Day 4 – Surprises
On day four I woke up to two surprises. The first was the disappearance of my voice. My throat had taken a turn for the worse during the night and although I didn’t immediately notice any other symptoms I could hardly talk above a whisper. It was an unpleasant surprise for me, but perhaps a bit of a relief to the rest of my group. The second surprise, and by far the more pleasant of the two, was that it had snowed during the night, lending the already majestic landscape an otherworldly quality that one would expect to find in a Christmas movie. Unfortunately while a beautiful setting for photos, this winter wonderland also made a perfect setting for some very active repertory bacteria and another day of panting cold air was not what the doctor ordered.
Even so another day of panting was on the schedule. Truth be told, I remember this day less than any other day of the trek, both my head and the mountains being mostly cloudy. What I do remember was another day of seemingly endless mountain paths winding up and down, up and down. I also remember coming to the realization that something was wrong with me. Although I normally walk slow enough to cause sidewalk traffic jams, I maintain a decent pace when saddled with a pack and forced to walk uphill. This means that while I’m often the last one to the bar, I tend to be among the first to enjoy the view from the top of a hill. Not today, I was tired before I even started and had trouble keeping pace with even the slowest members of the group. I knew it was a bad sign.
When we finally stumbled into Tengboche, our destination for the day, I was only vaguely aware of my surroundings and my appetite was gone. What was even worse though, was that I was cold. This might seem natural enough since what we gained in elevation we lost in temperature, but for me feeling cold is rare experience. Not gifted with any of the normal athletic talents of other children: coordination, speed or endurance, God thought it fit to enhance my meager physical gifts by making me resistant to cold. Even in snow and ice I normally stay warm in a light sleeping bag, not so when sick. That night I couldn’t have stayed warm by hugging a woodstove.
The night didn’t go any smoother. Despite my nearly complete exhaustion I woke up periodically alternating between feeling like I was in a sauna and feeling like I was inside a freezer, which was pretty close to the truth. Twelve hours of broken sleep later found me significantly worse off than I had been before and I started the day by coughing up some parts that looked important. Like a fool I kept it to myself and simply sucked down a few ibuprofen. I hoped that if I pretended I wasn’t sick I wouldn’t be. It didn’t work.
Day 5 – High and Low
Day five proved to be even more difficult than day four, even though the walking was easier. The snow which had painted such a pretty picture the day before had melted and the landscape underneath was revealed to be harsh and barren. The mountains still made a magnificent backdrop, but we had risen above the altitude most living things could handle and only rocks and crows seemed to thrive where we were. Even our own group seemed to wither in the higher elevation. The group split in half as the more ambitious members wanted to attempt one of the high mountain passes, leaving only three of us on the simpler direct route. Simpler it may have been, but I was shattered when I arrived in Pheriche late in the day. All indications were for another night of misery.
Fortunately things started to look up when we managed to find the nicest lodge in town. It would hardly qualify as luxurious in most of the world’s tourist destinations, having no heated bedrooms, no free showers and only one functioning toilet, but the guest house’s common room was heated from early in the day and had a stereo with music that sounded like pure luxury to us. The price was also reasonable at just over a dollar a night. The real turn for the better, however, was neither this small financial triumph nor the stereo, but rather the discovery of another trekker who was on his way down and suffering from a bad case of altitude sickness. A Canadian living in Mexico, this trekker had known of his own susceptibility to altitude sickness and rather than being deterred by it, had hoped to outpace it by making a mad dash to the top. The result was a success, sort of. He had made it to Everest Base Camp and the famous Kala Pathtar view point, but as expected contracted altitude sickness around the time of his arrival. At that point it was a race against his sickness down the mountain. Failure would mean an emergency evacuation by helicopter and success a somewhat more dignified self-powered descent.
When I met him he seemed to have fought his sickness to something like a draw. He had been unable to keep food down for two days and was feebly weak, but he wasn’t getting worse and finally managed to triumph over a bowl of tomato soup that evening. As for me, my luck in meeting this intrepid traveler was twofold. First, his own suffering was so immense that it made mine seem insignificant by comparison. The second and only slightly less selfish reason I was in luck had to do with a bag full of medicine that he didn’t need. In it was some spare antibiotics and although I was hesitant to take them at first, coughing up a bit more lung soon persuaded me.
It wasn’t a moment too soon. Even with the medication I spent another night wrestling with fever. Normally a sounds sleeper I was reduced to short periods of mediocre sleep and woke up gasping for breath in the thin air. At one point I had to venture out of the relative warmth of my sleeping bag. I noticed my water bottle had frozen and dangerous thoughts like “this sucks” began to creep into my head. That was even before I made it to the bathroom to find the only working toilet had frozen. This whole Everest business was turning into a challenge.