The Long Way Down

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This blog entry about the events of Monday, October 18, 2004 was originally posted on October 25, 2004.

DAY 366:  (The following entry was written to the best of my memory since I didn’t have much time to take notes or photos in the delirium I was in that day.)

“Your guide is very sick,” Andres’ guide informed me as I woke up in the big bunk bed that morning.  Tilak’s cough had gotten the best of him during the cold Himalayan night and it incapacitated him from being my guide for arguably the better of the two endings of the Everest trail, the peak of Kalapatthar (5545m. ASL), with its view of Everest summit.

(The real end of the Everest trail was actually the summit itself, but that required about $30,000 USD to go there for all the permits, insurance, etc., not to mention a certain level of insanity.  I heard that earlier in the year a guy tried to get to at least Everest Base Camp 1 [“Everest Base Camp” is Base 0] but had fallen in a crevasse and died.)

It was in Tilak’s best interests to descend in altitude down to at least the next town down (Lobouche), and so off he went with the help of two porters.  Before leaving, he left me in the hands of his friend, Andres’ guide, who would take Andres and me to the peak of Kalapatthar that morning.

I was a little out of it — lightheaded, dizzy — and I thought that maybe this would be the day I’d finally take that rest day everyone recommended since my pun goal had already been accomplished by my birthday deadline, but Andres and his guide were already on their way out waiting for me.

Okay, up and down, no problem.  I’ll just get this over with and descend to a safer elevation to meet Tilak later, I thought.

By 7:30 we were out the door and headed up towards “Black Rock,” or Kalapatthar.


THE TRAIL TO KALAPATTHAR wasn’t another annoying undulating ridge this time; it was an annoying constant incline all the way.  When I reached the top of one hill, I’d come around the curve and see another discouraging hill right after.  I might have given it the finger, but I had no energy.  In fact, Andres and his guide were always way ahead of me, waiting up too many times — so much in fact that they eventually just went on up without me, thinking I’d just catch up.  I never did though, and thus, I was left to conquer Kalapatthar alone.

Well, I shouldn’t say completely alone.  Oh no.  There was person after group after person passing me by at a much faster pace.  In fact, some groups made it all the way up and back down to where I was before I had made it up to the next hill.  They weren’t snobby about it though and always gave me words of encouragement. 

“Keep it slow and steady and you’ll make it.”

“Hang in there.”

Still, it was hard, especially without a guide to keep me company and to assess my condition.  Often I stopped to catch my breath, and soon, “often” meant every four steps.  “I can’t wait ‘til we get back to Kathmandu,” Canadian Greg said to me on his way down.  It was a struggle for him, but he too had reached the top and was on his way down even before I got midway.

Lethargically, I trekked on.  Just small baby steps, it’s not a race, I thought as I went up at a snail’s pace.  I concentrated on my breathing; like the day before, any breath that wasn’t a deep one would result in a headache or dizzy spell.  Andres and his guide finally turned up — on their way down of course — and I was given the option to follow them back down to Gorak Shep and then down to Lobouche, or continue on up.  “I’ll try and make it,” I told them.  They left me again.


ABOUT THREE HOURS WENT BY — more than enough time to go up and down — and I finally made it to a level where I could finally see the end of the trail, the “black rock” peak of Kalapatthar in the distance, dominated by the Pumori peak

One guide of a big group saw my weakened condition and showed some concern.  “How are you?”

“A little dizzy.”

“You should go down.  You can see the same thing here that you can see over there.”  True, there was Everest Summit in the distance behind Nuptse.

“Okay, let me just make it to just the top of this ridge.”  I was close to the top of the last ridge before you went up again to the peak. 

“Okay.”  The guide and his group continued their way down, leaving me alone to go up.  I can… almost… reach it…  But I couldn’t go any farther.  I was perhaps somewhere around 5500m. ASL, and every baby step I tried to do wouldn’t advance me.  My foot would go up, but then land right back where it started, with no forward momentum.  I had physically gone as far as I could because my body wouldn’t let me go any farther.  Plus the winds had picked up, which blew the scarce amount of oxygen all over, which made it harder to breathe.

