Updated: Dec 29, 2022
Last year I was an extremely lucky chap and won a trek to Everest Base Camp with 360 Expeditions. I'll never forget the moment. I went in to shock and felt completely out of my own body. Why ME!? Is this even happening!? Does this actually happen to people!? I was still stuck in New Zealand with no idea what the heck my future held and all of a sudden it seemed my destiny was set. In eighteen months time I would be flying to Nepal and painting the Himalayas. Phwar!
If you'd have told me that six days into the trek I'd be sat writing a blog from hospital, I'd have told you to pull the other one. And yet, here we are.
One of the last views I saw, for reasons explained below! - Prints Available
Everything started out fine. Albeit stressfully. With zero sleep the night before (thanks jetlag and a leak above my bed) we were loaded on to a mini bus at 3:30am and bumped along a winding country road. Arriving at Ramechhap Airport in the cover of darkness we were met with total chaos. Random bags were grabbed out of peoples hands and weighed. Several your groups of trekkers mashed together with zero direction or idea where to go. Apparently my name had been called out. Why hadn't I weighed my bag? What was I doing stood there!? Shouldn't I be getting on a plane!? I have no idea, should I!? Why am I being shouted at!? ARGH! Eventually I made it through "security" and it all caught up with me. The lack of sleep. The shouty chaos. I found a quiet spot to sketch the plane and burst into tears.
Woken from a semi-nap on a solid metal bench, the fog had lifted (both mentally and literally) and we were suddenly rushed on to a little green plane. The flight attendant frantically waved at some emergency exits on a sheet of paper which was laughable. We all knew we were going to land on the most dangerous runway in the world and if it didn't work out, we'd just explode into the side of a mountain!
Once we landed explosion free, the trek had truly started. After the discovery of Tibetan bread and honey and a few obligatory teams photos, we were off. It was a long way but in ten days or so we'd be at Everest Base Camp! The only real signs of altitude being a few people feeling light headed using stair cases. I didn't think anything of it. I was "young and fit" so surely I wouldn't feel it this early on.
Day one of the hike was all above board. It was the first time I'd properly hiked in months the trail under my feet felt great. It was a cloudy day in the foothills so the views weren't much to write home about but the novelty of yelling "porters!" "yaks" and "donkeys" kept it interesting. Giant rocks covered in prayers lined the trail and prayer wheels were dutifully spun every time we walked past them. I asked another trekker what they meant. "Peace, Safety, Generic Happiness". Great I said. I could always do with some of that!
Phakding. I probably shouldn't have speed walked to paint this... - Prints Available
Day two is where things started getting interesting. After a coooold night, our primary guide was declared sick with Covid. And if any of us had three symptoms (on a trek famed for poor hygiene and people getting sick!?) then we would be tested and potentially sent home. Great. I'd spend the better half of yesterday walking alongside him!
Most of the days walk went fine. But once we started climbing above the Hillary bridge things started getting weird. I plodded along as slowly as I could, fully aware of the 850m+ climb to Namche Bazaar. But in lagging behind I couldn't see the people in front to judge my speed. At one point I drank from my water bladder and both the ground and my legs turned to treacle. It felt like I was sinking through the floor. Not normal. By the time we reached Namche I was screwed. I felt really spaced out and my body temperature was all over the place. I didn't have a fever but a headache shot through my skull like nothing I'd ever experienced. Day two and I was reduced to tears again! Altitude sucks!
Hillary Bridge, Khumbu Valley - Prints Available
Because we'd climbed so high in one day, we needed a rest day. Which also serves as an important chance to do some other acclimatising walks. Except I was too ill. So I missed out on vital extra 400m+. After a bit of sunbathing I just about made it into town but a quick walk to the monastery and back that evening made me feel like death again. With the added joy of staring blankly at my food. My appetite had gone and I wouldn't see it for another week.
