3 March 2018. How could a day that started so well go so wrong? There I was, fourteen days into my Nepal trekking adventure sitting in the snow on the side of a mountain freezing cold, struggling to breathe and coughing up pink mucous. A helicopter had flown over us twice but had been unable to find us. All I wanted to do was lie down and sleep.
Let’s backtrack a bit.
I had left my home in Perth, Western Australia for a ‘bucket list’ solo adventure in Nepal. Originally the idea was to do the popular Everest Bass Camp trek, but after seeing a presentation about Gokyo Lakes I decided to include them in my itinerary and do a circuit. A regular hiker, albeit at sea level up to 1000m elevation, and gym bunny at home I was sure my fitness would not be an issue.
Having had a couple of days in Kathmandu sightseeing at Pashupatinath and Boudhanath as well as exploring the streets of Thamel I had finally boarded a Tara Air flight to Lukla and started the trek with a small group. We were led by a wonderful trek leader K and guide P. Our assistant was M and porter H. I now refer to these 4 amazing men as the ‘Awesome Foursome’ and will explain that later. Our trek took us through places such as Ghat, Monjo, Namche Bazaar, Mong La, Portse Tenga, Dole, Machermo and to Gokyo. Our plan was to mostly sleep in tents and eat in tea houses, with the occasional stay in a tea house.
The first few days of trekking were fairly easy. Yes there were lots of hills, but ‘bistari bistari’ or slowly, slowly meant it was not difficult. P set a great pace for us to follow. Not too fast, not too slow. Suspension bridges over the Dudh Kosi (‘milk river’) were crossed by man, woman and yak. The trails were often narrow which meant we were single file and unable to talk to each other. I loved hearing the bells of approaching yaks loaded with supplies for villages up in the mountains. And when they passed us we made sure we were on the high side of the trail so we wouldn’t be bumped off. Often the guy leading the yaks seemed to be quite a young lad, perhaps providing income for his parents. But it’s hard to determine age of the Nepalis. I think they look young. K told me he was 27 but I thought he was younger. He laughed and said Nepali men looked young until they were 40 and then aged overnight! Interesting thought indeed.
My days on the trail were very enjoyable. I absolutely loved being up in the mountains. It was so quiet there, with only the occasional tourist group or herd of yaks making the trail busy in some places. Each afternoon I made a point of sitting with K and asking him about Nepal. We had chats on many subjects ranging from education, to village life, to healthcare, to caring for the elderly, to child health, to immunisation, to university, to religion, and had a great chat about the Yeti. K was a font of knowledge and I loved our chats. He confided that he was going back to school to finish his education and hopefully get into university. He had previously left school at 15 and worked for trekking companies, starting as a porter, cook, assistant, guide , and working up to trek leader. I know he will do well with whatever he sets his goals to. He always made sure the group was well, from trekkers right through to ‘the boys’ as he affectionately called the team. When I commented that he didn’t each much dinner with us, he confessed he had two dinners as he always went and ate with ‘the boys’ too.
The days passed quickly as we put some kilometers and elevation behind us. I am used to trekking up to 40km a day at home with a full back pack so one memorable day was on our way to Namche Bazaar when we only covered 6km in 4 hours, and I just had a day pack on. This shows the difference some altitude and terrain can make to your usual abilities.
The daily routine settled into an early wake up with a cup of tea, hot water to wash with, pack our bags and leave for porter, breakfast, trek, lunch, trek some more, arrive at destination, rest, afternoon tea, wash, dinner, wait for yak dung heater to be lit, sit around heater and chat or write in journal and then head off to the tent to sleep.
Whilst staying in Namche Bazaar a few days we walked up to Sagamartha National Park HQ. We explored the park, paid homage to Tenzing Norgay Sherpa at his statue, and looked in the museum. We then sat for a while admiring the mountains we could see – Everest (8848m), Ama Dablam (6856m), Taweche (6542m), Thamserku (6808m), Katenga (6685m), Nuptse (7856m), and Lhotse (8851m). I was totally in love with Ama Dablam and am trying to get brave enough to have a tattoo of it inked on my side.
After leaving Namche Bazaar we needed to go around the sacred mountain Khumbila (5761m). No one is allowed to climb here and it is rumored that is where the Yeti live. When I asked K if he believed about the Yeti, he asked what I thought about dinosaurs and suggested just because I had never seen one didn’t mean it did not exist! Touché K.
After a few more days trekking we finally arrived at The Gokyo Lakes area. Stunningly beautiful. It was so cold the normally blue water on the lakes was frozen over. Sometimes you would hear an eerie noise from the lake which was the water under the frozen top, moving around.
