A Bit More Than We Bargained For…
Everest Base Camp the Lazy Way Day 9: Machermo
“Look,” I say to Zac, who would rather spend his acclimatisation day resting. “It’s only 300 metres! That’s nothing! But it WILL help us acclimatise, plus we need something a bit steep to prepare us for the Cho-La.”
“Oh alright,” he says, sulkily.
My son has been as gobsmacked by the beauty and relieved by the general lack of physical difficulty on the Everest Base Camp trek as I have – he’s had nary so much as a pain in his legs, and, more surprisingly, nor have I.
But still, a rest day is a rest day, and a Kobo is a Kobo.
Now, I can’t actually find the peak we’re heading up on our map. It’s very good on recent manifestations of the yeti, but rather poor on the fine detail of contouring.
Still, the guys in the lodge seem definite it’s called Machermo Ri.
I look around for the American guys with the bona fide National Geographic map, but I can’t see them.
Anywise, it seems straightforward enough. Yomp up to the ridge with the prayer flags and the yaks, then up through the band of black, and you’re on the top.
“What time lunch?” asks Nir.
“I don’t think we should order in advance,” I say. “Just in case…”
Some time later, past our second set of prayer flags, and a whole bunch of yaks, we settle down in the sun on a grassy slope to eat our remaining oranges, nak cheese and Snickers, drink some water and, generally, catch the rays, looking down on the brightly coloured roofs of Machermo’s handful of lodges.
I can’t help but think that, for a 300 metre ascent, we’ve done an awful lot of climbing so far. I mean, we’ve got to be a few hundred feet above Machermo (4470m, 14,670 feet) already.
The peak SHOULD be getting nearer. But instead it feels like it’s getting further away.
One of the Americans appears over the hill, photographs a yak at what we consider a temeritously close distance, and lopes over to us.
“You going up to the top?” he asks.
“Yeah,” I say. “It’s only three hundred metres, or something, and it feels like good acclimatisation for Zac.”
(Like anyone doing Everest Base Camp with kids, I’m trying to be dutiful about acclimatisation.)
“Wow!” he says, dubiously. “Good luck…”
After what seems like an unconscionably long time, we’re up in the black and scrambling over substantial black boulders littered with cairns, an activity that I really rather enjoy. (I’m scared of heights, but I like a good scramble, provided there’s no danger of falling screaming to my death off a vertical drop.)
All the same, though, I’d like to see the top now, please.
In fact, I’d like to tag the top and fuck off back down now, please.
“How far IS it?” asks Zac, bad-temperedly.
“It can’t be much further now,” I say. “It’s only 300 metres above the bloody lodge.”
“We MUST have climbed 300 metres by now,” he says.
“Well, it does sort of feel that way…” I say.
“I don’t know this mountain,” Nir contributes, redundantly. Then, “Everest! See!”
Any excuse will do for a break, so we slump down and admire Everest over the ugly, slaggy heaps of rock, rubble and dying ice that make up the moraine below us.
I look up. We have loads and loads of boulders still to go.
Everest isn’t doing the jet plume thing today, but it’s always pleasant to see Everest.
“I do think we’ve climbed more than 300 metres,” I say to Nir, as we look down at Machermo, whose lodges look the size they would when seen from a plane.
“Yes,” he says. “Maybe 500, 600 metres?”
“Mmm…” I say.
“We’re at Everest height now,” he adds, adumbrating the point that one needs to reach a certain elevation wherever one is to get a sight of Everest.
We scramble up, and up, and up some more, our pauses becoming more frequent. I notice that Zac’s breathing, like mine, is both deeper and more rapid.
Bugger, I think. I’m not breathless but I’m really nowhere near as acclimatised as I thought I was. Any time now I’m going to get a headache.
We’re also highly likely to miss lunch. I check our head torches work, and decide, mentally, that if we’re not at the top of this bloody thing by 3.30pm, I’m going to turn us around.
Stupid bloody hill.
“Look!” says Nir. “The Cho-La.”
“What?!” I say.
Our adversary is appearing in the distance…
“You see the village at the bottom of the valley?” asks Nir. “That’s Dragnag.”
“Right,” I say. “On the moraine, yes?”
“We walk up the valley,” he explains. “And then climb up — big up – and through the mountains.”
“What, there?!” I say, looking at a jagged tongue of glacier peaking, Mick Jagger style, over an unappealing and ginormous rock fall, at the head of a valley which is by no means insubstantial.
“Yes,” Nir says. “There.”
I can’t help noticing that Dragnag, which, according to my map, is yeti-free but 4700m (15,420 feet) high, is also a VERY long way below us, while the Cho-La, at 5330m (17,490 feet), seems roughly on our kind of level.
It’s long after lunchtime and heading towards teatime when our increasingly fractious party makes the first, false summit of whatever this bloody hill is called, which isn’t, despite what the guy in the lodge said, Machermo Ri.
That is to say, I head gaily towards another bloody boulder, Nir says, “Mestari!” (slowly!) and I self-arrest before climbing over it and then plunging to my death hundreds of metres down a sheer black rock face.
So, like all the best vertigo sufferers, I wildly over-compensate by yelling at my child, who is nowhere near the drop, to stay the fuck away from it.
There are, sadly, no prayer flags, which means we’re not at the top. In fact, it looks as though there are two further black rock summits, and then something with meringue-looking snow cornices that has “technical climbers with fixed ropes” written all over it.
I go on a little recce. My heart’s not really in it, but if we can bag the top of this hill at this point, I’m going to do it, fear of heights or no fear of heights.
