Thursday, November 20, 2008

Putting Pumori Behind Me

We all forget how mortal we are. A few seek to be reminded. Of these, even fewer live better as a result.

It was Fabrizio’s birthday and he was spending it in a tent that was meant for 2 people, but now held three. I occupied the awkward but not unfamiliar honor of official third wheel. Luckily, Fabrizio was ready and willing to provide birthday entertainment.

We all lay there in our sleeping bags trying not to move around too much and get comfortable in our claustrophobia at 20,000 feet. We observed three tent rules: no snoring; no coughing; everyone turn over at the same time. These rules aside, everyone was free to perform any number of disgusting bodily functions from blowing snot all over a sock or another handy piece of clothing, to urinating inside a bottle without leaving the comfort of your sleeping bag being careful not to overflow or spill, to grooming your beard with a fork. One member of our tent would not groom a beard that night.

Corinne Favre had proven herself to be an incredible athlete and a worthy candidate for a summit attempt on the Southwest Ridge of Pumori, a peak just over 7000 meters near the Everest area of the Nepal Himalaya. She had won titles in the French Mountain Marathon and in ski mountaineering, and was as fit of an athlete as I’ve ever climbed with.

Fabrizio keeps the both of us entertained with a little game. He listens to his IPOD and attempts to sing whatever song is playing. Fabrizio admits that he is not a good singer, but I suspect that he purposefully is attempting to butcher these tunes even worse than necessary, and soon he has me in a fit of laughter that lasts for several hours. Corinne borrows one earbud and joins in, and in a French accent, the situation is way more hilarious than before. “you’re beautifow! It’s trew! Ah foun’ your face in (mumbles) place an I don know whah to dooo!” I have never laughed so hard in my life. I know that part of this is altitude, but right at that moment I recognize that Fabrizio has a gift.

I myself have spent many birthdays in the mountains. One time on Denali my partners for the West Rib got me a singing birthday card which we could not figure out how to silence. I remember listening to “happy birthday” through the snow where we failed to bury it deep enough. On other occasions we may have been near a bar or just returning from the mountains but I always found it depressing to be away from loved ones when I turned one year older. If Fabrizio was depressed, he didn’t say so and he kept us laughing until well into the night. Strangely, it was one of the best nights I can remember having in the mountains. I listened to the ipod as I feel asleep with Jerry Garcia crooning “when life looks like easy street there is danger at your door.” Little did I know how true this would become for us in the next 24 hours, as more than one of us would be desperately clinging to life physically and emotionally.

All through the night, Corinne broke rule number two, the one about coughing. In the morning it was clear that she needed to descend instead of climbing to Camp 2 as planned, up the mixed snow and rock on the Southwest Ridge. Fabrizio said he would descend with her and come back up the ropes that night so that he and I could go to Camp 2 the following day. I was to stay at camp, dry the sleeping bags and organize the contents of the tent because “alpinism is about discipline” and our tent looked very undisciplined with clif-goo stuck to the floor, pee bottles mingling confusingly with bottles of gatorade, instant meal wrappers strewn about and a host of other messes to take care of.

As I watched them rappel from the lines fixed out of camp, I worried about Corinne because she looked shaky and fearful, perhaps displaying the first signs of altitude illness. A moment after they left, Fabrizio peeked his head in and said “maybe you’d better come down to basecamp with us” and we agreed that I would follow them in an hour or so.

I prepared to descend. When there’s no rush, I am famously slow. Once, when abandoning camp in the Paron Valley of Peru’s Cordillera Blanca, I was taking my time and chatting to my climbing partner while chewing Coca leaves, and complaining at how they weren’t affecting me. “Maybe I need to chew more?” I asked my climbing partner, to which he replied “would that make you tie your boots any faster?” The only person slower than me is my Dad, and I’m probably the only person he knows who doesn’t nag him about it. So it could’ve been almost 2 hours from the time Fabrizio left with Corinne to the time I followed, zipping up the tent and shouldering my pack as I rappelled.

