Friday 27 December
At our teahouse in Dingboche I have a fabulous corner room which not only gets the sun most of the day (warming it up nicely) but also has fabulous views. On the downside, having two outside walls makes it a bit chilly, especially with the wind which has picked up tremendously.
Today we had a so-called acclimatisation walk (which is actually just a euphemism for “a b*gger of a tough walk”, but sounds more enticing). It took us approximately 5 hours to ascend nearly 800m, up to the summit of Nangkartshang at 5100m. I used the fact that we were going above 5000m for the first time as my incentive to keep pushing on, reminding myself how much of an achievement getting to that point would be, and how exciting.
I must admit, I hadn’t really bargained on how tough the climb would be today (fooled by the word “acclimatisation” no doubt), and it was made a lot worse by the dust and the howling winds. Most of the group stopped at the “halfway point”, which wasn’t anything like halfway up, but it was a convenient stopping place with great views, and the guides were using a bit of psychology here to make people feel they’d achieved something. They told us that going any higher wouldn’t make any difference to our acclimatisation, but of course, this was not really true. Luckily they all believed it, as I don’t think any of them would have made it any further (with no disrespect of course – walking at altitude is not just about fitness or determination, though that obviously helps. Sometimes altitude just gets the better of you for no good reason.)
The second “half” of the climb was much faster with only the super fit/healthy participating, and I struggled with low blood sugars most of the way up, with no real chance to stop and deal with it properly as there were few rests, and in any case, it was far too cold and windy to stop for long. Experience has taught me to keep emergency jelly babies in the hip belt pocket of my rucksack, where I have easy access to them on the move, and I munched on them as I walked, though it was still a pain to have to let go of my walking pole, remove my gloves and delve into the pocket every few minutes. Much to my disappointment, I was much slower than most of the others, and I had memories of my struggle on the ascent of Mt Toubkal, which was utter hell. Nevertheless, that helped in some way, as I had managed to reach the top, and I knew I could do the same here if I just kept going. The guide Yuba was brilliant (unlike the one on Toubkal) and walked a little way off, but clearly keeping an eye on me. It was actually terribly funny the way he kept popping up from behind a rock where he’d been taking a rest waiting for me!
I made it to the top within 3 1/2 hours and did feel I’d achieved something worthwhile, although disappointed with my fitness for the first time on the trip. It was incredibly steep, however, and I’m sure my blood sugars played a big part in my slowness on the first stretch. The others had been waiting for me at the top for the last half hour or so, and it wasn’t exactly warm, so I didn’t get to spend long there. Just enough time to take a picture and to eat the Snickers bar I’ve been saving all morning as my reward for reaching the top, and which had played no small part in spurring me onwards at the thought of getting to eat it (my first piece of chocolate all trip!).
The descent unfortunately caused my first and only criticism of the guides all trip, but in retrospect, it wasn’t entirely their fault. The rest of the group had all set off, and Yuba remained with me at the summit while I ate my chocolate and sorted myself out. When we set off, he powered down the hill ahead, leaving me entirely alone to navigate the steep, tricky and quite dangerous ascent in the howling wind. The problem was that I couldn’t see him or any of the others, and had issues finding the path, so I wasted a lot of time and energy going down obscure routes. I am quite sure he just didn’t realise I couldn’t see him, the waymarking cairns or the path, and no doubt he was actually keeping an eye on me. Nevertheless, this didn’t really help me at all, and I became quite upset by being abandoned! Later that evening, I explained the situation to Jangbu, because I didn’t want it to happen again, and felt myself getting quite emotional. I think that shocked him a little, but it might not have been a bad thing to show my strength of feeling. Jangbu didn’t say much, but promised to have a word with the other guides, and although I never heard any more about it, they were excellent for the rest of the trip, and would always make sure I wasn’t left alone.
All afternoon and evening, I felt very spaced out, which was no doubt due to the altitude. I also struggled with very high blood sugars in the 20s, which was a bit worrying. I’m still not entirely sure if heights above 4000m or so are causing high blood sugar or not, but I’m inclined to think they are (the jury is out on this generally, and of course everyone is different). The problem is that every time I’ve been above that height, I’ve also had other things going on – colds, stomach problems, or just general stress and exhaustion – so it’s hard to tell.
In the afternoon, Jangbu showed us the PAC bag (Portable Altitude Chamber) which is carried on all trips and is used to treat altitude sickness in an emergency. I was amazed that so few of our group were interested in this, as I thought it was fascinating. On serious expeditions (such as a full-on Everest summit) these are really crucial and often need to be used, but even at 5000m it could still save someone’s life (though Jangbu said they’d never used one on the Base Camp trip yet). I’d read about them and seen them on TV, but was still quite shocked to see and hear about what’s really involved. For a start, they’re incredibly claustrophobic – only just bigger than the person who’s inside, although they do fit in a sleeping bag, mattress and pee bottle. It’s basically like being in a bright red rubber coffin. I didn’t realise also that someone might be in there for up to 20 hours until help arrives (e.g. by helicopter), and that someone has to keep pumping air every five seconds, while another person needs to maintain constant eye contact with the patient in case of problems. There are much better descriptions already on the web than I could give about how to use one, but it sounds like the most terrifying thing ever to be encased in a bag for hours. And, being me, I couldn’t help worrying about how hard it would be to pee in the bag as a woman. You can’t come out, so they give you a pee bottle (and something to vomit in too, if necessary), but in that tight space it must be incredibly hard to use it. And if you pee over your sleeping bag, too bad, you’re stuck with it. I resolved to redouble my efforts to drink water, as I really didn’t want to ever end up in a PAC bag, even for an hour!