This is a short story about a 12 day trek I took in the Himalayas. This was the trip that turned me on to International travel and was the direct inspiration for starting Dave’s Travel Corner, i.e., this website. Sometimes people speak of “a trip of a lifetime” – for me, Nepal was that trip. Be prepared to read – this is a long one!
We were delayed in the Katmandu airport for some reason. Our guide speculated that someone had paid more money then we had for the helicopter and as a result they were given first priority. We lost several hours in the airport when we could have been on the trail. These lost hours turned out to be quite important because we had a time schedule to meet, and at these elevations without being acclimated, trying to make up time is extremely difficult.
Some photos in this gallery are by Dr. David Keeling and James Bentley
We were finally called on to the runway and we boarded an old Russian Military Helicopter. This machine could easily seat 40 to 50 people. All our luggage was stacked and tied down in the middle of the huey. Our group sat around the edge of the large helicopter on metal seats, some of us excited to be flying in a large helicopter for the first time in our lives. We were given ear plugs because the noise becomes quite irritating a few minutes after takeoff. In addition to the ear plugs we were also given candy which was passed around from group member to group member. I remember eating the candy and wondering why there were two wrappers covering it. It turned out that one of the wrappers was part of the candy and actually dissolved into your mouth.
It was about 70 degrees F in Katmandu when we lifted off above the reddish orange haze that seems to perpetually hang above this city. We were all dressed much too warmly for the weather that day but we expected the worse in the Himalayas after reading the pre-trip literature which had explained how December was the coldest time of the year.
Forty five minutes later we landed in Lucla in a cloud of dust on the sloped dirt runway that Edmund Hillary helped to build. The air was so much cleaner and clearer then the terrible haze and smog of Katmandu. Lucla is a small town composed of mostly concrete buildings set on the side of a hill. In this part of Nepal, this is where most trekkers begin their hike into the high country of the Himalayas.
The weather was a bit nippy but the sun was shining brightly. We were quickly surrounded by many chattering Sherpas, some old, some young. Some looked interested, some looked bored. Our guide began to talk to them as the rest of the group picked up our packs and headed for the small hill next to the airport. Our guide eventually hired 5 porters to meet the demands of our group. At the time, I think we paid them $1.75 a day and also paid for their dinner every night. The price we paid them was about average. We talked to some people who paid less. We pooled money together at the end of the trek for tips.
The people who live in the Himalayas are of a different origin then those who live down in the Katmandu valley. These people, collectively called the Sherpas, originated in Tibet and crossed over the Himalayas into their present location about 400 years ago. The Sherpas look more Tibetan or Mongolian whereas the people in Katmandu have more of an Indian appearance.
I removed many of my layers of clothing, as I could see that once I started moving I would become quite warm. Others did not and ended up stripping off layers a mile down the trail. I, and several others decided not to hire a porter and were carrying our own heavy packs. About 1/2 an hour down the trail we had our first semi-crisis. One of our younger porters forgot his shoes at his parents home and thought that he should have shoes for the trail, especially since we were hiking over very rocky, cold ground to our final destination of almost 18,500 feet. He wanted to leave the main trail and take a side trail down to his home, which would be an hour round trip out of the way. Our guide did not want to break up the group but in the end he relented and let some of our group go with the porter to get his shoes. I was one of the ones who went with the porter. I am glad that I did. He led us down a small trail next to villager’s homes and their fields.
After 20 minutes of walking we reached his house. His home was sitting on the edge of a field on a plateau next to a steep cliff. The inside of his home was quite interesting. The lower floor was almost dark except for a sliver of sunlight coming in from the small doorway. The floor of the home was literally covered with dry leaves. When you stood on the leaves you would sink down at least 12 inches. There were steep steps leading up to the second floor. We climbed up to the top floor and met his mother who was cooking food over a rock stove set into the floor. She had somewhat of an ethereal appearance because she was sitting in the middle of the smoke from her fire which kept playing tricks with the rays of light shining in from the window behind her. She offered us tea, but we politely refused as we were in a hurry to get back on the trail. The upstairs was carefully organized – pots and pans were hung with care on the walls and the vegetables were neatly arranged on the floor in preparation for cooking.
We left his house and took a side trail back up to the main trail. We finally reached some of the group members about an hour later. They were waiting for us. We were already several hours behind our anticipated schedule and the side trip to the porters house had cost us additional time. Needless to say, our guide was a bit frustrated at this point. We ended up hiking an hour and a half in the dark stumbling over rocky sections of the trail and taking extreme care when crossing the river on the decrepit bridges. At this elevation some of the group members came down with mild altitude symptoms. Some of us were literally jogging down the trail with our heavy backpacks on! This was not the start of the trek that we had anticipated!