I didn’t want to take my time descending the fixed ropes under camp one. The terrain is exceedingly steep, nearing vertical for a few bulges of snow and ice. I handle this kind of terrain very boldly, having been on similar ground many times. The complexity of the snow formations on a steep face can be a frightening array of flutings and precarious gargoyles that taunt and threaten and dwarf the climber. I have spent time tunneling, straddling, or using pickets to climb snow like this, and I didn’t dawdle in my descent. I looked over my shoulder down the ropes and saw a tiny dot in the snow which I thought was Fabrizio and Corinne sitting on the less steep glacier below the headwall I was descending. After awhile though, the tiny dot on the snow hadn’t moved. I rappelled past what I didn’t realize at the time were blood stains on the snow.

When I reached the low angled glacier which traverses left to a series of gulleys which lead to the toe of a rock buttress where Advanced Basecamp sits, I found that Fabrizio and Corinne had tethered their packs to a picket for the traverse. I didn’t have much weight, so I repacked their gear into my pack and continued traversing. I rounded the corner, and that’s when I saw her. She was sitting in the snow with her helmet pushed back on her head, blood on her face and in her mouth--on her teeth which were visible as she moaned and gasped for air. “I need help!” he cried as I frontpointed over to their position with haste. She was slumped in her harness and having a hard time standing. Fabrizio didn’t explain right away except to mention that “it came from the left, from above” and “big piece of ice.” He downplayed the fact that the ice had struck him too and he soldiered on, engineering the entire rescue with a radio to basecamp telling our cook to climb to Advance Base Camp with a rope. He barked orders in an officious manner which was essential to the situation, not allowing for the all too well known rescue situation malady known as “analysis paralysis.” He took charge, instructing me to grab her harness and help to lower her onto the fixed lines. Several times he carried her when she couldn’t stand, exhibiting the kind of superhuman strength reserved for people in crisis situations whose blood chemistry is altered to contain massive levels of adrenaline-- the kind of people who lift cars to save a loved one. It was like watching something like that.

My job was to rappel and watch above constantly for falling rock and ice. When we reached the end of the ropes, I took the radio down to basecamp to try to organize a recue carry with Sherpas from another expedition who had arrived earlier that day. By that time, Lhakpa-Tshering Sherpa, our basecamp cook and sirdar, had arrived with a tumpline and basket. Over the next few hours, he and another Sherpa took turns carrying Corinne down the steep boulders and scree to basecamp.

Back in basecamp, the Sherpas from the other expedition made me eat some food and then they went in separate directions, one to get help and the other to help with carrying Corinne. I had the duty of awkwardly introducing myself to a friend of Corinne’s from France who had recently arrived in basecamp for a visit and had not yet heard the news. He insisted in participating in the rescue and left with me for ABC, where we could see them descending. I found the medical kit, the satellite phone, her passport and personal effects, the bag with the expedition’s money, and carried them up again to Fabrizio.

When I met them, Lhakpa had the tumpline across his forehead and Corinne was in the basket atop his back, and he was stumbling down the trail. I met Fabrizio who had sat down to rest for a moment, and I attempted to talk to him about his own injuries. His eyes had not the ten mile stare you would expect, but instead a keenly aware and panicked expression. He looked at me and said that he watched her tumble down the slope head-over-heels after she was hit by a falling piece of ice the size of a coffee table. “It just rag-dolled her” he kept repeating. “When I reached her from the fixed lines below and tried to resuscitate her, I thought she was dead” he told me. Long into that night, as we carried her into the town of Gorak Shep, where we tried to arrange a helicopter, he cried and broke down and asked if there wasn’t something more he could’ve done.

The Sherpas labor over Corinne, taking turns carrying her as she sits like a drunken queen inside the basket. We try to support her and prevent her from moving around too much as she moans and tries to find a position of comfort. I help by holding a Sherpa’s hand to support him as he struggles over the boulders. He is only 5 feet 5 inches tall and can’t weigh much more than 130 pounds himself. Sherpas are known for this kind of strength but sometimes their work overwhelms them. On Mt. Everest alone, Sherpas account for over a third of the deaths.
I feel a certain kinship for this man as we struggle over the ankle-spraining boulders. Several days later, this man and a few others will demand an exorbitant amount of money for the rescue, and I will come to see them as opportunists. If it were a Sherpa in that basket, I would be making the same effort right now, but this is something that years of struggle as a poor farmer within a country that still has vestiges of a caste system for Hindus have not prepared him to understand. Regardless, at this point he is admirable.

