Chile: Paso de Jama—Going Down!

Day 6/Part 3–

At the Border!

When we were at the border control getting our passports stamped and processed, Pierre casually mentioned that his headache had gotten worse.

When I asked if he had any other symptoms, he replied. “My head feels huge—like it’s going to explode.”

I started to watch him carefully. He was in good spirits, and to the casual observer, he probably would have appeared to be acting normally. However, him complaining about a headache, or any ailment isn’t normal behavior for him…he NEVER complains about not feeling well. That should have been clue number one for me.

The longer we waited in line, the quieter he became. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah—but my head really hurts.”

By the time we got back into the camper, I could tell that Pierre was really sick, and that it was coming on fast. He was complaining about being freezing cold and feeling nauseous.

Pierre is an excellent driver, and I would describe his style as alert and assertive. In other words, he’s a very, very focused driver. I began to watch him intently, because he was driving much slower than he normally does. He wasn’t doing anything alarming at this point, but I kept an eye on him anyway.

I could see that a big problem was beginning to develop. He was exhibiting clear signs of elevation sickness. Under normal circumstance, I would have offered to drive, but I hadn’t driven a manual transmission since I had gotten out of college over thirty years ago, and I knew that driving down a mountain in a camper wasn’t the optimal time for re-entry into that particular skill set.

I was getting worried.

He pulled the camper over to the side of the road, and instantly flung the door open and hopped out. He didn’t even make it two steps before he bent over and violently threw up. I opened the passenger door, and headed to the back of the camper to get tissues and a wet rag for him. He was already back in the driver’s seat by the time I had returned.

“I’m burning up,” he explained.

I held the wet rag to his forehead and then ran it over his head, and down the back of his neck. Never, not once, in our 12-years of marriage had I seen him like this. His facial expression showed no affect, and his mouth was slack. He started the engine, and I asked if he was okay to drive.

I don’t remember if he answered me, but he began to drive anyway. The pattern continued—he drove, pulled over, and threw up. He drove, pulled over, and threw up. It happened over and over again. I knew that he was probably already dehydrated, or getting there, so I kept offering him little sips of water every time that he climbed back into the camper. To make make matters worse, the hot sun was streaming through the windows, making the interior of the cab feel like an oven (in the middle of winter), even though we had the AC blasting.

Around this point, the seriousness of the situation began to create havoc in my mind—we were heading down a mountain with an elevation of over 14,000 ft., Pierre was suffering from elevation sickness, and every few minutes he had to pull over and throw up. I’m was fine and not showing any symptoms, but I couldn’t drive.

I felt helpless and then I remembered something else. “Pierre,” I blurted out, trying to contain my fear. “You need to get to the gate at the bottom of the mountain by six o’clock, or we’ll be locked in.”

I wasn’t sure if he had heard me, because he had pulled over again, but this time it was to go to the bathroom. He was out there for what seemed like forever, and I watched him from the side mirror, every few moments. I suppose I thought he was going to pass out, but he didn’t. He looked sick and vulnerable.

He slowly got back into the car and said, “I don’t feel so cold anymore.”

“Good–now, focus on getting to the gate,” I instructed, once again.

I was on high alert. I watched him, I watched the road, I watched the clock, and I watched the mileage signs on the side of road. Silently, I kept recalculating the time and distance remaining, and I pretty much figured out that if he didn’t stop again, we would probably make it to the gate.

I inwardly prayed that he wouldn’t have to throw up again, but I could tell that he was pulling from his last reserve. I really wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to do it. I began to dwell on what would happen if the gate was locked by the time we got there?

“Focus on getting to that gate,” I stated calmly, but I was worried. How would I be able to get medical help for him if he needed it?

He got us to the bottom of the mountain safely, and we drove through the gate at 5:45 p.m. on the nose. I had always heard about elevation sickness, and that it was serious, but it was shocking to see how hard and fast it had affected Pierre. I suppose, as equally shocking, was that I hadn’t suffered any ill effects, other than my ears popping when we drove up the mountain.

We made it…AND we got our passports stamped in Argentina! The scenery was breathtaking on the way up, and the trip was scary on the way down!

P.S. It seems so strange that the only picture that we took after leaving the border is the picture (above) of me smiling broadly. The sun was so hot coming through the window, that it felt like it was burning my skin, so I pulled my sweatshirt over my head. When I looked at myself in the mirror, I laughed. It was right after taking this picture, that I realized how sick Pierre was.

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