Finally we reached our destination and we all piled into a two story lodge. We received our first introduction to Sherpa cooking and to the long wait that we would have to endure for all our upcoming meals. In part this wait was slow because we were a large group and cooking at high altitudes is notoriously slow. We were still clean at this point and once in doors we all noticed the terrible body odors emitting from our porters.This night about 3/4 of us slept outside on the ground. There was a dirty tarp laying on the ground in between the hotel and the trail. The temperature lowered to about 20 degrees F that night. Some of us were not prepared for this cold temperature and became a bit chilled. The night was extremely clear. I remember searching for radio stations on my handheld radio and coming up with nothing but Chinese or Nepalese stations. It was at that moment that I knew we truly were half way around the world in a foreign country. I realized how remote we were from relatives, from family, and from friends back home. We had each other to rely on and our trust had to be put in our guide and the porters – in the people who lived and worked among these gigantic mountains.
The next day we were up and about by 7 am. We ordered our first breakfast and found out how slow breakfast takes to cook. From then on we would order our breakfast the night before so the cook could start preparing the meals at 6 am in time for service around 7:30 or 8am. It was only a short walk to the Sagarmatha National Park Headquarters from our lodge. A trekking permit is required at the headquarters where it is approved and then stamped. Little did we know that by the time we returned on this part of the trail, one of our members would have to be carried because she was so weak that she could not walk under her own power.
We continued on down a steep hill from the park headquarters. Along the trail we had to cross narrow wooden bridges that were built hundreds of feet above a river. The trail was built along a river that was colored shades of gray and blue from the glacial melt waters and the silt. Eventually we would follow this river all the way up to about 15,000 feet. Our porters recommended walking in pairs across these bridges for stability. Some of the bridges were missing wood slats and you could look through to the river raging hundreds of feet below you. Later in the trek, two of our group members had to help pull a Yak across one of these bridges. It had tripped and broke one of its legs in the slats as it was struggling to stand.
Another group member and myself were rapidly hiking along the trail. We were far ahead of the rest of our group when suddenly our guide jogged up to us and warned us that we had better slow down or else we would suddenly be hit with altitude symptoms and be forced to turn back. Apparently he scared us because for just about the rest of the trek we walked together very very slowly, and lingered far behind the rest of the group.
There was a very steep long hill up to Namche Bazaar the main supply town for the high country. As my friend and I hiked, we passed several of our group members laying in the dust and dirt next to the trail – they were beginning to show more signs of altitude sickness. We finally made it to Namche and stopped at a lodge for a quick bite to eat. This town is the last town in which you can stock up on equipment. You will pay more of course for equipment in this town then in Katmandu but if you forgot something this is the place to purchase it. The highest airport in the world is located near here. People do fly here and start their trekking, but it is not recommended due to the high altitude.
Towards the end of the day we reached a high pass that overlooked onto truly the tallest mountains in the Himalayas. What an incredible awe-inspiring site. Jagged snow covered peaks towered thousands of feet above us. I would have given anything to be one of the eagles that constantly soared high above us – effortlessly gliding through canyons, and in and around the tall mountains. We were able to see Everest in the distance and I remember thinking that it looked so far away – yet in only 4 days we would be standing at its base.We stayed at a small lodge that night perched on the edge of the trail overlooking these tall mountains. There was one open shower that was built on the edge of a cliff. In order to use the shower you had to pay a certain amount of rupees and someone would bring out a single bucket of hot water and pour it into a pipe. The air temperature was very cold and I could not understand how, first – people were able to shed their clothes in the cold weather, and second how they planned on cleaning themselves with only a single bucket of water. Next to the shower was a “bathroom” with a sign that stated, “we aim to please, you aim to pee.” This “bathroom” was simply a hole in the ground surrounded by wooden slats. This was the last night that anyone slept out. I and another person were the remaining two to brave the elements. We were called the “crazy Dave’s!” After that night the rest of the group forbid us from sleeping outside again – they said it just was getting to damn cold! The temperature only dropped to 15 degrees F that night.
The highlight of the third day was the spiritual pinnacle, Tengboche Monastary. This is a Buddhist Monastery built on a tall ridge that extends high above two valleys, one on either side. The hill that led up to the Monastery took a couple of hours to climb. The distance from our lodge to the Monastery was not great per se, it was the altitude and the steepness of the trail that made walking difficult. It was on this hill that one of our members accidentally dislodged a rock next to the trail. The rock went plummeting down the side of the hill across all the switchbacks. We yelled to make sure that no one was below us. Fortunately no one was hiking below otherwise we might have severely injured someone.
The Tengboche Monastery was burned to the ground in 1989 but was rebuilt with international help. Some of the most awesome photo opportunities on this trek are from this Monastery. A mountain called Ama Dablam which means Mothers Charm Box is 22,494 feet high and rises high above the Monastery in the background. Our guide has climbed this mountain. From the looks of the jagged sides and 90 degree icy faces his climb was an extremely technical one. Ama Dablam was named for the square looking clump of snow near the summit, which resembles a “dablam”, a kind of charm box worn by the Nepalese women. You can also see Everest from the Monastery. It is barely peaking above a high ridge. While the rest of the group rested at this elevation I went inside the Monastery and listened to the Buddhist monks chanting. Their chants reverberated back and forth in the enclosed courtyard.