Corinne arrives at basecamp in time for Dave to stride up the trail. Dave has been sick for almost a week, and has been absent from basecamp affairs until precisely this moment when his training as an EMT becomes exceedingly necessary. He does a full exam while I fill in a soap note and he notices a large mass in her abdomen which is extremely alarming as it is a sign of internal bleeding. I am most worried about Corinne’s head injury, and I monitor her for signs in mental status as we load her onto a plastic SKED, which we have borrowed from the new arrivals in basecamp who stand there, mouths agape. The light fades, and we begin carrying her to Gorak Shep.

I hold one of the handles of the SKED alongside a Sherpa who has borrowed my headlamp so that we can both see. I carry one water bottle. The trek to Gorak Shep is arduous and crosses the unstable moraine, weaving in and out of huge boulders. We stop every few minutes to assess our patient, and some of the Sherpas drink chang “to keep warm” they say.

We arrive outside the lodges in Gorak Shep and we lay Corinne on the ground where a crowd of onlookers surrounds her and gapes, none of them needing to be there. I try to clear them away, but it is like shooing ravenous birds from a pile of sunflower seeds. They converse in languages I don’t understand while we look for a doctor. We rush into the tea house where there are maybe 50 guests. We ask for a doctor and several hands shoot up. We specify a doctor that speaks French, the language with which Corinne has the most ease in conversation, and a few hands remain in the air. These people’s occupation for the next 12 hours will be to attend to Corinne and prevent her death, which grows more and more imminent as she struggles to breathe.
The doctors work on her in a small and dimly lit room in the back of the tea house. The pulse oximeter tells us she has a blood oxygen saturation of 40 percent, which is dangerously low. My job becomes to go on a search for oxygen.

I run to a nearby lodge where I know Tim Rippel stores his equipment for Mt. Evferest expeditions in the Spring. I make a phone call to a lodge in another village and Tim comes to the phone but informs me that he has bottles, but no mask, so there is no way to put Corinne on oxygen using his supplies. I buy a Chinese made aerosol can of oxygen and return with that. Fabrizio gives me a look, and we put the primitive device to use by shoving a small tube up her nose. Her oxygen saturation rises by two percentage points for 10 minutes and then drops once more.

Things look grim until a mysterious Nepali gentleman arrives and offers to sell us his oxygen for 400 dollars. He is the deus- ex- machina of the moment, and Corinne has a chance now, the doctors say. I go to sleep on the small bench next to Corinne in Dave’s sleeping bag. He won’t need it, because he’ll stay awake all night to monitor her vitals. I lay atop some sliced sections of a once beautiful Kashmiri rug tailored to fit the narrow bench. My eyes scan around the room to the French doctors to the Kerosene can dangerously next to the fireplace which burns dried yak dung, to the poster of the Japanese guy dunking himself in the frozen lake with Mt. Everest in the background and a sign reading “Happy New Year 2008.” My gaze comes to rest on the poster of Ama Dablam’s Camp One, a frightening perch which seen alone as a snapshot of climbing presents a very exciting picture indeed and does not represent at all the doldrums that I myself experienced on that mountain in 2001. Perhaps, I think as I drift into sleep, a better portrait of climbing would be to picture a guy looking bored with a copy of War and Peace torn in thirds to limit weight.

The next morning I awake and find my friends still attending to Corinne with the French doctors. At considerable personal expense, Fabrizio has arranged for a helicopter evacuation. As usual, it is several hours past the estimated arrival time, being as how this is a country where nothing operates on time. Ask 3 different people on the street in Kathmandu for the time, and the answer will differ by up to 30 minutes, no doubt.

The helicopter touches down to a throng of onlookers. When we load Corinne into the helicopter, the pilot tells Dave that he cannot take additional passengers, so Dave’s plan of going along to make sure Corinne is in good hands and makes it to the hospital is impossible. He gives the pilot a note for the doctors. This note is never seen again. The helicopter takes off and stirs a cloud of dust from the empty lakebed that serves as a helipad. It struggles to get off the ground, and flies toward trekkers, who run away and for a moment we think it’s going to crash to earth. It gains a bit of height and flies over the nearby rooftop, clearing it by inches, then disappears down the valley. Later doctors tell us that Corinne had only a fifty percent chance of surviving that helicopter flight due to the change in pressure alone.

