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.
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.