On the last leg: making a summit and the come down from Everest
As we landed in Kathmandu the air was thick like butter, a sweet condensed milk oxygen rich fix – It felt gluttonous. Maslow never mentioned air in his hierarchy of basic needs. Yet I have been obsessing about it ever since my hypoxia day on the hill earlier in the week. Heart racing, I wonder if I’m getting too much air. But the smog quickly puts pay to that thought.
This is the last in my mountain blog trilogy and the final part of the fundraising journey. I’m at Gatwick now, awaiting my Newquay flight and a return to normality. To my desk and colleagues I have missed so much. To friends and family who have peered into my world through a warped social media lens and wondered how I’m doing. Like a snow globe, shaken up snippets of the experience suspended across different time zones. I can feel the memories fading already, a spiritual half life not captured in the pixel perfect photographs.
I have been travelling for days now, snatching an hour of sleep here and there. Six airports in total and the further I go from the mountains the more morose I feel. I’m already missing the group, our band of brothers in the mountains. I can reminisce now about the stench of long drop toilets without fear of contagion. But there’s no one to share it with. Our puppy jokes and running commentaries no longer have any context. I’m feeling bereft. I note to myself not to sign up for any more challenges during this post trek wobble.
I’ve always had an adventurous streak. One of my earliest memories was standing on a shed willing myself to jump, toes curled over the lip of the asphalt roof, elated I made a leap of faith until I discovered that the soft lush green bushes below were in fact stinging nettles. I was probably no more than three years old, but the intensity of new discoveries drove me to become more and more inquisitive.
On another occasion I was searching for a hiding place and to my delight discovered our large Welsh dresser had a four-ish inch gap underneath. Just big enough for me if I squeezed and wriggled under. Perfect. Except it was just too low, in a moment of pure genius I decided to breathe out first and then shuffle quickly into place. Once securely underneath of course I hadn’t anticipated that I could no longer breathe back in, I was stuck. It took what felt like an eternity for anyone to find me and by then I was panic strewn, shallow panting, unable to call out for help. I couldn’t save myself. The heavy dresser wouldn’t budge and had to be leveraged off by several grown ups. I was free but learnt an important lesson: that oxygen is more important than hideyholes.
And so it had always been with me, trial and error. Pushing the limits, making mistakes, learning. As IBM once said ‘Success is always on the far side of failure’. I have countless scars to prove it, but so far nothing too serious, unless you count my cancer that is.
So why was it I was finding Everest so challenging? Since the onset of mountain sickness on day seven each day I had lost faith in my own instinct on matters. My mind darted around looking for a rational reason behind my predicament. Was it the Welsh dresser incident I wondered? Locked away deep in my psyche. Or perhaps the toilet break on the hill to relieve my bladder that somehow tipped me over an invisible hypoxia edge. The truth is I’ll never know what caused the Acute Mountain Sickness that day, but at altitude your mind does funny things.
The fundamental problem was I no longer trusted my ability to breathe. The edge between OK and not OK was so sharp up here anything might happen, anytime. ‘You need to chill out and relax a bit’ advised Dean, the trek leader. Easy for you to say, I thought, you weren’t the one under the Welsh dresser (despite having forgotten about it for forty years I could still be traumatised for all I knew).
And so on day 10 there came a stark choice. To be brave and courageous or to be sensible and cautious. The problem was I don’t know which was which. The line in the sand marked ‘sensible’ had washed away long ago and I no longer had any useful bearings. What do you think? I asked Dean, will I be able to make Kala Patthar?
The problem was that this summit was the highest yet, at 5,643 it was higher than Everest Base Camp and the difficulty would be compounded by the 4am start in pitch darkness. It was steep too, a casevac would be difficult if not impossible in the ice cold inky dark night. Was I being wreckless or brave in even considering it – it was optional after all? As we got up to go to bed Dean caught my eye in a glance. ‘Give it a go, you can always come back down’, it was the nudge I needed and with that I packed for the morning and set my alarm.
At 3.30am I awoke and felt good. Today would be an auspicious day. I would summit and get some cracking photos to boot. I loaded myself with my coldest weatherproofs and down liners and assembled with a somewhat depleted group of willing participants. Seven of us out of 18 would make an attempt.
As I climbed I felt strong, superhuman powers washed over me as I sucked in the icy air. I could do this. Excitement swept me up the slopes and once at the top I felt triumphant. As I gazed out on the 360 degree mountain panorama I felt like the happiest girl alive. My water had frozen solid inside my jacket and my iPhone kept intermittently bringing up my Greggs bakery app and Siri instead of the camera, but despite this the moment was pure elixir.
Namche Bazaar: I’m back once again in the secure confines of the Namche coffee shop. Penning my first blog, feeling content to have overcome adversity. The successful summit had given me an inner glow and security I hadn’t experienced before on the trip. I was proud of myself.
That night I updated facebook and twitter, ate yak steak and hot showered. The contrast from our highest abode at Gorak Shep was so stark I now felt like the king of Namche. Lulled into a false sense of security I put on my fluffiest socks and went to bed. The problem was I couldn’t sleep. The diamox had kicked in for Kala Patthar and my super strength summit day had fortified both my body and mind. But now I had stopped taking it. The more I thought the more I convinced myself that the air was too thin at Namche. What if I stopped breathing in my sleep I wondered. The familiarity of being online eased my worries but as I grew more and more tired, my nagging thoughts returned to my breathing. I noted it was quite erratic, and my heart was thumping. Perhaps it was just the dead of night feeling, I wasn’t sure.
Yak bells passed my window at 4am and I decided an hour’s sleep would be sufficient to get me through. But alas by 5.50am I was struggling with my breathing so much I knew I couldn’t wait. I needed help, and fast. As I entered the narrow dark hotel hallway I realised I had no idea which rooms Dean and the doctor were in. ‘Help me’ I called out ‘I can’t… [breathe]’ there was nothing left. The corridor was literally a vacuum. Like stepping out on the dark side of the moon to realise the oxygen tank was empty and there was no atmosphere at all. The commotion had woken others now, it was 6am and alarms were going off softly all around the hotel. Dean and the doctor once again were by my side, this time I was having a full blown panic attack, hyperventilating so extremely my clenched fists needed prising open. It probably took ten long minutes to bring my breathing under control. Kneeled on the floor in our nightwear. But rest and recouperation wasn’t an option. We had our longest trek day starting at 8am, and no let up in the schedule so I unsteadily packed my things and started the ten hour descent. Unlike others we had seen on the way up I didn’t feel mob happy to be descending. I was subdued and unsteady on my walking poles. Once again the rarified O2 had got to me, or perhaps it was just me, I wasn’t sure.
Stewart the doctor walked by my side for ten hours that day. As my guardian angel and protector. Arm-in-arm we navigated thousands of steps, preventing me from loosing my footing and slipping down to the rapids that could be heard whooshing far below. By dusk we arrived at our tea house, to one last night sipping lemon tea, telling jokes and licking our wounds.
I breathed a huge sigh of relief, for tomorrow we would fly from the world’s most dangerous airport to Kathmandu. After two weeks on the mountain I was looking forward to this perilous prospect as the least stressful part of my trip.
I am fundraising for Sarcoma UK a rare cancer charity. If you would like to donate please visit my just giving page.