So I embarked on Everest Basecamp super optimistically. I had the whole thing planned out in my head of how it would go. I had my diamox to manage altitude sickness, cotton wool to stuff between my toes for blisters, an array of different medications for pain, swelling in my knees, general antibiotics for skin/chest/sinus infections, even pseudoephedrine in case I got a head cold. I was more prepared than most. And yet what I was moving towards was nothing that I could have prepared for…..
Two days out from leaving for our trip, if you had have asked me who was going to make it to the camp of me and my friend, I would have put money on me. She had gotten a chest infection from the dusty pollution of Kathmandu and I worked tirelessly for two days doing everything I could in my power to get her better because this wasn’t just my trip. It was our trip for so many reasons that are too long to explain here. I steamed her in the bathroom, rubbed tiger balm into her back, got her the strongest antibiotics in town and cough syrup and we were set. She was on the mend, not quite 100% but we knew by the time we got her to the top she would be pretty much right. It was an up and down first couple of days but things were starting to look up. She joked that this kind of shit always happens to her and that she would probably wind up helicoptered out like she did at Machu Picchu. I told her “not on my watch!”
And so the days progressed. By day 5 we were reaching 4400m altitude. I was feeling fine. I was still hungry, drinking lots of fluids, had a little bit of the head cold symptoms I get at altitude and a bit of a cough. But I was feeling good. My friend and one other on the trip however both had splitting headaches from the altitude and were vomiting along the path to reach the destination of Dingbouche. We eventually got there. I went back into nurse mode and started “bossing people” as I called it, forcing a litre of hot water and food into my friend before bed. The village medical researchers came around and we had her checked out. Out of curiosity I put the gadget on my finger to measure my oxygen levels and heart rate. Oxygen good…. Resting heart rate 124… hmmm…. my resting heart rate is pretty high normally so I figured it was my body responding to lack of oxygen in the air and resolved to keep an eye on it. And so we went to bed.
The following day was the day for an acclimatization hike. I was literally dying going up the hill the air felt so thin. It took me 2 hours to get up to the flagpole at 4700m. With iron will there was no way I wasn’t going. If I couldn’t make it here, I couldn’t make basecamp at a higher altitude so my sheer grit and determination said I was going. And I made it. I felt fine sitting at the top for a while and then I started my way back down again, happy I had made it.
That afternoon however I started to feel very weak and like I had no energy. I figured that the altitude had knocked me around a little so I sat upstairs in the dining room and drank 2 litres of how water and ate a soup trying to get my body to acclimatize. Heart rate still 124. I figured still having appetite was good but I was starting to show some of the symptoms of altitude sickness that the others didn’t have. The head cold was kicking in a bit more and the cough was getting a little worse. But I knew that this was the way my body responded from the first time I ever had altitude sickness so I wasn’t worried. I stopped taking all pain killers and drugs that day to evaluate what my body was actually doing and to try and heal it. It was the best and the worst choice that I had made….
By dinner I had gotten so exhausted I took a nap upstairs in the room with the fire. Despite it, I was still freezing cold. I sat to eat my garlic soup for dinner, took a handful of pills and some cough syrup to knock me out to sleep properly hoping it would be good by morning and went to sleep.
Two hour later I awoke coughing violently. The pills had failed to knock me out. No matter which way I moved I couldn’t lay without it triggering more violent coughing. I could not manage to get in any more than 30 minutes of sleep at a time. By one in the morning I was acutely aware that I was in very big trouble. I was starting to cough up large amounts of water and that I had a lot of fluid on my lungs. Another symptom of altitude sickness that is very serious. I needed to go down and I needed to go down immediately but it was the middle of the night and no evacuations were happening at one in the morning.
I got out of bed to go to the toilet. The toilet was maybe ten to fifteen meters down the hall. It took me two minutes to shuffle one foot in front of the other to get there. After getting up I was so out of breath I was leant over the sink coughing and trying to suck air very aware of the fact that my body at that point was trying to drown itself. It was at this very point that I knew I was in very big trouble. I tried to calm myself and walk back to the room and get back to bed. I laid there propped against the headboard for another 5 hours drifting in and out of fifteen minute intervals of sleep before the sun came up and I woke my friend. “Get the guide. Get the helicopter. I need down now.”
They called for the helicopter. It was coming for me but not for 3 hours. My friend packed my bag for me and I sat in the window frame of the room as the sun streamed through as it was the warmest place I knew of. I sat still. I tried to be calm. I tried not to move for fear of having more breathing and coughing attacks. I went to the toilet again and ran into some dumb bitch who is saying to me “oh you are getting helivacced out! I thought you looked sick last night but like you know what? You’re in the Himalayas and that is like amazing so like whatever”. If I had have had the energy I would have smacked her in the chops for being so dumb and ignorant, I was that ill, frustrated and annoyed. Who says that? It felt like forever waiting and waiting and then next thing I knew, it was time.