Okay, whatever, I thought.  No biggie, you acquired the pun yesterday.  Kalapatthar has no name recognition to the layperson; it doesn’t matter if you get to the top or not.  You don’t write for mountaineers, you write for real people.  My inner italicized self was making sense.  Besides, I was starting to get drowsy, which was a bad thing — that kind of drowsiness was the kind that put you to sleep permanently.

As they say in business, I cut my losses and turned back.  My body immediately thanked my brain for doing so with the power of gravity finally working for me, not against me.  It wasn’t a cakewalk though; going down (picture above) still required a lot of energy to keep from slipping down the dry landscape of loose rocks, and I still had to take my breath breaks every four steps or so.


LIKE A GUARDIAN ANGEL (one of many to come over the course of that day), down came a thirty- or forty-something Englishman from Leeds named Eddie, a twice divorcée with a carefree attitude, who saw me struggling.  He had separated from his bigger group, but was walking with one of the guides, who also showed some concern.

“You go ahead,” Eddie told his guide.  “I can walk him down.”

Eddie was a godsend because he lent me the hiking pole he wasn’t using, and gave me some of his energy drink out of his Camelback drinking tube at every break — we had one about every 50 ft. so that I could catch my breath.  “You’re not much of a hiker, are you?” he asked.

“I am, just not at these altitudes,” I told him.

The false peak effect was the same going down; when I thought we came to the end of one hill, there was another hill waiting just after.  I took my time though, using Eddie’s hiking pole, and eventually we made it back to the buildings of Gorak Shep after what seemed like another whole hour.  I returned the pole to Eddie and went to my lodge while he went to his.  I was too out of it to remember to thank him, and I never saw him again.


CAN’T I JUST STAY HERE AND TAKE A NAP? I thought to myself as I was slouched over the dining table in the Snow Land Inn after having a bowl of rara noodle soup and a mint tea.  I was in a pickle; I didn’t have that much money on me because everything was paid for by Tilak thus far — in fact I had to pay for the lunch I had just eaten — and I was instructed to meet Tilak in Lobouche.  Lobouche is down more, it would be better to at least get to a lower elevation.  Besides, you’re at a loss without your guide.

It was decided.  I would go down to meet Tilak and to save myself.  However, things are always easier said than done.

With my pack on, I left the lodge.  The sun was out and the winds had died down, and it would have been an easy trek down to Lobouche, except that going down required going up to another annoying undulating ridge.  The ridge wasn’t the hard part though.  No, I couldn’t even make it that far.  I was still within Gorak Shep village limits, trying to go up a small three-step flight of stone stairs, and I could barely even do that without leaning down and gasping for air.  My inactions soon attracted the attention of a Sherpa woman who ran one of the lodges.

“You need a porter,” she told me.  A small crowd developed around me about what to do with me.  I didn’t have that much cash on me to pay for a porter, but the manager of Snow Land Inn sent one and told me he’d bill my agency if I gave them their card, which I did.

The Sherpa guide took my pack and wore it and then pulled my arm up the hill.  “Wait!  Wait!  Too fast!” I yelled, gasping for air.  “Bistarai!  Bistarai!”

He stopped so that I could catch my breath and then started up again, but it was the same thing.  “You’re going too fast!  I can’t… keep up…  My legs…”  I soon learned one of the other effects of altitude sickness wasn’t about the lungs, but about the loss of energy in the legs.  I barely had enough energy in the muscles to keep myself standing, let alone enough energy to keep breathing.  My heart rate was going a mile a minute.

The Sherpa and I made it only to the top of the first pass of the ridge when another small group gathered around me, concerned about my rapidly weakening condition.  In the crowd was Kenny and Julie, the English couple I met in the Himalayan Rescue Association lecture a couple of days before

“You need another porter,” Kenny told me.  “For a couple of bucks, it’ll be worth it.”

“I don’t have that much money on me.”

