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I followed the two men down one of several makeshift aisles. Where they were leading me to, I didn’t know. Just then, I turned and looked to my left. Sitting neatly at eye-level was a black bag with a lime-green tag. Not just any lime-green tag, MY lime-green tag. I found my bag! It was just one of our bags, however, where the other one was was still a mystery. I was assured that the other one was forthcoming. At any rate, I had a bag. I grabbed it, signed a paper, and made a B-line to the domestic terminal.
A Very Rocky Flight Indeed
I met up with my wife and our guide, Lobsang, where we were quickly ushered to a small propeller plane being loaded up with beer.
We took off from Kathmandu (Elevation: 4,600ft.) and soon we were turbulently flying through clouds on our way to one of the world’s most dangerous airports – the Tenzing-Hillary airport in Lukla, Nepal (Elevation: 9,383ft.). Outside our window the Himalayas shot upward to the sky. We were seemingly flying parallel to the peaks now. The mountain range looked like a giant, magical swath of icy-adventure-land in the sky. For a moment it looked as if we were gazing out at a glacial valley filled with Yetis and other mythical creatures. I got lost in this dreamland, which helped take my mind off the apparent fact that the captain was now purposely flying through any cloud he could find in order to violently shake our modest flying machine.
We landed at the airport and soon realized what an amazing feat it is to take off and land an airplane on the sole sloping runway of this famous Nepalese airport. At the higher end of the runway stood a chainlink fence – which was all that stood in the way of an airplane running into the side of the mountain. An airplane in need of repair was parked off of the runway next to an abandoned building, itself having hit that chainlink fence a month before after miscalculating the speed of its landing. At the other, lower end of the short runway was nothing but a shear drop-off of a few thousand feet.
Since we only recovered one suitcase, mine, we considered outfitting my wife with some gear. But being three days behind already, my wife forewent comfort and we immediately hit the trail. Her baggy attire made it seem like I was accompanying an young, possibly troubled hoodlum up the mountain.
Ok, Let’s Try to Get up this Mountain as Soon as Humanly Possible
Now, my wife and I are, admittedly, competitive hikers. We always take pride on rarely, if ever, being passed on trails. And since our time to reach basecamp was limited, it was even more incentive to reach our first checkpoint as quickly as possible. So we took off, with our heavy gear being carried by a porter and our guide at our side. Long bridges suspended over deep valleys. The trail kept going up, only to immediately descend the same amount of elevation we just gained. Arduous, but completely doable. We had hiked at elevation before, so the trail seemed simple to us. We stopped for lunch in Phakding (Elevation: 8,563ft.), what would typically be the first night’s resting point, hours before it was planned.
Mistake #3: Not Acclimatizing at our First Stop
Instead of spending the night and acclimatizing in Phakding however, we forged on to Namche Bazaar (Elevation: 11,290 ft.). By the end of the day, we had reached the quaint-looking village of Namche. There was no real flat ground in Namche. From the town’s entrance all steps led upward. Each level containing a new row of buildings. I felt a touch of a headache in the back of my head. My wife and I toured the town – collecting souvenirs, taking photos.
The plan was to take an additional day in Namche to acclimatize. But we were still days behind our schedule. Lopsang agreed to allow us to skip the rest and acclimatization day that was planned. He allowed the decision to be ours. After a soup-based meal and plenty of two-person card games, we went to bed. It was a cold night’s sleep – insulation is just not the same here – and proved fairly restless. Plus my headache never left me that night. Great pain swelled up in the back of my head like toxic fluid sitting just below the epidermis of my scalp. Upon awaking, my headache even seemed slightly worse than when I went to sleep. After a soup-based breakfast, we departed Namche.
Mistake #4: Not Acclimatizing at our Second Stop
On what should have been day five of our trip, we started our second day with an early sprint up the mountain to Phortse (Elevation: 12,632ft.). There was nice flat ground to begin the day – a path with hugged the mountain on one side, while showcasing a shear drop-off on the other side. The headache continued, but I figured that after five hours of hiking I would be able to rest and acclimatize at our next stop.
We raced past workers carrying heavy loads on their backs. The trail went up, the trail went down. I noticed we were a bit slower than day one, but we kept on going after breaking shortly for lunch. My headache intensified, but Lobsang told us we were only an hour away. However, the toughest part of the hike was upon us. Stairs and switchbacks led up the mountain. We passed a father and son on the trail who looked out of breathe and exhausted. My heart began to race just after we greeted and passed our fellow hikers. I could feel a tightening in my head. The terrain was grey – like it was burnt and neglected. I struggled to catch my breath. The clouds rolled in around us. The wind whipping at prayer flags.