I closed my eyes and became completely lost in their rhythmic sounds. Totally relaxed, I almost fell asleep until one of our group members came searching for me. WE saw for the first time a large collection of prayer rocks located just outside the Monastery. These are rocks that line portions of the trail, usually located near small villages. Villagers spend many hours patiently carving all sizes and shaped stones. Nepalese words are chiseled into the rocks and then left along the trail in large piles. Some of the stones were quite intricate and beautiful. Other methods of prayer included Nepalese prayer wheels. These are wheels in huts that spin when you rub your hand over them as you walk by. Several wheels were continuously spinning because they were powered by water. Prayer flags were not as common in the mountains of the Himalayas as they were in Katmandu. However, we did see several flags and they were always brightly colored. We took a group photo with the Monastery and the very distinctive Ama Dablam in the background. It was at this time that I started having the slight beginnings of a headache.
There are limits that each one of us has, and when we try to push those limits physically and emotionally, things start breaking down and quit functioning. However, in pushing past your limits you sometimes set new limits and when you retreat you have set a higher standard for yourself.
We continued on down the steep hill from the Monastery. In walking my headache became worse and when we reached a flat area I had to stop and rest. All of the group members passed my friend and I and kept hiking further up the trail. We were about an hour from our destination for the day. I sat and rested for about 10 minutes and the headache subsided, but did not go away. This is where I wish I had had the luxury of a few extra days. Instead of pushing on as I did I would have stayed where I was at a lodge. I was determined not to let a headache stop me even though it was beginning to border on a migraine. I was at 12,700 feet. Another member of the group stayed with me. Instead of taking an hour to get to our lodge, it took us 2.5 hours. I had to stop and rest very often and even my rests were accompanied by shortness of breath. The headache refused to go away and I kept fighting it. We climbed up a river canyon and finally reached a plateau where the trail leveled out. I remember reaching the top and hearing our guide and a few other members yell out encouragement from a long ways away. From the top of the small pass I could see the lodge in the distance. I kept having to stop and rest much more often and if we had decided to continue on to another lodge, I probably would not have made it. My feet were dragging by the time we got to the lodge and I was feeling quite nauseous and ill.
I remember walking into the lodge and carefully walking down some extremely rickety steep stairs to my bunk below. As soon as I entered the room I knew I had to get out. I was trapped in a dark space a few feet wide and the same distance lengthwise. I threw down the pack and ran outside. I still felt trapped. I was trapped in some of the most beautiful scenery in the world and I could not enjoy it. I did not want to go back down the mountain in the darkness and leave the rest of the group behind. I could not escape the fatigue, nauseousness, and terrible headache. A few times I almost threw up, but I credit my strength that I was able to hold it down.
That night I could tell everyone felt sorry for me, and they were doing all they could to ease my discomfort. This night was also the first of the “roundtables”, in which everyone listed their discomforts and any altitude sickness that they were feeling. Everyone who had gotten altitude sickness previously was feeling much better which was certainly something that gave me hope for my own health. Our guide for the first time spoke of splitting the group into smaller subgroups. I got up at midnight and walked around the moonlit landscape. I was feeling much better and came to the realization that I must jettison the pack in the morning if I was going to have any hope of reaching the summit of Kala Patar at 18,200 feet. I walked back and forth along the trail next to the prayer stones for about an hour. I did pray. Sleep at high elevations is not readily attainable even though sometimes your body is exhausted from hiking all day. Eventually I returned to my room and fell into a deep sleep. In the morning I was feeling almost normal and I decided that I would try to press on. Everyone was overjoyed that I was feeling better, but in the back of their minds they were thinking that he has shown susceptibility to the altitude and he may not be able to make it much further.
A friend and I put our heavy items into one pack and gave it to a porter who happened to be staying at the lodge. This porter did not speak a word of English. When he wanted to be paid he would walk into our room and just stand there. We asked him what he wanted and he would walk out of the room and come back with another porter who spoke a few words of English.
At this elevation the sides of the river were beginning to become frozen. We continued onwards and upwards, deeper into the heart of the Himalayas, deeper into the territory that contained the world’s tallest mountain. I continued to stay back with another group member not due to altitude symptoms but due to fear of moving too fast and getting worse altitude symptoms. After about an hour another member began to lag back and walked with us. By this time we were above tree line and all we saw was dead grass lining the hillsides. There were very few trekkers on this portion of the trail. I do not believe we met a single trekker this day. This was one of our shortest days of hiking. By this time we had made up the extra hours that we had lost at the beginning of the trek.