Nearby there were a few porters ready to arise to the occasion of freelance lifesaver, for a fee of course.  Kenny and Julie saw how incapacitated I was and bought me another porter for 500 rupees.  Another porter tagged along to carry my pack, in hopes he’d be paid afterwards considering the circumstances.

There were now two Sherpa boys carrying me on both sides, but they were both shorter than me and I still had to sustain my own weight with my legs — which I could barely do.  I only made it about six steps before my knees buckled and I had to sit down for another breath.  “Wait!  Wait!  Slow down!  I have no energy in my legs!”  All the help was just getting me more tired.  An official rescue was in order. 

I pulled out the list of things that was included on my tour, one item being “Rescue Service.”  We assumed this meant a rescue helicopter, so Julie took my passport and information to run back to Gorak Shep to try and arrange one.  Meanwhile, Kenny tried to keep me conscious with constant talking and conversation.  “Okay, do you know where you are?”

“Yeah.  Going to Lobouche.”

The commotion on the trail attracted the attention of more people, including two Aussies from Melbourne, Beth and Stewart, who were just casually walking by.  Everyone saw that me being carried on the shoulders by the two Sherpa boys wasn’t doing anything since they were shorter, so Kenny and Stewart (who were both taller than me) gave it a shot. 

“Wait!  Wait!  My arms!”  It was the exact opposite.  Now my legs didn’t touch the ground, even with my tippy-toes.  The strain on my shoulders was painful.  “Wait!  Hold up!  My arms feel like they’re going to pop out!”

“You can pop them back in,” said Kenny.

“This is going to save your life,” Stewart said.

Save my life?  Is my life in danger here?

I couldn’t take it after a while.  My arms felt like they’d pop out like out of Mr. Potato Head.  We took yet another break on the trail just before one of the bigger hills of the ridge.  One of the Sherpa boys had an idea; he put me on his little back, piggyback style, and carried me up.  Amazing.  When he tired, the other Sherpa boy had a go at it and carried me piggyback style.  It would have been fun if I wasn’t so damn tired.  They alternated until we cleared the next hump. 

We had made a lot of progress on the ridge but there was still a lot more to go.  Stewart and Beth went ahead to the next town to see if they could arrange a horse or something, leaving my marionette of a body for Kenny and one of the Sherpa boys to carry me.  This time with one taller and one shorter, it sort of balanced out and I could walk a little at a time — although I still had to stop every twenty seconds to rest.

“Wait!  Wait!  I need a breather!”

“C’mon!  Just fifty more meters, c’mon, you can do it!” Kenny yelled with frantic enthusiasm.  “Your legs will get stronger when you go down.”  He knew not to shut up to keep me conscious, and at one point even threatened to pluck out one of my nosehairs to wake me up.  “Okay, no time, you’re almost there!  We have to get you to a lower spot.  C’mon, just a hundred more meters, c’mon!” he’d say.  The two would lift me and I’d walk.  Slowly but surely, the lower we got in elevation the more I could support my own weight with my legs. 

“Wait!  Wait!  Stop!  I need to breathe!” I exclaimed.  They put me on yet another rock to sit.  Kenny gave me a test with hand gestures to see if I was still with it.

“Okay, look at me, what am I doing?” he asked.

“You’re at a headbanger concert.”

“Alright!  And this?”

“AOK.”

“And this?”

“You’re jerking off.”

“Alright!  C’mon, let’s go!  Just a hundred more meters, you can do it!  Just concentrate on your feet and your legs will carry you!  Come on!”

They lifted me again and I started the walking process for another round.  We got to one of the valleys in the ridge, a clearing where I hoped we could stop and wait for a helicopter — but up ahead in the lower lands there was a lot of cloud coverage and Kenny said that most likely they probably couldn’t get one sent up.  “C’mon, we’ve got to get you to a lower area!  Just another hundred meters!  There you go, nice and easy!”

