Warning: This post may contain some vivid, perhaps gross, descriptions.
Infectious Diarrhea Capital of the World – we recently discovered this is a superlative Nepal boasts – more on that later.
The night in Upper Pisang seemed to be the night we hit a wall of sorts.
We stayed in a new guest house, only 23 days old, that unfortunately had a lot of cracks. We were drawn by the fresh wood smell and eager owner, but It was absolutely freezing once the sun went down. The toilet/shower area was like a damp, stinky cave, with the only light coming from the cracks in the concrete when the electricity was out. If you weren’t vomiting, you might once you stepped over to the squat toilet.
After I had walked with Chris up to the gompa, I felt like I was starving all the sudden and knew it would be hours before dinner was cooked, so I decided to eat a half of one of my allotted snickers. Almost instantly, my stomach started violently cramping. Weird. I hadn’t eaten anything anyone else hadn’t, and a snickers can’t be prepared improperly, right? Within an hour, I was bad off. Chris and the kids found a bucket so I didn’t have to stay in the disgusting bathroom. Walden’s primary vomiting had been on the road, and Ella luckily had never had vomiting; we all knew being sick in one of these bathrooms would just be cruel. Finally, at about 4 AM I dozed off for an hour or two. Poor Ella, my roommate, whose cough was just improving, didn’t sleep much either due to my restlessness. We both woke bleary eyed to everyone packing back up for the trek. The walls are paper thin it seems, so you can hear everything as if you were all in the same room.
This morning I was no longer vomiting, but seriously nauseated. Breakfast was not an option and Ella ate her usual tiny breakfast, but we still needed to move forward, so we pushed toward the trail. Walden and Chris were feeling pretty good, thank goodness.
This gorgeous Nepalese porter’s smile greeted us at the door to encourage us on our way. He was thrilled to only be guiding this time with only 1 young Belgian to help along; and with his tiny pack, he was practically bouncing up the trail. HIs booming laugh and Sherpa songs greeted us throughout the day and brought a smile when not much would. He was 59 years old and had trekked with people from over 75 countries he said. He was one of the most positive people I have ever met, genuinely. If I ever did get a guide or a porter, he would be infinitely worth just his company!
To our delight, all the mountains were visible and beckoning us onward. No rain and a little sun make things so much more doable here.
We did pretty well at first. Walden was moving at record pace, and Chris was keeping track of where we were headed.
Then we came up upon this.
The picture does it absolutely no justice, but the hike up to Ghyaru was absolutely evil, climbing from 3350 to 3670m, about 11,000 feet to over 12,000. The switch backs were relentless, especially if you were feeling the altitude.
We had been warned that we would start to feel the effects of the altitude. Now altitude sickness is unusual, in that it can hit anyone with any level of fitness, even if they have never had trouble before at the same altitude. Each trek upward, if you are not acclimatized yet, is a new unpredictable adventure. I have climbed in Ecuador as an eager college student above 19,000 feet and lived a week in Quito, which is at 16,000 feet, without any real difficulties other than breathlessness and mild fatigue. However, I do remember, our experienced mountain guide becoming completely unreasonable on the top of Volcano Cotopaxi on our way down. Clearly, it could happen to anyone. We also learned later, that it is normal to have an oxygen saturation of 88% at this height (normal for us is closer to 99%). This leads to forgetfulness and obviously less than clear thinking, which I believe contributed to our experiences also. We were obeying every recommendation however, other than the fact I was utterly dehydrated due to the fun of the night before. Guzzling water is not reasonable when you’re sure it won’t go down. So about 1/4 of the way up, my legs started to feel like dead weight and I couldn’t seem to catch my breath. Chris was concerned, so he took my pack and hauled it unbelievably to the top for me. The kids were good, they were amazed by the view and thrilled to be at the top with an unbelievable view. Walden was back to full strength and Ella’s cough was almost gone.
But I couldn’t seem to gather my wits. I was breathing way too fast; but even resting didn’t seem to help, and all I wanted to do was lay my head down and go to sleep. I was feeling a little dizzy and a little hysterical. All I could think was I needed to leave right then, which obviously was ridiculous minus a helicopter evacuation. We stopped for lunch at the top, but the nausea was full on again and now I seemed to be getting a headache. We still kept thinking it was just the food poisoning and a little headache is normal at altitude. Looking back though, everybody kept kidding that my face looked funny, sorda swollen maybe. I did get down a few crackers and water, so I felt a little better. I was calmer, so we started back. We didn’t have a lot of good options at this point. Move forward or go back was about the same distance to get to a village. And going back down those switch backs would have broken everyone’s heart.
About the time these guys stampeded down our path, I realized something was definitely wrong. I was having trouble walking straight and keeping my balance. I really could have just sat down on the side of the trail and went to sleep. Chris quickly calculated an acute mountain sickness questionnaire on me and determined my score of 8 signified some serious symptoms. We needed to get down, but our options were very limited.
Sweet Walden took my pack and Chris stayed near me to make sure I didn’t stumble, and we kept going. I couldn’t believe it at first. I mean 11,000 feet didn’t sound bad at all, but I understood that is usually what people say. And as I curled up beside Chris on a rock as he checked the book, I was almost asleep in minutes.
Our goal for the day was Ngawal at 3680, but this was higher than we slept the night before. Clearly that is not the goal if you are having altitude symptoms. But we were running out of daylight to get down to Humde, and all I wanted to do was climb into the bed and sleep forever. I realize this is not remotely the same, but I can totally understand how all those mountaineers that freeze to death could just sit down and fall asleep. The fatigue was remarkably overwhelming.
