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Sunday, 1 June 2014

Day 66 - Back to Kathmandu

The next day runs pretty smoothly. Border crossing and drive are both ok and we are in the hotel for mid afternoon.

Border town of Zhangmu

Zhangmu with its mountain backdrop

Trees and greenery - a real sight for sore eyes!

At the border

We find some scales and I am down to 79kg - a weight I have not been since I was in my mid teens! I am still feeling pretty ropey and so next morning I head off to hospital to find out what is wrong with me - to convince the others that I have not become a hypochondriac and that my travails on the mountain were justified. It takes a while to go through all the procedures and my Everest story makes me something of a celebrity with a number of senior doctors coming to see me which only adds to the overall disturbance in A&E - there is probably an element of them wanting to get time onto my bill as well I presume. But, eventually I get the news that I have two broken ribs and a lung infection. I feel oddly pleased about this as I can now understand the problems that I had and hopefully justify them to others.

I am still feeling pretty weak and tired; the terrible air quality in Kathmandu can't be helping either. So I get my flights changed and head off a couple of uneventful days later.

However, I still feel pretty weak when I get back to London and, instead of celebrating, have a relapse in the refrigerated section at Sainsburys (a supermarket) and then end up in the majors section of A&E in hospital. It turns out that my lung infection is in fact pneumonia and I had better start taking it seriously!

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Day 65 - Off to Zangmu

Today we are driving all the way back to the Nepali border town of Zangmu where we will overnight before crossing the border and driving to Kathmandu tomorrow.

Final breakfast

Packing the land cruisers

Final group photo
First stop is Tingri which is the small town on the trans-Tibetan highway that is the turning point for Everest. There we have a fantastic Chinese meal before heading on to Zhangmu. 

Heading for a Chinese meal in Tingri

The bathroom mirror in the hotel is my first chance to have a look at a myself after my ordeal and I am fairly shocked by what I see. At the start of the expedition I was in very good shape - muscular and with little fat despite weighing 91kg. Now I have lost most of that muscle (especially on my upper body) and have very little fat left - I have never looked like this before and hope I don't get again as I look pretty unhealthy and would presumably need to be pretty ill to get into such a position again. it's going to be interesting to see what I weigh when we get back to Kathmandu. That evening we find a bar in Zhangmu where we are hoping to celebrate getting off Everest but I soon feel pretty miserable and after a bit head back to the hotel - keeping up my proud record of missing all the group nights out.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Day 64 - Rest Day BC

There is still quite a bit of equipment, including our main kit bags, at ABC and we need to understand when we can get these back. The snow has spooked the yak drivers and so there is likely to be a bit of a delay now - the risk of avalanches and rock falls is very dangerous for yaks as we saw yesterday.

Then we hear that following an argument over compensation for the death of the yaks, the yak drivers have gone on strike. It is now pretty clear that we aren't going to be getting our gear for a good few days. I really need to get off the mountain - we are still at 5,200m which is dangerously high for someone with ongoing lung problems and the others are pretty fed up with base camp having been down here for quite a number of days now. As one of the last groups at camp it is not hard to organise transport back to Kathmandu for the following day.

The rest of the day is sitting round, chatting and packing up what we can in preparation for an early departure tomorrow morning.

Pretty emaciated and with my certificate

Not sure my feet have enjoyed the past few days - only time will tell what is actually wrong with them.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Day 63 - Down to BC

Breakfast is a bit of a failure again, as is trying to pack up my things in a small tent - which I do slowly and inefficiently. Then, a bit late, we set off down the mountain. The huge storms I suffered through higher up have transformed the lower reaches and this section is now beautiful. There is a good sun and a light breeze so conditions should be great for the descent. 
Good conditions (if a bit snowy) for the descent

Heading down

Beautiful scenery
Beautiful scenery
Unfortunately, I need to stop every 50m of so for a coughing fit which not only takes a lot of time but also it's toll on me and drains my air supply.

Lunch stop in the (abandoned?) Chinese mess tent at Intermediate Camp

Dog star sun as evening approaches

The snowfall, and now melt, has also destabilised a number of rocks overhanging the valley and as we come into the final section, a number of mini landslides are triggered. I have been walking pretty slowly and so it is now late and dark so it is very difficult to see where these are which makes it pretty dangerous! We come across a yak which had been smashed into by one of these and had been left by its owner with some hay to die.

Finally, pulling into the mess tent is an amazing relief; not least as it is completely dark and pretty cold now and we are all very tired. Very nicely there is a mini-celebration prepared - including a summit cake! This gives us renewed energy to stay up for a couple of hours.

Summit cake

(Safely) back at BC group photo

Another very bad night for coughing and my side - I have started bringing up blood in my phlegm which is quite worrying - I will probably need to go to hospital when we get back to Kathmandu now ...

