We continue our process of acclimatization at this extreme altitude of 17,400′. I am discovering that it is one thing to summit a peak of this altitude, such as Iztaccihuatl or El Pico de Orizaba, or to spend two or three nights at a high camp at this altitude as we do on Aconcagua and it is quite a different thing to arrive at this altitude and stay here (or higher) for 45 days! To my surprise by the 4th and 5th day here I have experienced discomforts that are new to me. Last night I had the most miserable case of sleep apnea I have ever experienced. I was not able to sleep at all all night! As soon as I relaxed and started to fall asleep I would wake up feeling asphyxiated and having to breath fast to catch my breath. It is a horrible feeling to spend the whole night like that! It was a very cold night at base camp. The temperature inside my tent just outside my sleeping bag was 14 degrees Farenheit (or close to -10 celsius) which meant I had to close my sleeping bag around my face and create a small tunnel to breath through. This, with the sleep apnea added a feeling of claustrophobia that was very disturbing! Being so cold I couldn’t really do anything but stay in that sleeping bag for 10 hours watching the minutes tick by, dying to get some sleep and instead being semi awake suffering from these symptoms all night.
Needless to say this was very disturbing! The thought of me being sick at base camp and having to abandon the whole expedition only added to the stress. How humiliating would be to have to do that with my maximum height reached on this expedition being only 5300m and not having even began the real climbing! My $1000 high altitude down suit laying next to me only reminded me how horrible it would feel to go back to the US in total defeat, having spent $50,000 dollars, without even using my high altitude gear, only to spend some miserable nights at base camp and abandon the whole expedition.
Of course these were just nightmarish thoughts that crossed my mind in the stress of not being able to sleep and feeling like I couldn’t breath every 4 or 5 minutes!
I knew I had to check this and make sure it was not a symptom of something serious because if it was I WOULD abandon the expedition. I am not doing stupid things here if I have the bad luck of having a health issue. My top priority continues to be safety first even if it means an embarrassing return. I also thought of different scenarios like going down to a lower village to spend a few more acclimatization nights before trying again. I am not going to give up easy here!
This morning, after breakfast I went to the doctor again. My vital signs are ok. No high blood pressure, my blood oxygenation is ok for this altitude being today only my 5th day at this altitude and my lungs are clear (no pulmonary edema, which is a great thing as that would end my expedition with no option to continue whatsoever. Don’t forget a sherpa died of pulmonary edema a few weeks ago for staying here too long without enough acclimatization and prompt evacuation). Every day there has been several evacuations by helicopter here at base camp. Many people are not able to tolerate these altitudes and have to be brought down to Kathmandu). So this is a serious game and I am not taking chances. This is why I prefer to go see the doctor and check everything to make sure nothing serious is going on. Many people in base camp have coughs and/or are suffering from stomach infections. There are a lot of sick people here! My cold feels like its gone now but a minor cough remains which is most like just due to the dry cold air.
The doctor said it happens that some people suffer from sleep apnea and she recommended a full dosage of Diamox now to allow me to sleep better. I will try that now. This should get better in the next few days. Phil, our expedition leader, has a full week scheduled here at base camp to let the body adapt to this extreme altitude. After that we will begin our rotations going to camp 1 and 2 and staying a few days up there to further acclimate before returning to base camp to rest and recover. We will have plenty of rest days and/or days where we will do ascents near by to Pumori base camp or camp one to gain acclimatization and not lose fitness while we live above 5000 meters.
Other than the sleep apnea I feel ok during the day, so I am hoping as my body adapts that will disappear and I won’t have to worry about this anymore!
A lot of people are sick at base camp. There is lots of nasty coughing in a lot of camps, people with stomach illnesses and of course all the people being evacuated because of altitude sickness! Imagine! Their expedition is over already!!! It doesn’t matter if they spent $100,000 in gear and expedition costs! It’s over for them! (we all follow roughly the same schedule because we are all trying to take advantage of the good weather weeks in May to summit). The main doctor Eric Simmons (I think that’s his name) left in a helicopter a few days ago because he is sick!!!
I think this is the same Eric that appears on the documentary I Am Alive.
That tells you something about living at this altitude!
It is truly amazing to think most of these people pay between $50,000 and – $100,000 dollars to be here, isn’t it? Crazy?…Yes! I am not going to argue with you, but nobody said climbing to the highest point on Earth was going to be easy and doable by everyone. It is definitely not for everyone!
Why do I do this? In the words of the famous polar explorer Ernest Shackleton:
“To touch greatness!”
I don’t know why everyone else is here, but it may be a similar reason…maybe not.
I know I have the physical conditioning to do it. I have been hiking with 5 members of our expedition (who are doing Lhotse) and who have summited Everest before, and I can see these are strong mountaineers and with mental strength but I don’t feel any less strong than they are (I tend to move faster than several of them. I have not been the first one to arrive in all our treks because I have been doing a lot more photography than them but even then I tend to arrive in the front side of the group). It is also interesting that even though they have more experience on 8000m peaks than I do (I’ve never been above 8000m and they’ve all done several 8000m peaks) they don’t have as much experience as I do doing unguided mountaineering (or guiding, themselves, of course as I am the only professional mountain guide of the groups except for Phil).
But of course none of this guarantees me that my body can tolerate these extreme altitudes we are going to go to. If my body cannot, I will not force anything and I will return satisfied that I had a chance to find out, as most people in the world don’t even get that chance. Don’t get me wrong, I am not leaving here until I know I have given it all I can give without killing myself or until I get that summit. I am just emphasizing and reminding you all and myself that the most important part of this adventure for me is to come back alive. Health issues only turn worse at 6000,7000 and above 8000 meters; that’s why it’s called the death zone up there! This is why it is important to monitor very carefully all health issues “down” here.
So far my sleep apnea can be a normal (though very stressful and tiring) part of the acclimatization. I had an afternoon nap Today for two hours without any sleep apnea which felt great and I hope this means my body is finally adjusting. We’ll see tonight with the higher dosage of Diamox.
If it’s a good weather day tomorrow and I am feeling better, I will go do an acclimatization hike up to Pumori base camp.
I am also hoping we will start having some access to internet so I can send these dispatches. All of Everest base camp has been completely disconnected since the wifi, satellite and 3g have not been working at all. I heard the wifi place may now have some sketchy internet. I will try send it today!
I send you all a big hug from Everest base camp.
PS: to all my family and loved ones: don’t worry, I will take good care of myself. I will not do anything crazy. I will not attempt the summit unless I am healthy enough and in my eagerness to accomplish this goal I will not neglect to recognize and address any serious health issues.