Everest Base Camp Part 8: altitude sickness, magic berries and death

Sunday 29 December (contd.)

On the way back from Everest Base Camp to Gorak Shep, I think we all felt pretty tired, and my blood sugars were running a little low, so I didn’t really think too much about the effect of altitude. I’d been feeling a little spaced out most of the previous 24 hours or so, but nothing too worrying. I stopped on the way back briefly to eat some jelly babies for a low blood sugar while we were on the ridge, where I thought it safer to stop and recover. Jonathan waited for me to make sure I was OK, and soon Chong arrived and magically produced a Snickers bar from his rucksack (I had plenty of supplies of my own, but it was very gratefully accepted, nevertheless!). Once I’d recovered, we set off, and Jangbu insisted on carrying my rucksack for a while, although I was absolutely fine and quite capable of carrying it myself. After a bit of arguing, I managed to wrestle it back from him at the next rest stop. I think he only agreed because I argued that it had my hydration pack on it and I wanted to be able to drink as I was walking.

That evening we were all pretty shattered, but as we huddled round the usual yak dung-fuelled stove after dinner, I suddenly felt terribly faint and everything started to go black. The guides took me outside, thinking I needed fresh air, but that really didn’t help. I spent the next couple of hours experiencing waves of drifting in and out of semi-consciousness, though I was always still able to speak and move, though I couldn’t think very clearly. Obviously this caused much concern, and a number of theories were put forward. I knew my blood sugar was fine, but we checked it anyway. The guides were insistent that it was simply because I was too hot sitting by the fire, which was absolute rubbish (I’d been cold most of the evening!). My blood oxygen levels were checked multiple times on the little portable machine, but were absolutely fine. I didn’t know this till later, but Jonathan and one of the guides were despatched in the dark to summon a medical student whom we’d befriended on the trip over the last few days, who was staying at a different lodge. By complete chance, we’d bumped into him that day, and he’d told us where he was staying, but we only knew his first name! Luckily they managed to ascertain from the lodge owner which room he was in, and got him out of bed to come across to our lodge and take a look at me. His friend also appeared a little later and lent a hand, and although of course neither of them were qualified, they were the nearest things to doctors we had. I wish I’d managed to get some contact details for them, because they were both absolutely amazing and took full charge of the situation, and spent several hours sitting with me to make sure I was OK. I bumped into them the following day during our walk, but still never managed to get their details. They decided that the most likely scenario was mild altitude sickness and a bit of dehydration, and possibly the beginning of HACE (cerebral oedema) which was making me feel disoriented and dizzy, although I could still – just about – recognise people and answer questions, so I was given a Diamox tablet to be on the safe side. Since we were going to descend 1000m the next day, I wasn’t in any immediate danger. There then followed a comedy argument about what to do overnight. Since by now I had a room on my own, and neither of the other two single girls wanted to share with me as they both had single rooms too, Jangbu insisted that he would sleep in my room in case I deteriorated in the night. However, I pointed out that there was only one bed, and not enough room to swing a cat. Jangbu insisted he could sleep on the floor next to my bed, but I’d have literally had to stand on his head to get out of bed, so I declined the offer and insisted I’d be fine. Given the thinness of the walls I pointed out that all I had to do was shout if I needed anything, and everyone would hear me! Normally, I’d have been happy for him to stay in my room as I was a little nervous about what might happen in the night if I felt worse, but I’d have felt so claustrophobic with him there that I wouldn’t have been able to sleep! So Jangbu and Chong escorted me to bed and even tucked me in with a blanket, which was rather touching!

I passed a fairly awful night, feeling atrocious with a banging headache, dizziness and of course needing to get up to go to the loo about 6 times after the gallons of water they’d made me drink that night plus the added diuretic effects of the Diamox. In the morning, I could barely move, and it took every ounce of willpower and energy just to get out of bed and pack up my bags, especially in the usual sub-zero temperatures. Chong saw me struggling and insisted on packing up my sleeping bag and remaining bits and pieces into my kitbag, which was much appreciated. Almost everyone else in the group was also feeling pretty tired and suffering altitude effects of headaches and so on, so the atmosphere was pretty grim at breakfast, and barely a word was spoken. I wasn’t convinced I could even walk at all that day, even though it was all downhill, but after forcing down a few mouthfuls of muesli (the first and only time I struggled to eat breakfast!) and two cups of coffee, I felt much better, and within half an hour of setting off, I felt right as rain again. Amazing how quickly altitude-related effects come and go.  Once I started feeling better, I felt terribly embarrassed at all the fuss of the night before, although of course it was hardly my fault that I’d felt so ill. It was very reassuring to see everyone’s concern, and I felt very indebted to the guides and the two medical students who’d looked after me so well. I know it’s only their job, but they clearly showed real concern that went beyond the issue of not wanting to fill in the paperwork if I’d died on them, let alone have me transported back or airlifted out. Then again, having seen how the PAC bag worked, I imagine they were probably also very glad they didn’t have to use it on me!

