April 14, 2008

My daughters are back with me at the Yak & Yeti, and are in fine fettle. Puchhanga and Mingma are fine too. A huge weight of concern has been lifted from my shoulders, and I thank God for their safe return.

Lori and Amy had me doubled over in laughter with their report about the trek down the mountain. But, I almost cried when they told me that they waved at the helicopter ferrying me to Kathmandu as it passed over them on the trail. I was in the comfort of the Clinic less than 1 hour later, and they still had 2 very hard days of trekking just to get back to Lukla. Nevertheless, they will have many happy stories to recount when they get home. At the top of the list is the fact they kicked my butt on the mountain. My family will bring this up at every future gathering until I depart this good earth.

Here is a more detailed account of what happened to me. On the flight to Bangkok or Kathmandu, I picked up a bug that became a passenger within a passenger and traveled with me to Lukla. At Lukla, the incubation period expired, the eggs hatched and a billion hungry germs were released into my system, scurrying to every nook, cranny and corner of my body. They finally brought me down in Namche Bazaar, and I was flat on my back for two full days and nights. I can’t remember ever being so sick. I could not even lift myself up in my bed. Two wonderful doctors visited me, one who prescribed herbal medicine and another who prescribed traditional western medicine for viral infection and flu. On the third day, I felt a little better, and we resumed our trek to Everest Base Camp. In retrospect, this was a mistake, since I was not fully recovered and was suffering from fatigue, weakness and severe loss of appetite. At this point, with the virus brought under control, the second half of the tag team–pulmonary edema–took over, causing my lungs to fill with fluid. This fresh attack pulled me under when we arrived in Pheriche two days later.

After a restless night, I woke to the sound of my lungs gurgling with every breath. I was barely able to lift myself out of bed, pull my boots on and struggle into the dining room where I picked up my daughters who accompanied me to the Nepal Himalayan Rescue Association medical clinic just a few steps up the trail. The doctor came out and put my index finger in a pulsometer that measures the oxygen saturation (“SAT”) level in the blood. After seeing my SAT level, he let out an audible gasp and said “what’s this?” The reading was 40. Readings in the high 90’s are normal and anything below 70 in the mountains is dangerous. By way of comparison, Amy’s SAT reading in Pheriche was 93. (How embarrassing is that?) He then checked my lungs and confirmed that I had pulmonary edema and had to go down quickly. He said that, if I was in the states, they would have me hooked up to a respirator which he did not have in his Clinic. Asian Trekking called for the helicopter, and my daughters quickly organized all my gear and their gear for the trip down the mountain. My teammates were wonderful and supportive, especially my good friend David Liano from Mexico. David kept reminding me that this was the right call and that the mountains are always secondary. He gave me an old Tibetan coin and made me promise to bring it with me next year when we return to Mt. Everest.

The doctor in Pheriche told us that one of his patients is a young porter who is critically ill with a heart condition. The doctor did not have the proper equipment to treat him, the porter could not travel down the mountain by himself and he couldn’t afford to pay for a helicopter evacuation. So the doctor asked us if his patient could share the two-person back seat with me for the trip to Kathmandu so he could be admitted to a hospital and receive proper medical attention. Of course, we agreed, and the porter and I traveled down the mountain together. As I was moving up the mountain in the previous days, feeling sicker and sicker, I kept asking myself, why is this happening to me now. I rarely get sick, and I have never had any form of serious altitude problems in the mountains. Maybe I now have my answer.

The doctors and support staff at the Nepal International Clinic in Kathmandu were so kind and nurturing. Dr. Govind Pokhrel gave me a full check-up, including a lung test, an EKG, blood work, SAT tests and blood pressure testing. He pronounced me healthy. Because there was still some crackling in my lungs, he suggested that I stay overnight at the Clinic hooked up to oxygen. So, that’s what I did. A young nurse came in to take a SAT reading. When I asked her how it looked, she said the reading was 92. I proudly announced “wow, that’s a great reading, so I’m okay.” She responded “Yes, Sir (meaning “dummy”), you are on a 6 litre flow of oxygen directly into your lungs through your nose.” She razzed me about that incident until she left at the end of the day.

