The Final Chapter

I woke up on Friday April 5 in my tiny twin-cotted room with a large pomelo attached to my knee. When I moved to get out of my sleeping bag, that pomelo screamed “don’t move me!” Apparently that sharp pain I felt during yesterday’s descent was not trivial. It really is a good thing I didn’t have to hike anymore. The day dawned bright blue and green. I was ready to go by 6 am. I spotted my pilot once again talking earnestly on a borrowed cell phone – his had run out of battery.

It amazes me how ill prepared my pilot appear to be given that he was flying in the worlds highest mountain range, with questionable weather that might cause him to land and even spend a night in almost any environment imaginable. Really, there aren’t regulations about this? He literally had only the clothes on his back. I ask him about this and he said he never brings anything. No suitcase, no cell phone charger, no clothing other than his leather flight jacket, no toothbrush , no nothing. Really?! I noticed the other pilots had small backpacks with them, so maybe he is an exception.

I limped out to the helicopter and asked him when we would go. Not so fast, the bad luck was still with us. Now that it was clear in the mountains, Kathmandu was closed by smog/smoke/haze causing low visibility. One by one the other choppers lifted of to fly to Lukla – their original destination. Only the two of us were left to await the weather in the Kathmandu Valley.

I hobbled around the landing pad, really just a small terrace that lay above the valley floor near the confluence of two drainages. It was perfectly suited as a helipad, with sufficient space around it to allow for take offs and landings. It looked pretty full with 4 choppers parked there, but the owner said he could squeeze in 12! His record was just 10 though. He charged landing fees from the airlines and also earned on food and lodging from their pilots and passengers, He prayed for fog I guess.

About 11:30 am, with the clouds starting to build around the peaks, my pilot final said let’s go! Kathmandu was just at the weather minimum and he said we would divert to another lowland airport if we couldn’t make it into Kathmandu. Earlier that morning, the pilot told me that he had house guests staying with him in Kathmandu, so he needed to get back home. Nothing like having a super motivated ill-prepared pilot flying you down to safety! The previous day I googled “Dynasty Air” to look up their safety record. Big Mistake.

We were soon in the air twisting and turning down the valleys to avoid the higher ridges. Once near the Kathmandu Valley we were forced to hug the ground to avoid the smoggy clouds. Visibility appeared to be just at the 1000 m minimum. We landed next to several other choppers at the communal heliport at Kathmandu Airport and I resisted the urge to hop out and kiss the ground.

I was met by an ambulance that whisked me off to Swacon Hospital. As it turns out, anyone who is rescued by helicopter must be evaluated and spend one night in a hospital if they want their insurance to pay. This makes some kind of sense, otherwise any tired trekker could just pant a little and request rescuing, and the insurance would cover the cost of their laziness. However the system is also rigged to pay maximum benefits to the hospital. I was given a physical exam, blood tests, X-Rays (ostensibly to screen for pulmonary edema) and made to stay overnight, my hospital room for the night was really just a cramped hotel room, complete with a set of toiletries in the private bathroom, and room service (food wasn’t bad). The only sign that it was a hospital room was a bare IV rack shoved into the corner.

The rest of my story is anticlimactic. I was released the following afternoon after I spent all the day fulfilling the insurance companies paperwork needs. I was picked up by one of the Nepal Hiking Team’s drivers, and deposited back at the Dom Himalaya Hotel. The next day was spent dealing with flight changes and more insurance hassles. After two nights at the hotel, I endured the uneventful flight back to my home in a Chiang Mai.

The great news is that my erstwhile partner, Tom Prouty, successfully reached Everest Basecamp and safely returned to Lukla using his own two feet. I have to admit a little chagrin that the older, cigarette-puffing, beer swilling dude was able to do what I could not.

Epilogue

Ironically, I am now lying in a hospital bed in Chiang Mai. The morning after I arrived back home, I was stricken with severe stomach pains. I endured the pain until evening, then drove myself to the hospital. It turns out my kidney stones were on the move and the likely cause of the pain, but a CT scan used to verify that also showed a dreaded “soft tissue mass” clinging to a hard-to-reach part of my small intestine. I see biopsies and potential surgery in my future. This incomplete story must await a future blog, but perhaps I am really lucky to have not been stricken while high in the mountains. Hard to feel lucky now, though.

