everest feature

Getting to base camp

May 29, 2013
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I was totally stumped. I had gone back and forth between my front and back closet a couple times without luck. Where the hell was my ski coat? I was scheduled to go skiing within the hour and my coat was a no-show. I walked back toward the front closet and stopped in my tracks. I laughed. First, at how stupid I was for purposely leaving a $200 ski coat on the base of a mountainside in Nepal. Next, at how funny it seemed in my memory. At the time, it was anything but funny. It was anguish. I called up my brother-in-law and told him I’d need to borrow a coat.

Mine was gone, and it wasn’t coming back.

I’ve had plenty of stupid act-now-think-later moments in my life, but this was a little different. I loved that coat. The beautiful Gortex ski coat that had kept me alive through 20 below winter campouts now sat on the side of a mountain near Mt. Everest and I sure as hell would never see it again.

“Ahhh! Toe-bluh-run, brilliant stuff!”

It all started with the Toblerone. The square-shouldered redbeard had a giant hand clenched around a bunch of Toblerone chocolate bars. He was from somewhere in the British Isles from what I could tell.  In the weeks to come, while sharing rooms in bug-infested wooden shacks high up in the Himalayas, and in the weeks after, I’d learn almost all of the tiniest details in the guy’s life–from the romantic nights he had spent with his girlfriend in Shanghai (proven by a beautiful picture of them slow dancing naked) to his dreams of moving back to Europe to teach English–and that he was indeed from Swansea, Wales.  

The redbeard, whose name was Will, towered over the shelves of the convenience store like Hagrid stomping in a castle. The candy aisle of the cottage-like shop was tucked into one of the highest valleys on earth–Namche Bazaar, Nepal, which happens to be the very last village where one can refuel and resupply whatever a mountaineer might need when preparing to face the harsh Himalayan fury that lay ahead. The ‘bazaar’ part of the Namche name led me to imagine a fast paced, flea market type of village with goats pissing all over cobblestone paths and women trying to hawk knitted objects for a small price. In reality, the last civilized stop before the trail to base camp was nothing like I expected.

The pace of life is beautifully slow in Namche and the favorite pastime for most of those passing through is sipping on ginger and lemon tea and reading any paperback one can get their hands on. We bundle up, waiting for our bodies to somehow make the thin air seem not so thin. The process usually takes a day or two–lay around, order tea, look for a new book, order more tea, repeat. All the while, the view of the bowl-shaped village from above the clouds was, as Will would call it, “breel-yint.”        

“Yer goin to basecamp I take it?” Will asked inhaling each word.

“Yessir, I am. Are you?” I eagerly asked, trying not to appear too desperate, but it was hard. The solo climb that I had taken during the few days leading up to Namche was unwise at best. A broken ankle, a fall of a cliff, a charging mountain ram (they often walked those footpaths) would surely be a mess for a solo hiker in the Himalayas. I shifted some of my attention away from the cookie selection to give my full interest to the red rugby player.

Will told me about how he had been working his way along the trails with a few other British folks he had met back in Kathmandu and asked me if I’d like to join them when they left the next morning. “That there’s the path up, I hear,” he pointed out the window to a point at the top of the village. There was no visible path tucked behind the fast moving clouds in front of the 13,000 foot mountain he pointed at, but it was there. It was implied. And the reality of it was that it rose to places that are nearly impossible to write about, where words can’t do justice , higher and higher, because it rose to the literal top of the world.

The struggle

Once the details for the next morning’s departure were ironed out, (I had a team!) I spit out what had been bothering me. “Do you have travel insurance?” I asked. It had been on my mind for a while now. It would’ve been impossible for it not to have been. I had been advised by every travel book and Sherpa I came across to purchase it. Yet again, in typical fashion, the $200 price tag made it seem like a nice-to-do, not a need-to-do. To stay consistent, I decided I would skip the insurance, use the money to upgrade some gear, and take it nice and slow, making sure my body was adapting along the way. Without the insurance, if something went wrong–a broken ankle, leg, or worse, something like edema or one of the brain ailments that shows up in a high altitude climbers from time to time–a rescue helicopter ride down from the mountain would cost $5,000 paid in cash. Money I didn’t have.

“Insurance? Neehhh,” Will brushed it off.

“Alright,” I thought aloud. “So at least we’re on the same page.”