We reached our destination for the day around 1 PM at 14,100 feet. Just before we reached the lodge we were standing on a ridge overlooking two great valleys extending in opposite directions separated by a huge ridge in between. One of the valleys extended towards Tibet and the end of the valley was not too far from that countries’ border. It was there that I changed a roll of film and found out that my camera had stopped working and the shutter would not advance when I pressed the advance button. It was hopelessly stuck. I had hauled this heavy camera and the zoom lens up here and now I was in the most beautiful part of the hike, and my camera had stopped functioning. What frustration! When we reached the lodge my friend took his portable blowtorch to the underside of the camera and melted out the plastic surrounding the small screws. We removed the casing and tried to repair it, but had no luck. I thought that perhaps the batteries had discharged because at this point during the day we were hiking in 30 degree F temperatures. The sun was was continuously shining but the temperature was extremely cold. This was not the problem with the camera but fortunately another group member had an automatic zoom camera that he lent me for the rest of the trip.
Our guide strongly recommended those who did not have altitude sickness to climb as high as you could in the daylight. About half of the group climbed up to 16,000 feet in the few hours of daylight that we had left. Because I was weak and took some time to rest I got a late start and climbed up after everyone else. I did not hike on a trail. I climbed up the side of a steep mountain which was next to the village. I had no additional symptoms of altitude at this point except I would get a very slight headache when I would overly exert myself, therefore I would climb very slowly and take frequent breaks. I came across a metal pipe on one of the hillsides and upon further examination I noticed small holes towards the end of the pipe. I decided that I had found a nomad’s flute. I kept climbing higher and higher playing the flute as I walked – the views of the rugged mountains only kept getting better and better. Towards the end of the daylight I caught up with some of the members who were on their way down. I kept hiking and ran into a few others, who said they were really worried about me and were glad to see me at such high an elevation. I stopped and took some pictures and then walked down with a group member who’s knee was causing him severe pain. We made it down to the lodge in the darkness. By this time the temperature was very cold, probably in the teens.
This night was almost a sleepless night. I found it very hard to get any sleep at these high elevations. When we were at high elevations I discovered that laying in bed and resting was quite beneficial for gaining energy for the next day, rather then actually sleeping. Sleeping may have been better but for me it was almost next to impossible in this high altitude.
We started hiking very early the next morning. Some people were complaining about mild altitude symptoms as we left. I hadn’t taken a shower for the entire trek, much less washed my hands. Your moral takes a beating when you are continuously dirty. If I was to hike this again I would definitely pay more attention to cleanliness. Being dirty grates on your mind and constantly saps at your energy.
This day started out like all the rest, clear, but much colder then the others. We started hiking on a ridge high above a valley. As always my friend with the painful knee and I were hanging behind the rest of the group. There was not really a trail here so everyone was spread out and looked like ants slowly moving uphill. My friend and I were soon joined by a few other members of our group who also began to walk very slowly and take frequent breaks.Soon one of the members stopped and said she could go no further. We yelled up to our guide and he came back and pointed out a town in the distance that was about a 1000 feet lower then where we were. He told her where to go in the town and that the rest of the group would be back down in three days. We asked her if she felt alright going back by herself and she assured us that she felt fine about it. The rest of us continued on, our spirits slightly dampened.We crossed small streams that were frozen and glistening in the bright sun. I have never seen a sky so blue. The contrast of the incredible blue skyline against the purity of the white snow at that elevation was something to see. Keep in mind there was no snow at the elevation we were hiking at. The snow line this time of the year started at about 19 to 20 thousand feet. The day was very cold. Our guide actually had a jacket on. That was a rarity at the lower elevations, even when the rest of the group was entirely bundled in several layers of clothing! We were hiking on a ridge above a valley and we finally crossed a 3/4 frozen stream.
We stopped for about an hour at a lodge to rest and recuperate, and get out of the chill. It was here that more of the group members decided to turn around and rejoin the lady who had initially turned back. One member was starting to vomit here and by all means had to descend to a lower elevation. Our porters looked like they were on vacation at sea level. The altitude wasn’t affecting them at all and they appeared to be quite relaxed and not at all tired or cold even though some of them were wearing far less clothes than the group members. I felt a bit tired at this lodge and couldn’t decide if that was from the altitude or the stress of hiking. Our guide said that whoever was hanging back would have little chance of reaching Kala Patar’s summit the next day. He was referring to my friend and I and a few other group members.
We left this lodge at 15,100 feet in the early afternoon and began to climb what we would later dub as the “hill of hell”. This hill went straight up from 15,100 feet to 16,300 feet. The hill is part of the terminal moraine of the Khumbu ice fields, the same ice fields that extend to Everest, the same ice fields where most of the deaths on Everest occur. As I climbed this hill I slowed down to the point where I was barely moving. My friend remarked that if we were at sea level people would think that we were in deep thought. At the bottom of this hill and to the west is a glacial fed lake, frozen over, but still colored from all the glacial till that flows into it.