Surke Helipad and Lodge

My Demons Return Part 3

Sitting around in the lodge, opposite the Lukla airport, watching the thick fog roll in, I mentally prepared myself for an overnight stay here.  Lukla is not a bad place to hang out.  It is fairly low, so after the thin air, I could actually breathe pretty well here.   The food is pretty good because many of the ingredients are flown in fresh.  Its pretty clean here too, with a nice “main street” paved with schist and lined with shops and even a few bars.  Not a bad place to get stranded.

As I was sitting reading the news on my phone and enjoying the fast 4g internet here, I noticed my porter, who speaks only a few words of English, in a conversation with the lodge owner (ok that is an assumption, be he seamed like he was the boss).  Suddenly, the boss-man walked over and said “you walk down to Surke.”  Huh? What? Where? “They have helipad there, no fog.”  Oh!  “How far is it?”  I asked.  “Walk one hour” was the reply.  Well, that didn’t sound too bad.  Then I remembered that the Nepali sense of time for walking involved using worm holes and warp drives.  “Now?”  I asked.  “Yes!  Go!” was the reply.

My poor porter, who thought he was already done with me, looked chagrined.  We walked back down to the helipad where my duffle bag was waiting in hopes of the fog clearing. There stood my pilot next to his impotent helicopter looking a bit agitated, talking on his phone and still in his flight jacket and street shoes.  He clicked off the phone, said a few words to my porter, then looked at me and said “Lets go!  I go to Surke with you.”  Off he went down the paved rock stairs that paralleled the steeply-sloping runway.  “Follow me!” he called over his shoulder.  I looked at my porter; he was already rigging the tump line to my duffle bag.

Down we plunged into the mist.  Most of the trail was nicely paved with stone stairs.  Steep stairs.  Some of the stairs involved a 3 ft drop, maybe more.  We plunged down, only leveling off to bypass stone dwellings or to cross the steep ravine on steel bridges.  Down, down, down.  I had to hurry to keep up with this pilot dude walking in street shoes and his flight jacket (no bag of any kind).  To add to the sense of adventure, the pilot stopped at almost every house and asked for directions.  It was quite obvious he had never been down this path, nor had my porter. After walking about 20 minutes, the pilot called over his shoulder “only 30 minutes more!”.  Not.

Somewhere around the 50 minute mark, I stepped down a high stone riser and felt a stabbing pain in my right knee.  That’s the surgically repaired knee that had been sore since our acclimatization hike at Namche several days before.  Suddenly feeling quite unstable, I slowed down, but kept going.  What choice did I have?  My pilot cum guide disappeared down into the mist.  I used my trekking poles like crutches, hopping down the steep path on my good left leg.  After another half hour of hobbling, we found ourself at a dead end in some terraces where the trail petered out.  My guide started calling out to the small dwellings for someone to guide us onto the right path.  Finally we found a local working in his garden who pointed down the hill.  Down we went for another 15 minutes, when we finally rounded a corner to see 4 helicopters parked in the mist in front of the “Surke Helipad Lodge”.  We had descended 550 m vertically in just 1.6 km (nearly 2000 ft in a mile).  Perhaps one of the steepest paths I’ve ever seen.

The swirling fog that shrouded the helicopters made it clear that we had wasted our time, energy, and, in my case, meniscus, on this long plunge down into the gloom.  If anything, the fog was thicker here.  Then it started raining.

We sheltered in the lodge’s small dining room.  Three other American’s were huddled in the room looking exhausted,  along with 3 other pilots. The Americans comprised a young Mormon couple  (the husband was suffering from Nepal-belly) and a talkative middle-aged guy from I-can’t-remember-where (Texas maybe?).  They had evacuated via helicopter from Gorak Shep, the town just below Base Camp.  They were headed to Lukla to connect with a fixed-wing flight, but got diverted to Surke just before the fog dropped down.  We all waited futilely for a couple of hours, then I threw in the towel and got a room.  I asked the lodge’s owner for the penthouse – he gave me the room closest to the toilet ( a squatter that was impossible to use given my throbbing knee).  It was not a penthouse, but it was dry.

