“It's always further than it looks. It's always taller than it looks. And it's always harder than it looks”
Welcome to Nepal
In my mind, climbing Colorado 14ers was an excellent way to train for larger peaks in Nepal where I intended to climb to an even higher altitude. During 2014, I trained for this task involved me ascending an average of 6,000 vertical feet each week via trail running, winter hiking with a 60lb backpack, and occasional (but rare) rock climbing. This pace was unsustainable, and it became obvious when I became extremely ill, coughing thick sputum and not sleeping for two weeks prior to my departure to Nepal. I recovered to maybe 80% by the time my non-refundable plane tickets came around to being used.
Day One 12/20/2014: I boarded my first airplane at 11:59pm while it was 11:49am in Kathmandhu, and then spent a 4hr layover in New York City before leaving the US heading to Guangzhou, China for a 15 hour flight. I had stayed up until 7am and then slept until 1:30pm in hopes of resetting my circadian clock. Trying to kill time in the airport while I waited, I met a Malaysian juggler named Yung-yung. He was a Psychology student at University of Minnesota, and fellow rock climber. Since I taught myself extensive juggling in college, I was able to show him some tricks before it was time for me to catch a 6hr flight to Nepal’s capital city of Kathmandhu. I slept the whole way, and when I arrived I almost didn’t make it through customs because they thought my US passport was fake. Eventually, when I came through there was my climbing partner and brother from another mother: Forrest. He greeted me with a hug and took me to Alternative Nepal Kathmandhu Resort Hotel where we cracked a skunked local pilsner. After an excited chat, I tried to ease my overtrained and battered body into sleep on the 12hr inverted schedule on the opposite side of the earth.
Day Three 12/23/2014: With two days to organize in Kathmandhu, I never quite shook the cough I carried from Salt Lake City. A breakfast of faux-Mexican at the Jesse James Café was welcome since it was in the sun and we had a perpetual chill running through us from our shady room. Forrest’s friend Mani Aryal had run rivers with him in the past, and we were happy to have him as a local Nepali to introduce us to Nema. Nema was a short sinewy veteran-guide with numerous summits under his belt including multiple 8,000 meter peaks. Scouring maps and talking weather, logistics, and money we began to select which of our desired routes was best. Given our limited time frame and budget the best option seemed to be Imja Tse, also known as Island Peak. This 6,189 meter/20,305 foot behemoth was mostly a long hike, with limited technical terrain. Rumors that a large crevasse had formed beneath the final headwall to the summit meant a possibly complicated summit day, but otherwise it had been a very dry and warm winter.We spent two days pulling money from ATMs to pay for plane tickets, permits to climb, half of the guide agency’s fees, and books for the trek. Walking around Thamel was a constant game of lookout with motor bikes, cars, retrofitted tractors, people running, walking, and no traffic signals or crosswalks anywhere. The dust kicked up was enough that it was best to cover your mouth with something.
Day Six 12/25/2014:On the way to the Lukla airport, our guide poured petrol into a water bottle inside of our small taxi with minimal spillage. We sorted all of the shared gear into a massive 120L duffle bag. We were worried that we would exceed the weight limit and be denied a flight to Lukla. Other climbers had reported wearing all of their layers and double plastic boots for the flight in order to cut weight, to save an extra fee.
Day Seven 12/26/2014: The following day, I was starting to feel sickly. A little weak, sore throat, and a bit of a cough but normal resting heart rate. I woke up at 6:30 and was packed and eating breakfast by 7. Snow was on the ground, The slow climb above Namche involved about 3,000ft of elevation gain pushed me about 20min behind Nema and Forrest by the end of the day. I was moving at a decent pace but was definitely more winded and less strong than the rest of our group. I opted to take a rest day in order to recover. The nightly sessions of milk tea felt good on my sore throat but my body was not used to that much caffeine intake. Drinking four liters each day, mostly in the evening, combined with all the caffeine meant that I spent more time peeing than sleeping.