This hill was the last hill of the day and from the pre trip books and according to our guide you should walk up this hill extremely slowly, because it is the make or break hill for still having the energy to be able to climb to the top of Kala Patar the next day. One of our group members ignored this advice and climbed this hill relatively fast and was far ahead of the rest of the group including our guide. My friend and I started up the hill before everyone else, but we were soon passed by our entire group. A few members then slowed down as our guide warned everyone of the dangers of moving too fast. These few people joined my friend and I behind everyone else. I was starting to become very fatigued and extremely tired. I could tell the others who were walking with me were thinking that I was not going to make it up this “hill of hell”. I told them that I needed more breaks and they all agreed to stop more often. We made a plan to walk very slowly for 1 minute and then take a 2 to three minute break. I was able to do this without becoming short of breath, but I remained extremely weak. When we were about half way up this hill we began to talk about some of the group members needing to turn back. I stubbornly refused and told my friend to start yelling at me and to slap me on the back in order to keep me awake and motivated.
I must digress a little here to explain what the high altitude does to a person who isn’t acclimated, besides all the usual symptoms. Being above 15 thousand feet without being acclimated, in some ways is like being drunk. Group members were really opening up and sharing with me their life history. People were saying and doing things that normally they would not have done at lower elevations. At night dreams were extremely vivid and lifelike.I was seeing images that would flash in front of me and then disappear. These images were of symbols and people that I have never seen before. I would awake with chills over my entire body after seeing these images. Photo by Dr. David Keeling
As we climbed we started talking to get our mind off of where we were and what we were doing. It is hard to analyze the reasons for why I was feeling tired at this point. There could have been a combination of reasons for my fatigue. One of these reasons will stand out later in the day, but it could have been partially the altitude, although I did not have a headache, it could have been food poisoning, or maybe a lack of water or it could even have been partly because of fear. I asked my friend to start arguing with me about political issues. We started talking about abortion of all things, and we had a great conversation with opposing viewpoints about abortion 16,000 feet up in the worlds highest mountains. The few other members that were with us, were listening to us argue back and forth and I think our conversation stimulated everyone to keep climbing and allowed me to draw from that precious reserve of limited strength, both in the mind and in heart, that I had left. When we were getting close to the top thick clouds started rolling in from the lower elevations. The fog was below us and kept rising until soon we were completely enveloped in the middle of it. Our guide quickly came jogging down to inform us that the rest of the group was waiting at the top of the hill, and that one of our members had gone on ahead of everyone else. He then told us that he sent a porter on ahead to tell this member to come back and rejoin us. At this point with the clouds rolling in and hearing the urgency in our guides voice to get to the top and rejoin the rest of the group, I found some precious energy and I stupidly charged up to the top of the hill, half running half jogging. One of the members yelled up at me to watch myself and I stopped just before the top, but the damage was done. My headache had come back and my heart started throbbing erratically and I couldn’t find my breath even after collapsing onto the ground and lying motionless for several minutes.
Finally everyone reached the top and someone helped me off the ground and supported me as I staggered over to sit down on a large rock. One member was feeling quite nauseous and was unsure if she could continue on. I sat down and felt a bit better. Our guide immediately proposed that we vote on whether to keep going or head back down the mountain. By this time the wind had picked up with a bone chilling grip that went through our clothes and chilled us like we had nothing on – then again we were completely enveloped by the clouds. Every so often we would see jagged snow covered mountains rising far above the clouds. You would look at the mountains through the clouds and wonder how they could rise that high. If it wasn’t for the urgency of the situation, the clouds surrounding the mountains was a beautiful sight. We finally voted on whether to keep climbing higher or go down and we all voted to go down except for one rugged individualist who voted to keep hiking up the trail. This individual was made of steel to make a decision like that – he was the one with the knee that was causing him the severe pain! After the vote our guide told us to wait for a while just to see if the clouds would lift. We then talked to the porters and they said that the fog and clouds were a sign that there might be some rain in a few days. After about 45 minutes the fog indeed started breaking and we could see that we were in some truly beautiful mountains. We decided to continue climbing higher. At the top of the hill towards the back of the ridge there are between 50 and 100 stone monuments erected to climbers who have died on Mount Everest. Some of these have permanent plaques attached to the monuments.
We finally moved up the trail which at this point continued to be flat which was a welcome relief after the brutal hill. I was still not feeling very good. I had a severe headache and was very tired. It was extremely cold and for the first time our guide began to push us to move faster and get to the lodge before darkness fell. I couldn’t move very fast and our guide gave up and walked a short ways ahead. I had to take frequent breaks and a few of the group members stayed with me as I hiked. We stopped for a few picture breaks but every time I took a picture I had to exert effort; an effort that I barely had. Finally at dusk we reached Labouche at 16,200 feet. I again was at the end of my tether.
My headache subsided considerably once I went into the dingy lodge and sat down, but my tiredness stayed with me. This lodge was definitely the worst lodge that we stayed in. It consisted of two rooms, one for cooking and one for sleeping. The one for sleeping was lined with bunk beds and everyone was crammed in next to one another. The smell of the yak dung by this time was enough in and of itself to cause me to become sick, in addition to the disgusting odors of the filthy porters. Our guide told us that the Sherpas do not know that water is to be used for cleaning oneself. He said that the people we met on the trail probably had never taken a shower in their life. This lodge charged 10 cents American money to stay the night. The general rule of the trail was that the lodging became cheaper the higher you climbed, while the food and drinks became much more expensive.