Following a sponge (baby wipe) bath, I shuffled back to the adjacent ding room and joined the 4 pilots, 3 Americans, and the lodge own and his family.  He had a daughter of 25, and was raising his 6-year-old niece whose mother had died just 6 months earlier during childbirth, apparently a common occurrence here where medical assistance can be a day or three walk away.  The pilots were already into there 3rd or 4th beer.  I thought about buying them all a round, then I thought – “hmm, I would rather not have a drunk or hung-over pilot in the morning”.  Didn’t slow them down at all though.  After drinking a beer, and while I waited for the chef (owners wife) to prepare meals for all these unexpected guests, I ordered up a Tongba.

Tongba is the classic alcoholic drink of eastern Nepal.  It is made from fermented millet, which is a hardy cereal grain grown in many developing countries because of its high tolerance for adverse weather conditions such as drought.  Ok, look it up on wikipedia, I had to.  The grain is fermented into a mush by adding various nasty molds, bacteria and yeast, then stored for up to 6 months in sealed jars.  When ready, the mash is added to a special wooden vessel, with an integrated straw.  Hot water is poured over the mush, and after a few minutes, the alcoholic, warm “tea” can be slurped up with the straw, which has a built in filter to prevent you from slurping up the mash.  When empty, you add more hot water to the vessel and you slurp up a second round.  In fact I got four rounds out of it (I think, I wasn’t really in any shape to count after the first two).  The taste reminded me of hot sake.  Not bad, but won’t replace a good IPA.

 

Tongba

By the time I finished the fourth round, the weather had cleared, and the stars were out.  The pilots and lodge owner (A guide himself who had climbed to the top of Mount Everest twice) had retreated out to the front yard where several stump-chairs surrounded a wood burning stove.  The lodge owner soon brought out a case of Everest Beer and announced that it was on the house.  Somehow, later that night, I stumbled back to my room and collapsed onto my cot.  Supposedly, I was to be up at 6 am for a crack-of-dawn flight down to Kathmandu.  Hopefully.

Next up: The final Chapter.

 

Drinking with my pilot buddies and hoping that they won’t be as hungover as me.

 

 

My Demons Return, Part 2.

As I clambered aboard my rescue helicopter, I looked around for the last time at the brown, barren landscape and windswept village of Dingboche. I was pretty sure this would be the last time I would see this scene. I can say that I wasn’t taking away many good memories. After three days and two sleepless nights of gasping for breath and shivering in the sub-freezing cold, I was looking forward to thick air and long sleeps.

One of our porters, Bhanshu, climbed aboard with me, apparently he drew the short straw. As the chopper roared back to life, we slowly rose into the thin air. One other passenger was aboard, a Nepali, who did not appear to be an evacuee. I also noticed that the pilot, a 50ish looking fellow dressed in a flight jacket and wearing a lanyard with an official looking ID, was wearing a nasal cannula supplying him with supplemental oxygen. The US FAA requires oxygen for pilots flying flying above 12,500 ft, so this made sense. The US FAA also requires passengers to be provided with the option of having supplemental oxygen above 14,000 ft. Apparently, the Nepali FAA (assuming they have one) has no such rule, or at least don’t enforce it. I was left to continue breathing the thin air. This was very surprising seeing as I was being rescued for AMS. Fortunately, I was sufficiently distracted by the adrenaline rush of flying in a helicopter, even though we briefly flew above 18,000 ft.

I know that Dip, when he called in to request the helicopter, also requested that they give me a “tour” of base camp before flying me down to Kathmandu. I was dubious that they would do this. Why waste the fuel, and why take a passenger being rescued for AMS to an even higher altitude? It became obvious that I was wrong when the pilot turned and climbed the helicopter up into the Khumbu valley.

What a ride! I may have started dying in the thin air, but with the rush of the scenery in the crystal clean sky, I did not notice. In just 10-15 minutes we flew up the valley, directly over Dhukla, Tengboche, and Gorak Shep, the villages I was scheduled to stay in over the next 3 nights, then onward to Everest Base Camp, marked by a city of hundreds of orange and yellow tents strung out for about a kilometer on the Khumbu glacier’s lateral moraine. As we approached Gorak Shep, with the viewpoint-hill of Kalapathar rising to the left behind the small collection of lodges, the enormous hulk of Nuptse hove into view, and seconds later Everest. Nuptse appeared as a giant icy black pyramid against the pale blue sky with Everest, obviously being blown by a strong wind, lurking behind. “Wow” doesn’t, begin to describe my wonder. This is a scene that will always be with me, burned permanently into my memory.

