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Australian Professional Cyclist

My EBC Death Zone

Resting on the way back to our lodge after reaching EBC!

Two days ago I reached Mount Everest Base Camp with relative ease and then, some hours later, I literally nearly lost my life. I honestly thought it was over and interestingly; I had only positive thoughts about the wonderful life I have lived.

I’ve decided to share my near death experience with you, as accurately and honestly as I can – with the ambition to share a heroic story about two strangers, fighting harder than I was even willing to fight – to save my life.

In yesterday’s blog about conquering Mount Everest Base Camp I had mentioned that my emotions/excitement levels at the EBC rock were not as ecstatic as I had imagined they would/should have been, something was not right.

EBC with one of our guides (Umesh) who later that evening, saved my life!

Well, as I started our short Trek off EBC and back down towards our lodge (3.14km) my physical state started to concern me. I guess it was with about 1km to go that I knew something was not right. I didn’t feel sick, I didn’t have a headache, nothing was hurting but… I was losing my balance and on the flat sections, I couldn’t walk straight. Some of you may know that I’ve never had alcohol (of any type) in my life so, I don’t know how it feels to be drunk however I’m sure that’s exactly how I looked – drunk. I was trying so hard to walk straight but I was just veering off my line – until I had to stop (sit if I could) then try to walk straight again.

5pm, after returning from EBC my blood saturation was 37% – urgent oxygen needed.

I got back to our lodge and took a seat in the common area to rest a little before going upstairs and making the big effort to get out of my dirty kit and freeze while having a baby-wipe wash, drying off and putting lots of fresh layers on again. I can remember thinking to myself that it was one of the toughest times of the day, finding the energy to get compression socks and thermal base layers off…. toughing the cold to get clean, and then the massive effort to get layers and layers of compression and thermal kit back on again. It was an exhausting effort!

It was 5pm and dinner was not until 6pm so I took my laptop down to the common room to start my blog about conquering Mount Everest Base Camp. Our entire group were also sitting around the tables – staying warm and sharing their euphoria after accomplishing their ambition to reach EBC!

I was feeling ok and had opened my laptop to start typing. The first thing I usually do is check my Garmin for the days stats and also take my blood oxygen saturation levels, to add to the blog for those who are interested.

My pulse oximeter gave me a reading of 37% blood saturation – if that was correct, I knew I was in a dangerous situation. Any level around 60% saturation can be very dangerous. I asked all the guys around the table to take their levels with my machine, warm it up a bit and then I’d try again. They all had readings of around 70-80%. We were staying at Gorakshep at 5,190m.

Having a rest after setting off on foot in search of a hospital.

The Doctor & Nurse in Pheriche, treating me for High Altitude Cerebral Edema, High Altitude Pulmonary Edema & Pneumonia.

While I was watching the guys take their levels I kept saying to myself, 37% can’t be right, I don’t feel too bad. When I got the oximeter back I tried it again, it was 37%! Joe was sitting across from me and I looked at him and said quietly but firmly; Joe, can you please go as fast as possible to find Pasang (our lead guide) and ask him to URGENTLY bring me oxygen. I liked that Joe jumped up with a serious reaction. I was still feeling ok and it was only about 3-4 minutes until the bottle was fitted and my blood saturation level was lifting. We watched it rise up to 90% within a couple of minutes and I was relieved. We left the bottle on for about 10-15 minutes and I was thinking – do I really need to use all this oxygen, what if someone else is going to need it? I was feeling relaxed and relieved.

We took the bottle off and kept the oximeter on – to watch the levels. Within less than 5 minutes the saturation had dropped under 50%.