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Day 62 - ABC Rest Day

Gargling the aspirin seems to have worked as my throat is now relaxing and I can actually breathe without collapsing into a coughing fit. There is still quite a bit of inflammation and irritation in my lungs and my side is still in a lot of pain - but at least now that we know, or suspect what is wrong, we are able to apply the relevant treatment.

It has snowed a lot overnight so moving from my tent to the mess tent is pretty tricky as I am still unsteady on my feet - it is also tricky to leave a nice, warm sleeping bag when you are not particularly hungry and you know that moving will just cause pain.

ABC - looking pretty good with a clear sky after the storms

But I do need to start eating to get some energy for the 20k walk back to BC tomorrow so I do make the effort and get to the table dizzy and out of breath. A group sets off back to BC in the morning and then we rest for the remainder of the day.

I have a look at my feet for the first time and there are rather concerning black areas on some of the toes on my right foot - it is hard to tell whether this is boot bashing damage of whether I have got some slightly severe frostbite for the first time - we will have to see! The night is again uncomfortable with my ribs, lungs, throat and feet all clamouring for attention.

Pretty sore toes!

Pretty sore toes

I have not really eaten much since I coming down; I don't really feel hungry and anything substantial makes me nauseous. I am not too worried as I know my appetite will return, but I am concerned about having enough energy for the long trip to BC. There is no power in the evening so Rob and I end up having a bit of supper in candlelight around one of the heaters - it would have been quite romantic of we weren't both coughing so much! Again I can't eat much and take a lemon drizzle cake to bed to see if I can eat some of it -which obviously I can't.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Day 61 - Descending from Camp 1

I awake to an eerie silence and it takes a while for me to realise that rather than going deaf, the violent storm that has been sitting over me for the past two days has now moved on. After a quick drink, I head out to find a clear but grey sky overhead and no signs that the wind will return any time soon. However a huge amount snow has fallen since yesterday and overnight meaning that even the tracks of the large rescue party have been covered up. This is going to make getting down the headwall pretty tricky! I am still unable to move properly without oxygen.

I start down the headwall and set off three avalanches in the first 50m - this section is a bit of a traverse - which is a real worry for later on but also exceedingly dangerous for anyone coming up. Sherpas will be coming up to clear the North Col at some point today given the beak in the storm and a quick radio call to ABC reveals that they won't yet be on the headwall so I carry on down. Things soon get even trickier as there is deep snow over a very hard, icy base and I lose my footing on a few occasions. As above, most of the anchors here have blown, so there is little protection from the ropes here and again a couple of times I am hanging from my ice axe having slipped down the near vertical sections. After the second one of these I give myself a good talking to - I am so close to getting back to camp and despite my state and the conditions of the mountain, I have the strength and skills to get down safely as long as I am sensible. From then on it actually becomes rather enjoyable aided by the fact that the weather has been continually improving. The last time I came down this, I made it in 20 minutes; this time was nearly two hours!

From there, it is just the long trek across the glacier and then the top of the moraine field back to camp which is just a long, weary slog before I can collapse into a chair back in the mess tent for a well earned drink of green tea and a can of coke! In fact this is pretty much the pattern for the rest of the day but I still have little appetite and can eat little more than noodle soup. My sleeping bag starts calling and in mid afternoon I totter off to my tent to get some sleep.

ABC is still under a few feet of snow!

However this doesn't last long and by early evening I am coughing badly and starting to have breathing difficulties again. This is pretty worrying as I have come a long way down the mountain to an altitude at which I am fully acclimatised and all I am doing is lying in a tent! This gets worse and worse so eventually I have to get some medical help from Rob along with yet another bottle of oxygen.

I am first treated for Hape (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) which is basically the lungs being severely impacted by the altitude but this is more precautionary than anything as I don't really have other symptoms and it has actually got worse rather than improving as I have descended. My throat still looks horribly irritated and inflamed which is a typical (although in this case very severe) reaction to the cold, dry air on mountains and especially when using oxygen - and what caused my original cough that started this all off. The treatment for this is to gargle and swallow aspirin dissolved in water. We have no idea what is going on in my lungs or any way to diagnose it here so we will just have to hope that I can deal with it until we get back to Kathmandu and a 'decent' hospital.

With the oxygen on at a low flow rate and breathing through a buff to provide some protection to my poor throat, I feel better and manage to sleep through until 1 am when Rob comes to check me again. My throat feels better but there is little change in my lungs so we continue with the aspirin in water treatment and I sleep relatively well through the rest of the night aside from my continual coughing intervals.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Day 60 - Descending from Camp 3

I come to early the next morning and for a couple of seconds bask in the warmth of the sun coming through the tent walls until I am jolted back to reality with the realisation that I am stuck on the side of Everest well into the Death Zone at 8,300m with broken ribs, a barely functioning respiratory system and very little oxygen left to help me get down. My hope is that I can get to the snow field below camp 2 from where it is an easy snow slope down to Camp 1 and with any luck I should be able to breathe 1,000m down from here.