People rushed into my room to collect my bags and took off running. The helicopter was here and impatient and does not wait. People are trying to push me faster along and I could not suck the air in to manage it. I had no strength to walk that fast. Before I knew it, one of the sherpas has a hold of my arms and is pulling me over his back and dragging me along like luggage, my feet semi dragging along behind me on the ground. After dragging me over one rock wall, the next sherpa grabs my arms and throws me on his back and starts running with me across the paddock to the next rock wall which he climbs over and then puts me down. Next it was my porter, the amazing Lalit’s turn to carry me. The man, like all of the others, is shorter than I am and hauling my 70kg arse on their backs while running. Dressed like a smurf in his blue jacket and hat with his yellow scarf, he threw me on his back and ran me the rest of the way to the helicopter.
As I sat in the helicopter I looked out of the window to see my whole crew standing there waving me on in support. My friend was videoing for her adventure video as she promised me she would and several thoughts passed through my mind. The first was “I hope she filmed the sherpas carrying me through the paddocks and across the rock walls cause my god that would have looked funny” and then this massive feeling of being overwhelmed hit me as I sat there in the helicopter and started to cry. I put my hand on the helicopter window kind of like Rose in Titanic and the helicopter took off, taking my dream of Everest Basecamp and my friends away from me.
I tried to stay calm. I tried to concentrate on the amazing mountains where I was. It was the cheapest scenic helicopter ride I was ever going to get so I may as well focus. The helicopter landed back in Lukla. They were originally sending me right then. But then they changed their mind and moved me to another helicopter. Then they changed their mind again and took me out of the helicopter and told me I had to wait for the next one to Kathmandu. At this point they put me in the kitchen with a cup of hot water. Despite increase in temperature and oxygen levels, breathing wasn’t becoming easier. I knew I needed medical attention and I needed it now. But sitting there in the kitchen unaware of my condition and not really giving a shit, the helicopter guys lit up their cigarettes beside me and I forced my way up and out of the kitchen back outside to the fresh air. They didn’t want me out there. I didn’t care. I had no energy in me to fight them. One of them fed me a noodle soup for lunch. I asked about the helicopter. Over another hour they tell me. I am furious inside but I have no breath or energy to get mad and fight with them. I wanted to yell at them “I am in serious fucking trouble here and you’re more stressed about your fucking cargo. Get me out of here” but alas, no air and no words.
The time eventually came and I got on the helicopter and made my way back to Kathmandu in the front seat of the helicopter, taking stock of the view and somewhat meditating on it to calm me throughout the ride. The helicopter eventually touched down at the Kathmandu airport and was met with an ambulance to take me to the hospital. They kept trying to make me lay down on the trolley in the back of the ambulance but I refused and kept sitting. They strapped me to the oxygen machine and then we flew into crazy Kathmandu traffic with the ambulance siren wailing. My first time in an ambulance.
Upon arrival at the hospital they put me in the emergency section and took my vitals. Much to my surprise. I had a high fever. I guess getting the chills in minus degree weather isn’t a really strong indicator so I missed it. This is also what caused my tachycardia. I overlooked why I had high heart rate. After listening to my chest I was told I had an infection in my right lung. They x-rayed my chest, inserted a shunt into my hand and started me on antibiotics immediately. As I was sitting upstairs in my hospital room with the nebulizer on my face and the drip hanging out of my arm the doctor comes in to tell me that I have pneumonia. The infection had also moved from my lungs into my blood as well. But they were treating it all and it should be fine.
I messaged my mum from the hospital then with a picture of my feet in bed saying “greetings from hospital” and making jokes about it. I make jokes and look for the positives in everything. But it wasn’t until later the next day after a sleep that the actual reality of the situation set in. If weather was bad that day, there would have been no helicopter. If I had have stayed at high altitude in minus five with no heater for another 24 to 48 hours, I probably would have drowned myself in my own lung fluid. While pneumonia seemed such a funny thing to me as I was healing and being pumped full of drugs and high on cough syrup and because I was safe in a hospital bed, the reality was I got very lucky. It set on so acutely that even in those moments at 3am sitting in a dark room waiting for the sun, I knew I was in very big trouble but I wasn’t admitting to myself how big of a trouble I was in. Like always I fought with all I had and I knew I had to ask for help. The whole thing now seems somewhat surreal. I still sit in a hospital bed, but I can walk around and do things for myself. Except for the cough I feel relatively healthy. 48 hours ago I was on deaths door. Never before have I been so sick that I needed a hospital or that it was something I couldn’t handle myself. I’ve never been that person before. In all honesty, it scared the crap out of me.
So this week we say hallelujah for modern medicine, hallelujah for helicopters and hallelujah to not dying this week. My lifelong aversion to the word no extends out to “no, I am not dying this week” and so I live to see another day and another adventure. And you can bet your arse I am coming back to Nepal to finish what I started. Nothing beats me. Not Everest Basecamp. And certainly not pneumonia. Until the next adventure 🙂