“Fip. Fip. Fip. Fip. Fip.”
The sound rattled in my head like machine gun fire.
“Fip. Fip. Fip. Fip. Fip.”
I chugged on with a slowed pace.
“Are you okay?”, asked my wife.
I told her I felt like my heart was beating outside of my chest. So we stopped for a brief moment.
“I just want to get there and lie down,” I said.
And that was the Time I Really Started to Feel Bad…
I stared at the task in front of me. It was a simple, yet steep, path winding up to a hellish-looking archway. Because my heart would not stop racing, and because my head would not stop throbbing, I actually pondered my demise. When such thoughts get in your head, it only increases your blood pressure and anxiety. This was not what I needed at this point, so I took a deep breath and starting walking. I kept walking and walking and walking, but couldn’t figure out what was most troubling – my headache, my lack of breath, or my heart beating frantically (tachycardia). The most serious at the moment, I felt, was my heart.
As a runner and former pseudo-athlete, I understand the feeling of being in an anaerobic state. I also understand when my body is maxed out. But I have never had the feeling of being maxed out when at rest for an extended period. It took all I had to slowly move up the mountain, every step escalating my heart rate slightly. It was uncharted territory for my endurance. The entire back half of my skull ached. My wife looked concerned. It was a simple climb ahead of us, I kept thinking. Yet I couldn’t help but think that I was going to have a heart attack – dying on the mountain in my early 30’s. On the second day of our hike, no less.
When we reached a plateau I felt relieved. I could see our resting point was just ahead. Inside of an uninsulated building we sat by a fireplace in the middle of a circular room. I could only stomach a coca cola, which would soon become a running theme. Lobsang looked concerned.
“Why don’t you eat?,” he said. “You need to drink warm liquids,” he continued.
I assured him I would be fine and asked my wife if she could grab me another coke and if we could move to the room.
“How does your head feel?,” my wife asked. “Awful. Everything just feels awful. I’m tired but I know I can’t sleep,” I replied.
My heart rate had slowed, but not by much. I sat down. Then lied down. My headache shifted to whatever side of my head was on the pillow.
“I don’t want to die up here,” I joked. My headache only seemed to intensify.
“I think I need something, anything,” I told my wife. “I’ll go get you medicine,” she said.
Being alone in the room, I looked around. Our quaint room was like a prison cell to me. Grey and sparsely decorated. Cold and cramped. My wife and Lobsang returned together. I was given high-altitude sickness medicine (Diamox) and told that it would soon alleviate my symptoms. I sat up and felt placebic relief for the first time in hours.
My wife and I moved back into the communal room, ate dinner, played cards, drank coke. Then, suddenly, and for no apparent reason, nausea gripped me and my energy level dipped significantly. We moved our card game to the room and I tried to come to grips with the task that lied ahead of me.
The Morning After (Pills)
Morning came after little sleep. My wife and I both put my dirty clothes on – she was doing so well, despite not having any of her own attire. We decided to take a walk around to test out my stamina. “I’m not good,” I said. I had to keep sitting down. I wanted to vomit. I had little to no energy. “I don’t think today’s going to work,” I said. She agreed.
Having a day to acclimatize, I was, once again, hopeful. We’d hiked for long distances at elevation before – for example, the Salkantay trail to Machu Picchu (Elevation: 15,200ft. at its highest point). But I was in the midst of the most humbling physical experience of my life. My day off was short. Short and miserable.
The Morning, After, After (Pills)
After yet another poor night’s sleep, we changed into dirty clothes in a dark, cold room. My head felt fractionally better and my heart rate was at a level where I didn’t fear sudden death. We started on the trail to Dingbouche (Elevation: 14,436ft.). I moved like an elderly paraplegic dragging himself up a set of stairs by his teeth. Slow and methodical.
My emasculating experience wasn’t impressive to my wife, who kept (impatiently, at this point) beckoning me ahead. Each uphill step was a massive undertaking; Each level step was difficult; Yet each downhill step a breeze. I would go from being overwhelmed and in despair, to hopeful, to confident, to being all but assured of death in a ten minute span. I was trapped in my head.
“No one could help me except me,” I thought.
The problem was, my thoughts weren’t very positive. It was an internal struggle – impossible to comprehend from the outside. To the naked eye I merely looked tired, but inside I felt like my body was completely shutting down.
We reached a stopping point, Pangboche (Elevation: 13,074ft.). Day four halfway over. Lobsang left My wife and I seated at a table while he went to talk to a local. The local came out and looked me over. He grabbed my hand and pressed down on my fingernails. He watched my chest rise and fall. He listened to me breathe. He shook his head and went back with Lobsang into a room. A few minutes later, Lobsang came back – crestfallen.
