Martina Navratilova misses summit, lands in hospital

By Troy Hooper
Real AspenDecember 10, 2010

Martina Navratilova couldn't ace Mount Kilamanjaro.

The tennis legend is recovering in a Nairobi hospital after falling ill and suspending her trek up Africa's highest mountain. After four days of climbing, she succumbed to high altitude pulmonary oedema.

"I'm disappointed not to be able to complete this amazing journey. It was something that I have wanted to do for so long, but it was not to be,” Navratilova in a statement from her hospital bed in Nairobi.

Martina Navratilova sets off for Kilamanjaro.

The nine-time Wimbledon champion and Aspen resident was leading a group of more than a couple dozen athletes up Kilamanjaro — the earth's tallest free-standing mountain and its fourth most prominent peak — to raise money for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation charity for disadvantaged children.

Despite having long lived in an area full of 14,000-foot peaks, Navratilova told the Associated Press last weekend that she had never climbed a mountain taller than 12,000 feet. Kilimanjaro is 19,341 feet.

She trained for the Kilmanjaro expedition, inviting the media along as she easily scaled 55 flights of stairs at the Bank of America in New York City last month. But Kilimanjaro proved to be too much.

Unrelenting snow and thick mist greeted Navratilova and her group sooner than they expected. In a daily blog about her excursion, Navratilova noted on the third day: “Well, no one prepared me for this.” She also said the group had to abandon a scheduled acclimatization walk when weather rendered it too dangerous.

The 54-year-old toughed out the harsh conditions and, on the fourth day, climbed to about 14,800 feet.

But that's when her health deteriorated.

Porters escorted her down the mountain and drove her to the nearest medical center for assessment. As a precaution, she was flown to Nairobi Hospital for further testing. That's when doctors learned she was suffering from high altitude pulmonary oedema, which is an accumulation of fluid in the lungs.

"Basically this is fluid in the lungs related to high altitude,” said Dr. David Silverstein, a consultant in cardiology and internal medicine at the hospital. “It is potentially dangerous when someone is at high altitude, but once brought down, recovery is quick. Martina is doing well and will continue to do well.”

Navratilova rests on Kilimanjaro.

"Treatment is to remove the fluid through diuretics and to make the patient more comfortable with oxygen,” Dr. Silverstein added. “She will spend two to three days in hospital. There will be no effects to long term health and patients get back to full fitness in due course. Martina's acute condition is not reflective of her health or fitness. It occurs in some people in conditions of low oxygen."

It's been a difficult year for Navratilova.

The Czech-born American was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year. She underwent radiation therapy in Paris during the French Open this spring and afterward, said there was no trace of cancer left in her body.

While cancer can be deadly so can Kilimanjaro. Every year, about 1,000 people are reportedly evacuated from the massive mountain and, on average, about 10 peolple annually die — usually from altitude sickness.

The rest of Navratilova's group, which includes German Paralympic cyclist Michael Teuber, is pressing onward and upward. They are expected to reach the summit of Kilamanjaro this weekend, possibly on Saturday.

“I am so pleased that we got it going and I will be watching and waiting for news from the climb when they reach the summit tomorrow,” Navratilova said. “I didn't make it, but I think it has been a great success as we have raised funds and awareness for the work that Laureus does."

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