The walk back down to Pheriche was a fairly sombre one, and although I’d recovered from the effects of altitude almost as soon as we set off, there was a very different atmosphere amongst the group. Nothing to aim at now, although there was much debate about the weather conditions in Lukla and whether we’d have to spend extra days there before we could fly out (fairly normal at this time of year). The group was already split, as 4 people had gone on an early morning ascent of Kala Pattar with two of the guides (I’d been intending to go, but of course had had to give that a miss, to my bitter disappointment), and there was no real hurry, so we began to disperse over the terrain. No one was really in chatty mood, so I continued questioning Chong about life in Nepal. We were descending by the same route we’d come up the previous day, but at least today we had more time to admire the view, and it felt quite desolate at times.

DSCN6063

DSCN6068

As we arrived in Pheriche, our destination for that night, we passed by the intriguing “Broken Whole” memorial. Commissioned by The Everest Memorial Trust to both celebrate the extraordinary human drive that motivates people to go beyond the boundaries of their everyday lives, and the tragic consequences of the risks inherent in this ambition, it’s not only a sunning piece of art but a sombre reminder of the fragility of human life. Given my life philosophy of constantly pushing the boundaries just a little bit out of my comfort zone, it struck a chord as I read the names of those who have died on Everest, inscribed in the middle, and thought about what possesses people to drive themselves to the point of a totally unnecessary death. Of course, in somce cases it’s just jolly bad luck that an accident has happened on the mountain, although naturally the risks are high, but in many cases, people have died solely because they refused to give up on their ambition, despite a number of contraindications that normally would prevent any sane person from continuing. Of course, altitude does funny things to your brain and your mindset, so that judgement becomes impaired very easily. But these mountaineers have the mind of a steel trap: if they set themselves to do something, they’re going to achieve it or die trying. And many of them do. For some reason, this memorial touched me far more than the many others we saw along the route, mostly built of rocks and prayer flags. Perhaps it was the sun glinting on the polished steel; perhaps it was the “broken whole” imagery, or perhaps it was just the result of all the recent mental and physical stress.

"Broken Whole" memorial

“Broken Whole” memorial

Our accommodation that night was freezing, though we were pretty used to this by now, and at least the dining room was fairly warm and cosy. Once again, I had a fantastic mountain view from my room, although I was a little nervous about the fact that my window opened directly onto the pen where the yaks were contained. I had visions of being woken up in the night by an inquisitive yak tapping on my window (which was right above the head of my bed) and getting the fright of my life. Luckily, I either slept through it if they did, or the yaks were also too tired to come investigating their neighbours.

View from my room in Pheriche

View from my room in Pheriche

That evening, in the spirit of adventure, I tried the local buckthorn tea, which was very similar to hot mango juice, and absolutely delicious. One thing I really missed on the trip was the ability to google things I was interested in: the guides were not always very forthcoming about such things, partly because of their limited English in some cases, but also because of course you can’t expect them to be an expert on every single thing about their country! They certainly didn’t tell me about the incredible healing powers it appears to have: from curing arthritis, asthma, measles (to name but a few) through to slowing the ageing process and improving sight. It has 15 times the Vitamin C found in oranges, and is also rich in carotenoids, Vitamin E, amino acids, and minerals. If I’d known all that, I’d have drunk a lot more! Apparently until recently, it was only used by the local Khumbu inhabitants as bird food, but they’re gradually cottoning on to not only its healing powers, but its popularity with tourists. The most important thing for me, however, was how good it tasted!

local sea buckthorn berries

After dinner, the teahouse owner asked if we’d like to watch a DVD. A few of the teahouses had had small televisions (mainly tuned to Nepali news or sport), but this was the first time we’d seen such modern equipment as a DVD player. We eagerly agreed, and he put on the film “Into Thin Air” which by a twist of fate, I was right in the middle of reading on my Kindle. It was also rather surreal, having just returned from the Base Camp! Unfortunately, whjle the book was fascinating and very well-written, the film really wasn’t. For a torturous 2 hours, we sat through the excruciatingly over-dramatised and over-sensational account of the real-life 1996 Everest tragedy. The film was clearly produced for the mass market, and focused on the romance and disaster/survival aspects rather than the technical mountaineering experience or even the crucially important moral dilemmas, missing out huge chunks of the book. I had several lengthy and heated arguments in the following few days with other members of our group, some of whom enjoyed it far more and couldn’t understand why I thought it was overemotional. But horses for courses – I prefer the gritty nature of human dilemma and hardcore blood, sweat and tears to schmaltzy romanticism and emotionality. It’s interesting to compare the different accounts of the story as told by Jon Krakauer and Anatoli Boukreev respectively. But none of this was explored at all, which is a great shame. However, at least the fact that the film was so awful meant that it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the rest of the book afterwards.

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