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Monday, April 24, 2017

Meeting the Mountain; Meeting Myself

Laurie Kelley en route to
Everest base camp
Everest Base Camp Journal Part 2

Why do people subject themselves to hardship and even personal risk to climb a remote mountain, or in my case, just to gaze upon one? I learned on the second part of the Everest base camp trek that when you meet the mountain, you are meeting yourself. To get to base camp requires suffering long before you start through hard core training, then the trek itself with all its deprivations, illness and discomfort, and for what? It's to see a mountain that most will never see. But it's also to see a side of yourself you might never see. The mountain holds a mirror to you, showing you inner parts that are not apparent unless pain and testing bring them forth. Sometimes you are angry with yourselfyou allowed yourself to be ill, fall behind, complain. Sometimes, you are surprised: I did it! I climbed that baby! Sometimes, you are amazed: not only did I overcome, but I did it with grace and appreciation.
     These are the things you learn by undertaking these journeys. But the mountain is only a metaphor, because anything that unveils your deeper inner self involves risk and suffering: being a parent, being in a relationship, going to school, trying for a new job or career, getting healthy, overcoming a severe illness... a chronic illness, like hemophilia. Pushing yourself into a new terrain, to learn, to try, to even fail. When it is over, you know more about who you are, and what you can do, and what is possible.

Chris Bombardier, a young man with hemophilia from Denver, Colorado, is pushing his limits to see what he can do, not just for himself but for all people with hemophilia; not so that everyone will climb a mountain, but as a metaphor for what is possible, what can be overcome, and to find out who we are as individuals.
                                                                                                          
Our rugged route for 9 days
Friday April 7, 2017
“… the climbers I know all love life and fight furiously to hold on to it, and the same restless energy and enthusiasm helps them overcome the problems of everyday life and is transmitted to those around them.” Joe Tasker and Chris Bonington, Savage Arena 

I was awake at 5 am in my lovely room at the "Rivendell" tea house. I had a fabulous night’s sleep but it was freezing in the room. The extreme cold sapped my cell phone batteries, and I realized I needed to start sleeping with all my batteries. I had scrambled eggs and two pieces of white toast for breakfast. Not much, but I haven’t had an appetite.
            The hiking wasn’t strenuous, but at this altitude, I still plodded. At times I walked alone, at other times with Lhakpa, the 29-year-old sherpa assigned to accompany me as I tried to catch up with our group (I'm two days behind everyone due to food poisoning). He carried my 44 lb. rucksack as well as his own on his back the entire time. After two days, I finally caught up with everyone in Dingbouche. Tashi, the lead sherpa, hugged me! I made it! "Many people get sick on these treks," he shared, "but not many recover to continue the trek." I felt instantly better hearing that.

Saturday April 8, 2017
“Snow mountains, more than sea or sky, serve as a mirror to one’s own true being, utterly still, utterly clear, a void…” Joe Trasker and Chris Bonington, Savage Arena

Climbers Memorial
Our group of nine climbers set out and the walk was a switchback uphill for a while, which we all took slowly, with Ryan in the lead. No one spoke for a long time. Up and up… the mountains were stunning, the road dusty.
            Eventually after two hours we came to the climbers’ memorial. These are cairns of stone, erected in memory of those lost on Sagarmatha (Everest). First I saw Rob Hall’s, which was plain; Hall was the guide portrayed in the 2015 movie "Everest." Then Scott Fisher’s, which was colorful with prayer flags and writing (he was also portrayed in the movie). Prayer flags flapped in the wind above. The wind was cutting-cold and borderline uncomfortable.
            After paying our respects, we walked on, this time more downhill and soon came to a lunch spot. I only had half of bowl of soup and one piece of toast. 
            Now came the hard part: over an hour of plodding, up and up. Dust, wind, no air. Yak caravans broke up the monotony now and then. One step at a time. Everyone slowed to a crawl. There were a lot of people now on the trail. After an hour we came to flatter surfaces with low scrub, big round boulders. The walking was easier. We walked for another hour to hour and a half, and came to Lobouche at 16,000 ft. I felt great now. No headaches. We crashed at the picnic tables inside, and had tea.

