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Friday, 11 May 2012

Life and near death in Nepal

I have been home a week now and it's taken all this time to try and put my experience into words. A lot of you followed me on facebook and twitter and may have heard little bits about the trip. Hopefully this will give you a better idea about the trek and explain what happened to me after we got to base camp. As you will see, i am not a writer, so i apologise for the bad grammar and lack of creative writing.

My last update was from Namche Bazar at an altitude of 3400m. From there we trekked for a day to Tyangboche (3800m) where we got our first sighting of Everest! 


Namche Bazar, perched high at 3400m is a town buzzing with people. It hosts a weekly market where goods are brought from the north, east, south and west to be sold.

Tyangboche is an amazing place perched high on a ridge at the bottom end of a long valley which leads up to the top of the world. The sky is bright blue and the mountain tops are stretched high, tipped with a whisp of white cotton wool like cloud. It's an awe-inspiring sight and my room for the night looks straight at it. 


The View from my room in the Tyangboche Tea House. Looking up the valley to Lhotse and Everest.
So, we wake at 6am for porridge and say goodbye to one of the team who is feeling unwell already and start the days long walk. Everyday I have been waking up with a bad headache which I have been told is my sinus' being blocked. After a couple of pills it's all good for the day. Before we set off we all gather for a group photograph before losing the first member.


The team outside Tyangboche Monastery.

We walk from Tyangboche down through the Red Birch lined valley and then climbed to another village called Dinboche higher up again at 4200m. Here we spend 2 nights to acclimatise to the altitude. I still feel the bad headaches in the evening and morning but generally I feel good and full of energy. The acclimatisation day starts early with an intense climb up the mountain behind the Tea House. It towers above us at 5800m and is higher than our final destination, but we all let out a relieved puff of breath when the guides let us know that we're only going halfway. Still climbing 500m up,  every step is tough, with our hearts beating and the cold air chilling out our throats, we slowly conquer the acclimation climb. 


Prayer flags flitter in the breeze along side one of Nepal's many stupas.

Back to the tea house for lunch we are faced with the ever familiar menu. Will it be Dal Baht, will it be Mo Mo's, will it be Garlic soup? The reality is, at this stage of the trip our appetites are so far gone that its just about fuelling up. Get as much down as you can before the nausea sets in. The afternoons are mostly spent playing various card games, from rummy and cheat to Mafia. ( ask me about the latter, it's great)


From Dinboche we are ready to make our assault on Base Camp over the next few days. Morning breaks and we are up with the birds, already walking by 07.30 and making good progress up the valley. after half an hour we pass another small village below us in the valley called Pheriche, home of the last hospital on our route. Any issues from now on mean a walk back to this hospital. Base camp is two days walk from here. As we are being told about the village we hear a familiar buzz in the air and sure enough a helicopter flies past, arcs around the valley and lands on the helicopter pad outside the hospital. Yet another reminder of the hostility we are surrounded by. An hour passes... we get the news that another member of the team has suffered two severe Asthma attacks and has had to turn back. Any complication at this altitude is multiplied in severity as your body is working so hard to just tick over that any kind of fixing it needs to do is just too much. One of the main obstacles of the mountaineers climbing Everest is the common cold. So, with another team member down we push on and pass the memorial hill where hundreds of stupa style memorials have been erected to recognise the lost lives of so many mountaineers in the Everest region. It seems that every few hours we get a stark reminder of how treacherous it is to attempt to summit the worlds tallest mountain. 

A small stone house sits all alone surrounded by 8 of the worlds tallest mountains.

As we approach Lobuche after walking for around 5 hours the land is grey and barren. With the tree line far below us we are now walking up the Khumbu valley home of the infamous Khumbu Glacier which leads all the way to Everest Base camp and up the southern face of the mountain. Around 3 O'clock in the afternoon we arrive at the tea house in Lobuche and crash in the eating area worn out from the days trek. The thin air is really noticeable for me now, even the smallest of tasks such as walking upstairs or even going to the toilet are so much tougher and get you puffing for breath. We all order food for the evening meal but Greg is feeling really unwell and showing a handful of symptoms of altitude related problems. A few hours pass and we hear the Greg has had to turn back and is on his way back to Pheriche to hospital.  After a days walk already i really don't envy him having to turn back.


The rising sun sends a shaft of light high into the sky making even the tallest peaks look small.

Morning comes and yet again my head is pounding and its been hurting all night, but i know its because my sinus' are rammed with snot and if i wait it out for an hour or so it should ease. Breakfast is forced down and we fill our water bottles and set out. The weather is cold but clear and sunny this morning and the team are in good spirits. Today is the day... the day we hit Base Camp. The plan is to walk for about 3 hrs then stop at Gorakshep, which is the last permanent buildings before base camp, for breakfast / brunch then walk the 6-7 hr round trip to base camp and back to Gorakshep for the night. 


We climb yet another super steep hill. Slow and steady. 