It became immediately clear that the nice and slow, move-at-my-own pace strategy would be thrown out the window when the six of us reached the path at the top of the hill overlooking Namche the next morning. The pace, led by Will and another rugby player from Ireland, was already much faster than I had gone in the week hike that led me there. They’ll stall out, fade back, I thought. Until then I need to hang with them.

Five hours later, they still weren’t fading. I thought I was in shape. I tried to draw strength from the memories of the track workouts I had sweat through earlier in the summer, but it did me no good. My body wasn’t adapting to the thinner air, and I wasn’t playing by the rules that demanded I wait for it to adapt. Consistently I was at the back of the pack, stopping, taking my time and extra breaths to ensure success over the long haul. The only thing that could heal the shortness of breath, however, was time. Time that I wasn’t taking.

The Strain

Over the next six days, things remained consistent between Namche and Pengboche, Pengboche and Dengboche, Denbboche and Pheriche and Pheriche and Lobuche. Will always led, I always trailed. In every 10-hut “town” leading to Everest, the air continued to be thin while the food and beverage re-supply remained the same: Six lemon teas and six Snickers bars for the six of us. At the end of the day we would huddle around a dung-burning furnace in the middle of a hut, exhaustedly looking over the menu at the guest house–the way a seven-year-old looks at a passing Toys R Us from the backseat. And we’d talk. When the time came, we’d open up our sleeping bags, unroll them onto the twin beds in the dark rooms, and talk some more. We’d talk the intimate talk that only exists when TV and smart phones are absent.

Around the time of Pheriche, a tiny village three stops from base camp, the warning signs of altitude sickness began to rattle me a little more. Knowing that calling a rescue helicopter was not an option under any circumstance made my head spin even more. I had to be careful. There was no room for error.

It became harder to sleep. And then it became impossible. At different times throughout the night my eyes would open in the darkness, hoping I had slept until morning only to find that I’d only nodded off for 15 or 20 minutes, waking up panting. My breathing remained very labored and a steady, dull headache was becoming firmer and more acute every day. It was my body’s way of screaming “get me down from here!”

Two days later, my body would get its wish.

Until then, the marching continued. For six-to-seven hours each day, my panting lungs screamed for air. Some things diminished during those days. My appetite. Sleep. Breath. Some things intensified. The headaches. The clouds that we marched through.  Most of all, a throbbing pain in my lower back.

By the time we made Lobuche, a small village two thirds of the way to base camp, the pain in my back went from dull to pounding, then from pounding to debilitating. It felt eerily similar the pneumonia I had had two years prior. Pneumonia is a building of fluid in the lungs that is virtually identical to the altitude-induced edema that hikers in the Kumbu region of the Himalaya are constantly warned about. I  explained the pain that was keeping me up throughout the night to the locals and they unanimously agreed it was edema.

The pain in my back became unbearable. Getting to Lobuche required a windswept walk over makeshift bridges across mountain rapids ,and meandering through a boulder-covered cemetery. They stacked boulders one atop the other marking resting places for the scores of climbers that never came back down from the mountain. I stopped for a minute and stood at the foot of a set of large, stacked rocks that made a grave for the famous guide Scott Fischer, one of 13 climbers who did not survive the tragedy described in Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air.” Along the way it became difficult to move. The path ramped up a higher grade, the air grew thinner, and the pack on my back felt heavier and heavier. Meanwhile my back went from a slight worry to a full-blown fire alarm. I was making a mistake.

The Call

That night in the seven-hut village of Lobuche, after the usual settling in around a dung-burning furnace, things got a little more intense. While the others took part in comfortable chatter, my thoughts wandered back to the pain in my back–it was constant and increasing with every passing hour. I asked the owner of the lodge what he thought. Surprise–he told me that it could be edema, but that he couldn’t say for sure.

The word edema repeatedly coming out of someone else’s mouth didn’t settle well. I was pissed off at how stupid and undisciplined I was and guiltily thought back to the Skype conversation I had with my friend Tony, who had fallen ill with edema only three days into his trip. He told me the pain was paralyzing. He gave in to his pride and turned around at precisely the right moment. He stopped in a hut with seasonal Japanese doctors who told him that if he hadn’t turned around that he’d be dead–another fallen climber memorialized at the 17,000 foot graveyard in  Lobuche.

Unfortunately for me, since it was the monsoon season in Nepal, very few people were climbing–only two others that month to be precise–the famous Japanese medical hut in Pheriche was closed until October. Unable to find sleep that night, I tossed around, panting sleeplessly with my back screaming, confirming that I had to make a decision. If I did have edema, then I would either turn back now or face the $5,000 fee that it would take to get a rescue from an emergency helicopter. It would mean placing an around the world collect call to my parents to properly scare the hell out of them.

