17th October 2018, Kathmandu International Hospital
Pharyngitis and AMS the doctor has written on the whiteboard outside my room.
I haven’t even googled it yet. Sitting cross legged on bed, in lilac hospital pajamas, I google instead ‘Denali climbing operators’. Forever living in the future. I flick through images on my phone from only a day ago, bewildered that it was me, in those gigantic mountains. The himalayas are brutal, ruthless, unmerciful and, the reality has finally hit me, potentially fatal.
Days ago, when I walked in those epic mountains, moving on with the planned itinerary, from Kongma Dingma to Seto Pokhara, I couldn’t breathe. Fifteen minutes of walking, twenty metres of gain, panting and unable to feel any energy in my body. Moving towards the Amphu Laptsa pass, the 5845 metre glaciated ridge with overhanging seracs that lead us to the next mountain, I told Sabin, my guide, I couldn’t go on, that I would become a liability, and so the four of us sat.
On the dirt path, which zig zagged up between black granite, the morning sun shone on our faces and the wind whispered through dry grass. Nearby, flying bugs circled the soft edelweiss while Sabin perpetually dialled the satellite phone. Bleep Bleep Bleep. A jingle sound trilled out, like he had won the level of a computer game, except there was no winning here, only no reception. Bleep bleep again. Dorjee and Prem quietly stared into the valley and the decision was made:
We are going back down to the camp. There, we will get reception. Sabin will speak to Subin, the operations manager at Kathmandu. Subin will tell us what to do.
We walked back towards yellow tents and the tarped blue roof stone building. “Mikalu!” the babies cried and I stared back more bashful than before. We sat on the pile of stones in the middle of camp. It used to be a house, and might one day be piled into straight walls again to form another.
Chai, water. Bleep Bleep again, Nepali language. I wait.
There was no reception there, 5000 metres high in the valley. After some deliberation, Sabin told me, we would have to retreat to Khare. I had fucking known it. Two days ago, walking down from the summit, the thought passed through my mind that this would be an absolute arsehole to come up, and I hoped I would never see the path again. 2000 metres and two hours of trotting decent, might now take five hours of climbing or more. Five hours. Of grind. Of pain. F******@#!.
Okay. “Let’s do it”.
Leaving camp for the second time that morning I already felt awful and we had only just crossed the stream. Picking carefully through the stone path felt exhausting. I began my mantra:
“We go up”. “We go up”. “We go up”.
Not five minutes later I was panting, unable to breathe, gasping shallow breaths….. Haa…. a-Haa…… a-Haa……. a-Haa.
“I can’t breath Sabin”,
I called ahead stressed. As he turned and looked at me with worry on his brow, I could see his mind ticking, assessing the next step. In a sudden flurry we shuffled gear around, he took my backpack, water, his sat phone and puffer jacket, and quickly departed. Grateful and relieved, I watched him trot uphill to get reception and call a heli to pick us up.
The rescue has now begun.
Back at camp on the same pile of stones we wait again. Dorjee continually casts an experienced eye back up the hill, searching. More chai comes, with some semblance of sleep in the sun as two giggling babies crawled over me, residents at 5000 metres. “Sabin coming” Dorjee shouted as he pointed to the hill. It took a moment to spot the maroon fleece moving through the brown and wheat backdrop. He strode towards us, beaming and panting.
“Heli is coming.”
Heavy fog crept through the valley floor as if being spilled out of Heston’s caldron, and all the fleeting blue sky windows disappeared above. When I am handed the dinner menu in my tent at 5pm I knew it couldn’t be today. I panicked a little. Shallow hyperventilating breaths whilst thinking of the impeding night.
Will I die? Do I have pulmonary edema? It feels like I am suffocating. Calm yourself. Relax. You will be okay.
It is hard to self soothe, with the knowledge you could die. The mountains don’t play games.
Self rescue is the next skill to learn.
At 6pm I attempted to talk myself into getting out of the tent to join the others to eat dinner. Then, “Stepf?”, a light at my tent door. Fried noodles, greasy and delicious, were delivered to my hands followed by another knock at the door. The chef/camp director and mother of the two babies, sympathetic to my dilemmas, presented me with my first ever fried snickers bar. At 5,000 metres.
I woke up and encountered a strange feeling pass through me. A quiet thought, “I woke up”. I made it through the night and I am not dead. I had never had this thought before. It was spooky and dark. When this passed, I felt a wave of relief release me from the fear of yesterday. At 6:20am, sitting upright in my sleeping bag, I packed, slowly & breathlessly stuffing all of my belongings into sacks and opening my tent zipper and the acidic stench of pee.
Note to self: don’t empty pee bottles repeatedly on your front doorstep.
When I was ready I waited quietly. The vapour from my breath curled in tendrils towards the tent walls frozen solid with condensation. Half an hour passed.
Should I put on my shoes?
Prem popped into view and asked me if I would like tea as Sabin brushed his teeth on the rock pile, framed by my bright yellow tent door.
A faint woop woop sound floats through the air and Sabin dashes out of view. The heli is finally coming.
With shoes on and laces undone I dragged my bag out of the tent, lifting it as best I could over the acrid frozen pee patch. Prem reached and grabbed it from me, swiftly swinging it over his shoulder. More tea is passed to me, which I slurp as I tie up my shoes.
Whoop whoop WHOOP WHOOP WHOOP. It had finally arrived.
A big red machine appeared, foreign and industrial against the valley backdrop. Other shoelace tied, half drunk tea handed back to our chef with prayer hand, namaste, thank you. Striding towards heli, I felt too cool for someone so sick, walking past early risers and foreigners who arrived last night giving me an iphone paparazzi departure. Ducking down and running, Sabin waved me lower and gave me leg up into the heli. The three of us squished into the back seat with our bags. The pilot stuck up 2 fingers “2 people?”. Sabin gave a three fingered reply, the door slammed shut. We lifted fast and spun round, heading sideways down the valley, with our spectators disappearing in the distance.
We are safe now, and the trip is over. I already miss it as we fly over the remote Himalayas. It is so beautiful, the sun is not risen over the mountains but light streams over them like a tutor hall. Mera on our right, snow white and high.
The very top, that’s where I was three days ago.
By Stephanie Quirk