“I am sorry,” he said, “We must go back.” “Why?,” I shot back. “I can do this.”
“You are not well. We should get a donkey to take you back. Or, maybe a helicopter. You cannot walk out,” he responded. “He said, you are very sick.” Lobsang pointed at the local man. I looked at my wife. “There’s no way I’m getting on a donkey,” I said. My wife and I sat silently.
I am a Failure at Life
It was failure. Total, abject failure. And it was all my fault. I pushed myself and now I had nothing to show for it. I wanted to feel better, immediately. But I also wanted to finish what we just recently started. I was not well. I couldn’t catch my breath at all at this point. And with each progressive breath out, I felt like I could breath less and less back in. At this point I had dyspnea – difficulty breathing at rest.
“Ok, then,” I whispered to my wife, “Let’s turn back.”
We faced the direction of Tengbouche (Elevation: 12,796ft.). Relief fell over my body. I was embarrassed, but confident now that I’d be safe. We were a few hours from a extended resting point.
No so Fast there Cowboy
A big problem, however, with hiking in the Himalayas is that the path is not one that merely goes straight up to the top, and then straight down to the bottom. No. This path constantly goes up and down, up and down, up and down. Just when you think you’ve made progress in elevation, you immediately drop down to a lower point than where your most recent ascent began. This, well, was not very good for my descent back to our starting point.
When you get up from a seated break and have trouble standing without losing your breath and becoming lightheaded, it does not bode well for the rest of the day. Four additional hours of strenuous hiking at elevation when you’re sick is not what you want to do. But when you are sick at high elevation, the cure is typically to quickly move to lower elevation.
So even though I wanted to rest back in Pangboche, rest at that elevation was not going to make me feel much better. I put on my headphones and followed the feet that stepped in front of me. I made my world macro and became lost in it. My iPod nano shuffling through 100 or so songs. Five minutes of extreme cardio (one or two songs) and then I would rest. Five more minutes of heart-racing physical output. Then rest. I could not remember a longer day in my life.
When we reached Tengbouche, I could not walk the steps up to our room. I sat down in the communal room and Lobsang grabbed my hand, pinching my fingernail.
“Edema,” he said. “Edema? Pulmonary edema?,” I asked? “Yes, high altitude pulmonary edema,” Lobsang replied.
Apparently the local in Pangboche was a doctor and an apparent expert on high-altitude sickness. I had signs of HAPE, otherwise known as High Altitude Pulmonary Edema. Lobsang told me that I had roughly 60% breathing capacity.
“You are very sick. We should carry you down or fly you out,” he repeated. I did not respond. I could not respond. I was too tired.
As we sat downstairs I drank a coke and passed on the snacks we were offered. Later I would pass on dinner. My wife and I walked to the base of the stairs leading up to the second floor rooms. With previously unmatched resolve, I labored up those steps, stopping several times. Wheezing. We sat in the room.
I’m not Sure I Want to Die, Like, Right Now
“Please don’t leave me alone for even a minute tonight,” I implored my wife. “Please stay up with me all night. I’m afraid to fall asleep. Can we just play cards all night?,” I asked. “Sure,” she said, obviously worried. I could not see straight, but found comfort in our card game. Looking back, I honestly thought there was a good chance I would die that night. I hadn’t really slept in days. I was not going to sleep that night. I had the worst headache of my life – a headache that was three day’s old and never let up. It felt like there was fluid on my brain. Cardiac arrest seemed inevitable. I feel like I remember every minute of that night. And yet, I have tried very hard to forget every minute of that night.
At some point I curled up on the bed – unable to sleep, unable to rest, unable to stop my heart from pounding. My headache was worse than ever now. I could not lie down for long. I had visions of aneurysms (which, for some reason, always involved my head exploding like a stick of dynamite went off – I obviously don’t know what aneurysms look like). My appetite was nonexistent; My body exhausted; My mind constantly racing. The night passed minute by minute. I waited attentively for morning’s light, just so I could appreciate the beauty surrounding me.
I survived, obviously. But I still had at least a day of hiking to go. Slow and methodically we made it to Namche. Then Phakding. Then Lukla, where we spent the night. I still did not feel well. But I knew that I would survive, and that was enough to brighten my spirits and make me feel grateful – grateful to be alive. We slipped into a bar, had some beers, and got lost in conversation with locals who were convinced that Yetis were real. It was like a dream. Yetis, Sherpas, Everest, HAPE, and beer. I was alive alright. Alive and ready to tackle anything. What could go wrong?
To be continued…