My fellow trekker Eric staggered into Gorak Shep about two in the afternoon. This was the last staging post before Everest Base Camp and he was determined to make it. But he was feeling sick and had taken twice as long as the rest of us to get there. Nobody had told him that he should have turned around and gone down. He went straight to bed with body aches, nausea, diarrhoea and abdominal pain, and suddenly I had a real patient on my hands.
Fortunately I had a small pharmacy with me, so I treated all the symptoms I could and gave him some oral rehydration, but by night time he was no better and his insurance company arranged a Medevac. He spent a couple of nights in a Kathmandu hospital recovering from altitude sickness. Quite sad for a guy who was looking forward to celebrating his birthday at Everest Base Camp.
He wasn’t the only one to struggle. I saw a very unwell female tourist being piggybacked down the mountain by a Sherpa, going as fast as they could to get her to a lower altitude. And at one lodge some of the younger trekkers had just given up, saying they couldn’t walk any more and wanted to go home (by helicopter).
All this made me very aware that trips like this are not a trivial undertaking. I was shocked at how little mental and physical preparation some people had put into it. Many had not had any vaccinations or taken Diamox as prevention for mountain sickness. Some hadn’t even trained.
I would like to say that it was my meticulous preparation that got me there and back, but really there was an element of dumb luck. Eric had hiked at 14,000 ft in Colorado, but still got hit harder than anybody on the trip. In the end my elaborate strategy of putting one foot in front of the other, and the constant encouragement of my guide, made it a successful expedition.
But I was glad that I had had advice from a travel health specialist and got vaccinated for everything I could think of. And to be fair, Mt Everest has been my passion and interest for forty years. I had “virtually” done this trip many times. When I actually saw the mountain in person I just about fainted, and it wasn’t from lack of oxygen. was so excited that I used up my whole store of adjectives in about five minutes.
Even though the initial view is quite distant, the distinctive shape of the summit is instantly recognisable. And all its mystique and history, all its triumph and disaster, all its significance to New Zealanders in particular, came flooding back to me.
I really felt I was walking in Edmund Hillary’s footsteps. I’d taken one of his books with me and found it fascinating in two ways. The trekking route has huge ups and downs topographically, and I came to realise that building a school or a hospital in those conditions was a real feat of ingenuity and determination. And also I could begin to understand how far the Sherpa community has come in the last sixty years, from a medieval society with terrible disease and poverty, to quite a slick and well resourced (and locally owned) tourist enterprise.
In honour of Sir Ed one of my patients gave me a pack of Kendal mint cake, the energy snack that the British Everest Expedition used in 1953. It went all the way to Everest Base Camp with me and did the job as I was gasping in the thin air, which has 50 percent less oxygen than sea level.
I have to say that I left my heart in Dingboche. This pretty little village sits on a plateau at 14,000 ft and we had an acclimatisation day there. Some refer to this as a rest day, but it involves a four hour side trip to higher altitude to help the body adjust. Dingboche possibly has the highest snooker parlour in the world and boasts a surprisingly good bakery. But local customs are still preserved. It was the beginning of the yak dung collecting season and the villagers were out on the hillsides collecting this useful product for winter fuel. It is fashioned into patties and laid out to dry in the sun, still with the hand prints on. I had bravely washed my hair in the chill alpine water and was just recovering from the worst icecream headache ever, when a yak wandered in to the courtyard to meet the newcomer. I don’t speak yak but we exchanged a friendly nod, he had his breakfast and then moved on, apparently satisfied.
Travel is a series of memorable moments. And this little walk in the hills was full of encounters like that. I loved every minute of it.