The Weight Of A Man

November 7, 2011

in Nepal

At 6am, after two nights at 17,000 ft, Sam’s oxygen level had dropped precariously low. He was stumbling, couldn’t walk, and his skin was blue. I knew immediately this was very serious. It had snowed lightly through the night and the sky remained as white as the earth. No way would a helicopter be coming in this weather. We had to get to a lower altitude, and I knew Sam couldn’t walk half a day and 3,000 feet down. I gave him a powerful combination of steriods, medication, and oxygen and planned to take him down on a horse, without waiting for breakfast.

In Nepal, 3,000 feet down isn’t all downhill. It’s up and down and up and down. We departed Gorak Shep with Sam swaddled on a horse led by a local, one of our Sherpa team by his side for balance, and his wife behind me. In the first 45 minutes, the horse fell to its haunches twice on the icy, rocky, steep trail crossing the Changri glacier. I knew it was going to be a tense day. His wife had a minor meltdown along the way–not unexpected or unwarranted–and thought the conditions couldn’t be worse for an evacuation. I suspected otherwise, and sure enough, they got worse.

Light snow clouding the distance, the trail leveled out after 2 or 3 hours. We passed Lobuche at 16,175 ft without so much as a glance. Our only mission was down. As we turned the corner to reach the top of the Lobuche pass, the wind grew far stronger. Visibility dropped, the air was white and swirling, sunglasses crusted up with ice, but wearing them was still better than the sharp bite of snow stinging cheeks and eyes. The horse, reluctant to take a rider steeply downhill in the best of conditions, wanted no part of this plan.

We took Sam off the horse but had to support him because he couldn’t stand on his own. We half-sheltered behind a large rock for a moment, surrounded by memorial chortens for climbers who have died in the region. It was a sobering moment for me. Didn’t matter a whit what kind of weather we were having. We were not staying here. We had to get down.

With a strong Sherpa under one shoulder and me under the other, we carried, stumbled, and slid down the mountain with Sam who couldn’t really coordinate his feet. Every so often, I would be sucking deep lungfuls of thin air and still not getting enough oxygen, so we would halt for 30 seconds, 60 seconds, 2 minutes until I could breath. I’d look back and see the empty horse whinnying and pulling resistantly against its lead in the gusting snow. Then down we’d go again, jumping over rocks and bushes, three people wide on a single-yak trail.

I’ve never carried a man before, or even half a man. His body pulled on my shoulder and neck so heavily that I was sore for two days. The responsibility weighed heavily on me as well.

I can second-guess my judgement endlessly. Maybe I should have evacuated him on a horse during the snow the night before (though that holds its own dangers)…maybe I should have started strong steroids the evening before (but those are not to be taken lightly)…maybe I should have turned a deaf ear when he said he was fine to hike 6 hours to Base Camp that day (but he hiked and took photos throughout the day)…maybe, maybe, maybe. In the moment, it can be hard to tell the difference between someone who is hitting a rough patch and will recover and someone who is already over the edge but doesn’t yet look it.

Only the night before, I had been up twice giving another client oxygen in the silent dark, hiss of the regulator and grey cloth mask giving the peaceful night an eerie quality. By morning though, her altitude symptoms had subsided, and she was strong enough to hike. Giving Sam oxygen this night had helped but while sleeping he had taken a turn for the worse. I don’t know if I failed to puzzle the pieces together properly or if it’s the unpredictable nature of bodies, but when I saw him at 6 am, I knew it had turned truly life-threatening.

So down we went carrying Sam, dropping 900 ft in just under an hour, until we stumbled out of the snow and into a crowded lunchtime shelter, way-station for trekkers in the weather. It was packed with 50 people or more, standing room only. I elbowed my way to a daybed in the bustling kitchen, laid Sam down next to a sleeping baby, and cued up 20 minutes of oxygen because any kind of exertion is bad for people with serious altitude sickness.

Heavy exertion is also not great for people who have hiked 4+ hours on half a bowl of oatmeal. Hunger finally overtook adrenaline. With one eye on my watch, I fed us all a bit of nuts and dried fruit, then we put Sam back on a horse and briskly hiked 2 more hours to the town of Pheriche where a proper health post and Scottish doctor awaited.

In the end, Sam was fine. The weather cleared in the morning and he and his wife went out on a helicopter to Kathmandu where he rested and recovered in a few days. And me? I have well learned the weight of a man, his body and his life.

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