Once over Base Camp (such an inhospitable-looking campsite), we made a sweeping U-turn and retraced our path back down the Khumbu Valley. It took us only a few minutes to pass by each of the villages that were about a day’s walk apart. Down, down we went, finally pulling to the left of Namche Bazaar, over the evergreen forests we had climbed through several days before, and into Lukla, where we landed on the helipad next to the ski-jump of a runway at the Tenzing-Hillary Airport.

This was a scheduled stop on the way to Kathmandu to drop of my porter and to refuel (and drop of some small cargo items). I was told that it would be 30-45 minutes for the stop, so we climbed some steps up to the same lodge we stopped at after our landing at Lukla several days before. As we ate, I watch the clouds roll up the valley. Not good. After lunch, we rushed back down to the helipad, just in time to watch the last passenger load into our helicopter. Apparently, I had gotten bumped to the next flight, which I was told would be taking off shortly. The chopper roared to life…..but I could see the pilot looking intently down at the clouds rising toward Lukla. Suddenly, the engine powered down. The pilot got out and talked earnestly on his cell phone. He then climbed back into the pilot’s seat and shut down the engine. Apparently, no one was going anywhere soon.

After a wait of about an hour watching the fog swirl around and envelope the airport, we retreated back to the lodge to wait out the weather. It very much looked to me like I was going to spend the night at Lukla instead of Kathmandu. I was wrong though.

Part 3 to come…

The tiny trekkers village of Tengboche with the Khumbu Glacier in the foreground.
Everest Basecamp marked by yellow tents sprawled along the lateral moraine.
Everest (with snow blowing off summit) peaking out from behind Nuptse.

My Demons Return

I am now back in Kathmandu, having failed once again to reach Everest Basecamp. As I have mentioned before, this blog gets more interesting when things go pear shaped. This year’s flameout was a bit more dramatic than last year’s walking retreat.

On April 2, we arrived in Dingboche at 4,400 m elevation. I wrote a short post that night because I felt very cold and not very energetic. That night, while trying to sleep, the demons from the year before revisited, with a vengeance. Sleep was impossible. As I lie in the the bitter cold, with sleeping bag and blanket piled on top of me, every 30 seconds or so a feeling of suffocation would overwhelm me, and I would gasp for breath. My plan for this eventuality was to pop an Ambien. Unfortunately the Ambien gained me only 2 hours of complete unconsciousness, followed by several hours of gasping and panic.

The next morning, April 3rd, I felt tired and woozy. Following a mostly uneaten breakfast, we saddle-up for an acclimatization hike up the steep mountain behind our lodge. I was very slow, constantly gasping for breathe. For most of the 250 m vertical climb, I took 3 breathes for every step, and stopped to pant every 100 steps. The day was crystal clear, but I have almost no recollection of the magnificent views of the high Himalaya. Upon our return to the lodge, I ordered a half-eaten lunch, then retreated to my room armed with two hot water bottles to snuggle with under my pile of insulation. In spite of my preparation, I shivered uncontrollably for 1 hour before my body temperature returned. But sleep eluded me. Instead, the gasping periodic breathing returned accompanied by suffocating panic.

The feeling of not getting enough air is the most scary of my life. At that moment, I wanted nothing more than to go down to where there was more oxygen. When I finally gave up trying to nap and went down to the common room to await dinner and the lighting of the stove, I had already made my decision to bail. I called a meeting with Tom and our guide Dip. After a discussion of the options, I elected to call in a chopper, provided my insurance agreed to cover the cost. To the great credit of Dip, and the owner of Nepal Hiking Team, Ganga, it was all arranged within 2 hours, including a scheduled helicopter for early the next morning, and approval from my insurance company (World Nomads). I now only needed to endure another night.

