Day 8 – There and Back Again
I woke up the next morning feeling quite well, although not perfectly rested. One might guess this was because my room was well below freezing, but actually it was due to the altitude. High altitude, it turns out, has an extremely complex set of effects on the human body, two of which often include extremely vivid dreams (or nightmares) and insomnia. Shortness of breath and light headaches are very common as well, although the altitude at which these symptoms start vary for everyone. Those are the little problems; go a little too high too fast and the risks increase. I had been extremely fortunate, only some crazy Technicolor dreams and a little insomnia were bothering me.
At this moment I must confess a slight degree of writers block. I suppose the problem is that, in essence, trekking is a pretty straight forward activity. You lift up one foot, put it in front of the other and repeat – about a million times or so. Sure the Himalayas make are a great backdrop, but photos communicate their power far better than my words can. I could throw in something about Nepal’s culture, but it would be a fabrication. This particular day consisted of a three hour walk up a snow covered river of rock and it was about as exciting as it sounds. Culture requires people and we were in the middle of nowhere. Here’s a picture:
So we’ll skip over my whining about yet another day of dreary uphill walking and skip ahead to the next lodge because at least we’ll find a little excitement there.
We arrived at the lodge mid-afternoon and the town was a pleasant change of pace. A number of trails had converged by this point so unlike the remote town from the night before, this place was hopping. The lodge was filled with a half-dozen groups from different countries and trekkers, porters and guides were all milling about, some playing cards and other preparing for the final couple days of their trek to base camp. I myself was settling with a nice cup of hot chocolate – the closest thing to luxury I ever experienced above 4,000 meters – when one of my companions sat down beside me.
“You look pretty terrible. You feeling alright?” I said with my usual delicacy.
“Yeah, I just have a bit of a headache. I’ll be fine.” She said.
It was suspicious but I decided to return to my hot chocolate anyway. A few moments later as I sipped; on my liquid joy she shot up and ran in the direction of the bathroom. Not long after my worst fear were confirmed. She had been vomiting in the bathroom: the early signs of potentially serious altitude sickness. Looks like the liquid joy would have to wait.
Like all sick people she was hesitant to head back down the mountain. “Let’s just wait a bit.” She said, but her face was resembling a zombies more by the minute and I knew better. In a few hours it would be dark and if she got any worse we’d have to trek down in the dark or worse, carry her down. There was no time to debate or call a town meeting; it was time to go.
And so the dubious pleasure of walking back down the river of rocks began.
The downhill walk was a nice change of pace, but knowing that I would see it a third time the next day made it less so. Still, necessity is a powerful motivator and a bit of extra walking is a whole hell of a lot better than having to deliver seriously bad news to someone’s parents.
We found our isolated lodge on the hill much as we had left it, but with a nice addition: the friends who had gone ahead of us a few days earlier! By a strange twist of fate they had also suffered from altitude sickness in their group and so had deviated from their plans. Now we were back together and that’s how we would stay for the rest of the trek. Our sick team member was recovering nicely as well, so it looked like we’d be able to give it another try the next day. Not such a bad day after all.
Day 9 – Reality Check
If this were a piece of music I’d have a repeat sign here: the same cold morning air, the same frozen trail of rocks, the same lodge waiting on the other end. Still the return of the other three group members significantly increased group moral. We even had the additional company of two other couples who we had run into several times throughout the trek.
With spirits higher I was better able to enjoy the walk. One thing I hadn’t fully appreciated the day before was the memorial we passed. As most of you know, there are safer activities than climbing Mt. Everest – this season alone 10 climbers died on the mountain. The memorial for all these climbers was along our path and it was a good reminder of why I was only going to base camp and not trying for the peak.
When we arrived at the lodge the atmosphere was as festive as it had been the day before and only better with our enlarged group. Base camp was only a one day walk away, although it would be two till we arrived with one day for acclimatization. The weather was beautiful and things were really looking up. The only negative point came as I was airing out my socks. As I hung them up I started to chat with the hotel receptionist who was outside enjoying a cigarette (an impressive feat at 4,800 meters) and watching the rescue helicopter which had just landed.
“Another sick person?” I asked. It had been there the day before to pick up an older walker.
“No, just a body.” He replied and went back to puffing on his cigarette.
It wasn’t long before I learned why he was so casual about it. People die trekking in the Himalayas all the time. As it turns out four tourists would die in just the two weeks I was up there – they don’t even keep track of how many Nepalese die each year. I had known that going for the summit was dangerous, but had never really given much thought to the dangers of trekking.
The sadness of someone dying aside, I felt even better about how we’d handled the previous day and grateful that we were all healthy now. Of course thoughts and discussions of danger and death came up more and more frequently from that point on, but in the end none of us were too concerned. We were being careful and minimizing risks. If in the end it wasn’t enough and one of us died it would be a shame, but everyone dies someday and no activity is risk free. After all, if you have to die what better way to do it that pursuing a dream?