The sunshine turns out to have been just a small break in the clouds as after a quick drink and a snickers for breakfast I head out into a growing blizzard and white out. It is pretty chilly and blowing an absolute gale but luckily the fixed lines provide a good path down the mountain. Surprisingly there are a few other people up here still in addition to some Sherpas clearing their group's equipment off the mountain - they look in very bad shape and are moving very slowly. I am feeling a bit better this morning and can walk (albeit slowly) with my oxygen on a low setting which is pretty crucial as there is not too much left in the bottle.

The going is very tough as I am now walking through fairly deep snow which has covered up the nice, hard path that has been created over the past few days. Not only is it simply more tiring to walk in knee deep snow, but it also covers up the various dips and rocks under the surface causing a number of staggers and trips which are pretty exhausting.

This soon becomes dangerous on some steep traverses as I can't tell where the path has weakened or, in some cases, collapsed down the side of the mountain and on a few occasions end up hanging from my ice axe after breaking through the snow beneath my feet and falling down the side of the mountain. Whilst there are some ropes around to clip into a number of the anchors have blown and others do when we put any real weight on them. Whilst this would normally be quite exciting, I have nothing like the energy or strength to enjoy dealing with this at the moment, but there is a different type of reward from struggling through terrain, conditions and a situation which is really rather serious. After a bit of this slow going, there is quite a queue of the other straggling climbers behind me but oddly none of them seem keen to take turns at the front, breaking trail or dealing with the treacherous terrain.
After a few hours of fun the traversing comes to an end and we start the easier descent towards Camp 2 - given the conditions this remains challenging and the other parties soon fall behind and are out of sight by the time I get to the top of the Camp 2. The place seems post- apocalyptic! There are broken tents and abandoned equipment strewn all over the side of the mountain and a thick layer of snow over everything save the larger rocks. The low cloud keeps visibility down to 10-15 metres and things and people come looking out of the cloud before disappearing again back into the cloud.

There are many more people down here and a number of them are in a bad way - anyone capable would have left first thing in the morning to get down the mountain. A number of these are having arguments with their team mates and/or Sherpas about staying here for longer with the Sherpas especially anxious about getting off the mountain and out of the weather - I have never heard a truly worried Sherpa before and to hear so many of them in such a state is rather concerning. The lone Sherpas all seem to be clearing the mountain and again it is pretty worrying to see how much of the equipment they are leaving behind to give them an easier and quicker descent - there is a clear atmosphere that we are in a really dangerous situation and it is imperative to get out as quickly as possible!

My oxygen bottle is again pretty much empty and I have been asking everyone that I have come across for some but no one has any spares left at this stage. My big concern is that despite starting well my lungs and throat have been deteriorating all morning and even though I have descended a long way I am far from convinced that I will cope well when it stops. I have also still got quite a long way to go to get to the easy snow slope so I looks as though things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. Sure enough my oxygen soon runs out and without it I am back to an unsafe stagger through the rocks and snow of Camp 2. At times, I revert to a mixture of crawling, rolling and sliding down the slope. However, even at this slow speed it becomes dangerous as the storm has got a lot worse and and I am now in white out conditions which mean that I really can't see what the ground is doing when there aren't rocks to help provide depth to my field of view. I fall off a couple of snow ledges (one that is about 2m) and the now much stronger wind is driving snow inside my gear which is starting to become wet. This is very dangerous as down become useless when wet and if I am stuck up here for long in a storm without fully functioning down gear I will end up with hypothermia pretty quickly and in these conditions death could well follow!

I make what feels like a big, final effort to get to some tents ahead and collapse inside the least damaged of them managing to stick my ice axe and crampons through the worst tears to give me some protection from the elements. Luckily I am still warm which gives me a bit of a chance to undo my zips and dry some of my clothes out before my shelter gives way. I also get a chance to drink some water and enjoy what's left of my last pack of Haribo - I am now out of food and water.

Taking refuge in a tent - sitting in a pile of snow but at least I am out of the storm for a bit!

After dealing with my most pressing needs, I have a look round the tent I have chosen and see that it seems to have been used as a bit of dumping ground for equipment to be left behind and at the bottom of a pile seem some telltale cylindrical forms which can only be oxygen bottles - I don't let myself hope that there is a full one here but with any luck they won't all be empty. I go through all the ones in the first two piles I come across but they are all empty and to my great joy, the penultimate bottle in the third pile has about a sixth left. I just hope that if I keep this on the lowest setting that there is enough to get me back to Camp 1 on the North Col.