That evening we received some news I could have done without. For the sake of gaining extra contingency days we would cram together two short days, making one "big day". My heart sank and I got angry all at the same time. It didn't make sense to me. I was still displaying classic altitude sickness symptoms at the end of our rest day and I'd be pushing up another 600m. Chatting to mountaineers since, apparently climbing whilst still feeling like crap is part of the deal with these kind of treks but at the time it seemed completely insane. It still does! But I think realistically I was doomed from the moment we reached Namche,
Namche Bazaar, buggered by altitude - Prints
So off we went. Climbing steep stairs straight out the back of town. Feeling like crap. I hung at the back on purpose, trying to give myself every chance I could. In one section we descended downhill for the first time on the trek. I came alive. It was like a light switch. I was suddenly fit. Devoid of symptoms. I could practically run down the track and I revelled in a brief burst of speed, seeing if the Sherpa could keep up with me. Of course they could :) (in conversations with mountaineers since, I've learnt that this was a bad bad move)
Then we hit the uphill steps again. New friends Jen and Lucy hung back with me and the last section towards Dole became a real struggle. Each foot becoming a shuffle as my head pounded away again. Freshly aware of itself as my latest round of paracetamol wore off.
I made it to the hut to a round of applause but it didn't feel like much of an achievement. I'd just slowly put one foot in front of the other and put up with feeling like crap. Cue day three of crying. I just wasn't having any fun. Sat in the middle of everyone else on the trek, revelling in how they'd had such a great day, I may as well not be on the trek. I'd felt like death warmed up since the moment we started climbing and there was no sign of it letting off. This was not the trek I'd dreamed of.
Day five got a bit weird. My balance was starting to feel a bit unstable so I was given a choice to wait a day and end up out of sync with the rest of the group or let the Sherpa help with my bag and if I felt worse, turn around. This is another one of those "what if moments" because we'd climbed another 600m from Namche and it no doubt deserved another rest day. But despite this option potentially saving the trip, mentally I felt OK and the idea of doing the rest of the trek on my own was depressing as heck. Not to mention really isolating. So I chose to push on. Very likely another mistake.
I shuffled on up another 450m to Machermo. The sherpa patiently carrying my bag on the steep bits and reporting me in as "slow but strong!". I was trailing about half an hour behind the rest of the group. With each metre of ascent things got tougher. Every time I stopped moving I almost felt asleep on my hiking poles. I would randomly feel like lurching forward and landing flat on my face. I could barely stand up straight. But without an English speaking guide I couldn't really report my symptoms so I dutifully plodded along, feeling all kinds of weird, until I made it to camp at 4470m. More applause. More staring at food blankly and wishing my appetite would come back. My only success being apple. Oh apple how I love you when I have altitude sickness!
I was surprised to feel pretty good that night. My headache eased off and I was staring blankly at less things. "Ben mate, if tomorrows another short day I reckon I've got this. I feel the best I've felt in ages"
I didn't "got this".
The next morning I remember waking up slowly to the door being knocked. I faffed about in my awkward sleeping bag liner and eventually managed to answer it. Apparently it had taken a "dangerously long time to get me to respond" but to this day I'll never know if it was altitude sickness or just really good ear plugs! I'm not a morning person!
Either way, a polite conversation was had about my condition. There was already a helicopter on the way for another one of the trekkers and it was advised I got on it. I simply wasn't acclimatising fast enough for the demands of the trek and "sometimes people just aren't made for altitude". I didn't have to think about it at all. I'd felt like complete s**t for four days straight and we still had more climbing to do! Get me on that chopper asap!
And that was that. Two helicopters and an ambulance later I was in hospital diagnosed with HACE. Higher Altitude Cerebral Edema. A rare form of altitude sickness involving brain swelling, that if left alone for 48 hours can be deadly. I'm so glad I woke up that morning. If I didn't, I dread to think if I ever would have.
The nurse set me up with a drip and wheeled me towards a lift. "We have a quarantine facility for people like you." "Oh yeah? Great. Wait.... What do you mean?" "For the Covid... did the doctor not tell you you had Covid? You have Covid."
Sure. Of course I do...
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