While I was in my clinic bed, Jeff Giger (my wonderful son-in-law), called. He had searched the net to find a way to locate me, and one of the names hit. I reassured him that I was fine. He gave the number to Sharon who called, and we had a heart-warming chat. Sharon told me that she heard from my climbing friend, Bud Allen, that Lori and Amy safely reached Namche Bazaar from Pheriche and would be trekking down to Lukla the following day. Bud heard the news from Puchhanga who sent an e-mail to Bud from Namche. Thanks to our dear friends Bud and Puchhanga.

My care-taker at the Clinic, who stayed with me the entire time and cooked all my meals, was Tseri Sherpa. What a loving and gentle person. He heard about our trip to the orphanage. He held his hands to his face in a prayer position and said, with the greatest sincerity, “thank you.”

I have nothing but good things to say about Asian Trekking. A helicopter evacuation is usually a long process filled with bureaucratic red tape and lots of delay. This is especially so during the holiday and election seasons, both of which converged on April 12. I arrived at the Clinic in Pheriche in the morning and the helicopter picked me up at 11 am, an impressive and unprecedented accomplishment. Asian Trekking had 2 representatives pick me up at the airport, and they took me right to the Clinic. Mohan and Sanjay from Asian Trekking stopped by to see me in the morning and had a driver pick me up and take me to the hotel when the doctor discharged me later in the day.

A brief word about the political situation in Nepal. On April 11, there was a national Constituent Assembly Election in Nepal to elect representatives to draft a new Constitution establishing a federal democratic republic. The election process was quite vigorous and heated, drawing international attention and hundreds of election observers from all over the world. This included former President Jimmy Carter, who stayed at the Yak & Yeti. One of the reasons for all the heat and interest was that the Maoists Rebels laid down their guns and participated in the electoral process. In a stunning turn of events, the Maoists scored victories by wide margins in many of the Constituent elections. It appears that they could now establish themselves as the largest party in the 601-member Assembly. Some attribute their victory to a desire for peace and economic prosperity, which the Nepali Congress apparently could not deliver. Other say threats and fear played a crucial role in the upset victories. One cab driver told me that the Nepalese people are, by nature, peace-loving, and he thinks many of them silently voted for the Maoists so as to keep them from returning to the jungle where they would resume their guerrilla warfare. Whatever the reason, pressure will undoubtedly be brought on Washington to remove the Maoists from its international terror list.

I have grown to love the people of Nepal. You never see a frown on a face. The people are genuinely kind, sincere and respectful, and they seem to love all foreigners, including Americans. Most importantly they are peaceful and peace-loving. Yesterday morning in the hotel, a little Nepalese girl toddled over to me as I was seated on a couch waiting for my room to be prepared. She crawled up beside me, took the pencil out of my hand and started to scribble on a piece of paper I had been writing on. She was so cute.

We plan to visit the orphanage at least one more time. Lori and Amy want to take more gifts to the older children who we were not expecting to see on our first visit. I want to take more video footage. We also want to find out what other supplies they might need that we can bring back on future trips. We will share this information with you in case you are interested in helping. Maybe we will make this an annual pilgrimage.

My plan was to return to the mountains on April 16 when another Asian Trekking group leaves to climb Mt. Everest. But, I had one last appointment at the Clinic, and wanted to see what the doctor had to say. He said I am healthy, but still in the recovery stage. He strongly recommended against going up again so soon. If I don’t allow my body sufficient time to fully recover before I go back up, there is a serious risk that I will have the same problem. He wanted me to rest in Kathmandu for at least 7 days. But, waiting 7 days would not allow me sufficient time to make a serious run at the summit. So, I’m coming home with my daughters.

One good consequence of making this decision is that Asian Trekking can secure a refund of $10,000 for my permit fee. After today, no refund can be secured. Asian Trekking will also hold all my oxygen bottles until next year.

Honestly, having my daughters back with me has jolted me back to reality and made me realize what is really important. I don’t really care that much about the mountain right now. I will come back next year with Bud and David, and my daughters promised to make every effort to return with me. I hope my other 2 children–Lisa and Danny–will try to come too.

This trip has been a huge success. Lori, Amy and I have had the best time, and Lori and Amy have proven their power and mettle in so many ways. The three of us have created memories that will last forever.

Lori and Amy plan to post their own report after receiving a decent night of sleep in a real bed. We will keep you advised as to our plans for the return home.

Thanks so much for your prayers, love and support.