Note: I’m afraid this post needs to address some sad intensity of today.
“Your guide very sick. Must go down mountain tonight.” “He will be dead in the morning if he tries to sleep here.” So the manager of our lodge told us at about 7:15 tonight.
Milan’s (our semi-guide’s) brain is shutting down due to severe altitude sickness. He recognizes nobody, his eyes are glazed over, he cannot walk on his own. He seems incapable and confused at attempts to hydrate him or make him take any pills. Looking closely into his eyes, it looks to me like his soul has almost entirely left his body and a nearly empty shell of a human being is weakly clinging to life. Sanity is already on hiatus. He has to go down the mountain tonight, at least several hours of walking down and he can’t even stand up sturdily on his own. It’s already below freezing and even inside our room we’re expecting the temperature to drop to about -14 degrees.
Milan is here today because we hired him to be here. He has a wife and five-year-old daughter. Caught in time, altitude sickness can disappear almost instantly when the person is brought down in elevation. If ignored to the point Milan is currently at, he could be dead in a matter of hours. Below is a brief account of the day. I do not know his current condition.
* * *
6:15am: Alarm goes off, Maggie and I hustle through our ritual of Houdini-style clothing adjustments inside our sleeping bags and then packing up our goods—including the water bottles we slept with to keep them from freezing in the night. We go to the dining area where the porters and guides sleep. Nobody is up yet. It takes close to an hour to get out. Milan tells us he slept terribly because people were snoring and it was cold, and for this reason he’s not feeling very well.
7:30am: We begin our three-hour hike to Gorak Shep. The sun has risen somewhere and there’s light in the sky, but the peaks around us block it so it’s cold and dark on one side of us, but slowly the mountains to the West of us blasting bright reflections of light that look warm and friendly. We anxiously anticipate direct sunlight. Throughout the hike, which isn’t so bad, Milan is telling us how much more difficult the hike will be when we return and cross the Cho La pass. Maggie and I are both feeling cheesy, giddy, prepared “bring it on” enthusiasm.
10:30am: Arrive in Gorak Shep, our highest sleeping point and the location of Sir Edmund Hillary’s base camp. The collection of lodges sit beside a sandy beach that was hoisted to this elevation a million or so years ago from its old position as a seabed. After dropping off most of our baggage and having a quick bite, our porter (Dozi) escorts us on the hike to base camp, as Milan apologizes but says he’s not feeling so great.
2ish?: Arrive at Everest Base Camp. High fives and hugs and contemplation and photos. I’m stunned at how rocky it is and how difficult I would think it would be to set up a camp there. And amazed to think how this becomes safe-haven home after the climb, versus the tip of our trek. We can hear the cracking of the Khumbu Glacier, which travels about one meter every day. We can see the Khumbu Icefall and looking at base camp I imagine the ’96 teams and disasters that led to the death of 12 people that year on the mountain as retold in Into Thin Air, The Climb, and No Shortcuts to the Top (among others, but those are the ones I read).
Like a battlefield, base camp in and of itself is amazing and beautiful, but mainly an attraction for what happens there. Knowing the significance of the place, replaying stories in your head and being better able to imagine the environment where such powerful and dramatic stories have unfolded (and will continue to do so) is great.
4:30pm: We return to our lodge, it’s getting cold, the sun is already behind the mountains. We eat dinner about 5. No sign of Milan; we figure he’s resting somewhere. Maggie goes to have a cup of hot lemon and I go up behind the lodge to take some dusk photos. Suddenly I see an almost full moon has poked its head up right next to Mt. Everest. I hustle down the stairs to get Maggie and hustle back up. At the top of maybe 15 stairs I have to stop and catch my breath and feel my heart pounding as though Mola Ram were about to rip it out. Another reminder of the elevation we’re at.