My symptoms that night included headache, lack of appetite, shivering, periodic breathing, and gasping panic. These are common symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (ALS). I managed about 4 hours of Ambien-induced sleep and about 5 hours of tossing and turning and trying to breathe. I finally gave up trying to sleep, packed up and went down to the dining room to await the dawn and my evacuation. I knew that I really needed evacuation when Tom called me a wimp and I agreed with him 100%.

My chopper finally arrived at about 10 am on April 4th after various delays. Little did I know that my evacuation adventure was just beginning. To be continued….

At my highest point, over 15,000 ft. I look way better than I was feeling.
Dingboche
My savior.

Cold

This is a short post today because I am COLD. Today we hiked up to Dengboche sitting at 4,400 m (14,436 ft) in a broad windswept valley. We are now in the alpine tundra zone where most of the vegetation is no higher than your knee. The temperature from the start of our hike was well below freezing, judging from all the ice on the trail. The day began clear, but as is par for the course, clouds began building by noon, and an icy wind brought a few swirling snow flakes.

Upon arrival, I was chilled to the bone. I got myself organized, had a cup of hot lemon tee in the dining room, and went up to my cubical of a room and crawled into my sleeping bag with all my warm cloths on and I even threw the woolen blanket on top for good measure. I almost dozed off, but the cold awakened me, I just could not get the chill out. This is a likely side effect of the thin air. I went down to the common room, which is marginally warmer due to body heat, had a hot chocolate and plate of popcorn, and now I feel much better.

Today’s hike was not difficult, but the thin air kicked my butt. Last night I did not sleep well, so I am hoping tonight will be better. I have Ambien waiting, but don’t really want to use it, at least not yet.

Alpine tundra on the way to Dingboche

Windswept Dingboche

On the Khumbu Interstate

Today started under bright blue skies and crisp cool air and finished under gray skies, cold wind and swirling snowflakes. We are now safely ensconced at the Tashi Delek Lodge just 50 m from the famous Tengboche Monastery. I had a chance to go into the monastery today (last year it was closed to visitors when I passed by). The main room with a huge Buddha in the back was the most colorful temple I have ever been in – and I have been in many. The walls were adorned with intricate full-color drawings from floor to ceiling. A lone middle-aged monk sat in the middle of the room, wrapped in dark saffron robes to ward off the 0 C chill, solemnly chanting from an ancient-looking book. Sorry, no pictures were allowed, but it was a magical scene.

Today’s hike was both pleasant and brutal. The first half of the hike was mostly down hill under sunny skies; the second half was a brutal trudge up the hill into the thin air to the high ridge where the monastery guards the entry to he Everest region. We both took it really slow, but still arrived by 3 pm. We are now sitting in the large dining room of the lodge next to a wood-fired stove, sipping various hot drinks. I still feel chilled to the bone, and it’s only going to get colder.

Tom and I were chatting the previous night and he mentioned that the trails here were not what he expected. He expected trails like Americans encounter in our national parks, well graded, switch backed to avoid steep sections, and, except for the most popular, largely devoid of hikers.

The “trails” in Nepal are their roads. They form anastomosing networks of pathways that connect every inhabited village in the rugged terrain that characterizes the vast majority of Nepal’s area. The paths that connect more densely populated areas and/or popular trekking areas, particularly here in Sagamartha National Park, have sections of trail that are dirt paths through pine and fir forests, but many sections are paved in stone.  The steeper sections of trail consist of long stretches of stone stairs, engineered to withstand the hordes of boots and hooves. Everywhere, human and beast pack the trail.

The route to Everest Base Camp is akin to an American Interstate Highway. As I marched along today, it reminded me of the section of interstate 15 that connects the LA megalopolis and Las Vegas. Like that section of highway, a variety of transport plies our trail. The Yaks are the 18 wheelers of the Khumbu, carrying the vital supplies to feed and otherwise support the hordes of trekkers. The porters are Nepal’s pick up trucks. Just like in the USA they come in a variety of forms ranging from overloaded Ford 350s lumbering up the trail (porters can carry up to 100 kg – more than twice their weight), to trekking-company porters analogous to lowered Toyota pick-ups, complete with boom boxes blasting out the latest Nepali hits. Then there are the flat-bellied climbers and guides, the Ferraris of the Khumbu, flying by with crampons and ice axes dangling from their $400 back packs.