Eventually we got to a point on the ridge where we met up with Stewart who couldn’t get a horse, but a yak, which was good enough.  The yak had a saddle and everyone lifted me onto it.  Kenny and Julie wished me well and told me they’d meet me in Pheriche the next day.  The yak would take over from there, although I’m sure the yak didn’t know the hand gesture for “jerking off.”


I HUNG ONTO THE SADDLE for dear life as the yak proceeded at its own pace down towards Lobouche.  Like the yaks I’d seen before carrying gear, this yak wasn’t all about getting the job done; it’d stop and wander for grazing, only to have its herder yell and slap it back into line.  We had a little caravan going, with two yak herders, Stewart, Beth and the Sherpa boys and it was fairly smooth sailing for about an hour.  Soon, there was a horse in front of us.

“Change,” said the herder.

They lifted me off the yak and onto the horse.  “Looks like you have a ride all the way to Pheriche,” Stewart told me after talking to the guys.  The horse was led by two Sherpas who also had to yell and slap the animal into line.  I had to hang onto the front and back of the saddle to keep myself from falling off with all the ups and downs of the trail. 

By dusk we arrived at Lobouche, where Tilak was rumored to be at the same lodge we stayed on the way up.  I was too lethargic to get off the horse to find out, so Beth ran over to see.  Word around town was that Tilak was so sick that Lobouche’s elevation was still too high for him and had been carried by two porters down to the Himalayan Rescue Clinic in Pheriche.  It was fitting that we should try and meet him there, because my condition was worsening and I had better get there myself.

Stewart grabbed his sleeping bag in Lobouche and left Beth there to escort me the rest of the way to Pheriche.  It was just the four of us — five if you count the horse — and we continued downhill for the additional four hours to Pheriche.  Going downhill wasn’t such an easy thing on a horse.  The horse was more and more reluctant the colder and more strenuous it got, and kept on neighing in disgust.  I really had to keep my hand on the back of the saddle to keep myself from pulling a Christopher Reeve.  “Oh, falling off, falling off, falling off!” I said at one point when the horse leaned at and angle and I couldn’t keep on.  The guys rushed over to keep me balanced.

The path went down and then up another ridge to an area where there were dozens of mini towers made of stacked-up stones.  “Do you know what those are?” Stewart asked me.

“What?”  I put my head up and looked around more.  There might have been hundreds of the little stone shrine-like piles.

“Those are for all the people who died of [Acute Mountain Sickness].  You might consider yourself lucky.”

The path went down another hill and over a river bridge and then back up again.  It was a real roller coaster of a ride on the horse, and not in a fun way.  I hung onto the saddle — hung onto my life — to keep myself from going over the edge.  The sky was getting darker around that time, which didn’t help the fact that I was getting drowsy.  I tried as best I could to keep myself from falling asleep; I knew there would be no waking up if I did. 

The horse and the Sherpas marched on, even when the sun went down and everything was only faintly lit by moonlight.  We offered to use a flashlight, but they didn’t want it.  The farther we went in the darkness, the more often we had to take a break for the horse’s sake.

“How are you doing?” Stewart asked me.

“I’m so cold.”

He pulled out a spare down jacket from his bag and put it on me.  We continued on until the rocky downhill became the flatlands of the valley.  Up ahead I could see the distant lights of Pheriche. 

“Almost there.”

It was still another hour before we reached the town, an hour of breathing and hanging on.  The lack of exertion while riding the horse did me good because when we finally arrived at the clinic around 7:30, I was able to dismount the horse myself and walk to the window on my own strength.  Behind the glass was Tilak awake in a bed, breathing through an oxygen mask.


DR. MIKE AND DR. LINDA OF THE HIMALAYAN RESCUE CLINIC got me on the oxygen tank right away.  They rolled in another bed into the room where Tilak was (the only patient room in the small building) and set me down after giving me some drugs.  Dr. Mike was confused as to who Stewart was, and I explained that he had escorted me pretty much all the way from near Gorak Shep.

“You did a good thing,” Dr. Mike told him.

“Well, he was going to die.”