We planned on staying 2 nights in Gokyo so we could climb Gokyo Ri (5483m) on the first morning. I have just read in my journal where I have written “REST DAY IN GOKYO – WHATEVER!!!!!” I’m laughing to myself as I read my version of climbing Gokyo Ri and how difficult it was breathing. I think it was here that my issues with altitude really took hold because I was reduced to 10 steps at a time before stopping to catch my breath. I was pretty annoyed at my inability to go harder or faster, but it was out of my control. My body had spoken! We eventually made it to the top. The four of us met a Russian up there and possibly spoiled his solitude. I looked for a nice spot to sit down and sat for a while enjoying the mountains around me, trying to see where Nepal ended and Tibet started, admired the Gokyo lakes, was amazed by the receding Ngozumpa Glacier and looked down to the village of Gokyo to see where we had come from. It was breathtakingly beautiful up there. So quiet and close to heaven. The exhaustion disappeared and I just sat in contemplation of where I was and what it took to get there. Eventually it was time to go down.
Later that day K told us a story about a mythical creature who supposedly lived in the area. I am relying on what I wrote in my journal but it was an “ape like creature, smaller than a Yeti and described as a wizard”. Apparently he would take people from the forrest and give them sand and earthworms to eat and then that person had magical powers. I had forgotten about this story or myth so might actually try and find out more about it.
Day 13 saw us leave Namche and cross the Ngozumpa Glacier. This Glacier is amazing. It was hard to imagine the ‘moonscape’ was actually a Glacier. Under all the scree and debris is a glacier with tonnes of ice and frozen lakes. It groaned and grumbled underfoot as we crossed it. One wrong foot and you sent a cascade of rocks downwards and hoped you wouldn’t slip and follow. Then on other occasions we heard rocks falling above us and hoped they weren’t headed for us. P led us safely across the Glacier and up the other side. It’s apparently the largest Glacier in Nepal.
We stayed at a tea house in Thagnak and took the opportunity of the afternoon sunshine to wash some underwear and socks. However the weather soon changed and by 3pm it started to snow. Later that night I sat in front of the yak heater with 1 Canadian girl, 4 Dutch guys, 1 Polish girl and one other Aussie. I discreetly tried to dry my underwear, and then lay my socks over my booties near the fire in an attempt to dry them. I went to bed at about 8pm in anticipation of an early start and difficult day ahead. Difficult ?? Understatement of the year!
So this brings us to the 3rd of March 2018. I was awake at 5.00, dressed and packed and ready for breakfast at 5:30am. I had been taking Diamox since Lukla and had increased my dose from Namche Bazaar. I was not hungry that morning and had suffered from a headache all night. I had taken paracetamol and ibuprofen to no effect. I ate a boiled egg for breakfast and had a cup of tea. It was hard to eat with any effort, I just wasn’t hungry.
We set off at 6am with K & P. The others M & H had set off before us. As it had snowed overnight I had dressed warmly with thermals, warm pants, wet weather pants, long thick socks, long sleeve shirt, fleece top, light puffer jacket and outer Goretex jacket. I was like a Michelin Man. I also had microspikes in my day pack ready if needed. P led us up out of the valley over snow filled trails and rocks. I had no idea where the trail was in the snow but had faith in P. I really could follow him anywhere. Almost immediately I struggled with breathing and had to keep stopping. I fell back in the group and K stayed back with me. As I slowed even more, trudging through the snow, K suggested I put my microspikes on my boots. This did help a little bit. We pushed on through the rocks and snow for quite a few hours before the sun was up high enough to provide sunshine into the valley we were climbing out of. About an hour later my body started to shut down. My headache was immense. I was freezing cold despite all my layers and physical exertion and barely able to breathe. I looked up to see how much further we needed to climb, not far at all, took three steps forward and then involuntarily sat down. K decided we should stop for a break. It was now I started coughing uncontrollably and spat out pink frothy fluid. As it turns out this was a classic symptom of high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). Things had just gotten real. Straight away K & P went into ‘medic role’. I was wrapped in K’s sleeping bag and given a Ventolin puffer to help with the breathing. Then I was given oral steroids. All I wanted to do was lie down, stop coughing, curl up in a ball and sleep. Shortly the decision was made that I would be a medical evacuation due to the suspicion of HAPE. At this point we had no phone signal so P headed off back down the mountain to try and call the trekking company to arrange a chopper. K left me in the capable hands of another trekker, Tara, a nurse from Canada. She wrapped me up in an emergency blanket and kept trying to get fluids in to me. She tried to get me to eat some chocolate and knew I was in a bad way when I didn’t want any (she knew I was s chocoholic). Meanwhile K ran up the short distance to catch M & P to get my bag and bring it back. M & P came back with him. Once back he pulled my boots off my feet. That was so painful I cried and told him to leave them on. My socks were actually wet and making my feet freeze. So he swapped my socks and put my booties on. I was given my really thick puffer and re-wrapped in the sleeping bag and emergency blanket. So I was wearing (on my top half) a thermal top, long sleeve shirt, fleece jumper, light puffer jacket, Goretex jacket and thick puffer. And I was still freezing and unable to stop shaking and coughing. The snow in front of me was soon stained pink.