This is when I knew I was in trouble. I didn’t feel too bad but I had to trust the technology and what I’d just witnessed. Pasang (Renji Sherpa) is a real professional (he has done the summit more than once and climbs that are even harder) so I just listened and followed his advice, no questions asked. I’d taken out all the best insurance possibilities etc before this trip so I expected to wait for a Helicopter to fly in and take me down to a lower level of altitude however this was NOT an option. The cloud cover was low and approaching 6pm – it was dark. There was no way a helicopter could fly in to pick me up. Rescue helicopters can’t fly low through the mountains – as they can’t depend on signals and/or data; they need to have full visibility to navigate between the mountains. The cloud cover was extremely low – there was no possibility of anyone getting a chopper to me.

The two men (each side of me) carried me (unconscious) through the night, on their backs! The American volunteer doctor (right of pic) revived me!

Ok, the plan of Pasang; let’s go upstairs, get your backpack and send you 500m (elevation drop) down the mountain (in the dark, on foot) with two of our guides, you can sleep down at a lower village and the group will be there for lunch tomorrow – then you can jump back in the group and continue the descent to Lukla with everyone.

Pasang and two of the guides came to my room to help me pack my backpack and get what I needed for overnight (or perhaps they were very concerned and wanted to keep an eye on me). I thought they’d be happy for me to spend 10-15 minutes thinking about what I wanted to take but, I started to sense them rushing me (as they were frantically rolling up my sleeping bag) so I asked hey, can we just take a minute…. and that was when Pasang said no, you have to go NOW. Ok, there were no goodbyes or anything, directly outside into the freezing cold darkness and onto the trails – the three of us with our headlamps on full beam.

I had one guide in front of me, (Denzi) and another behind me, (Umesh).

After only 15 minutes I started to drift off line again and when we had to walk over boulders, I couldn’t balance. Umesh kept grabbing me. He wanted to walk with one arm locked through mine but I kept asking him to let go, it’s too hard…. I want to step one way and you pull the other way.

Emergency chopper flying me out of Pheriche to Lukla.

I’d not asked how far we were walking because I expected I could walk 500m (elevation drop) downhill in an hour – and that as

Sad to be descending EBC so rapidly.

there would slowly become more oxygen in the air, I’d be able to walk faster. I had even visioned that I could jog down the last bit.

We’d not done 30 minutes of walking before I had to keep stopping and sitting down on a rock every 3-5min, for 3-5min rest. In fact, I was at the point where I was focusing on reaching out for a rock to ‘collapse’ onto. I now asked, how far to go? They said normally it would take 1hr but it’s going to take us 3hrs at this rate.

I said ok, come on guys, let’s go – I can do this.

How wrong was I! After 100m I let Umesh take my arm permanently and lift my weight but still, I kept needing to stop. I didn’t have a headache, I didn’t feel sick, I was not breathing heavy or fast but when I was put on a rock for a rest, I tried to take big long deep breaths – knowing I needed to get the oxygen in.

It was probably an hour after we’d left the lodge that the two guys were either side of me with

The Doctor in Lukla decides a chopper needs to urgently get me lower – down to Kathmandu.

my arms over their shoulders, being lifted across the ground – rather than me walking. I was probably still touching the ground but not weight bearing.

At some point, I dropped my head and fell asleep, into a semi unconscious state. Occasionally I’d lift my head to see if I could see lights or a village but I couldn’t even speak to ask if we were nearly there.

The next thing I remember was the guys trying to balance me to open a door to a lodge – I was placed next to a boiler and remember thinking it must be late/midnight as the common area was empty. At this point I wanted to speak but couldn’t push out the words. A lady was putting hot water bottles on me and I can even remember her trying to dribble soup into my mouth. There was something I wanted to say and maybe I eventually got the words out, I don’t know. I wanted to say; I wont survive the night. I can’t remember if I actually managed to say it.

I must have soon completely passed out and I assume the guys were taking my blood saturation as I was told in the hospital the next day that it was down at 31% when I was laying by that boiler.

More emergency treatment upon arriving by chopper in Lukla.