Fabrizio and Dave go to the tea house and sleep on the benches. Fabrizio’s tears do not serve to diminish my vision of him as a great hero. We repeat that there was nothing more he could’ve done, but he started walking back to Kathmandu later that night because he is determined to make sure that Corinne lives, as there have arisen many logistical problems relating to her care in the hospital. He left Dave in charge of money, told us what to pack in his bags and went running down the trail in the darkness.

Days later I find myself alone at camp one packing up Corinne’s remaining belongings from the tent. As I climb up a very steep chimney filled with ice I wonder why it wasn’t me that day. Why have I survived when others have not? At the exact point where I stand at this moment, a friend of mine, a Sherpa I climbed with on two expeditions, fell 1000 feet when the rope he was clipped to failed. As I clip the fixed rope, the only logical answer I can muster to this nagging of question of “why wasn’t it me below the icefall that day?” is that someday it will be. "Fuck it" I think and I snap a photo, turning around and thinking about the difficult task of descending with our supplies that now faces me.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bhaktapur-- Not just another tourist toilet

I Iawoke this morning, at 7 am which is far too early, to the sound of 300 children doing Karate exercises in the courtyard adjacent my hotel and I knew I had to escape Kathmandu for the day. This isn't to say that I got up right then.

At 10 am I glanced over at Dave in the neighboring bed, and he appeared to be stirring, so I asked if he wanted to visit the 500 year old, reputedly beautiful former capital of Nepal, Bhaktapur, in what would promise to be an enlightening and enjoyable escape from the tumult of this crowded, polluted and noisy city which I was tiring of quickly. "Only if you buy breakfast" he said, and I agreed.

As members of the prevailing culture of world domination and imperialism, we elected to take a cab, an expense of over 20 dollars which would severely limit our beer intake later, but at least it would ensure that we would get there today, versus the bus-rickshaw-foot combination that had saved us so much money while being touristy elsewhere. As we drove through Kathmandu I made a point to be mindful and notice all of the things that would look out of place in the US, even though by now I was used to them and otherwise wouldn’t notice.

I saw in the dirty street pans of radishes held by 3 foot strings tied to a pole which sat across a man’s trapezius so that he looked like Christ selling wares. Motorcycles parked in lines shelter sleeping dogs lounging in the shade all day so they can wake up at 2 am and begin barking until 6. Tuk-tuks ( a sort of 3 wheeled contraption much more efficient than a car) mingle into traffic alongside people, bikes, underpowered “motorcycles”, busses, and the occasional cud-chewing cow by the same inexplicable power that causes the glaciers to flow into the rivers to flow into the polluted steams that line the roadway from which small children drink, strengthening their immune system. A bearded old man hobbles with a crutch in one hand and a cane in the other while passing a Buddhist protest which has closed down the road upon which we travel and we make an exciting swerve across traffic to enter a previously invisible alleyway, no doubt made in the time before cars plagued the cobblestones, and our driver pauses to reach out the window and bend the mirrors inward so they will not scrape the walls as we pass through this narrow corridor to a secret lost city in the mountains.
Well, not exactly "secret" though secret enough that there are minimal people, as compared to the crowded streets of Kathmandu. Cars are not allowed inside the city to minimize pollution which damages the various stone etchings and things which the Ministry of Tourism tries to preserve. At the end of the tight labyrinthine alleyways, our taxi driver has to stop as he can drive no further, and we walk up to the gate where we attempt to tell an elaborate lie to avoid paying the ten dollars entry fee. Neither Dave nor myself are good liars or charming enough to get past the guards, so we pay, grudgingly muttering “this better be good.”

And it is. I can breathe. The incessant noises of hawkers and cars honking that seem to dominate the street in Kathmandu are gone. My whole body and mind ease into a more relaxed state, as if with a good massage (minus the “pucking”). I lose myself in admiring the details of the stone lions that are the sentinels at the entry to the national museum, which is closed for some reason. I walk up the steep steps of the pagoda-like structure in the middle of the square, now empty of people, and admire the carvings in the awning which display and endless assortment of contortionists engaged in various sexual acts. I guess at the inclinations of the builders of this city, which ranges in age from 300 to 700 years old, and I suppose that this was not a “repressed” culture, or one that balked for any length of time about imitating the sexual styles of various animals.

