The snow and sleet were unexpectedly pelting down, and the surprised porters, saying they had never seen conditions this bad this time of year on Mount Kilimanjaro (Africa's highest peak), sent a few men down to get more gloves and warm clothing for the hiking group that Martina Navratilova was leading to help raise money for youth sports projects in Africa. But even by Day 3 -- the halfway point of the climb -- the weather and persistent fog limited visibility to just a few yards, forcing Navratilova's group to scrap a scheduled walk. It was too treacherous. By then, Navratilova was having serious trouble breathing.
She was so exhausted she could barely speak. Even walking 10 feet became extraordinarily difficult. Her lungs were filling with fluid.
Shortly before 10 p.m. on Day 4 -- about a day and a half from Kilimanjaro's 19,340-foot summit -- the lead doctor in Navratilova's 27-person group told the former tennis great she had to turn around, and Navratilova sadly said, "I know." For the next 4 hours and 30 minutes, a team of four or five porters brought Navratilova down Kilimanjaro strapped to a toboggan-like stretcher. It was only then, lying there, Navratilova said that, for the first time on the entire trip, "I could see the stars. Orion was staring at me."
"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 said in a telephone interview Sunday, just hours after her release from a Nairobi hospital after two days of successful treatment.
"When you walk Kilimanjaro, you walk slow, very, very slow, struggling like old folks," she said. "But even as slow as we were going, I had to stop and rest every 15, 20 seconds. I didn't feel badly, I just couldn't breathe. I couldn't get a full breath of air. It's just prolonged exposure [to altitude]. Sometimes it just happens.
"I tried my best. I couldn't overcome a physical issue. It wasn't a mind-over-matter thing, unfortunately. Otherwise I would be OK."
Two doctors with the mountain team weren't sure whether 54-year-old Navratilova had pneumonia or whether she was at risk for an embolism, which could have killed her. Once at the hospital, Navratilova was told she had pulmonary edema. Doctors there told her the problem was related to the high altitudes she was in, not her fitness level or the weeks-long radiation treatments she finished in late June for breast cancer. "I asked them that," Navratilova said.
Of the 27 climbers in her group (not counting porters), 18 reached the summit without Navratilova on Saturday. Their fundraising trip already has raised more than $80,000 for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, which is still taking donations. The money will help with projects across the continent of Africa, such as the Mathare Youth Soccer Association that Navratilova visited before her climb. The MYSA has twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
So don't call the Kilimanjaro trip a failure, Navratilova stressed.
She was speaking Sunday while sitting in the garden of a friend's house on the outskirts of Nairobi, not far from the coffee plantation where Isak Dinesen of "Out of Africa" fame once lived. She already was feeling feisty enough to joke that not finishing the climb actually might have drawn more publicity to Laureus than if she had completed it, same as she used to make more headlines when she lost a tennis match in her prime. "Perverse," she laughed.
Laughing again, Navratilova told a story about lying in her Nairobi hospital bed watching CNN and getting ticked off at a news update about her she saw crawling across the bottom of the TV screen.
"I want to find out who wrote that headline -- I want your head," Navratilova joked.
"It said, 'Ailing Navratilova quits Kilimanjaro attempt,' and I got really annoyed with that report because quitting would suggest one has a choice. And my choice was to go up [farther] and die or get down and get well. I'm not a quitter. I had to abandon the attempt. Nothing hurt, and for an athlete, that's weird. Nothing hurt, but I [couldn't] go on. I just couldn't breathe."
No one really knows precisely how anyone will react to prolonged altitude exposure until he or she is in it, but Navratilova said her problems were a surprise for several reasons. She has often hiked and skied with no problems at upward of 12,000 feet in Aspen, Colo., where she lives part of the year. Although always fit, Navratilova had painstakingly prepared extra for the Kilimanjaro trip with 2-hour bike rides and 90-minute runs. "More long-distance stuff than I've ever done in my life," she said.
She even made a pre-climb trip to an English lab where she underwent altitude tests. She said they showed that even at simulated high altitude, the oxygenation levels in her blood dipped from 98-99 percent to never lower than 92 percent. When doctors did the same test on her at about 14,800 feet her last day on Kilimanjaro, her reading was down to 65 percent -- again, because of the fluid in her lungs.
"Once I saw the X-rays, I saw why I was feeling so badly," Navratilova said. "I don't like giving up. It's really not in my vocabulary. At the same time, I'm pragmatic.
"I always said the only failure is when you fail to try. I guess the other failure would not be giving your best effort. And I did both. So I don't feel it's a failure. I'm glad I tried. I'm glad I had the experience. I'm glad I survived it. It was an amazing achievement for [the rest of the group] to make it to the top. And I salute them.
"All in all, the mission was a success."
So what's next for Navratilova?
She laughed one more time and said, "Life is good.
"I'm going to dinner tonight with my doctor."
Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.