party who got into trouble. Nicolete Bugnariu, a friend of Ms. Langevin and Mr. Caron, believes she almost lost her husband, Nicolas Bugnariu. He, too, was staggering and showing other symptoms of cerebral edema as he was helped down the mountain.

"Cerebral edema squashes the brain because your cranium doesn't expand," said Ms. Bugnariu, 32, a post-doctoral fellow in neuroscience at Montreal's McGill University. "It pushes the brain downwards through the small space for the spinal cord. This compresses the centres that regulate breathing and beathing of the heart, and it kills you."

At high altitudes, the rapid drop in oxygen makes the cerebral blood vessels dialate and increases blood flow to the brain. The increased blood flw is believed to cause fluid to leak into the brain tissue, bringing on mild cerebral edema. Victims may at first seem tired, withdrawn, or apathetic. Later, they become disoriented, lose co-ordination and stagger. Severe cerebral edema can cause the brain to become compressed and cease to function within a few hours to two days.

[2nd page: title: Kilimanjaro: Operators say climb requires no experience]

Both Ms. Bugnariu and Mr. Caron said everyone was aware of the symptoms of mountain sickness, and had trained for the climb by doing hikes in the Adirondacks, on Mont Tremblant, and in Gatineau Park. They also used gyms to build endurance and strength, and even rented a machine that simulated breathing at high altitude.

Unfortunately, it appears that things started to go wrong right at the beginning. The truop arrived at the airport near Mount Kilimanjaro on Dec. 27 after a direct flight from Amsterdam. When the climb started on Jan. 3, the guide arrived late and there was no opportunity to check his equipment or knowledge of the mountain.

"Our judgement was diminished because of the altitude, but we knew we shouldn't argue with the guide if told us to go down," Mr. Caron said. "We had all the symptoms of acute mountain sickness, including vomiting and headaches, and he said we could go slowly and would make it."

Ms. Bugnariu said the climbers knew the proper treatment for acute mountain sickness required descending to a lower altitude and the use of hyperbaric sleeping bags to increase atmospheric pressure.

But even on the fifth day, the guide continued to tell the climbers everything was normal and they should continue, despite their discomfort. The climbers, their guide and 10 to 12 porters were to climb the final 200 metres to the summit on the sixth day.

After Ms. Langevin's death, Mr. Caron walked back to camp to tell his friends that his wife had died. The group started down the mountain to see her. The guide at first promised a helicopter evacuation, but later he said he told them that to make them walk faster.

Mr. Caron, 49, an osteopath and physiotherapist, said the guide and porters should have taken his wife down the mountain on a stretcher instead of helping her walk down. The group took until midnight to walk down the mountain. Mr. Bugnariu's symptoms to another day to disappear.

In the wake of the tragedy, Mr. Caron and Ms. Bugnariu want the Tanzanian government to make sure guides are properly equipped and trained to treat acute mountain sickness.

"Normande was such a loving person who liked to celebrate with other people," Mr. Caron said of his wife of 14 years. "I just want to prevent such a tragedy from happening again."

According to Mr. Caron, the number of tourists ascending Kilimanjaro has more than doubled in seven years and tour companies may be putting profit ahead of the safety of climbers.

The National Park of Kilimanjaro is responsible for certifying the guides. Guides with permits from the park can be hired by tour companies, but they are not regular employees.

About 10 of the 25,000 tourists who visit Kilimanjaro each year die of acute mountain sickness, said Mr. Caron, while an equal number of porters die annually on the mountain, although, he said, their deaths are not reported.

He said he learned after his wife's death that a 32-year-old man died of cerebral edema the same night on the same route to the summit, but at a lower altitude.

Mr. Caron and Ms. Bugnariu suggest would-be climbers ask their guides about the symptoms of mountain sickness, and insist that they demonstrate how they would use the portable hyperbaric bag they are supposed to carry.

Climbers, they said, should not go up a mountain with a guide who doesn't know the symptoms of acute mountain sickness.

Mr. Caron said that while he and the other members in the group often reminded each other to have confidence in the guide, it was soon clear the man didn't have the proper equipment and couldn't recognize the symptoms of altitude sickness.

The group's tour operator, Zara Tanzanian Adventures, says in its advertising that Mount Kilimanjaro is the easiest of the world's seven most famous peaks to climb.

"It requires no technical climbing experience," the company's online brochure says. "Any moderately fit person can summit the mountain with the assistance of the guide and porters."

When Ms. Bugnariu complained to the tour operator, the woman said she was sorry about Ms. Langevin's death and would try to equip herself better in the future.

"She couldn't do anything at that point for Normande because it was too late," Ms. Bugnariu said. "The guide had the audacity to come back afterwards and ask for tips."

"I tried to make him understand that someone had died. He said this was the first time something like this happened in four years, and I told him that was one time too many."

Badriya Kiondo, a spokeswoman for the Tanzanian High Commission, said she sympathized with the climbers and wrote to the government authorities responsible for Kilimanjaro tours about the problems with mountain guides.

"This is the first that we have heard of this," Ms. Kiondo said. "It was very unfortunate and we are sorry for them."

No one from Zara Tanzanian Adventures could be reached for comment.

[return to my Kilimanjaro web page]