In renewed buoyant spirits I decide to try and radio camp again to see what is going on and whether there is anything else to help me on the mountain. Finally, for the first time in really quite a while, I manage to get through to camp and it is great to hear positive voices rather than the weak, weary and scared ones of others on the mountain. They confirm that pretty much all our equipment has been cleared down to Camp 1 and the forecast is for more bad weather so I really need to get down quickly as I have been up in the Death Zone for far too long.

A short while later it seems as though the peak of the storm has passed so I set off again. As before it is painstakingly slow but the ground is treacherous, visibility is very low and the wind is still so strong that I am frequently blown off my feet. If this happens on a tricky, high technical section there is a big risk of injury which would quite probably prove fatal up here. But at the same time I need to move quickly as I really don't want to risk my oxygen running out again when I am short of camp given my continually worsening throat and lungs. As before, I am staggering through a desolate landscape. A few people come and go, Sherpas overtaking me and me overtaking some struggling groups. There is little more than a barely perceptible nod, as we can do little more than recognise the presence of another human being before returning to our grinding task of getting down the mountain. Despite stumbling countless times, I managed to avoid falling; despite the high winds, freezing temperatures and driving snow I manage to keep warm although as before my down jacket is starting to accumulate snow in pockets and folds which then melts and starts to wet the down; despite the fact that my throat and lungs have continued to deteriorate rather than improve as I have been descending, I finally make it out of the rocky top section of the mountain onto the steep snow slope that leads down to Camp 1.

Whilst normally this is the home stretch as in good conditions it is a pretty easy quick walk, it is probably going to be a bit tougher than that now. Although not technical, there is deep snow and very strong winds meaning that the going is slow and tiring as opposed to the hard icy surface that is normally here - not really ideal when I am in a race against my oxygen running out.

Anyhow, I set off and start making some good progress however I find that whenever I start getting up a good rhythm and so pick up some speed I soon need to sit down and rest completely out of breath. This is rather worrying as I was hoping that at this altitude (7,500m) I would be able to cope without oxygen but apparently not. Anyhow, I bow my head to keep my face out of the howling wind and trudge on through the gloom of the snow and cloud, occasionally stumbling after falling into an unseen dip or hole and eventually after about two or three hours I near the saddle of the North Col before my oxygen runs out. The big problem is that my throat and lungs have continued to tighten and my breathing has become increasingly laboured throughout this time. Whilst I am only a few hundred yards from camp there are two small hills between the saddle and the tents. Although I am back down at 7,000m I am unconvinced that I will be able to cope with them without oxygen.

I manage to stagger the short distance to the base of the first one but can make no progress up it with any attempt leaving me on the verge of passing out if I don't sit down. My next plan is to try to crawl up the slope but this falters in the deep snow on the gentle incline at the start of the hill. I try slowly clearing a path in the snow but whilst this gets me up the start, the incline rapidly steepens and again I am back to almost fainting when I try to move up it. While having a rest, I come up with the bright idea of radioing ahead as if there is anyone still in the camp, they can get out here and help me within a matter of minutes.

Again luckily, I manage to make contact with ABC who say that they will do what they can to help but there are two problems. They are unable to contact people up at the North Col but will go to one of the other expeditions with working communications to get them to help or pass a message on to one of our Sherpas up here and secondly there is a big rescue going on at the moment and a large number of the people still at the North Col are involved in that. Unable to move for the time being, I dig myself a snow hole to get out of the wind and lie back and relax as dark descends on the mountain. This coincides with the arrival of the last few teams who are in a terrible state (many of them are out on their feet) although they have had sufficient oxygen for the descent and so can carry on into camp. I ask the guides / Sherpas for each group to see if anyone is in our tents to bring me some oxygen or to do so themselves if not - I am not filled with confidence by the responses. After about 15 or 20 minutes, one of our Sherpas appears over the hill to come and help me and once I have oxygen again it is only a matter of minutes before I am staggering into one of our tents - two of the remaining four have blown off the mountain earlier in the day despite being laden down with our gear and oxygen bottles!

First thing to do is get some hot water on to drink and given the continuing wind we have to do the tent right up and melt the snow right inside the tent. Combined with the steam coming off my wet clothes I am soon having paroxysms of coughing fits which are rather painful given my irritated lungs and throat not to mention broken ribs but all of a sudden two huge globules of soft, gooey stuff the size and consistency of reasonably large oysters come out - whether this is just phlegm or part lung / throat lining I don't know. All of a sudden my airwaves feel a lot freer and I can breathe a lot more easily. Despite this, the fluctuations in my respiratory system and the fact that I don't understand why they are happening means that I need to keep the oxygen on its lowest setting so that I have enough for the descent to ABC tomorrow which is unlikely to be easy!

I am absolutely exhausted and have no real appetite and so shortly after fall into a deep sleep although I do wake a number of times throughout the night as I continue to cough and more worryingly find that I am struggling with my breathing again.

The effects of the storm at ABC
The effects of the storm at BC