Our group was crammed into this little dining room surrounding this yak burning stove, next to the porters waiting for over an hour for our food to come. I ordered a few too many dishes and when I tried to eat some of it I became repulsed by the smell and taste, and repressed the urge to vomit. I was dirty as a dog in mud and you could see the utter exhaustion on my face. I looked like a refuge from a war camp. I think the other group members could sense that I was about at the end of the line. I saw a few of them looking at me strangely. I felt that our guide also sensed I had had enough. They knew something was amiss when I did not touch my food. Throughout the climb I was known as the “sumo eater” and I was normally able to finish all the dishes that I ordered at the lower elevations. Our guide wanted to get everyone on the trail by 5 or 5:30 am the next morning. This only applied to those who felt like hiking and had few or no altitude symptoms. The general plan was to hike to Kala Patar in the early morning and then hike all the way back down the “hill of hell” to a lodge around 14,000 feet in the same day. So that day would entail a 4000 elevation gain and a 8000 elevation gain and loss. My friend and I blindly planned on leaving before the rest of the group. We decided that we would leave at 3:30 in the morning and hike very slowly. This way we would be almost to the summit before anyone passed us. What a crazy idea! I went to bed in the corner of this cramped smelly room with a bag next to me in case I vomited because by this time I was feeling very nauseous. I went to bed about 9 PM and laid there for about an hour – every second fighting off the tremendous urge to vomit. Finally the urge became too powerful to contain and I stumbled out of the top bunk bed, somehow climbing over group members and avoiding falling off of the steep stairs. I ran for the door and was hit with just how cold it was outside. I quickly lost all control and fell to the ground heaving and vomiting up mostly water.
I stood outside after that and just looked at the snow covered mountains glistening white in the moonlight. Little did I know but I had just opened the floodgates.
I took one last look around me, a look that would be blazed into my mind for the rest of my life. The sheer starkness of the frozen terrain in the glistening moonlight – the coldness of the stars, the coldness of the air went all through me.
I quickly went back into the lodge and sat down near the sleeping porters in the cooking area. A second wave of nausea hit me and I again stumbled out the door and threw up. Upon entering the lodge a second time I saw another group member walking around in the small kitchen area. She was starting to panic and said that she was having trouble breathing. She wondered if we should wake our guide. We both agreed that that was probably the best thing to do. We woke him up and he said that we should go jogging to get the blood pumping. He led us outside and we started running around in the five degree weather. The coldest time of the day is in the early morning and that morning turned out to be the coldest of the entire trip. The temperature got down to minus 7 degrees F. The lady started to improve immediately, but I became worse and threw up again…and then again. I went back inside the lodge and they threw a bunch of blankets on me.
I then started to shiver uncontrollably and could not stop shaking. I became very quickly progressively weaker and weaker. It is amazing how fast things went downhill for me. But then its amazing how quickly you get better at lower elevations. By this time our guide decided that it would be very dangerous for me to stay at this altitude in my weakened condition and he made the decision to get me down the mountain immediately. Another group member (Sara) who by this time was awake put my shoes on, and our guide put his jacket over my already many layers of clothing. The lady who was having a hard time breathing was feeling much better and she put my sleeping bag and some other important items in her backpack. Before I left I told certain members to take the American Flag from my backpack and carry it with them to the top, and to be sure and take a lot of pictures. I said do it for me, and know that I am with you at the top in spirit, overlooking everything there is to see at “the top of the world”.
One member gave me his headlight and strapped it to my head. Our guide put one arm under my right shoulder and Sara put one arm under my left shoulder, and we headed down the rocky frozen trail at midnight.
When you become weak at this altitude you do not stand a chance. The extreme cold only makes it worse. Initially we were walking on a fairly flat rocky portion of the trail. With both their support I was able to stumble along. Then I started vomiting every 25 minutes and became progressively weaker. Soon I became so weak that I could not even stand up. Our guide took charge and lifted me onto his back. He soon got tired of carrying me that way and shifted me up to his shoulders. Every so often I would let them know that I had to throw up, and we would stop and wait until I was ready to go on. I became extremely weak just before throwing up and then just after I gained a little strength. I tried to drink water but I had a hard time getting it down, and it would not stay down. Finally we arrived at the top of the hill of hell. There was no way our guide was going to carry me down because of the steepness and rockiness of the slope, so he and Sara both heavily supported me on either side and we very slowly walked down with them mostly dragging me along. I went through the motions of attempting to move my feet but in reality there was no way I was going to walk under my own power. Towards the bottom of the hill I seemed to get a bit stronger, probably due to the lower elevation. We stumbled into the only lodge at Tuglha which is at about 15,100 feet. This walk down took us 2.5 hours and normally takes 45 minutes.