After about 30 minutes walking we stop for a short break, we all sip water and catch our breath. I open my water bottle that i filled with a bottle of mineral water i bought earlier and take a sip, "Eurrrghhh!!!!! thats disgusting" i shout. I try and spit most of it out but i've already swallowed some. The water tastes absolutely rancid, so i check with one of the guides and we agree i should tip it all away. I now have no water for the next 2 hours walk... not good. About 30 seconds pass and suddenly i vomit uncontrollably, that water was real bad! I think nothing more of it and we carry on. As we are walking i am starting to feel a lot more fatigued than before but i think thats just the higher altitude.


Porters carry goods from town to town in order for shops to function and the trekkers to have their Pringles.  Each porter can carry up to 85kgs and they load up because they are paid by the kilo.

Suddenly in the distance we see some tin roofs catching the sunlight, a sigh of relief, we made it to Gorakshep. By now i am feeling pretty rubbish, fatigued, thirsty and i'm looking really pale. So for second breakfast i order a hot chocolate and a bowl of garlic soup which the guides recommend for altitude symptoms. Strangely i have a good appetite and eat and drink it all with no problems, but.... two minutes later i feel as if i'm going to throw up again... i signal to the guides, while holding my mouth closed, all eyes turn to me as i am rushed down the corridor to the toilet, but.... its too late. I vomit all over the floor, everything i have just eaten...not good. The guides check me over, i sip some water, i'm pretty sure all this is to do with the water i drank earlier. After a few minutes i am feeling ok and ready to carry on walking, so we all gather our bags and set out for base camp. 

The next six hours are a bit vague in my mind but i will try my best to remember.

Walking is tough, every step feels like ten, but i keep going. I am just focussed on making it. The path reminds me of scrambling over the rocks on the beaches at home, but with far less energy. The weather has changed, clouds have filled the sky making it feel so grey and the wind has picked up. It feels cold, so we can only stop for short breaks so we don't cool down to much.

Suddenly my feet are sliding, yep, thats the glacier! We shuffle along a narrow path then scramble up a small rock pile, we have made it. Everest Base Camp is written on the huge rock and prayer flags stretch out from the top. The whole team is so happy, they all gather around the rock and take it all in. I on  the other hand, take my pack off, unpack my cameras and start filming the scene. It's weird because i don't really remember much and i haven't watched the footage back so i'm not really sure what went on. One thing i can remember is setting my camera up for a group shot and i kept missing the shot because i was so tired i couldn't get back in time!! funny. 


The base camp team including our guides. I am pretty sick here, but i don't know it yet. This is the shot i finally got back in time for!

After about 30-40 minutes at base camp we turn and head back across the glacier, down the rocky paths and back to Gorakshep for the night. As we arrive and find our rooms i notice that i can't walk straight without holding on to things, i sit on my bed and my mind starts to wonder whats going on. After changing cloths and freshening up i head back down to the dining area where most of the team are sat relaxing. I walk across the room concentrating hard on walking in a straight line, i spy a chair and fix my eyes on it. I notice that Jimee our head guide has spotted my uncomfortable walk but i block it out and sit down with a stumble. The guys notice something is wrong and before i know it Jimee is standing in front of me asking how i'm feeling. I tell him i'm feeling ok in myself but i am a bit off balance. Immediately he takes me outside and makes me walk heel to toe along a line, which somehow i manage without an issue. Still, i know i'm not right and Jimee does too. He has a concerned look on his face but, there is nothing we can do now as night is here and tomorrow we descend around 1000m which should ease if not cure any altitude problems.

It's morning, i sit on the edge of my bed and slowly start the gruelling task of getting dressed. I feel terrible, i have a headache as usual, but today my balance is worse. I walk down the corridor to the toilet bouncing from wall to wall. If i can't walk down a corridoor, what chance have i got of getting down a mountain! this is not good. An hour passes, and we are set to leave. i walk out the door of the tea house and the team is stood waiting, i spy a bench and head straight for it and sit down. Jimee sees me and rushes over. His face says it all, "we have to get you down the mountain, lets go......take off your pack." 

The hospital is 8hrs walk away and i can barely stand, so Jimee takes one side of me and one of the trek team, Simon (who is a psychiatric nurse) is the other side. My heavy camera pack is lumbered on poor Kate and we set out. I don't really understand whats going on as i feel fine in my head and i am not aware of how bad my walking is. As we descend the expectation is that i should improve, and for a few minutes i feel steadier. Suddenly my head lunges forward, my pace increases to catch up with my head, then a firm hand grabs me on my back and pulls me upright to slow down, it's Simon. "come on mate, concentrate." he says with a concerned voice. I don't understand what just happened, i just keep my feet moving. I'm not improving, in fact i'm getting worse.


Everest in the centre, behing the ridge with Lhotse to the right.

Three hours pass... I am starting to slur words and the hospital is still four hours away. Simon signals to Jimee without me knowing, he thinks they are going to have to carry me down, but Jimee shakes his head and we carry on walking. All i can do is keep my legs moving forward while the guys keep me upright. I can sense the tension in the air and the incredible concern for me from the guys. This is serious, i need to keep going. For some weird reason Simon keeps asking me to say the alphabet, so i humour him and recite my abc's. Then the question comes, "James, do you know where you are? Whats the date?". Good news is i know the answers even if they do come out a little slurred, bad news is i realise that i could very soon start to forget stuff and be confused. I get a sudden wave of fear over me, but as quickly as it enters my mind i speak "For God did not give me a spirit of fear, but one of Power, Love and a sound mind". I start to pray over my mind as i walk as its the only thing i know to do. 