            I watched Maria eat a Snickers bar and suddenly felt really well. Jess took out chocolate covered pomegranates and I devoured a bunch.
            Tomorrow we will hike and stop at Gorak Shep at 17,000 feet. Monday we will arrive at base camp.

Sunday April 9, 2017
“… Charles Dickens, crossing the Atlantic in 1842, described his cabin as an ‘utterly impractical, thoroughly hopeless and profoundly preposterous box.'” The Lost City of Z

It’s 7:30 pm and I’m already in my sleeping bag. It's. so. cold. My fingers are numb. But I paid $3.50 for a little bowl of hot water and I washed my face and hands and it felt excellent. I knelt before the bowl as though I worshiped it! It’s a tiny little room, just plywood. 
Yet looking out the window, I see stunning views of the Himalaya at night. The mountains are stark against a clear, cold night. I can see the Big Dipper at my window, bright and magnificent.
            We started at Lobouche, hiked some steep hills at times, switchbacks, some rough terrain. Yaks continued to pass us, jangling their cow bells. Jess has severe sinus problems. We stopped along the way to rest. A slow, easy trek about three hours. We arrived at Gorak Shep today at 11 am. It was a surprisingly dirty place. We had lunch and then the group climbed a local hill to see Everest, but I opted to stay behind and rest. When Chris and Rob returned, even they looked cold and spent. 

Monday April 10, 2017
“This is at the bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have the courage for the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter.” Rainer Maria Rilke

I’m relaxing in my clean, spacious tent at Everest base camp finally! We’ve all had lunch and it’s 2 pm. Everyone’s pretty tired, but a good tired, from hard work.
            We were up at 6 am after a wonderful night’s sleep despite the cold in the tiny, plywood room. The room was freezing overnight! Everyone seems tired today, or in their own little world. It was windy and cold, and we started to ascend. It was a long morning. A two-hour hike turned into a three-hour hike because we fell in behind a yak caravan and we couldn’t pass. It was too dangerous as the trail was so narrow and high. Large rocks bordered the path, keeping us from pitching over mountainsides. So we plodded: the yaks, the sherpas, our guides and me.
            My fingers, grasping trekking poles, went numb from the cold. Luckily my toes were warm and my core was fine, thanks to five layers of warmth. Rocks littered the path; this was hard work. I could hardly lift my eyes to see the peaks anymore. The wind kicked up and knocked me down onto a rock at one point. I didn't know it then but I had already lost four pounds.
            At 17,500 feet, we’re at 50% oxygen levels. My breathing was labored as I tried to suck in as much oxygen as I could. Jess was feeling ill, and lagged behind. A sherpa and Jess's husband Chris helped her all the way to base camp.
First glimpse of Everest
            As I trudged along, I looked up at one point and unexpectedly saw the tip of Everest. Before it were triangular mountains with snow caps, looking almost cheery, like ski slopes. Then behind them, a menacing black triangle jutted in the middle—Everest—with a shroud of white mist swirling about it, like a black sorcerer’s cap surrounded by ghostly conjurings.
            That is Chris Bombardier's prize: Everest. Despite the strong wind and my frozen hands, I laid down my poles, unclipped my backpack and struggled to remove my digital SLR camera to capture this. I thought, It looks like a minister, wrapped in his black robe, protected by his minions with their blue capes with white fur tops. And at their feet, and below me, was a valley with moraines and glaciers…. A violent geological upheaval that happened thousands of years ago. Rocks, boulders, ice blocks, all jumbled together in chaotic form, a testament to the birth of the Himalaya and all the earthquakes and avalanches there since.
           At last from up on our ridge, I could see below tiny yellow tents in the distance, in a valley of blue ice. Base camp! The camp grew closer, the tents more in focus. The terrain became even more difficult to manage. I squeezed through some tight rocks and wondered how on earth the yaks with their burdens squeezed through these same places?
            Descending into the valley, I finally hit level ground and saw the big rock decorated with prayer flags and a sign: “Everest base camp 2017.” Ryan and the group were there and Ryan offered a high five. He asked how I was feeling—how was my head? I told him I felt great. We waited for Jess.
Everest base camp!
            It was still another 20 minutes to our camp. The group pulled away again and I actually got lost and confused at base camp. Where was our tent? So many tents and groups all staked out their camps. I felt like a penguin chick who lost its mother and faced a mob of others who were not terribly sympathetic. Finally I saw Chris and Jess and waited to walk with them.
            Camp is nice! Once there, we met in the mess tent, relaxing and having tea. Some euphoria, and lots of fatigue. Leif confided he felt so much emotion at being back. Eventually the sherpas served a wonderful lunch. The table was covered with a cheery tablecloth, with colorful plastic flowers that added a touch of home. There was tea, coffee and cocoa set out with biscuits. My personal tent even had a welcome mat in front of it!
            Our camp sits right at the foot of the famous Khumbu ice fall; I couldn’t believe that I was gazing on this natural wonder, this thing of legends. I knew from all my readings of Everest and all the documentaries and movies I’ve seen, that this was the start of the Everest summit hike. The climbers must navigate this ravaged glacier, which has crumbled into a morass of massive ice blocks, collapsed seracs and endlessly deep crevasses. The climbers begin here and then can move on to higher camps and eventually the summit. The ice fall would take them over six hours to navigate; they’ll need to use ropes and up to 12 aluminum ladders over the crevasses and up the sides of some glacier blocks. It’s a frightening labyrinth. And here it was, first thing I could see when I unzipped my tent door!