While I was a grad student, I took a term off, sold everything I owned, and went to Alaska and climbed Denali. When I returned, I was flat out broke. I bought a 1963 Ford Galaxy off a downtrodden used car lot in Missoula, Montana. It was 17 years old when I bought it for $200 cash. The seats barely kept your ass from scrapping the pavement and it’s muffler was partially intact and partially swinging in the breeze. But it ran…kind of. It blew blue smoke, and steered like a drunken party boat on Lake Mead. Every 100 miles or so I pulled into a service station and filled up the oil and checked the gas. Today, as I slogged up the trail, huffing and puffing in the thin air, I felt like that 1963 Ford, leaking oil and sucking air, amid the late model transport blasting by me. But I got here.

Scenes from the Khumbu Highway

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Blue skies and snowy peaks!
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Entrance to the Monastery at Tengboche

Acclimatization

Last night, following dinner and blogging, I headed back to my room about 8:00 pm with more than a little trepidation. Last year, my first night here at Namche was miserable. I struggled the entire night with a phenomenon called periodic breathing, which happens at high altitude when your body gets confused about your blood’s CO2 and oxygen content. This year, I came armed with an inhaler that I use to prevent exercise-induced asthma. It seems to have helped, I slept quite well and awoke very rested. I am still at relatively low altitude (3440 m/11,286 ft), but it is a very hopeful sign!

Today we will spend a second night at The Nest, our lodge in Namche Bazaar. Like almost all the lodges in the Everest area, It consist of very basic rooms, bare but for a cot or two, and a table with no heat. The common room is where everyone congregates for evening meals, conversation, and just hanging out in a space made warm by the many bodies. As I write, the Nepali guides and porters are engaged in a raucous card game that I am pretty sure involves gambling. Most of the time spent on a trek is in common rooms such as this. With 8 hours of sleep, and 6-7 hours of walking, that leaves 9-10 hours to kill lounging around these rooms. As you hike to higher elevations, where the air is bitter cold, yak-shit-burning stoves replace body heat as the main source of heat. It is the interactions in these rooms with your fellow trekkers that make trekking more of a social rather than wilderness experience.

We are lucky because we have upgraded rooms in The Nest, that include en suite bathrooms AND (a first for me while trekking) hot showers! Life in Namche is pretty luxurious. There are fancy climbing gear stores, coffee shops, and even an Irish Pub. The luxury ends tomorrow as we head up towards base camp.

Today, to facilitate acclimatization, we took a day hike up the mountain behind Namche to see views of Everest and the high Himalaya. Last year, following a sleepless night, I struggled mightily with exhaustion. This year was night-and-day better. The hike, while still strenuous, was 100 times easier than last year. Tom did quite well, but, because of his high-center of gravity (he’s 6’3/188 cm tall), he goes down hill gingerly, to put it kindly. We were both back enjoying a relaxing lunch by 1 pm.

Tonight I am hoping for another restful night, then tomorrow on to Tengboche, site of a famous Buddhist monastery. Note however that unless internet connectivity has vastly improved during the last year, my blogs may be posted well after the fact, and perhaps not at all for several days at a time.

Namche Bazaar from above.
A monument to one of the world’s true dudes, Sherpa Tenzing Norway. Hillary would have never made Everest’s first ascent without this guy.
Another minor hero….

Namche Bazaar

I know that this blog is probably at its most interesting when everything on the ground is going to shit. Sorry to disappoint my readers, but today went very smoothly. We have arrived at the famous Sherpa trading post of Namche Bazaar without any misery or mishap.

For me, it started last night with a pretty good night’s sleep, in spite of an annoying barking dog. The weather was cloudy but with not much wind and cool but not cold temperature that was perfect for hiking. The first half of the hike was gradually climbing. We stopped for lunch about 11:00 am then continued up the switchbacks for an additional 600 m of elevation gain to Namche. I am not sure why, but it seemed easier for me this year, which doesn’t really make sense because I am not nearly as physically conditioned as last year and I’m carrying a significant beer paunch. Perhaps the fact that I am using my asthma inhaler this year is making a difference. The proof will come tonight we see how well I sleep. In my last attempt, I slept very little at Namche, with symptoms similar to sleep apnea. The lack of sleep and resulting exhaustion forced me last year to spend an extra night here.