It all looks difficult, time-consuming, and probably dangerous to boot.
“Very up!” says Nir. “Very up!”
“Yeah,” I say, thinking that this heavy breathing lark had better stop and annoyed with myself for not acclimatising properly. “So how do Gokyo Ri and Kala Patthar compare to this?”
“Oh,” Nir says. “This same like Gokyo Ri. Kala Patthar and Everest Base Camp easy!”
“Oh!” I say, pleasantly surprised by this. “So the only thing we have to worry about is the Cho-La?”
Nir nods. He isn’t particularly worried about our ability to get across the Cho-La. I am. He is also, I notice, short of breath.
Back at base, I luxuriate in a wash from a steaming bucket of hot water and change into my brand, spanking clean clothes that I laundered on my very own, then consult the Americans’ National Geographic map.
“Well,” says the yak photographer, pointing at a peak that isn’t Machermo Ri. “If you climbed this…”
“We did,” I say. “That’s the valley and the side drops away sheer like that, so we got to about here, except it has three summits, close together, but I guess the map isn’t detailed…”
“If you climbed this…” he says, delicately emphasising my interruption. “That’s 5,273 metres (17,487 feet).”
“Bahahaha!” I say, feeling rather smug about our genius ability to acclimatise, and patting myself warmly on the back to celebrate my son’s inner Sherpa.
“Well, we didn’t climb all of it,” I humble-brag. “But I’d say we got to 50 metres or so beneath the summit. No wonder I was breathing a bit hard…”
I proceed to bounce around a trekking lodge dining room full of people with altitude headaches, humble-bragging, mummy-bragging, and generally being the kind of person anyone with altitude problems would like to punch in the face.
I’m well aware that I’m doing this, but simultaneously completely unable to contain myself.
I bounce over to Zac, who is sat by the brazier with his Kobo and an air of general sufferance. “Zac!!!! You broke 5000 metres today!!!! How does that feel?!”
“Well, ACTUALLY,” he says. “I have a headache.”
BUGGER, I think. That’s not good.
“Could I borrow your book?” I ask the second American, who’s been sitting most of the climbing out with altitude problems, which is frustrating for him both because that’s his vacation gone and because he’s a former marine who’s supposed to be able to do this stuff while carrying a wounded colleague or two on his back. “Zac has a headache.”
“Oh,” he says, with genuine concern yet also what I perhaps misinterpret as a backnote of quiet satisfaction. “That’s not good.”
The annoying thing about altitude headache is that it’s a symptom of normal AMS (most people on the Everest Base Camp trek will get the odd altitude headache), but also can be a sign of the onset of acute AMS (High Altitude Cerebral Edema, AKA brain swelling).
And the challenge is to work out which it is.
I decide to give Zac a paracetamol. An altitude headache that clears without painkillers is not H.A.C.E.
“Why don’t you set a timer on your phone for an hour?” the patient suggests. “Then we can tell whether it’s worked or not.”
“Good idea,” I say. “What’s 8 x 9?”
“What?” he says.
“What’s 8 x 9?” I say.
My son looks at me like I’m mental. “72,” he says. “Why?”
The marine’s book instructs me to do the test for ataxia (loss of coordination), which will indicate, if failed, that coma is three hours away and death imminent soon after.
So I ask Zac to walk in a straight line, touching his heel to his toe as he puts one foot in front of each other.
He’s a bit wobbly, I think.
“He’s a bit wobbly,” chorus the Americans, both of whom are obviously parents themselves, though, like most parents, have left their children behind rather than do Everest Base Camp with kids.
I figure Zac’s probably a bit wobbly either because his legs are a bit tired after doing 1500 vertical metres in a day at high altitude or because this is the first time anyone’s asked him to perform this particular activity.
All the same, I’m concerned. The marine has some dexamethasone, the super-strength steroid that’s a nuclear option for treatment of H.A.C.E (I have Diamox, which is for mild altitude sickness, but thought dexamethasone would be overkill). He gives me some, just in case.
I figure if I do need to call a rescue chopper out, they’ll be able to tell me the junior dosage.
After half an hour, I ask Zac whether he still has a headache. (After his tummy bug in Egypt, I try not to be too sanguine about his health.)
“Yes,” he says, accusingly. BUGGER, I think. “But only if I shake my head rapidly from side to side,” he adds, demonstrating.
“I think EVERYONE has a headache if they shake their head rapidly from side to side,” I say, shaking my head to one side and giving myself a headache.
Sheesh! Does that mean I have High Altitude Cerebral Edema, too?
Zac shakes his head rapidly again. “Stop it!” I say.
And then I ask the marine. “What was your headache like when you had it?”
“Oh god,” he says – and this is, gentle reader, a commando, a species which, in my limited experience, can be relied on to be stoical in all circumstances except when stricken with hangover or man flu, when I’ve seen thirteen-year-old convent schoolgirls display higher pain thresholds – “I couldn’t open my eyes, I could barely see, I couldn’t move with the pain. And painkillers didn’t touch it.”
“Oh,” I say. “Zac, you’ve just got a mild altitude headache. If it comes back in the morning we’ll spend another day here.”
It is getting noticeably colder the higher we ascend, at least at night, which is super-annoying because thanks a) to the altitude and b) to my desire to avoid dehydration at altitude I’m getting up at least once in the night to skid across a skating rink of other people’s frozen piss and pee.
In fact, when I wake in the morning, I find that not only our water but our wet wipes and my moisturiser have frozen.
I am sleeping in leggings, socks and a thermal top. Before long, I think, I’ll be sleeping in my clothes.
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