Disaster!

It has been a crazy 2 days. Our stop was Phortse, the wonderful picturesque village which produces many of the elite Sherpa climbers. It was warm and sunny, a perfect day to walk.

We arrived at the lodge which was also my guides home. All was well, and I was settling in to my room when I heard a loud noise. I thought a porter had arrived and had just thrown one of those huge loads they carry onto floor.

But No! That noise was from my guide falling and hitting the ground. And he’d hurt himself! 

With my limited medical knowledge I got him in a recovery position, did the ABC check and checked for general problems. He was talking – a good sign – but in a lot of pain. But beyond that I didn’t know what to do, and fortunately one of the other Sherpa Everest guides was on the scene soon after. The clouds were rolling in so the helicopter couldn’t come and we decided that he’d have to be carried to the hospital in Kunde, a neighboring village. We transferred him to a stretcher and a group of Sherpa set off as darkness was falling. They did a 3 hour mountainous walk in 2 hours, carrying a person. Amazing.

Latest report from the hospital is that he is injured but not too seriously, and so should make a good recovery. I have my fingers and toes crossed for him. He is built of iron so I am very hopeful. 

As for me, one of the other sherpas is trekking the rest of the way to base camp with me – Phinjo, our Sherpa guide last year. He is fantastic so hopefully there are only good things for me to report from now on.

To leave on a happy note, here is a picture from the village as the sun was setting. It’s pretty sweet!


The Khumbu Valley

Everything is going great! I’ve made it to the Khumbu Valley and the trek up to Base Camp is underway.

Kathmandu was its usual chaos but I was soon on the scary and breathtaking flight to the the valley. For a few moments I glimpsed Everest in the distance, dark and imposing. The photos just don’t convey how big and intimidating that mountain is. For a moment I had that ‘what the hell am I doing here’ feeling but it soon passed. At least for now!


The landing in Lukla was exhilarating , as it should be for one of the most dangerous airports in the world. FUN! We disembarked and I met my Sherpa guide, Danuru, for the first time. He is a legend – 23 expeditions to Everest and 11 summits, plus many other ascents of 8000m peaks. We get on great, and I am in good hands I think!

Danuru and I at the National Park entrance


A quick breakfast and we were on our way! It is hard to overstate how happy I feel to be back here. I smil from ear to ear constantly! The views, the mountains, the blue rivers, the forests, the people! For two days we trekked to the village of Namche Bazar, at 11,500ft / 3,400m for a rest day and checked into the familiar Khumbu Lodge. Hasn’t changed a bit! 

The view from my bedroom


Yesterday was a rest day and it snowed. It looked like Christmas morning, and the clouds made the mountains so mysterious and atmospheric. It’s unseasonably cold – down to -9C / 15F but that’s all part of the fun.

Looks like Christmas!


Today we head up to Phortse, a Sherpa village that produces many of its best climbers. I’m excited to see it!

James

T=0: Let the Games Begin!

That’s it! I’ve packed, said my goodbyes and am about to board the flight to Kathmandu. It seems to have come around so quickly, and now it begins.

Packing was actually OK this time. More stuff and the same weight as last time, which has me slightly worried! 44Kg (~100lb) in total. But it checks out on the list of things to bring though so I’m not concerned. Probably should have brought more pairs of underwear though! At least I remembered the all important cuddly toy!

Cloudy the Bear keeps an eye on proceedings


How do I feel, you ask? Excellent question! Different to last time. The first time it was all so new, and so perhaps more exciting, at least in an ‘I’m off on a new adventure’ sense. The dangers were there but it felt more out of my hands. This time it feels more like a mission, a quest. I have more understanding of what to expect, yet a goal which is harder to quantify. I’m more invested and feel more responsibility for my performance and safety. I feel focused.

I’m also a bit more nervous than last time. Maybe that will pass, but the last few nights were restless and that is a newer feeling for me.

And so it begins! Wish me luck!

3 Weeks To Go

There are only 3 weeks to go before I head to Nepal, so though I’d give a quick training update.