Tomorrow, we will day hike up towards the Everest View hotel for our first views of the Everest peaks. We will spend an additional night here in Namche for acclimatization.

A word about our guide, Dip. He has been way better than my guide last year. He speaks English much better, takes great care of our every need, but gives us plenty of breathing room – much better than my hovering guide from last year. Tom general hikes a bit slower than do I, so Dip tends to hang back with him while I hike ahead. Dip must have told one of our porters, Bashu, to keep a close eye on me, which would have been fine if he wasn’t listening to tinny Nepali music from his phone spear all the way up the trail. We arrived in Namche just as I was about to grab his phone and fling it into the abyss.

Good view of my beer belly. To bad you can’t see the 200 m drop from the bridge to the river.

Namche Bazaar

A well earned treat after a long climb.

Why I Couldn’t Breathe

The long walk from Namche Bazar to the airport town of Lukla took all day. While mostly downhill, the trail climbed in many places because of the rugged terrain. I had plenty of time along this tiring march to think about the last two weeks, and why I couldn’t complete the trek.

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My lunch stop on the last day.  Lots of ups and downs going along this valley.

About 15 years ago, one afternoon I went out for a run and found myself gasping for breath after only a few minutes. I fought through it, and my breathing improved and I was able to complete the run. For the next couple of weeks, the same thing happened, it was as if my lungs were closing down at first, but then would improve if I went slow and relaxed. I went to my family doctor and he suspected I had some kind of asthma. He prescribed an inhaler to be used twice a day. It worked like a miracle. I told the doc on my follow up that it was like having 25 year old lungs again. A few years later, after a long bout with bronchitis, my doc referred me to to a specialist, who confirmed my asthma diagnosis. I had feared that I had COPD, but the specialist said that the inhaler wouldn’t work on that, and that his testing indicated asthma. Relieved, I still suspect that this stemmed from growing up in a miasma of second hand smoke from my mother. For the next several years, I used the inhaler only before vigorous exercise and it worked very well for a very long time.

After retirement and my move to Thailand, I found out that I no longer needed the inhaler. Being older, I didn’t exercise so vigorously, and my lungs seemed to like the moist hot air of the tropics. The bag of inhalers I brought from the USA with me got stashed in the back of a drawer and forgotten. A couple of times during my preparations for the trek, I thought to myself that I ought to take an inhaler along “just in case”. But that item never got on my list, and I didn’t remember again until I was in Kathmandu. BIG MISTAKE. My guess is the extremely cold, dry air triggered my asthma. I was ok while hiking if I started slowly, but it seemed to kick in again while trying to sleep. This would explain my lack of headaches or other typical symptoms of altitude sickness. It also explains why my sleeping troubles began at just 2500 m – it wasn’t the altitude alone, it was primarily the cold dry air. If I had brought the inhaler…..anyway, it’s done now. I have no regrets about turning back.

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The narrow streets of Lukla.  No motorized vehicles except for planes and helicopters.
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The picture does not capture the true slope of this runway.

I arrived at Lukla about 4:30 pm after hiking in the light rain for several hours. The lodge was literally 50 meters from the runway. Lukla’s airport is unique in that it is not level. It slopes wildly in fact – more than 11 degrees! It looks more like a ski jump than runway. Planes land uphill and take off downhill no matter the wind. Planes landing have only one chance to get it right because an aborted landing is made impossible by the mountain rising of the end of the runway. Many consider this airport the most dangerous in the world.

I bought a few beers for my guide  Bhakta and my porter Gokul. Gokul had a few more than a few, and was very loose by the end of the night. Apparently he had a reputation as a brawler in his younger days, he could take on 4-5 others with no problem. Good to have him on my side!

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Bhakta, Gokul and me celebrating the end of the trek in Lukla.

The next morning, after an E-ticket takeoff, and a scenic flight back to Kathmandu that brought home just how high and immense the Himalayas really are, Bhakta and I arrived safely back in Kathmandu (Gokul turned around and went portering back to EBC from Lukla with a new group of trekkers). Thus ends my adventure. I am back in Kathmandu for one night already, and though the flights are full I will try and get back to Thailand tomorrow. I will be writing another post in the next few days on the equipment I brought that might be useful to future trekkers.

