I haven’t always been an avid mountain trekker. Death forced my eyes open. Three months after my husband passed away from cancer, I left home (alone) to walk the Camino De Santiago.
Those first steps forced me to dig deep for inner strength at the very moment my comfortable life crashed and burned. Somewhere in the mountains of the Pyrenees during a cold rain storm and deep fog, I discovered meditative pacing. I This is a practice where steps and breath unite in a continuous cycle. When I mentally drop inside of myself, I reach a state of well-being and mindfulness. Problems mysteriously resolve. Endorphins release, flooding my heart with joy and thanksgiving. New ideas or goals appear out of thin air. Physical hardships are overcome. That trip started my evolution into a serious hiker.
When a friend asked me to hike to base camp, the decision wasn’t based on fulfilling a bucket list. What tempted me was being able to experience wild and sometimes brutal forces of nature in spectacular mountains that have become my church. Buddhist’s have a similar belief that the roof of the world is closer to God. Sherpas call Everest Chomolungma, and is where their goddess resides. She must be appeased with gifts and prayer, because she can grant success or destroy with death.
Fear is a very distinct component of this trek and it kept popping into my monkey brain with vivid scenarios. This trek is a young person’s game, with the majority of people in their thirties or forties. I’m sixty-five-years-old. What if I fail? What if I get hurt? What if altitude sickness requires evacuation? There’s only two ways to return from this trek—either walk out or pay for an expensive helicopter ride. No one considers returning in a body bag.
I fought every burning ember of doubt with careful preparations. Three of our fifteen member team spent a month at higher altitude in Colorado. We worked out six days a week trying to assimilate elevation gains we’d experience in Nepal. This worked to a degree. We skied, snowshoed, or used yak-traks to hike above 12,000’ elevation. Our blood oxygen saturation increased week-by-week as we trained harder, higher, and for longer periods of time.
But base camp is at 17,700’ with approximately 50% less of the oxygen available at sea level. Himalayan Wonders, our excellent guide company were great—they added a second acclimation day into our program. These aren’t “rest” days but hikes to higher elevation and then returning lower to sleep—retracing the same steps higher the following day.
The physical and mental demands of increasing elevation burns off mega calories. I packed high protein shakes, bars, and even jerky to bolster a carbohydrate diet of French toast, pasta and rice dishes. I ate everything and still lost eight pounds in twelve days of trekking.
Our group of seniors, between the ages of 51-74, are all active hikers. But Acute Mountain Sickness can hit anyone at any age. Most of us used Diamoxx—a diuretic medication which helps the kidney’s get rid of excess carbon dioxide that the lungs can’t dispel. Everyone experienced mild symptoms of AMS, from nagging headaches (drink more water), fatigue (in bed by 8:30 every night), loss of appetite (eat anyhow), increased heart rate and respirations (listen to your body and slow down). Luckily, no one escalated into greater danger from pulmonary or cerebral edema, which would require evacuation.
After every day’s hike, a group of us filtered a lot of water for the following day using the Guardian MSP or the Grayl press. These are the only two systems that remove viruses along with some chemicals, bacteria, protozoa and disease causing parasites. Please– don’t use commercial water on this trail, thereby increasing garbage and pollution!
There’s other necessary things to pack: hand sanitizers, biodegradable wet wipes (not many places for gas heated showers), a protective cap for the end of a water camel to keep yak poop out of your mouth and lots of toilet paper. A buff or facemask is needed to keep fine glacial dust from seriously mucking up your lungs. This doesn’t begin to consider the various layers required for temperature or weather changes or freezing nights at high elevation.
All of this gear must fit in a fifteen pound pack. Good luck on that one. I failed miserably.
I knew the preparations and understood the potential for danger on the trail. I’d spent the last six years replacing many worn out hiking boots. Heck, I live in Montana. Feeling well prepared, I thought, I can do this.
I didn’t foresee that the sacred mountains of Nepal were waiting and the laughing goddess had some serious lessons for me to learn.
Next week: Lukla to Phakding, Nepal
Seriously? Go downhill first?