Me: Hey mom, how’s dad? That’s great. I need five grand for an emergency helicopter ride through the Himalayas.

Mom: Oh my god, what’s the matter, Chris? Are you in jail? Are you in the hospital?

Me: Well not in the hospital yet, but I’ll be there soon. As a matter of fact, I’ll be on my way, as soon as you authorize said $5,000 payment to Air Nepal for a helicopter ride to get me there. You see, my lungs are filling with fluid and there are no roads in this part of the country, that is, no roads through the Himalayan Mountains. So, with one easy payment you can save my life and get me to Kathmandu as long as the cloud cover is sparse enough for the chopper to get in and out quickly, which it hasn’t been in almost two weeks.

Call me over-sensitive, but it seemed like a real bastard move. I laid aching in bed for the next five hours. I never found sleep at any point that night. Around 4:00 am, the pain got bad enough to where I knew I had no choice but to turn back. Any possibility of dying on my way to Mt. Everest’s base camp wouldn’t be just silly, it would be stupid.

The Turn

Being faced with decisions that have implications for my pride has never been easy for me. I had grown close to the five others I’d spent the last week with and didn’t want to be the one who turned back early. Lines get blurred in these pressure situations and turning back felt like quitting. It tore at every part of my character to even think about it. But, when my alarm went off at 7:00am, that’s exactly what I did.

I woke Will first, telling him I’d be turning around, going back. I quickly rolled up my sleeping bag, threw everything else in my pack before walking down the hall and knocking on the doors of the others and saying a quick goodbye. I could see the look in their eyes. They knew I must be serious but that I was a little crazy for descending on my own. They all made the offer to accompany me, which meant a lot, but it would be too selfish to ask that of them. I skipped the breakfast and headed down, feeling part relief, part fear, and part sense of urgency.

So this was how the two week voyage would end. Two hours into my descent, I was so sad for having fallen short that I shed a few tears. I had looked forward to standing in the same spot that some of the climbers that I had read about and admired camped out on before they attacked the last and clearly most dangerous third of the mountain. I had seen iconic pictures of President Jimmy Carter at base camp and Robert Redford on his way. And here I was, falling short because I had been undisciplined and ignored the only piece of advice I had repeatedly received: don’t go up too fast.

Somewhere along the way, in order to move more quickly down the mountains, I tossed my blue coat to the side of the trail. I remember struggling with the decision for a minute, thinking how great the coat was, but how weighed down I was by all the gear I was carrying. Finally, I gave it a heave to the side, thinking that hopefully a few days down the road a hard working Sherpa would find it and put it to good use.

I hobbled down the mountain for six, eight, 10 hours. At one point I came across a stout-looking teenage boy and offered to pay him 10 dollars to carry my bag and give my screaming back some relief. He jumped on the offer, making a healthy weekly amount for a few hours of work. When we finally got all the way back down to Namche, I parted ways with the youngster at a one room medical center, paid up, and thanked him.

It was at the medical center that I came to find out that it wasn’t a serious case of edema that I had, but two pulled back muscles mixed with a heavy dose of back spasms and what appeared to be a light lining of fluid in my lungs. The back spasms were something I’d never experienced before, but were brought on from the heavy bag and intense climbing. It broke my heart to know I could’ve continued, but I’ve since come to rationalize that, under the circumstances, stopping short was the only call to make. I took the muscle relaxers from the doctor, found a room, bought a few beers, and planned my departure hike down to the village of Lukla the next morning where I would catch a flight back to Kathmandu.

The next evening, as my tiny plane, dwarfed by the Himalayas, cleared the mountains and turned back toward Kathmandu I sat still and thought about the most fulfilling, happy, and beautiful failure of my life.

  • Dexter’s Library

    “Two hours into my descent, I was so sad for having fallen short that I shed a few tears.”

    I think my failures climbing are some of my best memories. I “climbed” Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Fuji, and had an attempt on Mt. Elbrus. And the trek to EBC was one of my favorites. Simply majestic and though I got sick as a dog from some bad eggs, it will remain one of my favorite hiking stories. When I turned back on Elbrus it was as if I had let everyone I ever knew down. Taken me years to forgive myself. Anyway, fantastic read and thanks for sharing your experience.