Sirens were blaring as we weaved our way around the airport tarmac and through the morning rush hour traffic of Kathmandu. Sat in the back of the ambulance I looked down at my wife who, now ghostly white, was being tended to by an EMT. Looking out of the front window I was horrified to see that we were driving on the wrong side of the road in to oncoming traffic; a feat not for the faint-hearted given that drivers don’t seem keen on practicing general etiquette on Nepal’s roads! This wasn’t how I expected our holiday to turn out!
A mere 24 hours earlier it had all been so different. My wife’s long held aspiration of reaching Everest Base Camp had been achieved. There are smiling photos and GoPro footage attesting to our success. Everything was going according to plan and the Diamox (medication designed to reduce the likelihood of succumbing to Acute Mountain Sickness) seemed to have adequately done its job. It was time to turn around and start the 4-day descent to Lukla.
But the high of reaching Everest was unexpectedly short-lived. No sooner had we taken our celebratory photos with the rest of ‘Team Poutine’ (side note: there’s a long story behind the team name that involves our Canadian team members taking over a tea house kitchen and subsequently discovering that the word ‘poutine’ has a VERY different meaning in Nepal) than my wife started to experience searing headaches and crippling nausea. The slow trudge back to the nearest teahouse at Gorek Shep, a 3 hour hike from Everest Base Camp, was a long and painful journey in freezing and snowy conditions; and that was without even considering the lack of oxygen at 17,600 feet.
The relative warmth of the teahouse seemed to provide very little comfort and her condition seemed only to deteriorate. Despite attempts to eat, nothing was staying down and she spent the next 15 hours curled up in the fetal position trying to keep warm. By the time breakfast came around it was clear: My wife was suffering from high altitude sickness and a decision needed to be made.
At this point I need to explain my wife’s personality; the personality which made me fall in love with her. She is strong willed to the point of ‘lovingly stubborn’. If I say left, she would say right. Put simply, she keeps me in check! So when I suggested that we might need to consider medical evacuation her immediate response was ‘no way, I want to walk’. Bearing in mind that the day’s walk was scheduled to take somewhere around 9 hours it was a fairly herculean statement from someone who had just finished vomiting into a bucket placed by the side of the bed, hadn’t eaten in 48 hours, and was severely dehydrated. At this point I decided to play my ace card…..tough love. If she wanted to soldier on then the first step was to go outside in the negative temperatures and prove she could walk around the teahouse.
To my chagrin she crawled out of bed.
To my astonishment she made it to the outside porch.
But to my relief she promptly vomited and sunk to her knees in the snow.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some sort of sadistic arsehole that enjoys seeing my wife in pain; quite the contrary. I was trying to avoid her suffering through another 9 hours of pain and I was relieved that this little practice run might make her see sense and do the right thing – which was to rapidly descend and seek emergency medical treatment. It had worked!
The next hour is a bit of blur. After tentatively walking my wife back to our room to lie down, bags were packed, insurance companies were called (thank goodness we had coverage through World Nomads; their customer service was brilliant!), helicopters were scheduled, and hospital transfers were arranged. In fact, no sooner had I said goodbyes to our group (and made arrangements to meet them back in Kathmandu to get drunk) than the distant sound of helicopter rotors began to grow. It was time to make our way to the helipad.
By this point, my wife had truly abandoned any notion that she was physically capable of walking. Instead we had three guides inching/carrying her up the hill to the helipad whilst I crawled up the hill carrying bags and trekking poles (I know what you’re thinking and yes, I’m a modern-day hero). Positioning ourselves behind a rock, the roar of the helicopter grew louder and the wind from the rotors blew me down from my crouched stance (in fairness I only had one hand to balance myself with because I was eagerly trying to document the dramatic moment with my camera in the other).
Under the deafening noise and blustery conditions which whipped up snow into our faces, we were loaded into the helicopter which promptly took off and banked to the right to avoid the mountains surrounding us. I appreciate that the experience wasn’t under the most perfect of conditions but there is no doubting that this was a once-in-a-lifetime moment. All around me were pristine Himalayan Mountains (including fantastic views of Everest) covered in winter snow. Below me were valleys raging with glacial meltwater rivers….and behind me was a severely dehydrated wife slumped over. If only she could have seen this scenery!
And so we go full circle. After an hour and a half in the helicopter tracing our journey back to Kathmandu, we landed at the airport and were greeted by our ambulance. It had been an adventure and this was just the start of it – we still had 2 days in the hospital to come!
Writer’s Note: I’ve adopted a light hearted approach to this story (after all, my wife is now fine and we joke about it all the time), but it’s important to realize that mountain sickness is a serious subject, one that can ultimately lead to death if it isn’t promptly identified and treated. So, whilst I hope you enjoyed the story there is a serious message behind it. The most obvious is that if you think you’re suffering from AMS, then you should seek medical attention and take the advice of any guides you’re hiking with. Delaying the conversation or ignoring the symptoms can have serious consequences. The second message is the importance of having appropriate insurance coverage. I’ll be honest, it’s something I rarely pay much attention to (my wife is an expert in Medivac Insurance because of her job and so it takes the pressure off of me). If we hadn’t had the coverage, or didn’t understand the procedures for notifying the insurance company, then this could have been a SERIOUSLY dangerous and expensive situation to resolve.