Tuesday April 11, 2017
The magnificent Khumbu ice fall from my tent!
I set up my tent yesterday, straightened out everything for the next three days. It’s so cold! When the sun goes down, wow. So I put in my sleeping bags my clean clothes for tomorrow. Tashi gave me a hot water bottle for my bag, which was heavenly. I slept at 6:30 pm and woke up at 11:14 pm absolutely freezing! It must have been 15° or lower. I could see my breath. It’s hard to describe how the cold is; you take it personally that it is trying to hurt you. I was awake till past 3:30 am. I heard avalanches, the slow crashing of a mountainside, a roar that makes you wait and hold your breath. Sometimes the wind barreled in, making it colder. My breath condensed on my sleeping bag ridge near my mouth, forming little sheathes of ice. I hardly drank any water all night, maybe a cupful as it was in the bag with me, tied up in a dry bag. If the water spilled and my sleeping bag got wet, I’d be in real trouble.
           I drifted back to sleep a bit, and finally the morning came. I could only sit up and pull on clean clothes, then get back into the safety of my sleeping bag. I had to dash out of it to grab throat lozenges in the outer portion of the tent, then Advil, then back under the covers. After 30 minutes, I got the courage to pull on fleece pants. If you told me two hours later I’d be showering in a tent, outside, I would have called you crazy! But I did it.
            The sun started warming everything. At 8 am I ventured out for tea in the mess tent. I had to climb over rocks and down makeshift steps to get to the mess tent. I was actually feeling pretty good by then. Just light-headed from lack of hydration, sleep and food. But the others had headaches too.
In front of camp: monstrous seracs
            The shower was simple and good. Solar-heated hot water in a bag suspended overhead inside a tent. I felt refreshed, clean and renewed. At 10:30 am we met all the sherpas, and I realized how much work they had done in the previous two weeks before our arrival to set up this camp. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

I went to bed last night at 6:30 pm, taking no meds this time. I drifted in and out of sleep, and despite temps dropping to a bone-chilling 1°, I slept beautifully.
            In the morning, the sun came out and the temperature shot to about 40°. And I was so relaxed, after a 12 hour sleep, that I started enjoying everything. Our camp sits in a valley hemmed by stunning mountains, and strange glacial forms. Before us, the Khumbu ice fall waited. 
            After breakfast was a gear check for Chris and the other climbers and then Tashi set up the aluminum ladder, and had everyone cross it, including me! 
            The weather was warm, the food good, the company nice. That day I stayed up till 8:30 pm and then went to bed. I had a bizarre experience in the night. I woke up at 11 pm, absolutely gasping for air. It felt like someone was strangling me. This happened throughout the night till about 3:30 am, when I bolted out of the bag, into the grim, subfreezing air to grab a Diamox. I had not taken any in 24 hours. Without it, I felt I was being asphyxiated. Kat, one of the climbers, told me the next morning that this was "Cheyne-Stokes" syndrome. As we sleep the brain registers it is not getting enough oxygen, and so causes a reaction that wakes us up, feeling like we are drowning, so we gulp in more air.