We made it to Ngawal and stayed with our friends from Germany again. That night, over half of those present around the fire were sick with all measure of ailments. Vomiting, infectious diarrhea, fever, headaches, etc. One of the women said it was interesting how much suffering people were willing to experience just to do this climb.
Then people started talking about possibly needing to buy crampons for Thorang La Pass for $50 each, and also that locals with yaks circle the bottom looking for sick tourists to take across on their yaks for $200 each. You see turning back at that point would take almost 3 days walk to get to a jeep. Then you’re looking at a 12 hour jeep ride to get out. It would definitely be better, if you were there, to have a yak drag your sick body across the pass to get out than turn back. Our eyes continued to get larger, and the kids and I more concerned.
On our way out to Manang the next morning, I was feeling a little better. We had about 4 hours hiking left to make it to the village, but we had had a 45 minute detour that morning with some bad directions. We stopped about 1 hour short of Manang at the Trekkers’ Bakery that we had heard about for several days. Hikers had been daydreaming about this place for days. We had heard they baked actual cinnamon rolls and had excellent food. After days of Tibetan bread, Dahl baht, and momos, this sounded like a place we couldn’t miss. Walden and Ella were totally psyched! When we arrived, we laughed to find our new friends there too, and they assured us everything was delicious. We ordered like we hadn’t eaten in days. I was able to get down most of a cinnamon roll, and Walden and Chris ate one too. Ella and Walden ordered chocolate cookies, which unfortunately turned out to be pretty hard but still chocolate! Walden ordered a yak cheese burger (a large patty of fried yak cheese with a few pieces of meat) and fries. Ella ordered vegetable lasagna, and Chris ordered a local dish. Smiles all around.
But all the sudden, Walden said, “Guys, something’s wrong.” When we looked up, his face seemed to be red and swollen, but pale underneath at the same time. Chris asked if we checked the cookies and I grabbed one to examine. Walden told us to get the epi pen out, and Chris jumped to dig it out of the pack. I noticed immediately some tiny flecks in the cookies and finally found a large enough piece to examine. Yes … it was a peanut. Chris readied the injection, and I ran to find someone to call for help. The owner understood that I needed medical help through our broken communication and sent for a motorbike. Ten or fifteen minutes he said. Chris gave the injection, and we tried to calm Walden. He had never had an anaphylactic reaction to peanuts before, because he had never been directly exposed like this. His allergy has been determined to be undoubtedly life-threatening however. He could feel his throat swelling and his scalp itching. Praise God, we were closer to medical care than we had been in several days. We understood the epi was really all that could be done, but Walden definitely needed reassurance from someone other than his medically trained parents.
Finally, the motorbike arrived, and he and Chris jumped on the bike. My stomach dropped into my shoes to see them precariously hanging to the back of the driver. I was more concerned about the motorbike ride than the allergic reaction. As they drove away, Ella and I started thinking out our predicament. Four large packs and an hour left to hike to Manang. Our friends offered to help us with the extra bags; but in all honesty, no one could manage this easily for this distance at this altitude. Soon, however, the owner earnestly insisted I wait for the motorbike to come back. He called again and told us Walden was in the clinic being assessed, but my husband was returning to help with the bags. Waiting was torture, I needed to be with Walden and reassure him he was going to be okay.
As we waited, I encouraged Ella to try and eat her lasagna. It was actually really good, and she hadn’t had a full meal in days. We gave the evil cookies to our friends, and they moved forward on the trail wishing us the best and any help they could provide in Manang. As Ella ate, this little spitfire (as we say in the South) snuck in through the door. We greeted her, but she gave us a humorously menacing stare and moved toward Walden’s plate that was left behind untouched. She slowly reached her hand out toward the fries, as she kept us in view with her stare. Ella and I tried not to laugh and I assured her it was okay, she was welcome. She glanced outside at her father, who had started to chastise her, and then back at us with her hand moving closer. She snatched the fries and moved toward the door, but her Dad was up and after her. I met him at the door and tried to make him understand it was absolutely fine. Walden was gone and wouldn’t be eating the meal. Finally, I went and brought the plate to the door and offered it to the little girl. Her mother took it, bowing her namaste and thanks to us, and the little girl danced happily beside her, clearly thrilled. She was the highlight of our day.
Chris returned and took his and Walden’s bags on the back of the motorbike again, and Ella and I started walking. She said she would never ride a motorbike again, bless her heart. She and I raced as fast as we could the last hour to Manang to reach Walden and make sure he was okay. Chris is that tiny red dot on the mountain bike below.
Finally, Manang. We found Walden in the bed at a guest house close to the hospital/clinic. He had met an excellent Australian physician who volunteered 3 months at a time at the clinic, while 2 Nepali physicians were there year round. The medical care was provided free to the Nepalis; and foreigners paid a minimal fee for services that was able to keep the place open and running. He had assured Walden that we had gotten the epi in him right away, which was the most important thing. He gave him a hefty dose of steroids and told us to watch him closely for 12 hours and that he was available if we needed him just next door. Reassuring Walden, he even shared his own crazy nut allergy story, when he was traveling on board a ship and was trapped in the shower when it happened. Walden was whipped. He had a violent vomiting episode in the clinic and he was very hoarse with a sore throat. His scalp was itching him like crazy, so we gave him Benadryl to help him rest. I went to find the owner of the guesthouse to try and arrange a jeep out the next morning. Enough is enough, it is time go.