Day Eight 12/27/2014: I felt better in the morning and Nema recommends we are moving fast enough that we can take an extra day in one of the towns. Our original plan was to spend an extra night in Namche Bazaar, but we opted to continue to Mong since I felt stronger in the morning. The steep stone stairs along the trail were starting to wind me, I could hear my heart beating loudly inside of my ears. Right before we arrive at the tea house, I spot a Himalayan peacock and try to stalk it to snap some pictures but it stays high in the trees and out of my gaze. Arriving in the afternoon to Phortse, we evaluated whether the following day would be a long one to Dharbhingche or a shorter one to Pharbangche. By 3810m (12510ft), it was finally getting cold enough at night that fleece pants and a micropuffy were needed. The higher you go, the less insulation the tea houses seem to have, and the costlier the stays.
Day Nine 12/28/2014: Didn’t sleep much the night before, I was cold and restless which resulted in a mild headache and sore throat upon waking. Forrest and I discuss whether I may have acute mountain sickness, which seems unlikely. Having experienced AMS in the past, it feels more a like being plain old sick than altitude related mostly because I wasn’t nauseous and had no shortness of breath or dizziness. Feeling cautious, we opted for a rest day were we ate a lot of food and read books in the sun. I nap, eat, and drink throughout the day trying to beat a headache which persists until I take two ibuprofen and then it is gone immediately. I have to sleep upright due to post-nasal drip leaking into the back of my throat. I am also stuck constantly trying to pee when I should be sleeping.
Day Ten 12/29/2014: The rest day only helped so much, as Forrest and I both lie awake in our beds until there is enough sunlight to merit packing. I curse the avalanche probe, shovel, beacon, snow saw, and helmet that I an forcing into my pack knowing that we may not see any real snow until summit day. We head toward Dingboche via a steep rocky trail of stairs, so nothing new. I opted to give forrest my snow saw, helmet, and ascenders, all items which I regret carrying as I struggle up the steps while breathing too fast. I feel sick. Not altitude, more like the flu. Nema takes us too low, and we do the first bushwhacking of the entire trip to get 500ft up to the actual trail. “You are breathing too fast,” Nema remarks and instructs me to shed more weight. I ashamedly and reluctantly hand over the avy shovel and half of my layers to our porter. When we resume our long uphill trudge to Phangboche, I do feel better but I am still lagging behind. It takes 4hrs to get to Somare, I immediately opt for honey/lemon/ginger tea for my throat which is super raw. After eating, I opt to take acetazolamide (Diamox) as a prophylactic against potential altitude effects. Forrest comments that he is also not sleeping and we both resolve not to drink anything after dinner. Our last bit of tea is at 4:15pm and at 14,500ft I am higher than I have ever been.
Day Eleven 12/30/2014: We trekked from Dingboche to Chukkung in about 4hrs and I felt good, not too whooped and not dragging behind. I had a healthy appetite and ate a large bowl of Sherpa Stew and ginger tea and was thoroughly hydrated with 4.5liters drank during the day plus tea at night. No headache, no nausea, sore throat is gone, but a mild dry cough persists, what Nema calls “Khumbu cough”. Chukkung is the highest poing so far, and still no snow in sight, it is all rock which is surprising from what I trained on in the Rocky Mountains. This temperate climate means that I could get away with at least 30lbs less gear. The higher teas houses rent crampons, ice axes, rope, tents, etc, meaning carrying them is unnecessary provided you arrive in the off-season like we did rather than coming when everyone wants to rent limited gear. Nema suggests that the gear is sketchy and in disrepair and it is better to bring your own. My down bag is -40 and my Parka is meant for Denali, too bulky and overkill for what we are doing. When I sleep that night, I am very tired and barely staying awake above my stew before heading to bed.
