DHL Everest Expedition 2011

May 14

Dispatch #13

Published at 15:38
Dispatch created from email
I wanted to write an update detailing the events that occurred to initiate termination of the DHL Everest Expedition 2011. Another dispatch will follow with my reflections of events and some pictures.
On 23rd April we (my teammates Charles, James and myself, along with Henry Todd the expedition leader) ascended from basecamp to camp 1 on Everest. It took 7 hours, slightly above average as it was our first climb at that height and we were not yet acclimatised. We spent a night at camp 1 and then ascended to camp 2 the following day as we were all feeling fine. This took a further 5 hours , again hindered by altitude and also heavy rucksacks as we did not have Sherpa support that day. I arrived feeling fine, perhaps with a slight headache due to a very normal level of hypoxia (lack of oxygen). Camp 2 stands around 6,400meters above sea level, where there is half the oxygen available in the atmosphere. Slight headaches at this altitude are of very little concern.
We all ate a hearty meal of dal bhat (traditional Nepalese dish of rice and lentils) and went to bed about 7pm as it was so cold and we were pretty tired! I woke a few times in the night and bashed the snow off the tent to prevent it from collapsing! I was feeling very comfortable until I woke around 2:30am. In the entire left side of my torso I had intense pins and needles. I sat up as I thought perhaps I'd been lying slightly weirdly; we were sleeping on rock covered ice after all! It was then that I noticed a weakness in my legs, and a slight loss of sensation. After a few minutes the pins and needles had not subsided, and I now had totally numbness and paralysis in my left arm and hand. The next minute the left side of my nose, tongue, cheek and the rest of the left side of my face had gone numb and tingly. I was sharing a tent with fellow climber James, so when he began to wriggle I whispered his name. I informed him of my symptoms and initially he thought I was cold. As he tried to get on my coat and some gloves, I realised the left side of my body was paralysed. I tried to tell him I wasn't cold, but by this point I was finding it very difficult to sleep. The left side of my face was drooping, and my speech was slurred. "I can't talk" I mumbled. That was when he went out to get the expedition leader.
I was in a scary predicament, but I couldn't help but feel guilty about all the fuss I was causing! It was about 3am, probably below -25 degrees Celsius outside, and James had to get out of his sleeping bag and put on his enormous climbing boots to walk to another tent! Then Henry, the exped leader, had to do the same! Henry prepared to launch a full scale rescue right there and then, having a drink and getting dressed into numerous layers. Half an hour later, when he was prepared, he came to the tent to see me. By this point a lot of the paralysis and numbness had gone, but a profound weakness down the left side remained. It was considered we were possibly looking at a migraine, possibly a TIA (a mini-stroke). Due to the improvement and then the onset of a severe headache, it was decided it was probably a migraine and I was able to stay at camp until the morning. A descent with someone with my symptoms at night would have been extremely dangerous for both me and others involved.
After a restless night, sleeping on oxygen via a pulse dose nasal cannula which did nothing to abate the severe head ache, the sun began to rise. The orangey glow of sunlight in the tent was a relief, but I held my head in my hands, eyes shut tight as I found I was extremely sensitive to light. However, about 6 hours after my initial symptoms, the severe headache had subsided a lot and I was able to get up and drink a cup of tea in the mess tent.
I was told I had to descend to basecamp that morning and was initially disappointed. Although I felt a lot better, I was still very weak particularly on the left side of my body. The thought of having to climb down through the icefall was daunting, and I felt I needed another day to get strong again before the descent. However it was pointed out I'd been seriously ill in the night and needed to receive medical care asap. I was just gutted I didn't get to stay the intended two night at camp 2 with the rest of my team, worried it would hinder my acclimatisation. On leaving the camp, Henry said to me "this is just a minor setback"; I'll have you back up here in a few days. You're young and you've not taken many knocks so this feels huge, but this is no knock on the head. "It feels like it!" I joked, referring to the bad headache!
I descended the mountain in about 5 hours from camp 2 to basecamp without any major hitches. Ladders were slightly difficult in that I was finding a little bit of difficulty placing my left foot on the aluminium rungs, and gripping the ropes with my left hand wasn't easy but I managed very well. Lakpa Onju stayed with me for the entire descent and was patient despite a slow pace and numerous rests.
Arriving back into basecamp I was happy to see Tim Mosedale's team had arrived and were sharing our mess tent. They're a lovely group of people who were very willing to offer hugs, something I'd been missing a huge amount since I'd been away from home. After somebody asked, I explained what had happened in the night. She advised I spoke to their basecamp doctor, but I was now feeling a lot better, just a little tired and smelly, so I went for my first shower in three weeks!!
After my shower, Abi the doctor and Tim Mosedale asked to speak to me, and on discussing my symptoms and assessing me, she found I still had weakness in my left arm and hand, and also that the left side of my face was still drooping slightly. She wanted a second opinion and, after some convincing, we went to the Himalayan Rescue Association clinic at basecamp (made famous by Everest ER on BBC 3).
After a second and third opinion there from HRA doctors Rachel and Jen, it was discussed I may need to return to Kathmandu. I was upset but tried not to think about it for the rest of the evening; I felt fine and knew I'd be up on the mountain again soon.
The next day I saw a fourth doctor, Monica, a lovely lady who works every year as a doctor on Russell Brice's Himex expedition. She was convinced it was a migraine, not a stroke, and initially said that, with Henry's consent, I would be allowed to ascend the mountain again, on the condition that if anything happened again I'd be off the mountain for good.
I was happy although a little scared about the fact something else could happen, but a highly qualified doctor had said it'd be okay and I didn't feel it was an unacceptable risk. I would have never ascended the mountain if I felt I was taking a risk greater than that which is acceptable. I would never unduly jeopardise my life and also the lives of who may have had to come to my aid if anything happened. Nothing is worth that, not even 20 minutes standing at the highest point on earth.
The following day, bored in my tent before dinner, I wandered over to the HRA clinic again just to say thank you and let them know of my plans. As written in my diary, the conversation between Rachel the doctor and I went somewhere along the lines of:
Rachel: Are you really fed up?
Becky: Er, no not really?!
Rachel: What are you planning to do?
Becky: We're having a couple of rest days then I'm going up the mountain again.
Rachel: Erm. Have you seen Henry today? I think you should go and talk to henry.
Becky: We've not seen him much today. Why? What's going on? Is there something I should know?
Rachel: Do you want to come in for a cup of tea? I think we need to talk.