           
Thursday April 13, 2017
“… as a mountaineer the essence of life is in the struggle, the contest against great odds…” Joe Tasker and Chris Bonington, Savage Arena

I’m sitting in the noisy but very warm and stuffy, rustic dining room in Lobouche tea house, where Jess, Lhakpa and I stopped around 6 pm, after the return-from-base-camp trek from hell, unable to proceed any further. We were lucky enough to get one room, the last one left, and we claimed it, even though it was like sleeping in a meat locker overnight.
Priorities: the sherpas erect
a small stupa for prayer
            I awoke this morning, our last day at base camp, cold and shivering. I’d be leaving base camp, and after a three-day trek, be back in Lukla. Jess has been absolutely suffering with a massive sinus infection and constant headaches for four days. By 10 am, I noticed three huge cloud formations in the direction we would be leaving. The sun, always so welcome and warming the air by 30 degrees, disappeared this morning and a damp cold settled in. I was concerned; we had a five-hour hike ahead of us through rough terrain in very cold weather with bad weather apparently on the way and a sick hiker. Jess and I should have started our journey right after breakfast, when it was warmest and when it gave us time. But we started out at 1:15, very late.
            Why? Well, there was the puja ceremony, a necessary ritual to bless the climbers. The llama came at 10 am, sat on the ground in front of the makeshift stupa and chanted. Safety concerns overrode my desire to participate or celebrate. I snapped photos but also ducked into the mess tent to escape the cold. It was hard to enjoy the ceremony with this trek hanging over my head.
            The ceremony lasted two hours. Eating, incense, chanting, rice throwing. Then came Sherpa singing and then dancing, which was fun. At the foot of the Khumbu ice fall we all did the Sherpa dance, stamping our feet, arms about one another in a circle.
Chris Bombardier practicing on ladder
            After lunch, I said my goodbyes to the climbers: Maria and Frederick, Leif and Tona, Kat and Meretta. We hugged good bye and I blew kisses, with Maria tearing up. I was amazed at this daring group of people from Norway, Sweden and France, all hardcore mountaineers.
            But my favorite mountaineer was outside: Chris and Jess had a hard time parting. Both were sobbing, with Rob catching it all on film. I hugged Tashi good bye and said good bye to all the sherpas. Then we were off. My parting look at Chris was of him sitting on the ground at the edge of the little glacial pool, mournfully looking away, tears in his eyes, with Rob filming him. He and Jess would not see one another for 5 weeks or more.
The puja: to bless the climbers
            The trek was really tough. We forged uphill, at a snail’s pace. Rocks were everywhere, endangering our steps. It took 45 minutes to one hour just to exit base camp and get on the trail leading out, which went up and down continually. The ascents are hard due to the altitude; just a few steps up leaves you gasping for air, your quads burned out. You wait to replenish the oxygen in your system and try again. We passed climbers coming in, trekkers, yaks and mules and porters. Jess was hurting still. Eventually we walked two hours in this dusty, rocky, geological mess, at times not able to see anything—not even other trekkers—except rocks, boulders, mountains, grey and old, solid and unforgiving. We came at last to Gorak Shep. We stopped only for tea; the place was so dirty and cold even we didn't want to stay, tired as we felt. As soon as we sat down at a table in the dining room, Jess curled up in a ball to sleep. I wasn’t at my best either, coughing constantly and cold. 
        The trail was a wild, rocky mess. I was bundled up with six layers on top, but just hiking pants below, a hat, buff and great hood. My feet were fine. My fingers went numb as I was wearing only glove liners and not my ski gloves, which were in the rucksack. My nose ran constantly, into the buff. I steamed up my glasses, so I couldn’t see where I was going. Now and then I paused to see my surroundings: moraines, ice hoodoos, piles and piles of rocks of all sizes and types—some as big as houses. The stunning, massive Himalaya, which now looked dark and foreboding. The cloud cover was extremely low, as if to blind and oppress the mountains. The wind blew at a clip, chilling us. I kept thinking, It could always be worse, so be glad. Just put one foot in front of the other. This day will eventually end. You know that much.
            The wind picked up and it started to snow. Jess was getting worse. Lhakpa had to support her and she slumped to the ground whenever we stopped. Other times she coughed so much she moaned. Lhakpa held her head. 
            What if this gets worse? The cold air, the lack of nourishment, the constant walking. We asked a Sherpa who passed us about hiring a donkey. But the idea of Jess on a donkey for another two days was absurd. This was a tourist road; we had options.
            What about a helicopter? I asked Lhakpa and he explained the costs. We made it somehow, the next 30-60 minutes to Lobouche, where there was literally one room left at the tea house. 
            We got an unheated room with three beds. Lhakpa fussed with Jess, taking excellent care of her. He put her in the bed, in a room so cold we could see our breaths. He brought her hot soup and a thermos of hot water to sip through the night. He also brought a hot water bottle, which Jess clutched to her as a mother would a baby. I finally told Jess I was ordering a helicopter. The chopper would come at 6 am, and it would take 7 minutes, not two days, to get to Lukla!