Day Twelve 12/31/2014: The trek to basecamp at 16,500ft is not too arduous. There are no steep parts, and the previous group had left tents for us at basecamp to avoid anyone having to carry them down and back up again. The last group did not summit Imja Tse. They encountered a crevasse that was wider than their 50m rope could span. Nema seems uphased and suggest that we can easily find another summit route to get around this ever widening crevasse from previous years. At basecampe, we stow our gear, hit the latrine, and scope out the route and the surrounding area. We sort through technical gear and split it between all of us for ascending and glacier crossing. Nema has no ice axe, so he takes my hybrid tool as the leader and I am happy to ditch the weight. Meals at basecamp are prepared by Nema and I force myself to eat canned tuna pasta casserole because I need the calories, but it is nauseating. I have never been able to stand the smell of canned fish. We prepare the tea for a 2am departure in the morning. I am still moving slowly and eating slowly, but I feel pretty good and am excited for the next day.
Dehydration and Summit Fever
Day Thirteen-Summit Day-01/01/2015 My recall of a lot of this is fuzzy at best…so here goes. Woke up at 1am and took a while to get ready. I eat and drink slower than everyone but still get my fill before the departure at 2:19am. Nema and Forrest shoot way ahead quickly and before long, Forrest waits for me and demands to take all of my excess weight (double plastic boots, harness, crampons). We aim to hit the snow field by dawn at 6am. Glove liners are not quite warm enough but I had left my down mits in the tent (stupid move). I am moving crazy slowly, and I am belching tuna burps from the night before. The taste is too much and I hunch over around 18,000ft and throw up a pile of black water, probably tinted dark by the chocolate bars I ate. My stomach definitely doesn’t agree with tuna and candy bars, something that would probably make me vomit at low altitude. However, it’s hard to find the type of food that I would normally eat here in Nepal so we opted for calorically dense candy bars. I have no headache or dizziness, but the taste of each belch is straight out of the depths of hell. Nema gives me a trekking pole, clearly worried about me potentially falling over but I am not feeling unstable at all. The rock scrambling is definitely exhausting. We reach the snow field later than intended due to my lagging behind. We gear up and follow Nema across the rock solid alpine ice, I regret carrying avalanche gear even more. Snow climbing is fun, but the weather is rapidly worsening. We had 12 days with only a single cloud in Namche Bazaar and now flurries are descending upon us and the wind is picking up. By 9:45am we reach 5,784m (18,976ft). As we all gaze at the 1,000ft head wall to approach the summit we see one very small dot of a climber ahead of us. We have been climbing for 7hrs and 20min and there is no way we can get to the summit before the storm becomes too much. A long journey, but definitely time to turn around.
We retreat below the snowfield and take off our crampons and other gear. On the descent, I throw up two more times, one after the other. I stare down in horror seeing that all of the water that should be pumping through my veins is instead on rock below me. Pieces of honey stinger waffle, snicker’s bars, and a bounty bar all sit within a black pile. Fearing that the horrible sounds were from a fall, Forrest and Nema pop back around the corner and demand that I hand over all of my weight. Forrest runs everything down to basecamp while I take hours to descend to the tent with a trekking pole in each hand. I rush to the outhouse with explosive diarrhea. I try to eat the dinner of spicy noodles and pound some tang, but my upset stomach is unhappy with the acidic mess of food.. I immediately worry that the snacks before basecamp were the first foods that I ate that were not cooked, or pre-packaged and begin to worry. I eat fried bread and porridge instead and try to take some antibiotics since it feels like I am contaminated with something. I also take some dexamethasone orally, and my next dose of Diamox. I put on my parka, expected the urge to diarrhea and vomiting to return soon. I don’t have to wait long. I puke into my two food bowls without spilling into the tent and precariously hand the nearly overflowing vessels to Forrest. The pills are likely floating in the mess within those bowls. Forrest says we have to descend, but I can’t move. I am completely exhausted, and more dehydrated than I have ever been from all of the vomiting and diarrhea. Happy New Year indeed.
