April 16. We are in Tashi’s lodge having club sandwiches and French fries. This is a surprise because Loboche is 4,980 meters elevation, about 16,000 feet, and everything is carried in. Damian Vegas comes in (last name uncertain). He’s an Argentinean guide Apa knows from years of climbing. Apa tells me his twin brother is also at base camp and is on the ski patrol at Snowbird in the winter. Apa thinks they are both American citizens now, but he is not sure. To me Damian looks every bit the mountaineer: long wild hair, chiseled features, ageless. Damian is searching for his group which is from
and seems to have misplaced them. Clearly they can’t be far away because all of Loboche is about 500 feet long and the number of hiding places is about six. Spain
He says to Apa, “Base camp is completely different than last year, you won’t recognize it.” He is speaking of the topography, the shift and melt of the glacier. Since I haven’t been to base camp before whatever it looks like will be just fine. No expectations, no disappointments. Damian doesn’t elaborate on whether the changes are good, bad, or indifferent, and Apa is curious but not concerned. Furthermore Damian goes on to say that the weather this year isn’t like last year either. This year he says it is cold. Snow every day, and frigid temperatures. This news doesn’t bother Apa, but it does me. What gives Apa pause is when Damian says the ice doctors have set the route through the ice fall “left side.” Apa wants to know how far left side. Damian says as far left as you can go, “That’s not good,” Apa says, “I don’t like a route left side. Too dangerous.” Damian mentions a name I don’t catch and says he is also voicing complaint. Apa agrees. Left side is not good. Damian says there are fewer seracs overhanging the left side this year; most of them crashed down the southern slope of the western ridge onto the ice fall the past two years, but Apa doesn’t find this reassuring. “We lost a Sherpa left side last year,” he says. When Damian leaves Apa goes on to tell me that fewer seracs above the ice fall isn’t a guarantee of anything. “Fewer avalanches don’t help. It only takes one avalanche at the wrong time. That’s all that counts. The ice doctors should move the route as far right as they can. I don’t like it.” It’s as long a monologue as I’ve heard him give the entire trip, but then, as if he recognizes it himself he says, “Nothing we can do about it today. Forgeddaboutit.”
The trail to Gorak Shep follows the left side of the ridge containing the western side of the Khumbu glacier. On the map the ridge looks like a straight line all the way to the intersection of the Khumbu with the Khangri Nup glacier which feeds in from the west. Walking alongside this ridge on the valley floor it does feel like a straight line. There is only a gradual increase in elevation but at the end of this valley there is a fairly steep wall the trail zig-zags up. We climb the wall and crest a rise, the trail takes a left turn in about half a mile when it gets across the Kangri Nup. I imagine that after making that left bend that Gorak Shep will come into view. There is a stretch of sand with large boulders the size of small houses strewn every which way. We weave through these boulders and I notice the sand at my feet shifting a little to the left as if under me the ground is sloping away, but then it shifts to the right and I’m not sure of my footing. I put my right hiking pole out to stabilize myself and the boulders and ground seem to all move in unison in several directions. This can’t be right. I stop. It seems like my knees have gone weak yet my legs feel strong. Puli and Jetta and Apa are in the vicinity but I don’t see them just at the moment. I try to get a grip on myself and stand motionless but the shifting, whirling feeling continues, and I notice my head has started to ache. Apa comes along and I say to him, “Apa, I’m sorry to say this, but I’m dizzy.” That’s all it takes and he is onto me in a flash: “Not feeling good?” he asks. “No, I’m not,” I say, “I need to turn around and go down.” The feeling of dizziness and headache are so unique, and so unmistakable, that even in my debilitated condition I know I’ve fallen victim to the dreaded altitude sickness. I have an overpowering desire to just flee downhill, but somehow I hang on and go over the possibilities with Apa. I’m trying to talk him into continuing on even though I’m going to head back to down to Loboche. Tomorrow morning about 10:30 is the Puja ceremony at base camp, and we are trying to get there this afternoon so we don’t miss the Puja. I know attending this is very important to Apa, but he assures me that his going down to Loboche won’t jeopardize his going to the Puja ceremony. We’re that close.
“If you feel well in the morning,” Apa says, “we can take it easy and come back up to Gorak Shep and I’ll go up to the Puja quickly, then I’ll come back to Gorak Shep and meet you.” This line of reasoning removes any doubt I had. It does sound workable—he won’t miss the Puja and I can get down to a lower elevation quickly.