Friday April 14, 2017
The night was long and fitful, sleeping in a sub-freezing room. Jess awoke at 3:30 am, coughing and moaning. Lhakpa was right there to offer hot water, and to compress her head, which helped. After about 15 minutes, he went back to bed, singing. The next day I asked what he was singing, and he told me, “A prayer.” What an endearing young man. Jess and I tipped him well as he offered to us compassion and help that cannot be feigned or bought.
Rescue!
            The helicopter arrived around 6:20 am. We were easily up, dressed, packed. Skipping breakfast or even hot tea, we walked out to the landing site, just the top of a slight hill, and waited. The red rescue Fishtail helicopter thwacked its way to us and we boarded. Truly about 10 minutes later we had bypassed all the rugged trails, the dust, the yaks, the tea houses, and flew over this mountainous and beautiful country, and landed in Lukla, high on a hill, the starting point of our trek two weeks ago. The chopper landed right next to the mountain top clinic, and we went inside. A kindly British doctor was there, who checked Jess over, gave her prescriptions for antibiotics, pain killers and decongestant, and in about an hour, a second helicopter came to take us to Kathmandu.
            It was here in Lukla that we said good-bye to Lhakpa, who cared for me for two straight days after my food poisoning, and who cared for Jess on her difficult journey. We would truly miss him. We could express our appreciation in words and in a huge tip, worth two months salary for him. His life is hard. What would he do when trekking season is over? “Work on our family farm,” he said. Maybe pick up odd jobs for trekkers or visitors. He has no steady income and like most in Nepal, is poor.
            By 10 am we had flown back to Kathmandu, and were in our hotel. What a contrast: clean, hot water, soft beds. It seemed surreal.
          And I was besieged by "climber's guilt." I could enjoy for the next few days all the comforts and luxuries of a modern hotel while Chris and the climbers slept every night in that bitter cold, had to climb up to Everest, camp by camp, further into the thin air. But that's what separates mountaineers from the rest of us. They are focused, impervious to so much hardship, welcome it in fact, push themselves to the extreme.
       Chris Bombardier is poised to make history as the first person with hemophilia to summit Everest. In fact, he already has made history as the first to attempt it. With what I have seen of his fortitude and courage, he will make it. I'm honored to have spent the days on the road with him, seeing him in action, sharing a little of the hardships they faced and will face, to understand the sacrifices they make, which are huge. He had asked me if we could do a base camp trek with others with hemophilia, and I replied count me out! But after two days, yeah. I can do it. I learned a lot about myself and how I respond to this hostile environment. I knew more about it and myself. I can apply that and push the envelope further. Yes, I would do it again.
www.saveonelife.net
        And it was a wonderful World Hemophilia Day in Kathmandu with the Nepal Hemophilia Society where we praised Chris for doing this, because he highlights the disparity in treatment between countries like the US and countries like Nepal. I reminded the crowd on April 17 that the first summit of Mt. Everest was not Sir Edmund Hillary of New Zealand, it was Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, a sherpa from Nepal. Together they conquered the tallest mountain on earth. Together we will conquer the disparity in hemophilia care one day.

Thanks again to Chris, and to Octapharma for full sponsorship of this climb. Follow Chris at Adventures of a Hemophiliac on Facebook. Please consider helping those in Nepal at Save One Life!

Hard good-bye: Chris and Jess Bombardier


Laurie Kelley and Jessica Bombardier:
cleaned up and ready for home!


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