After waking the owner we stumbled in and they threw me into my sleeping bag and covered me with several large foul odored blankets. The odor was the least of my worries at this time. They brought me a large metal bowl and laid me down on one of the benches. By this time it was about 2:30 am and our guide told us that he would sleep in the lodge for an hour and then head back up the mountain. Exhausted as I was, I fell right to sleep and did not throw up for an hour. Our guide woke up at 3:30 am and came over to where I was laying. He stood above me, his grizzled face looking down through his hooded jacked. He then told the lady that I was looking better and he was happy to see that I had not thrown up within the last hour. He told me to drink plenty of fluids and walk further down the trail at daybreak. He also said there was a medical facility at Pheriche which was at 14,000 feet. Then he was gone.
Before I continue with my story I must mention the rest of the group and our guide. He hiked back up the hill of hell at 3:30 in the morning and arrived at the lodge at 16,200 feet where the rest of the group was staying, between 5 and 5:30 am. The plan for the group was to leave around 5:30 am for the summit. It turned out that most people left around 6am. Our guide spent 1/2 hour at the lodge and then he too continued on the trail to the summit around 6 am. My friend with the bad knee who was told by our guide that he probably would not make it to the summit was the first person on the summit!! He was absolutely driven to make the top, and he arrived there a full 25 minutes before anyone else. On the way to the top he actually passed our guide on the trail. He said the guide was quite surprised at that. My friend took over 60 photos from the top. Some of the group members that we thought for sure were going to make the top, came up just a bit short. They either got food sickness or altitude sickness or a combination of both. One member was very very close to the top, when she broke down and started crying. She completely ran out of energy and was throwing up. No one had any energy to carry her to the top. She had given it everything that she had.
Our guide is an amazing individual with loads of stamina. He had barely any sleep for 36 hours, had carried me for a couple of hours in the dark on the trail in the extreme cold, and still was able to make the summit.
Meanwhile I began throwing up again about every one half hour after the guide left. I filled the large metal bowl with vomit, and by morning it was completely frozen solid. When I would vomit on the ice large clouds of steam would form and envelop me. In the morning I began feeling better and I ordered a bowl of cereal and several drinks. As soon as I reached down with the spoon for the cereal I knew that I would not be able to stomach more then a few bites. However, I did drain about 6 colas. I thought I was going to be better. Then I tried to walk and I could only stand for no more than a few seconds, I still did not have the energy. A porter happened to be walking down the trail and Sara told him to tell our other porter (who was with the other sick group members at a lower elevation) to come back with help for me. This porter had no idea of who our porter was but he reassured us that the note would be delivered. Around 8:30 am we decided that I should at least try to get down the trail.
We rolled up my sleeping bag and paid for all the drinks and then left. My sleeping bag was tied to Sara’s backpack along with a few towels. So with all the gear tied together, it was just about dragging on the ground behind her as she walked. I had to almost rely solely on her help to walk. She was providing most of the support. We did not get very far down the trail before I fell to the ground throwing up. Each time I would throw up I would fall down on all fours, my face just inches away from the dirt. Saliva and vomit would be dripping from my face, and it was all I could do to keep from letting my head drop onto the dirt. I would often heave so strongly that tears would come to my eyes. There were many false signs where I would feel like throwing up and I would tell her to stop. These were the worst because I felt the weakest right before I threw up, and then there was only a slight relief afterwards. It was a pitiful sight and the lady would just turn away, and then come back when I was finished and put her arm around me. The problem was that I kept throwing up and I was not able to keep any liquid in my stomach. I am sure that because of that I was starting to become dehydrated.
I am glad the trail was mostly downhill – this certainly helped our progress.
After about an hour I became so weak that I could not walk even with her support. So this is what she did. She set me down next to the trail and carried her backpack a couple of hundred feet ahead and placed it down. Then she would come back for me, put me on her back and walk down the trail a couple of hundred feet past the backpack, and set me down. Then she would go back for the backpack and repeat the process over and over again.
For most of 3 and a half hours she did this. We stopped very very often either for her to rest or for me to throw up. Once, we stopped when our water ran out, and we iodined a few quarts of water. During this entire time we did not meet anyone on the trail.
Finally we were able to see the town of Pheriche far in the distance. We kept setting goals. We would try to get to a certain rock in a certain time, or cross a small stream within the hour. After what seemed like an eternity we got to the outskirts of Pheriche at 14,000 feet. To our surprise who should come running out of town, across the vast barren valley, but our porter. He had gotten the news and had hiked for 3 hours back up the trail to find us. We found out that the other sick members were on their way to recovery after having a terrible night at a lodge at a lower elevation.
I was so happy to see him that I started crying and so did Sara. They both took turns carrying me into the village. We went to the medical facility but it turned out that it had closed 2 weeks prior because of the onset of the cold season and the small number of tourists. They set me down on a stone bench across from a small lodge. There we and our porter tried to bargain with local villagers about giving me a ride down the trail. Our options were very limited, either someone carry me, or I ride on the back of a Yak, or they helicopter me out (which logistically and financially would have been a nightmare). We were still a couple of hours from where the other sick group members were and we wanted to lose as much elevation as we possibly could, in the hopes that I would become stronger at the lower altitudes.
