When things go bad at altitude, they often go very bad. It’s the nature of the sport; being wildly out on a limb. Mountaineering is about finding a balance between risk and safety, and walking that line of wonder, adrenaline and self-exploration.
On Ama Dablam that day an older couple ignored the signs of altitude sickness and denied the pleas their bodies made to stop. We caught up with them below the summit after a late start and found them stumbling and falling over each other, both being physically lowered by their Sherpa guides down the steep flutings of the summit. When we met one of them, he was tangled in rope, completely oblivious with his eyes rolling into his head and saliva drooling from his mouth. I was terrified to see someone so incapacitated in such an unforgiving place. I wasn’t sure that they would make it down.
The couple took hours and hours to descend to Camp 2.7 with the help of their Sherpa guides. The next morning we watched as they were rescued by a helicopter from the camp, spinning in circles on a long-line below the Heli.
Ama Dablam stands at the head of the Khumbu valley
We were standing outside our tents at 4,300m with the incredible breadth of Mt Ama Dablam was standing before us, its huge shoulders reaching out around the basin, the peak soaring above us up to 6,895m. Below the summit sits the Dablam; a hanging glacier above a 1,500m cliff that cascades down to where our tents were pitched. It’s exciting but daunting; this is a formidable mountain.
Neither my grandfather or father made it to the top — although we were doing a more sensible route that my dad’s audacious attempt up the West Face in ‘79. It was exciting to be stepping forward and continuing my family’s history with this mountain alongside my brother George. However, in basecamp I really had more important things to think about. I had an increasingly painful infection on my abdomen that was threatening to be quite a problem. After a few days the swollen abscess was so sore I couldn’t sit or stand without discomfort; I needed a doctor. And this, naturally, had to happen before ascending to the remote camps at altitude, where the chances of a swift recovery are nil. At extreme heights the body breaks down, and where I was going a small cut would take weeks to heal.
The day before we began our ascent I made a lightning fast trip around the valley to the Pheriche clinic; one of the many clinics that are now in the Khumbu region. I waited with people suffering from altitude sickness — the most common ailment amongst foreigners in these high remote valleys. I met with a Canadian doctor who promptly had at me with a scalpel, poking and prodding away. I soon sped back to basecamp with a course of antibiotics and an uneasy feeling in my abdomen. Over the next two weeks the wound slowly healed, but changing the bandages as we climbed left me very concerned — it wasn’t pretty. The swelling and weeping of the wound made the difficult and active rock climbing on Ama Dablam even more of a challenge.
My brother and I have both been affected by altitude sickness in one form or another, but over time you learn to interpret the signs of your body’s acclimatisation. My first experience of altitude sickness was below the summit on Kilimanjaro, where a crippling headache, wobbly legs and tunnel vision made it one of the hardest ascents of my life… at the age of 17!
Back on Ama Dablam the long circuitous walk up to Camp 1 travels over moraine ridges to eventually form the mountains south-west ridge. Arriving at this camp marks a significant altitude milestone; 5600m. Breathing gets significantly harder when climbing — you have to literally suck air into your lungs in order to move over the broken rocky terrain. But this night also marked the begining of our difficulties with sleeping; it’s not just because the site is anything but flat, but also because your breathing changes as you sleep.
At height, the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood can drop to very low levels and this can literally switch off your drive to breathe. It’s only when your body senses the resulting further drop in oxygen that you start to breath again. This deadly cycle of breathing is called cheyne stoke breathing. At sea level this type of breathing is a sign that someone very ill is in their final hours of life. Up at 5600m on Ama Dablam, it’s completely normal.