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Walking to our specially designed short take off and landing Sita Air plane for the flight back to Kathmandu.

So what next adventure should I start planning for in 2019? 1. Patagonia? 2. Cruise to the Galapagos? 3. Cycle New Zealand. 4. Golfing in Ireland. 5. Drive the Alaska Highway? 6. Something else?  Leave me a comment with your suggestions.

The Worst Night of my Life

 

Written on March 19 USA time will be posted when internet is available.

Just when you think things are under control, and your goal is in reach, WHAM!

Last night I was feeling pretty good, in spite of the frigid and windy weather. I hung out in the smoky dining room until about 8 pm, then went up to my tiny room. I took two bottles of hot water with me as insurance against the cold. Once under the sleeping bag and warm, I played with my phone for a few minutes then turned it off and tried to sleep. Back came the irregular breathing that has plagued me off and on for the last week or more. Every time I thought I was drifting to sleep I would sit up gasping for air. This was compounded by having to pee every 20-30 minutes, thanks to the diamox. I brought a pee bottle into my room to avoid the long trek down the hall, but even getting up to pee in the bottle left me freezing in the sub zero temperature (close to 0 F). Throughout the ordeal the breathing issues continued.

 

About 4 am I gave up and turned on my phone and pulled up the NYT crossword in the hopes doing a crossword would calm me down and help me get at least an our or two of sleep. However, I found I couldn’t focus at all, my mind was a swirling miasma, I couldn’t even solve the easiest clues. I gave up and lay there gasping, waiting for the the frozen dawn to come.

Reality really hit me that morning when I returned from a trip down the hall to empty my now full pee bottle. When I arrived back at my room, I couldn’t figure out how to take of my slip on sandals. I stared down at the confusing straps for several moments like they were some escape artist’s invention. Finally, I figured out all I had to do was to just pull the Velcro strap. NOT good.

Dawn finally arrived. I found Bhakta in the dining room, I ordered a breakfast that I could not eat (another pertinent symptom) and we discussed what to do. I basically had two choices: 1. Head downhill. 2. Try staying another night at Lobuche at 5,000 m or 16,500 ft and see if I can shake these symptoms. The most common symptom of altitude sickness is a severe headache, which I curiously did not have. But the breathing issues, insomnia, loss of appetite and mental confusion were. I considered option 2….Another night in this god forsaken frigid lodge, with the disgustingly frozen toilet, living in a 3 m x 3 m cell with a window the size of my iPad was not appealing. What if my symptoms get worse? Then I would be potentially looking at a chopper evacuation. If my condition stayed the same, I might be looking at walking out in an even more exhausted condition than now. In the end, the decision was easy, I would turn my back on Everest Base Camp and self evacuate while I could.

Perhaps surprisingly, I was not really disappointed by missing the chance to visit Everest Base Camp, and only slightly disappointed to miss seeing the view of Everest from Kala Patthar. For me the journey is the goal, not the end of the journey. I didn’t want this one to end in a helicopter. The cause of my illness could be any of a number of things, and I may address that in a future post.

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Periche lies off in the distance at the end of this endless outwash plain.

Down I went, stumbling and bumbling my way down the rocky trail back towards Periche. I moved very slowly, and Bhakta was never more than a step or two away. I’m pretty sure that if I dropped dead, he would catch me before I hit the ground. Finally we reached the part of the trail that dropped down off the moraine, thus losing about 300 m of elevation. We paused at the small lodge at the bottom of the moraine for some hot chocolate, and I ate a half a bag of my homemade gorp. After that I felt considerable better, but still weak, as we marched down the long outwash valley between the moraine and mountains. We stopped for lunch at Periche,  and that further revived me. Our goal was the lodge-village of Pangboche (elevation 3930 m or about 13,000 ft). This would give me more than 3000 m of elevation relief. But the descent from Periche was exhausting. We arrived about 3 pm and I managed about a 30 min nap before dinner without any issues. Hopefully, I can get a good sleep tonight. I will continue my descent to the airport at Lukla in the hopes of catching an earlier flight to Kathmandu. I have no stomach for going back up any time soon.

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In spite of my condition, I couldn’t help admire the view of Ama Dablam.