The villagers were charging about $120 American to carry me down. They were charging about 80 dollars to use one of their Yaks to carry me. The problem with that idea was that I was not strong enough to hold onto a Yak. Finally our own porter who was only 17 years of age, very short, and very thin volunteered to carry me for the equivalent of 36 American dollars. I certainly weighed quite a bit more than he did. He devised a carrying device out of my sleeping bag, some rope, and a large cloth. I sat on the sleeping bag which was attached to a rope that went to a cloth that he wrapped around his forehead. I sat behind him and wrapped my feet around his waist and he held onto the rope and I held onto his head. It was a makeshift system, but it worked.
Before we left this village Sara posted a note at the edge of town for the summiting members of our party to read as they passed through town. Apparently this note was one of gloom and doom because when they rejoined us later on they all made comments about how frightened they became when they read the note. She wrote that we were not doing well, and I couldn’t walk, the medical facility was closed, and we were going to try to make it further down the trail to the next lodge before nightfall. She also wrote that she was not sure if we would make it to that lodge and we were close to giving up.
As we walked this young porter started telling me how his Uncle died of food poisoning. According to this porter some of the Sherpas will blend snake meat into their food and then serve it to the trekkers. Apparently this certain snake meat is quite poisonous although the intent of the Sherpas is not to kill the trekkers. Their intent is to make the trekkers very sick so that they will have to be carried down the trail. The Sherpas then charge the sick trekkers and as a result make a tidy profit for themselves.
This young Sherpa also told me about his older sister who was killed the month before because a Yak had become frightened on a narrow bridge and had literally charged at her and kicked her off to her death hundreds of feet below. His story was later confirmed in the town of Lucla.
We had to climb over a pass before we could drop down again. This turned out to be very hard on our porter and myself. He could only carry me a few feet uphill before he would have to stop and rest. We were nearing the top of this small pass when I almost broke down and gave up. The porter stopped to rest and I just crashed to the ground my body lying limp in the dirt. I was completely drained, physically and emotionally. The woman was pleading for me to continue. The fog was rolling in and the sun had disappeared and we were in the middle of nowhere, with the nearest lodge still further down the trail. Still I lay on the ground. They finally saw that I wasn’t responding very well and they both pulled me up and the lady helped lift me onto the porters back. At this point I must have been quite dehydrated after repeatedly throwing up all day.
Somehow we got to the top of the pass. This is the best part of the story. We stopped and then I requested some water. I started drinking and had to force it down. Then as if a miracle occurred I began to quickly regain strength. We continued down the trail, but this time these two incredible people were supporting me on either side instead of carrying me. After a few minutes of this I broke away and began to walk on my own. I began to walk faster and faster until 10 or 15 minutes later I began to approach a lodge and out ran some of our group members. They were overjoyed to see me, as that morning they had heard about my terrible condition from the porter.
We continued on still further down the trail as a group and finally reached a lodge just below 13,000 feet. I was slightly nauseous as I hiked with the group. However, by morning I was completely recovered and I felt like a new person. I could not believe that just 12 hours before I had been unable to walk. I was sitting in the lodge when one of the porters came running in saying that he could see the rest of the group coming down the trail. A huge smile covered my face. When they reached the lodge several of the members came in and gave me big hugs and with concern, asked how I was doing. They could not believe that I was so completely recovered in that short amount of time. One person dropped a rock into my hand that he had taken from the top of Kala Patar. I kept my deal with my friend. Our deal was that all the light items would go in his pack and he would carry it up the trail, and I would then carry it down the trail. I headed off down the trail with the pack on my back.
I do not know where any of us found the energy that was required to get down the mountain. We all found inner strengths that we never knew we had before.
You can cover so much more distance walking downhill then walking uphill. By this time we were already acclimated and we could make some serious time. The last day of hiking before we reached Lucla was really stressful for some. One lady had to be carried by the woman who carried me. My friends knee was causing him tremendous pain, so much so, that he threw up towards the end of the day and then collapsed on a large rock. Some of us ended up hiking in the darkness and arrived at the lodge in Lucla several hours after the rest of the group.
In the morning at Lucla we waited for the flight out of the Himalayas back to Katmandu. After several hours we heard the faint sound of rotor blades in the distance. The sound kept getting louder and louder until we saw a flying machine – a speck in the distance making its way up the massive canyon to Lucla. Finally it crested above the edge of the steep runway.
After what we had been through I cannot describe to you the tremendous visceral satisfaction and appreciation for technology I felt when I saw that whirly bird fly onto the runway. I think this feeling might be akin to what a soldier feels after being rescued after a long battle. I knew our trekking had physically come to an end – however, emotionally I would carry the experiences of this great personal journey with me for the rest of my life.