The last few weeks were psychologically difficult. As a test I did a training run up Mt Tamalpais, a mountain just outside of San Francisco, with a vertical climb of 1,800ft on that route. The first half is steep and rocky, the second half is flatter, smoother and longer.

I had benchmarked against professional speed climbers and some data around other world-class climbers. My estimate was that world record pace would be a time of 19-20 mins, a pro speed climber time would be 23-24 minutes. My time? 36 mins. Sure, it was at the end of a hard 2 week training block. Yes, it’s a tough trail probably not conducive to fast times. And I don’t train for speed. But that pace difference was still a shock to my confidence.

All kind of doubts started going through my mind. I wondered how I could be ‘so bad’ after averaging almost 2 hours training a day for 7 months? This is why I don’t train for most things – it avoids this kind of stress!

Speaking to a good friend who’s been up on Everest multiple times and to the summit really helped get me back on track. Success will depend on how well I acclimatize and how mentally strong I am, not the speed I run. Ultimately I’m much better at endurance, so hopefully that quality gets it done.

So last week I did another workout, this time 40 laps of the Lyon St stairs carrying 70lb, a 6,600ft vertical gain in 5 hours 20 mins. That’s a climbing rate of about 2,300ft an hour, which is good, especially as I forgot to bring most of my water and food. I lost 6.0lb in under 6 hours. Talk about a weight loss crash course! But I felt fine at the end and not even that tired – a good sign!

This week has been a recovery week so this weekend I’m going to try to attempt the ‘Quad Dipsea’, a 32 mile trail run with 8,400ft of vertical gain. Should be another interesting benchmark – let’s see if those endurances qualities of mine shine through this time…

 

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Part of the Dipsea Trail (Acknowledged: http://www.dipsea.org)

Training: Zero to Lots

I started training for this climb with 10 months to go in June last year, which for me was so much earlier than normal. I had done little exercise for the months immediately prior to starting, and on my first run had to walk the last 2 miles. So I’ve come a long way!

As a backdrop I was never great at sports in school. In the weekly 3 mile cross country run I always came around 8th out of 30. I remember once I really went for it, gave it everything I had and came third, gaining not even a flicker of acknowledgement from the PE teacher.

Sure, my genetics are pretty good for endurance sports and I assume my mother’s alpine heritage helps me with altitude. But I’m not Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. I genuinely believe that if I can physically achieve something, other people should be able to achieve it also. I’m a pretty normal personal doing very abnormal things – and I think ALL of us can aspire to that.

I thought it would be interesting to give you a sample week of training. This was the final week of my ‘Build’ block, about 14-15 hours of training.

Monday: Rest. Ah, so wonderful!

Tuesday AM: Intervals – 6x 1,000m with 200m recovery, V02Max pace

Tuesday PM: Max Strength – 1h 20 mins max strength, 30 min run (Aerobic)

Wednesday: 8 mile run – Aerobic pace

Thursday AM: Intervals – 9x 150ft stair runs, V02Max pace

Tuesday PM: Max Strength – 1h 20 mins max strength, 30 min run (Aerobic)

Friday: Rest. So excited!

Saturday: Climb 5,000ft / 15 miles carrying 65-70lb – 6hr round trip

Sunday: Hike 2,500ft / 15 miles carrying 50lb – 4h 30 mins round trip

There are benefits. Here is a picture I took on that Sunday hike. Tired, yes, but happy.

The Challenge without O2 – Part III: The Cold

The cold. Brrrr!

Anecdotally the #1 thing which prevents climbers succeeding without Os is the cold. Summit temperatures are commonly in the -40F (-40C) range, although one climber I spoke with made it in -54F (-48C). Here is a shot of Mt Everest’s current summit conditions. Just an average week, and a low of -87F (-66C) wind chill.

 

everest-weather2

The two risks to the climber are hypothermia and frostbite.

To keep you alive your body conserves heat in your core, where all the really important things are. It first closes the blood vessels to your extremities, which is why your hands feel icy cold on a chilly day. In normal conditions your body reopens these vessels when they cool below 50F (10C) to flush them with warm blood and stop them freezing. However, if your core is already cold this won’t happen, and without that blood flow – and no matter what you are wearing – the tissue will eventually freeze.