While we’ve been discussing this I’ve put on the pulse-oximeter and my blood-oxygen percentage is 85%. This is quite puzzling. We all look at the wrist read-out and let it sit and hover for a few minutes. It floats around 84% to 85% and this seems completely adequate since it’s been at that level for some days now. The curiosity wears off quickly as I’m incredibly uncomfortable. The four of us start the descent to Loboche. Understanding the onset of AMS (acute mountain sickness) and its correlation to the oxygen saturation in blood will have to wait. I give no further thought and concentrate on placing my feet going downhill as fast as I can, half running. “What are you doing?” Apa asks skipping alongside me, “Trying to set some kind of record to Loboche?” I slow down, but not by much. All the previous goals: base camp, camp 1, camp 2, any goals at all have suddenly vanished. Only one thought remains and it isn’t so much of a goal as a change of status. Getting rid of the grip this altitude sickness has on my being is paramount. Loboche is the promise of relief and the word Everest doesn’t even cross my mind anymore. “Keep drinking water,” Apa says as we speed along, “drink as much as you can.”
At Loboche I race into the lodge and straight to the toilet hoping that somehow relieving myself will expunge the devil that’s got me. Nothing doing with that; it doesn’t help. The dining room in the Eco-lodge we stayed at last night reverberates with the conversation of those not suffering. Laughter and the drum of normalacy pound the outside of in my head, but inside is a swirl of uneasiness and fear, and I’m starting to be concerned for my condition, and also to feel sorry for myself. Apparently descending to Loboche isn’t the panacea I was hoping for. I can see Apa out the window searching for a cell phone signal. I know he is trying to reach Naga Dorjee to let him know we won’t be arriving at base camp this afternoon as planned. When Apa returns I have no choice but to tell him I need to go down further. “Let’s go down to the bottom of the pitch that’s above Pheriche, to that tea house by the bridge. Dugla or Thugla,” I tell him. But he’s not buying into that. “If you need to go down we go all the way to Dingbouche,” Apa says. “I don’t want you to miss the Puja,” I tell him, but he says he doesn’t need the Puja, we’ve had more than enough Pujas already, he says. “Give me a few minutes to decide then,” I say to him.
Apa is holding a two-way radio with direct contact to base camp that seems to haqve come out of nowhere. “The Asian Trekking Sherpa are leaving now. They need their radio. You’ve got to give me your answer soon,” he says. “How about in 15 minutes?” I ask. “Not more than 15 minutes, sooner is better,” he says. “I just need a brief nap,” I tell him. “No nap,” he says, You can try walking around outside.” I do this but it doesn’t calm my head; it doesn’t make it worse, but it doesn’t help either. Nothing is working. It’s clear I’m going to have to descend further. “Ok, Apa, radio them that I’m going down.” “We’re going down then,” he says, and he presses the call button.
The clouds move in and the wind comes up as soon as we drop below the ridge. There’s a little corner of Loboche that is semi-protected, but down by Russell Brice’s camp the wind has some teeth in it. By the time we cross the river it’s cold and I have my down jacket’s hood pulled tight around my face so the wind doesn’t blow it off. The prevailing afternoon wind is up-valley so we’re descending into a head wind, but none of this matters to me.
Lower elevation is a powerful craving, an almost instinctual urge. The reading on altitude sickness I’ve done is a rationale for action, but absent that knowledge, going downhill is about like seeing a rattlesnake: it doesn’t take a book to know it is a dangerous snake, and it doesn’t take much knowledge of AMS to know that down is good, up is bad. There’s something in the human psyche that kicks in, and going downhill is an attempt to flee whatever it is that causes altitude sickness. Lack of oxygen perhaps, who knows, right now I don’t care. Dingbouche is all that matters.
In less than 3 hours we arrive at the Snow Lion lodge and Mingma has a puzzled look. As soon as Apa fills her in on my circumstances she knows just what to do. Hot tea, and fresh baked apple pie. It is amazing how much better I feel already. “How about a nap?” I ask, “Is a nap ok?” I’ve craving sleep and warmth. “A nap is ok,” Apa says, “but only for one hour. I will wake you up in one hour. Make sure to keep your hat on and stay warm.” I am asleep in 5 minutes and wake up 55 minutes later just as Apa knocks on the door. It is amazing how much better I feel already. In the dining room a French Canadian named Philip is reading a book. He inquires about our trip and we swap stories. He is acclimating in the Khumbu but then is headed west to climb Choyo Oyo, one of the fourteen 8,000 meter peaks in the world. After hearing about the recent turn of events in our trip Philip says, “You have to respect the mountain.”