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.

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….