Within your core, without sufficient body heat your temperature will fall and you will get hypothermia. It is a dangerous condition, especially on the mountain. It causes physical conditions such as a weakness and unconsciousness, but also dizziness, a lack of coordination, poor judgement and confusion.

In severe hypothermia cases they have found climbers lying frozen to death next to a pile of neatly folded clothes. In the later stages the little muscles which close the blood vessels fail, dumping warm core blood into the extremities and causing a burning sensation on the skin. It’s that feeling I’m sure you have experienced when you get indoors with really cold hands and they hurt as they warm up. This hot sensation causes the delirious victim to remove their clothes. Delirious and confused, it is believed the clothes are folded to bring some ‘order to the chaos’ of their situation.

High altitude raises the risks of hypothermia as the amount of heat your body can generate is lower, for the same reason you climb slower as you go higher. Although covered head-to-toe in a down suit and other technical layers, all these do is efficiently retain the heat your body generates. It helps a lot, but there is a limit to how much you can wear. Lower heat generation and longer exposure makes hypothermia more likely.

Additionally, hypoxic blood conditions further constrict your vessels, reducing your ability to maintain blood flow to the extremities. That results in a higher risk of frostbite.

Indeed, one of the key reasons to climb using bottled oxygen is to reduce these risks and to push the envelope further – hopefully all the way to the summit. Climbing without Os just means that window of opportunity is much smaller.

The advanced gear you wear on Everest is a big help in lowering these risks. Here is a picture of the boots I will be wearing. $1,000 well spent. Yep that is a LOT of money for boots, but at $100 a toe they are cheaper than buying toeless shoes for the rest of my life. Plus they are Italian made!

boots-1

The Challenges without O2 – Part II: Acute Mountain Sickness

I talked last time about the energy problem at the summit of Mt Everest. But this is just one aspect of the challenge – medically there is also a lot which can go wrong!

First there is the impact of low blood oxygen (hypoxia) on your brain. Unlike your muscles, the brain can only generate energy with oxygen – it can’t work anaerobically. In hypoxic conditions this inhibits the firing of neuron synapses, and thus impairs your cognitive functions. I remember watching a video of someone at 8,000m (26,000ft) taking 10 minutes just to put on his shirt! Disorientation, poor judgment and loss of consciousness are serious risks in a place where rescue is essentially impossible.

Altitudes above about 3,000m (10,000ft) can also cause other medical problems, collectively called Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS).  Some of the milder conditions are a miserable inconvenience, such as headache, nausea or insomnia. There are also a number of more serious conditions to worry about.

Hypoxia causes a rise in blood pressure as your body rapidly pumps blood made much thicker than normal by all the extra red blood cells you create to carry oxygen. Simultaneously your veins automatically constrict which compounds the problem. If the pressure increases too much it can cause plasma to be squeezed out of your blood vessels and into the surrounding tissue. If that tissue is your lungs it causes a pulmonary edema (known as HAPE), and you literally drown as your lungs fill up with fluid from the inside. No joke that. If the tissue is your brain it causes a cerebral edema (known as HACE), a swelling of the brain which can result in coma and death. Also no joke.

Mitigating the risks of developing these conditions is a primary goal of acclimatization. Some people are more susceptible than others, but these conditions can still happen to anyone, from amateur climber to experienced Sherpa. So far I’ve been fortunate to never suffer any AMS symptoms, which is a good sign, but at extreme altitude the risks are never 0%.

The emergency treatment for these conditions is rapid descent, which is not always easy. Fortunately there are two drugs, nifedipine and dexamethasone, which have been proven to temporarily mitigate some of the early impacts of HAPE and HACE, hopefully giving you enough additional time to safely descend. Standard practice is to carry these on summit day, which I will do.

This is one time I’m happy not to have a photo of a past experience to share! So here is a photo of me at 6,000m (20,000ft) on Aconcagua in Argentina, stuck in a tent during a storm and looking like I have AMS…

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