I have always been confused however, about the strange interplay between Buddhism and Hinduism that one can observe in Kathmandu. The tour brochure boasts that Hindu and Buddhist culture has “drawn inspirations on each other through the aged” but this doesn’t explain it. Despite the fact that Buddhism came out of a Hindu tradition, this seems like little reason why they could coexist in one place. The same could be said for Christianity and Islam, the one religion springing from the loins of the other, but we rarely see them getting along this well. Maybe the “drawn inspirations” qualify as historical revisionism, because judging by the number of formidable statues guarding the gates and the various deities “installed for diving protection” we can guess that they must have feared something, if not religious strife.

We walk past an area identified in the brochure’s nomenclature as “Barahi worthseeing temple” and I notice a small girl playing alone by one of these protector statues. The look on her face conveys the same lonely excitement I seem to be feeling lately, and I decide to photograph her, but as soon as she notices me, the opportunity is over, and she smiles. She smiles and then demands 10 rupees for the photo-op. The kids out here are cute, but they operate a program of smoothly orchestrated extortion. Next, she’ll be demanding chocolate, or pens. For some reason, they all want American pens. “Hello, one pen?!” is a common thing to hear, and my favorite, “hello! I-like-chocolate!” spoken in a quick staccato.
I look over in the general direction of another tourist that we have met and find that street kids have surrounded him, and a showdown ensues. As he tries to look penniless, the children encircle him and give him a giant hug, which to him seems “sweet” until he realizes that all of those little hands are probing places they shouldn’t be and then his attention turns to his missing rupees and the children flee. He shakes an angry fist as the children run away to target the next tourist who wears a necklace of orange flowers, a sure sign that someone has just arrived from elsewhere. These bright orange wreaths are given to many as a blessing at the airport, but really they’re for profiling purposes only, serving to help locals identify the weak and unaccustomed.

We wander over to another ancient looking building and peer through a small opening in the fa├žade to find a garden within, an oasis away from the merchants and the cute but ruthless street urchins. We duck through the 3 foot-tall doorway to find a restaurant where we order tea and lunch. We share a dish of spicy chicken tikka after noticing that the menu contained many hilarious other items including “Aloo Govi Masala—potato and cauliflour, malaria.” The server seems upset that there are not more customers; the secrecy of his little restaurant and the 3 foot doorway are the obvious source of his woes. He asks us if we would like anything else, and as Dave is attempting to speak Nepali, Dave order a cigarette, specifying “Marlboro.” We gossip about Yoav, a mutual friend of ours, while we wait a long time for Dave’s Marlboro. When we decide to say “fuck it” and leave, the waiter brings out a plate of “Momo” (a Tibetan friend dumpling) and smiles like “here’s your Marlboro!” Dave’s Nepali is maybe not as good as he thought, but I give him credit for trying.

We depart the restaurant garden and move to another open courtyard. School children parade by, dressed in uniform, their teacher pausing to explain the details of history and conquest that don’t really tell the children what they want to know which is probably something like “what is that man in the carving doing to that woman in the carving?” That is, if these students are anything like me.

I see the girl who extorted 10 rupees earlier getting her hair combed by an older girl who might be her sister. She smiles and waves to me enthusiastically, and I think “hey, maybe I’m special!” Maybe I’m the only one who bought the photo rights to her visage today. As I walk away in search of Dave who is filming the temple in the fading light, I feel a tug on her pantleg and it’s the girl, demanding “one caramelo?” I give her a coughdrop, but it’s not what she expected and she scowls and runs away.

At 4 pm, the light starts to fade and recede over the faces of the statues and we decide to rendezvous with our taxi driver who greets us at the gate. We get in the car and drive away and I watch out the window as before, noticing that the traffic has died down as compared with the afternoon, and the street activity is subdued. A barefoot child strides confidently down the street holding at his waist the surplus folds of his sweatpants which would otherwise reach below his ankles. His mom probably assured him he would grow into them. A man polishes a statue of the old king who died in 2001 along with the rest of his family at the hands of the prince, angry at his parents’ refusal to allow him to marry his true love. Clotheslines fly colorful saris like prayer flags in the breeze as the sun dips below the mountains. A mangy dog bares his white skin through which bones protrude like the structural edifice of a new utilitarian communist building that we pass, as our driver mutters that it’s the new ministry of so-and-so. I feel my attitude start to change as the car dips once again into the Kathmandu Valley.