We eventually heard a chopper in the distance and as it got closer K waved but it flew straight over. We sat for a while longer and heard the chopper again flying back. K waved his arms but again the chopper flew over, going back to where it had initially come from. K was so angry. We waited longer and this is where my memory gets hazy. Apparently I kept passing out. Tara kept talking to me and holding me up. Eventually with no way of contact and no sign of the chopper K decided we had to head back down to Thagnak. It was getting late in the afternoon and if we left it much longer I would have to stay in the mountains overnight, which could be fatal with HAPE. Fast descent is required! So K, M and H decided they had to carry me down. I was absolutely mortified with this prospect and pleaded to walk down myself. Both Tara and K said this would make my symptoms worse and I had to be carried. M quickly rigged up a harness out of a back pack that had been emptied, bed roll, some rope and his namlo (head strap). My legs were fed through the straps and I was hoisted on to K’s back. I should mention that I am 178cm tall and whilst M was about the same height K & H were about 20cm shorter. So you can imagine how I looked on their backs with my legs dangling and dragging over the snow covered rocks. I must have looked like a gigantic praying mantis on their backs. They rotated through carrying me down. I remember being on H’s back looking down at the snow covered rocks, convinced he would stumble and we would face plant onto the rocks. All three boys were like mountain goats however and so sure footed in the snow. M ended up taking me most of the way as it was less awkward on him – I had to hold my legs up on K and H.
Finally we arrived back at Thagnak. M got me out of the makeshift harness and I turned around to give him a huge hug, a pitiful thank you for all he had done. I was determined to give my ‘tip money’ to Tara to share between the boys at the end of the trek. I gave her the money then pretty much collapsed in the dining room. I totally gave up and really didn’t care what happened from that point on. After about 30 min K said another chopper was on its way and we should wait outside. While waiting the coughing continued and I was given more steroids. The chopper eventually arrived and I was quickly loaded inside, strapped in and the chopper took off. I had no time to thank everyone for their help and could only blow them all a kiss as I left.
Although I can’t remember it I have video of me passing out in chopper and dropping phone into my lap.
The chopper took me to Lukla where I was actually offloaded. No one there spoke English so it was just hand signals directing me to get off. The chopper soon left and I had no idea what was happening. I sat on a step at the helicopter base and tried to focus. This was the only time I felt truly alone and vulnerable in Nepal. The duty of care shown by all trek staff was amazing. I decided I would have to walk in to Lukla and find a tea house. Just as I was thinking I would do that the helicopter returned and the guy at the base grabbed my bag and my pack and signaled me to go to the helicopter. My second helicopter ride for the day took me down through the mountain valleys to Kathmandu. Once there I was met by a trek crew rep and ambulance which took me to CIWEC Hospital. On admission extensive tests were done and I was then admitted to the ward. Treatment was warm fluids, IV antibiotics and steroids. At some stage I had been changed into hospital pajamas but don’t recall that. The only vivid memory I have is waiting in emergency and looking at the clock, which read 6:35pm. What a long day! Official diagnosis was AMS, HAPE and hyperthermia.
During and night I woke up every time they put more fluids and steroids up. Early in the morning I got to the bathroom just in time to vomit. Then I developed an upset tummy too. Eventually the next day I managed to get up out of bed, shower, change and ask to be discharged. From there the trekking company rep picked me up and took me back to my hotel. I got to my room and fell into bed and fell asleep for 12 hours. The next day he took me to the airline office to rebook my flights home for that evening.
Back at the hotel I packed my bag and settled my account. The trekking company rep met me before I left and wrapped a khada (silk scarf) around my neck as a blessing for safe travels home. This small gesture brought me to tears as it reflected the care and compassion that had been given to me over the last few days. This scarf is now a special momento of my trip.
Once back in Perth I reflected about the selflessness of the amazing boys on the trek. They really were an ‘Awesome Foursome’ and I always call them that now when describing them and what they did for me. I ended up sending an additional tip to K to share with the rest of the ‘Awesome Foursome’ but no amount of money could ever repay what they did. I totally feel that I left a part of my soul up there in the mountains. K, P, M and H will remain in my heart forever. It is one of my biggest hopes to get back to Nepal this year, find them all, thank them properly and celebrate their awesomeness.
And on a final note – thank goodness for travel insurance for covering nearly $9000 of bills. I did have to fight for it but they eventually paid me back.