As the moon slowly rises and the light steadily shifts into sunset colors, it already feels like one of the highlights of the trip. Although Everest may look smaller when it humbly hides back behind Nuptse’s shoulder, once the sun has set on every other scrap of mountain, it still shines a fiery red light on Everest, clearly identifying the biggest dog on the block. Neither my nor Maggie’s cameras were able to capture it perfectly. But that might also just be that the feeling was more of watching the magnificent process than trying to capture a moment within it.
7pm: We’ve eaten dinner, the porters and guides are now eating, including Dozi, but not Milan. Maggie and I realize we need to figure out what’s going on. It’s not unusual at the end of the hiking day for him to do his own thing. We appreciate the time to ourselves and respect that he knows everybody and their brother and wants to see them. Neither Maggie or I feeling well at this point, with mild, expected altitude adjustment symptoms. I’m nauseous with a moderate headache. Maggie’s doing better than me but we both have a terrible time focusing on a topic clearly for more than a few seconds at a time. As we’re thinking we need to find Milan, the manager walks in and delivers the line at the top of this entry.
My first thought is that it’s overstating the problem and that nobody is going anywhere because it’s already below freezing outside. Then they bring him down and I fail to communicate with him. Milan is in his late 20’s, once ran a 2:24 marathon, and finished 3rd in the Everest Marathon in 2007 (which begins at over 17,000 feet and finishes after significant ups and downs at a little over 11,000 feet) in 4:07. In the last couple years though he’s mainly been behind a desk and taken up casual cigarette smoking.
The manager brings over a box of medications and asks Maggie what each of them is and if we should administer any of them. I hate sexism, and it always makes me crazy when people assume that just because someone is a woman, she must also be a doctor.
Doesn’t matter, Milan refuses to eat or drink anything. A random young Russian appears behind us and generously offers us good altitude drugs. We thank him but say our friend is refusing to take anything and that we’ve already tried to give him Diamox. The Russian makes himself more clear. “I have good Rawssian peel.” Can you not be a stereotype for five minutes? It was a kind gesture but Milan wasn’t going to take anything.
Porters, guides, and the manager—about 10 people–gather and solemnly discuss what to do. Dozi frantically packs his small backpack, the manager brings out his 15-year-old son. These two will escort Milan down the side of the mountain tonight under a full moon. Maggie and I are both in shock and are deferring to the people who live here.
Had we come on our own, we would’ve done further recon on the do’s and don’ts in worst-case scenarios, but in the end we knew how far out of our element we were and so we went to an agency in Kathmandu to provide a porter and guide. By 8pm, Milan, Dozi, and a young boy were hiking down a rocky slope past last night’s stop of Lobuche. Everyone agreed Milan is too far gone and needs to go further down. To Pheriche if possible, where there is a hospital. But that’s an 8-hour hike. Dozi has been up since about 6:30 this morning and had about an hour to himself in that time.
So tomorrow? Our plan was to hike up Kala Pattar, a seemingly tiny mound beside Gorak Shep that provides 360-degree views. We’ve been told it’s the toughest part of the trek. I’m not feeling really up to it right now. It was an amazingly successful day that felt like capping the trip, followed by an evening that has scared the hell out of me. I need to put worst-case scenarios out of my head right now because there’s nothing I can do and I just can’t face the thought right now of worst-case scenario. But it’s the elephant in my head.
We’ll stick to our plan of getting up and attempting Kala Pattar. Maggie has convinced me it’s a good idea, and she’s right. We should do it partly for Milan, partly for ourselves, and just because. If I feel this ill in the morning, I’ll probably stay here, but I’ll set the alarm for pre-dawn and at least have a mug of hot lemon and see how I’m feeling.
And after Kala Pattar (estimated at 4 hours up and down)? Who knows. Everything is suddenly uncertain at an elevation above any permanent settlement in the world.
Although it’s not from today, I want to end this entry with a photo of Milan, the guide who has gotten us this far with humor, levity, commitment, and an excellent ability to read people. I cannot imagine this trek without him.