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Nepal 2014

Day 14. Everest Base Camp Trek. Dengboche to Lobuche

NEPAL | Saturday, 31 May 2014 | Views [2678]

There's not much to do after eating dinner and we're usually whacked anyway so rarely stay up beyond 9pm. Going to bed is a special ordeal because the lodges are unheated and uninsulated so everything in the bedrooms is at ambient temperature, i.e. frozen. We wake up with a thick layer of ice on the inside of the bedroom windows and water bottles frozen. 

I go to bed with layers on and peel them off in the night, no easy thing in a sleeping bag that encases you like a mummy sarcophagus. At these high elevations my night wear consists of socks, merino long johns, merino base layer, merino top layer, woolly hat, sleeping bag silk liner. It takes a few minutes for things to warm up then the top layer goes.

I sleep normally for the first couple or three hours, then the long hours of sleeplessness begin, with the Cheyne-Stokes suffocation coming in waves, I estimate twice a minute. That usually translates into 4-6 hours of waves of pain originating in my legs and arms before spreading to my back and abdomen. Spasms wrack my body and I'm fighting for breath while huge, malevolent hands hold me under water. By 4am today I was practically in tears at the thought of at least three more nights of this torture. It's a terrifying and very painful experience. My body is telling me I'm in danger and to descend immediately. I'm ignoring it and it's punishing me.

As a result this morning I felt rotten and almost gave up at the start, utterly depleted, no energy, empty tank and no will power. After an hour of straggling behind the group as they pressed toward the finish line, I did revive thanks to drinking a litre of rehydration mixture.

We changed valleys from Dengboche to the Khumbu. It was not a particularly hard day, much stumbling through ice-polished boulder fields and old moraine and everyone was moving slowly. Any effort at 4,900 m (16,400ft) results in gulping for air like goldfish: too close to suffocation for my enjoyment.

The day's views up the Khumbu Valley were particularly dramatic. Panoramas of peaks set around glaciated valleys and dominating peaks like Taboche to our left, Lobuche ahead and the gradually revealed west flank of Nuptse, sheilding Everest from our view. We are deep along the track of the Khumbu Glacier and Lobuche, where we rest tonight, is next to the active glacier, a tongue of blue ice protected by an insulating layer of rubble.

There were a few trains of pack yaks and others browsing on very mean vegetation. The dwarf juniper has receded and the only thing left is a wiry, dry stubble, just beginning its annual growth spurt. Somehow the yaks find this a delicious snack.

At Dugla, the only food stop (which we skipped) I crossed paths for the third time with a solo Australian hiker I’d spoken to before. At first I didn't recognize him. He looked bloated and ill and his guide was applying Tiger Balm to his forehead. He said he had a severe headache so I asked him if he was taking Diamox, the only known preventive for AMS, acute mountain sickness.

He said his guide had told him there was no need. Alarmed, I gave him a handful of my supply with strict instructions to use immediately and daily henceforth, while Gopal berated his guide for dangerously unsafe advice. Bloating and headache are early signs of a condition that can become fatal in a few hours. Water retention can lead to swelling of the brain and fluid on the lungs and result in rapid death. Sherpas don't need Diamox. Westerners can die without it.[1]

I met the young Bombay party again today who reported that two if their number were being evacuated that morning by helicopter due to onset of acute mountain sickness. So far none of us has any AMS symptoms though we are all suffering poor sleep due to shortness of breath and Cheyne-Stokes. None of us, that is, except Nick who started with the advantage of living at 2,000 metres in California so the altitude change is not as dramatic as it is for us. 

We've come across a few solo trekkers and others who have a porter only. Highly risky in my opinion as our guide is certified, has much experience, is well known and knows his way around well, and in an emergency would have the authority and contacts to summon help or rescue, whereas a porter or poor guide would not have either, nor the credibility to summon emergency responders.

Just past Dugla, half way into the day's walk there is a bleak and windy ridgetop which is dotted with cairns and memorials to the hundreds of Sherpas and climbers who have perished in their attempts to- or to enable others to summit. It's a forlorn place and we were invited to wander and pay our respects. I left with a slight feeling of futility: all that effort and struggle and pain and expense for the bragging rights to have summited Everest.

Why do they climb it? - “Because it’s there” is the reply attributed to George Mallory and still much quoted, but it doesn’t explain the madness that must possess people who want to do this.  And what does it achieve? - Unfortunately, in many cases, tragedy or disappointment.

One of the Dugla memorials is inscribed with the motto: "Per ardua ad astra." (“Through adversity to the stars.”), the motto of air forces and more appropriate to an interplanetary enterprise than scaling a mountain. One memorial cairn is dedicated to a trekker who died on the way to Base Camp. What to say about that except possibly an avoidable tragedy or another traveller without Diamox?

I felt saddened by the inequality of the deaths. Far more Nepalis have perished than climbers. Summiteers died for personal reasons; the Sherpas, porters, Icefall Doctors and guides who aided them died serving the personal ambitions of a few wealthy Westerners, with nothing but monetary reward in store for them. 

To concede my own hypocrisy, we are only one day away from our objective: Everest Base Camp at 5,365 m. Why do this? To tread in the footsteps of the great (and foolhardy)? For the bragging rights? For the personal sense of achieving something very challenging? To see the "Third Pole" of the World?

May I say they have my absolute respect at being able to put up with extremely hostile, life-threatening conditions in the service of their ambitions. Living for up to 2 months in deeply frozen conditions where everything that supports life has to be maintained regardless, where no surface is level or stable, where one minute of skin exposure to the ambient conditions could result in frostbite, amputation or worse. I complain in this record of my own privations. I know nothing of true privation. Hail the Conquerors!

[1] I met him again the following day. He thanked me profusely. The Diamox cleared his headache and bloating and he was feeling better than he had in days (his words). It might have turned out badly for him. He might have been aboard one of the many rescue helicopter flights we see daily, or worse, dead. As he was going to trek for a further 10 days I gave him some more of my supply.

Tags: death on everest, dugla, everest base camp trek. dengboche, lobuche, thugla


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