That was when it all clicked. I realised things had been discussed and climbing again was perhaps no longer an option for me. "don't know what I want anymore" I said then just burst into tears! We went into the clinics mess tent and talked for a few hours. Rachel and the other doctors explained what had gone on, how they'd all got together and discussed both my past medical history and the incident at camp 2. They'd also phoned doctors with huge amounts of experience in high altitude medicine on the other side of the world in Canada and America. It had been deemed too risky for me to go up. If I were to continue on the next ascent rotation, it was uncertain how likely it would be that I would have a major stroke, but it was a very real prospect. Doctors were saying to me "Becky, you'e 19, if you remain altitude you're at high risk of having a stroke. You'll be paralysed long term, nothing can justify that risk." I was unbelievably gutted. Rarely if ever have I cried as much as I did. It was difficult to accept because I felt fine. In a moment of madness I almost wished it upon myself to be more ill, as I felt it would have been easier to accept my expedition was over.
Ultimately, I'd had an episode of severe neurological disturbance, thought to be a mini-stroke, and continuing may have left an active teenager in a wheelchair. The decision was final and I had to accept it.
After a lot of apple pie, jelly beans and chocolate in the HRA tent, Rachel and I walked back to see Henry. I was dreading it. I'd already heard the news through the grapevine, but I knew that Henry would confirm it all. "Henry? Can I come in?" I asked. "You better" he replied. So we talked and he confirmed the worst. My expedition was over.
From there, I phoned a few friends. My parents were currently on a plane returning from a scuba diving holiday in hospital, and they were out of contact and unaware of what had been happening over the past few days. One of my best friends who always knows the right things to say at the most difficult of times was a great person to call. I was also grateful of multiple calls from another friend; just having him on the other end of the phone while I cried helped a lot. The following morning he also came up with a plan for Everest 2012 and other expeditions over the next year which helped me to look forward rather than backwards.
It was then time to leave. After packing 40kg of kit in just 15 minutes, and saying a few goodbyes and thank yous, it was time to walk to the helipad. After waiting a bit longer than expected, I was on my way to Kathmandu via Lukla. The helicopter ride was spectacular but I was simply gutted it had all ended like that, so suddenly and so cruelly. I'll pick up the next blog post from here.

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