Day Fourteen 01/02/15: I wake up with full blown wet, thick, sputum cough. Likely high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). I can hardly stomach any food. Mong and Forrest take almost all my weight, and I stumble to the latrine for more explosive diarrhea. The 4hr hike that took us to basecamp takes me 8hrs to descend shakily, walking like a toddler with two trekking poles across rock trail that is now coated in snow. I have to stop twice more with horrible diarrhea on the side of the trail. I try to drink and can only get 1.5L of hydration salts down. We reach Chukkung eventually and my cough is so bad that I don’t sleep at all. I can no longer walk or stand under my own power and my bathroom trips are poorly coordinated. I piss all over myself trying to operate the complexities of my own pants. I cannot eat because I am too tired, I fall asleep during the act.
Day Fifteen 01/03/2015: My level of responsiveness drops substantially to level two, I know where I am and who I am, but that is about it. I am no longer speaking coherently or able to answer questions. I have very little memory of this day, I spend most of this time slouched in bed wearing my full down parka and in a down sleeping bag trying to stay warm. Forrest periodically hands me something and tries to shake me awake to get me to drink it and take some meds. This persists for one or two days, I’m not really sure because I remember very little. Eventually, the tea house staff rallies to drag my weak frame outside and prop me on a lawn chair. I am loaded into a helicopter and flown to Kathmandhu. By this point, I feel like I am hammered drunk and reeling even sitting still in a chair. Halfway down Forrest and I sit on a helipad and wait to be transferred to another helicopter. I am feeling slightly better, but still so very weak. Eventually, I am loaded onto an ambulance and taken to a hospital for the works. CT scan, x-rays, IV fluids, antibiotics, and antivirals. My white blood cell count is over 20,000 and I am severely dehydrated.
Day 16-18: 01/04/2015-01/05/2015: Each morning two nurses greet me between 6:30-7:30 am and examine the IV going into my hand that is supposed to replenish my fluids. “How many times did you make the urine?” I shake my head, and reply “none”. An exchange of surprise looks is followed by a painful flicking and attempt to adjust the less than ideal placement of my IV. During the days, forests large six foot frame is uncomfortably crunched on a guest couch in my room as he attempts to Skype my health insurance while I drift in and out of wakefulness. The steady flow of oxygen and bizarre array of American B movies is enough to numb my mind back into sleep. Eventually, Forrest’s Mom Debbie comes by the hospital from her nearby work with the AACC in the area and visits. She is pretty quickly alarmed by the massive swelling in my IV hand which is clearly infected and encourages a new placement by the nurses. After two days without fluids, I am finally hydrating. My first micturition smells horrible and has maple syrup like coloration/consistency, but it seems to satisfy the the nurses nonetheless. How many times did I make the urine? One. The doctors agree to release me at the end of the third day with a pile of antibiotic pills to take as well as some cream for my ballooning infected hand.
I spend the remainder of my trip either sleeping, eating, or walking short distances. There are many takeaways from this trip which are great lessons albeit hard ones to learn first hand. First of all, I am very grateful to have such amazing friends and family to care for me in a time where I was incapable of doing so. Forrest and Debbie made my experience a lot more bearable. Secondly, I am very much ashamed of my ego clouding my judgement in a way that potentially endangers myself and others. From the start, I was determined not to be another white tourist taking advantage of underpaid native guide/porter services. Realistically, Nema and Mong are stronger and more fit than myself, and my reluctance to let them do the job that they are paid for is disrespectful in its own way by not recognizing how things are done in Nepal. I avoided being carried to the top of some mountain in the Everest circuit, in part because of what a terrible stain it has become on broader implications for alpinism and mountaineering. This logic is what caused me to overtrain prior to my arrival, fail to take time to acclimate appropriately, and over-assess my ability to ascend rapidly. It was not entirely pride that caused me to deny the obvious signs of my upper respiratory tract infection prior to HAPE onset. The other factor was the large amount of money, time, and closing weather window that made bailing on the climb undesirable. The results were humbling. I have intentionally avoided high altitude ascents since that time in favor of more technical vertical climbing, who knows if I will return to Nepal anytime soon. If I decide to climb something tall again, I will definitely acclimate properly and will likely not shoot for much taller than 16,000-17,000ft since I know how my body responds to said altitude.