Another hour or so passes and Simon says to me, "Whatever you are doing keep doing it". So i do. I repeat over and over again "For God did not give me a spirit of fear, but one of Power Love and a sound mind". It is working, my mind is clear, i'm not afraid, but i am absolutely shattered. I have to stop every 10-20 minutes for a break as i suddenly get worse. Jimee and Simon sit me on a rock so i can catch my breath. They both jump forward and catch me, i have just fallen off the rock from sitting down, my sun glasses are smashed up, and the guys faces get even more tense. This is really bad. 

We turn a corner and see the valley stretched before us with the town at the end where the hospital is. "That's really far" i say, followed by Simon saying, "Nah, its only 2 miles". He later told me that he agreed with me but knew i needed to think it was close. So we press on through the valley, crossing streams, stumbling over boulders, i am really struggling now, every step is an effort, but i know i need to get there. I keep my mind active by praying and repeating bible verses. 

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and don't lean on your own understanding. Seek His will in all you do and He will direct your paths. Proverbs 3:5-6.

I needed to trust that God was going to lead me through this, i couldn't rely on my own understanding because my mind should have been messed up. I knew that i should not have had a clear head, i knew that i should not have been able to walk the way i was walking. I know that it was speaking those verses and focussing my mind on Jesus that enabled me to get there.


The weather changes within minutes at this altitude. Clouds come in over Tyangboche monastery.

After 8 hours of walking, there it is. I am led through the door of the hospital and sit down. Immediately the doctor quizzes me and then gets me to walk heel to toe along a piece of tape on the floor. I line myself up and place one foot in front of the other and fall straight into the wall. A small device is clipped on my finger to measure the saturation of oxygen in my blood. Immediately it says 51%, Simons eyes nearly pop out of his head, he's never seen below 90%. It then settles at 59%, which is extremely low, OK, the doc says, lets get you onto the bed. They lay me down and give me three pills, one Diamox and two Dexemethasone, then i have the oxygen mask strapped to my face and start breathing the cool thick air. I am on 90% o2 for three hours then they check my sats again. No change. After another three hours it reads 69%, but drops back to 59% after five minutes. The doctor tells me i need to stay in over night and may need to be flown out by chopper in the morning. This is the last thing i want.

The doctor explains whats happening to me. I have the early stages of High Altitude Cerebral Edima (HACE). My brain is not getting enough oxygen so its pumping more blood up there which is creating a massive pressure on my brain. The danger is that my blood vessels in my head could rupture with the pressure and cause me to go into a coma. Then its 50/50 whether i die. Then the doctor tells me that i was about 20-30 minutes from being in a coma when i arrived... uhh... thats quite a strange thing to hear. When you consider it took us 8 hours to get to the hospital, 30 minutes is not long. The doctor then tells me again that he is really surprised that i'm completely lucid. I really should be confused and disorientated. 


A Nepalese woman brushes her hair while her baby plays with a toy in the crib.

I know, without a shadow of a doubt that God kept my mind clear. I am certain that the difference between me being dead or alive was Him.  It was the fact that i know my God and i know His word. I have a living relationship with God through Jesus, and thats not to try and sound religious or weird,  it is reality. Religion sucks, it has destroyed so much through the years but Jesus was clear that its not religion that gets you to heaven its knowing him personally. Jesus said in John 3:17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 

I open my eyes and its morning, i have been on oxygen for 15 hours. Breakfast is a bowl of cornflakes with hot milk and a cup of coffee followed by the walking test. I am a little concerned as i got up in the night for the toilet and felt really unstable, but i feel much better now. Heal to toe, heel to toe, i walk the line a little wobbly but all in all i made it. I get the all clear. i can finish the trip and walk down to catch the team up. Just as i get the all clear, Jimee walks in with a smile on his face. I think he's super relieved that i'm ok.

We leave the hospital and get a lemon tea down the road then spend the morning trying to catch up with the team. At lunchtime we finally meet up with them and i am greeted with a cheer. Its great to be back as a group and by the end of the day we will be back with the other three that we lost earlier on. 

I spend the afternoon walking and talking with Simon who tells me how bad i was coming down the mountain. He looks at me with all seriousness and say's, "I don't know how you did it, i thought you were going to die at one point". 

My trip to Everest Base Camp was amazing on so many levels. First of all being able to go to a place like that and do what i love, photography is unbelievable, then getting to meet all of the awesome people on the team was amazing. I know that sometimes things get out of control and feel like its all going wrong, but i believe in this scripture with all my heart: and we know, God works all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purposes for them. Romans 8:28.

Good will come out of this. God is faithful, and i want to thank all of you who prayed for me while i was in Nepal. Thanks.



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