The drivers drops us off at the hotel and I get out only to receive a loud and sustained honk from a passing motorist. Startled, I turn and kick his bumper as he passes. Dave ambles off to meet our friends for dinner and I walk back toward the hotel alone, contemplating the poignant fragility of my happiness. It's fleeting, like beauty itself. Like the smile of the little girl can be so quickly replaced with a scowl, I must trust that there will grow there a smile once more.

Monday, November 17, 2008

I have travelled enough in third world places now to know exactly when I am getting sick, so today when I encountered the all too familiar internal percolations, I rushed back to my hotel. I was anticipating a long and drawn out stay in the bathroom, so I brought an arsenal of toilet paper and reading materials which I was careful to organize for easy access. I placed my book on top of the toilet, behind the bowl and then turned around to double check that I had enough toilet paper ( Nepali bathrooms do not come with the stock equipment of an American facility, so we fend for ourselves and prepare in advance). I turned back to face the toilet only to watch my book slide off the top of the porcelain and drop neatly into the bowl. The book’s title was Angle of Repose.

I have only myself to blame for the tragedy of my bowels because I have not been taking very good care to maintain the status of my good health. Upon our return from the Khumbu, Dave and I have met with an unexpected and vibrant social life rife with colorful characters from all over the globe. Understandably we seek to learn all we can from these people, and understandably we must drink until all hours of the night to do so.
This is easier said than done in the new Maoist controlled government of Nepal. In efforts to improve the safety of their streets, the Maoists have instituted a curfew of 11 pm for all locals and tourists (barking dogs are exempt). I have come to view the Maoists as “fun-haters” much like the various brands of Puritans that lobby against gay marriage and drunk driving in the states, mostly because of a certain apocryphal incident involving the severe beating of a poor farmer and bootlegger of chang, a rice beer tasting vaguely of goat and containing chunks of rotten rice, when making chang was outlawed. I later found out that the outlawing of chang was to help artificially raise the price of rice in the local market as a sort of economic stimulus, but I see the Maoists as fun haters nonetheless. These fun haters have allegedly cut off the hands of hashish dealers to discourage the bourgeoisie vice of "getting a little stoned," but as the propensity of dealers to hastle tourists would attest, this has been no deterrent whatsoever.

One must beware of looking aimless while roaming the streets in Thamel, Kathmandu's tourist district, lest every third stranger muble "hash, marijuana, speed, LSD, coco-puffs" under their breath as you pass. Which begs the question, what are coco-puffs? Or maybe you'll see the guys who just mumble "you want something?" as you pass, to which you might respond "don't we all want something?" I wonder what exact "something" these people would be capable of supplying, if asked. The possibilities are limitless no doubt, as I have been approached by the same low-voice-mumbling hawkers who query "you like pucking?"
The hawkers of legal goods can approach the transaction in a much more audible manner. Several times I have been screamed at by purveyors of Tiger Balm. Selling Tiger Balm, the asian version of "icy-hot," is the entry level in a slow ascenscion to the top of the hawker hierarchy. Much like one must build Karma to assure ascendancy in the next life and eventually escape the cycle of death and rebirth, so must one first sell tiger balm before one can traffic narcotics. The rhetorical lessons learned in Tiger Balm sales ("Tiger Balm! Good medicine, very cheap!") will be useful later in narcotic sales in the more muffled tones ("hash, marijuana, Good medicine, very cheap!") and in the rhetoric over the flesh trade ("pucking? Good medicine, very cheap!"). One moves from Tiger Balm to Swiss Army Knives to miniature screechy violins to chess sets to drugs to pucking in much the same way s I went from paper route to bagel boy to pizza delivery to teaching high school to unemployed climbing bum, Nirvana being the obvious end goal.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

I thought I would feel better by descending from altitude, but here in Kathmandu at an altitude of 4,ooo feet, I still wake up at night gasping for air.