April 25th: Everest Basecamp, Nepal, 17,600 feet
Joe is a teacher from New Jersey, and last week his body decided that climbing Mt. Everest was, as many would agree, an exceptionally bad idea. After reaching Camp 2 at around 21,000 feet, Joe’s lungs said affectionately, “screw this,” and started filling with fluid. The phenomenon is known as pulmonary edema and can happen to anyone at high altitude. At first it just makes you feel weak, but as the condition worsens you get less and less oxygen, basically drowning. No really mom, this is a safe sport, I swear.
I’ve spent part of the last month filming a documentary about the highest medical clinic on earth (that’s a guess, but a pretty confident one). Two years ago Luanne Freer, a doctor from Bozeman Montana, started the Everest Basecamp Clinic in an effort to provide quality medical care to climbers, Sherpas, and whoever else knocks on her tent. Expeditions have traditionally brought doctors of their own, but not all teams can afford one, and those that can sometimes end up with a podiatrist who’s never seen snow. Luanne, on the other hand, is just the person you want when your body decides climbing Everest was a bad idea.
When I met Joe and his guide part way down the Ice Fall, Joe couldn’t walk. What I could see of his face behind the oxygen mask was a pale shade of blue, and his continual cough sounded like something I never want to experience. Based on a quick medical assessment, he looked like crap.
With the help of a half dozen Sherpas we got Joe down to basecamp and into the clinic tent just after dark. Luanne later told me she’d never seen anyone with pulmonary edema so close to death, who managed to survive. Every breath sounded like a Harley changing gears, and he could only talk in short bursts. First things first: get Joe warm, pump him full of drugs to clear his breathing, and get him in a Gamow Bag.
The only real cure for altitude sickness is to go down, down to where the atmospheric pressure is higher and the oxygen is thicker. Unfortunately that’s not always possible, for instance, if you’re at the foot of Mt. Everest at night with a storm rolling in. The next best thing is to simulate going down by getting in a big plastic bag and forcing it full of air with a foot pump. Maguyver could fashion such a device with duct tape and a tent fly, but the rest of us have to buy the commercial version called a Gamow Bag (pronounced “gamov,” named for its inventor). At about six feet long and two feet across they’re a claustrophobic’s vision of hell, but they can save your life. Every household should have at least one.
Up to this point in Joe’s saga I was playing journalist and watching his adventure through a viewfinder, but when shit hit the fan I propped the camera on a box and helped get him into the bag. Picture an episode of ER, machines beeping, tubes tangling, and people yelling “stat!” for the record, none of the doctors at basecamp have ever actually used the word “stat”).
Once we got Joe in the bag and started pumping up the pressure everything calmed down a bit, at least until the bag exploded.
According to Pat Falvey, head of the Irish expedition, it exploded because Joe was also suffering from a severe case of HAF (high altitude flatulence). The more likely cause was a worn out zipper. Regardless, people all over basecamp thought an oxygen bottle had exploded, and those of us in the medical tent were left stunned, and deaf. On the footage shot by Breashears with my camera (I’d propped it on a box while helping get Joe in the bag, and David picked it up when he came in soon after), the explosion is followed by a brief silence, and the quiet words, “oh shit.” As for Joe, he was still just trying to breath, now with the help of some added adrenaline.
Long story short, we tracked down another bag, regrouped, got Joe inside, pumped it up, and watched his blood oxygen saturation go from somewhere around forty up to ninety seven percent. For some context, mine’s about eighty-nine right now (scary for sea level, fine for 17,000 feet). Inside the bag Joe enjoyed life at what felt like about 9000 feet, a good bit lower than basecamp. When we let him out to pee, his first words were, “I want (wheeze) to go (wheeze, hack, cough) back in there.”
By morning Joe was doing a bit better, though his attempt to tell my camera his life story still sounded like a frail ninety year old. A quick word about that story: Joe’s fiancé was supposed to climb Everest with him, until she got pregnant in basecamp. Oops. Stay tuned for next week’s episode of As the Ice Falls.
He could talk, but Joe still needed to get to a hospital, quickly. With basecamp shrouded in clouds and a storm in the forecast, a helicopter was out of the question. Instead, we wrapped Joe in a sleeping bag and down talus he went, piggy-back on a Sherpa and attached to an oxygen bottle, in the hopes of clearer skies and a helicopter (both of which he eventually found). As for the rest of us, it was time to start climbing that silly mountain again.
- Dispatch originally written in 2004, while working on “Everest ER,” a Discovery Channel project about the Medical Clinic at Everest Base Camp. -