Die was right.  I had come into the clinic with a blood oxygen level of 52 — a new record low for the clinic by two points.  (At sea level it should be 100, and at the elevation Pheriche, it should be no lower than 85.)  If I hadn’t gotten to that oxygen tank sooner, I might have fallen asleep in the cold Himalayan night and been pronounced dead by 8 o’clock from the high altitude pulmonary and cerebral edema I had. 

Under the mask I was returning back to normal, normal enough to answer Dr. Linda’s medical questions in my usual smart-alecky way and even eat some food.  Meanwhile, Stewart had paid off the horsemen for me and went off to sleep in one of the nearby lodges.

“Thanks,” I told him, still wearing the blue down jacket he put on me.

“No worries.  You would have done the same for me.”

“I’ll see you in the morning.”

The energy used for eating was enough exertion for the night and so the doctors left Tilak and me in our room on two beds on both sides of the pure oxygen regulator that we shared.  We slept there that night with the oxygen masks on, under the care and supervision of Dr. Mike, Dr. Linda and their medical assistant Khagendra who gave me more drugs throughout the night.


THE NEXT MORNING, something happened more celebratory than the fact that it was the one year anniversary since my trip began:  I simply woke up.






Next entry: Die Another Day

Previous entry: All For A Pun




Commenting is not available in this channel entry.

Comments for “The Long Way Down”

  • It’s like I was there!  Good Entry….

    OK, the Christopher Reeve’s reference would have been funnier to me if he just didn’t recently die (but i still snickered, sure call me insensitive if you want)....

    52 new record low!!!  everest at 30, new record low for the 1 year anniversary….!!!  (i’m only joking like this cuz erik is doing fine)....

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/24  at  09:26 PM


  • MARKYT:  “Pulling a Christopher Reeve” = getting thrown off a horse and eventually, dying.  Yup, analogy still works.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/24  at  09:28 PM


  • PAUL - so is blackrock named after “Kalapatthar” ?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/24  at  09:51 PM


  • Hey, thats the yak I drank to!  And 52 supplies the superlative you were looking for on your B-Day.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/24  at  10:16 PM


  • Great read ... good to hear your good now, to the ANGELS, cheers!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/24  at  10:59 PM


  • wow, that was cutting it very close. good thing you are young and healthy, otherwise you probably wouldn’t have made it. ::shudder:: raise the glasses and toast. here’s to your young and healthy 30 year old body. it takes a beating and keeps on ticking. cheers!!!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/25  at  12:09 AM


  • MARKYT:  Kalapatthar literally in Hindi/Nepali is “black rock.”

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/25  at  08:00 AM


  • Man o man. Well that is one helluva story. You can still say that you’re living large though, that is for certain!

    Word Life.

    Moman!!

    Posted by Moman  on  10/25  at  08:56 AM


  • ERIK: Thank God you’re still alive!!! That was an incredible entry.
    BTW, are you thinking of passing through Singapore? You have to stop through…the food is incredible.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/25  at  09:06 AM


  • He’s ALIIIVE!!!!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/25  at  05:53 PM


  • MELISA:  Yeah, I’ll be in Singapore, hopefully 3rd week, Dec.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/25  at  06:36 PM


  • NIIICE LP!

    Erik: How did you manage to stay awake on the back of that horse?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/25  at  06:50 PM


  • TD0T:  Actually, the way the horse was bouncing up and down, swaying back and forth and neighing, it was probably impossible to fall asleep…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/25  at  07:19 PM


  • Yes! I will be Erik’s guide!

    Posted by Carol  on  10/27  at  12:24 PM


  • wow.

    Posted by Alyson  on  10/28  at  11:36 AM


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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by BootsnAll.com. It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

Praised and recommended by USA Today, RickSteves.com, and readers of BootsnAll and Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree, The Global Trip blog was selected by the editors of PC Magazine for the "Top 100 Sites You Didn't Know You Couldn't Live Without" (in the travel category) in 2005.


Next entry:
Die Another Day

Previous entry:
All For A Pun




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