I don’t remember leaving the lodge but the next thing I remember was being changed over from one of the guys backs, onto the

other one…. repeatedly. I remember them with their heads down (flat back), running up and down mountains in the dark, off trail…. and I had some kind of log under my bum…. They must have rigged up something to support me on their backs as I was unconscious and couldn’t hold on. Every time they swapped me over I woke up a little and I wanted to speak but I couldn’t. I wanted to say thank you. And, I desperately wanted to give them a message for my Mum. I don’t know if I got it out but I can remember just wanting to say; ‘Please tell my Mum I have lived the most happy life I could have wished for and, please tell her you did everything you could’. Even if I did mumble these words, I can remember the desperation in the way these guys were running – for 6hrs with me on their backs…. They never would have been able to hear or understand me. They were giving everything they physically could to get me somewhere!

The next thing I remember was an American doctor saying Rochelle, I’m going to try and save your life but you need to wake up and speak to me. I could hear him – I just couldn’t open my eyes or speak.

It didn’t seem to long until I woke up with the oxygen mask on and a drip in my arm. The doctor asked;

Back in another Helicopter, descending a little further down to Kathmandu…. with an angel – who saved my life – Umesh.

how do you feel? I said fine, I’m ok…. Do I still have my fingers and toes? I can’t feel them. We got some heat packs on them and I drifted off to sleep. I remember thinking – Wow, I’m safe! I’m alive.

I was able to keep saying to the two guides thank you, thank you, thank you. At this point, I had no idea they ran 6hrs to get me to a doctor.

When the sun came up I realised I was in a very primitive shack, plywood type floors laid on/over the ground etc…. nothing like the lodges we’d been staying in! It wasn’t a ‘building’ of any type! I had my shoes and gloves on with heat packs in them and layers of heavy blankets over me. The oxygen mask was on, my beanie was on and I had a drip in my arm – which was tied on a string from a low roof.

Long flight from Lukla to Kathmandu in a chopper….

Flying into the city of Kathmandu – then directly off to my third different hospital for the day.

Soon after the sun was up, the American volunteer doctor appeared and introduced himself. He said listen, I don’t think you know what these two guys did to save your life last night. I said ‘I do, I do….. they ran with me on their backs as fast as they could, I know…. I know’. He continued to tell me that he has never ever witnessed or heard anything like it and that they are absolute heros! The doc had not asked how I was feeling or updated me on my condition etc…. he was just very desperately trying to make sure I knew (without any doubt) that without their will-power, physical strength, commitment and dedication – I would NOT be alive. He explained that if either one of them had given up or injured themselves, I’d not have made it. The doc said that when they arrived, he was not even sure if he could revive me….. he really wanted me to know what these two guides did (to themselves physically and mentally) to save my life, a strangers life.

We throw around the term ‘he or she saved my life’ very lightly at times but it’s still sinking in that these two guys actually saved my life and, have given me the opportunity to keep living and experiencing even more in life than I have until today! How do you sufficiently thank someone for actually/literally giving you the opportunity to continue living life?

Umesh, one of the guides enters the room with a smile. Umesh is a small quietly spoken guy, a person who can give you energy with just his smile. I said Umesh, how can you be so strong to do what you did? I can remember waking up on his back thinking how can he be running up these rocks with such strength in his tiny legs and 60kg on his back!

I asked where Denzi was, the other guide. Oh, we had to drop your backpack, sleeping bag and laptop 3hrs back so that we could get you here faster. Denzi left when the sun came up to go back for it. 30min later, Denzi walks in with my backpack, sleeping bag and laptop. Can you imagine my feelings and sensations of gratitude for these guys? I’ve always had trouble expressing my emotions of gratitude but this morning every time I was alone, I just kept tearing up!

30min later, Umesh walks in with a big fluffy pancake (honey on top) and a hot chocolate! He opened the curtains and I could see we were in a small village – he’d been into the lodge to get me breakfast! I could also see on the lodge wall – Wi-Fi available. We were in a village called Pheriche at 4,270m. After I smashed my pancake down I started to think about messaging my Mum. I was confident by everyone’s smiles that I was in the clear and everything was going to be ok so I grabbed my phone and sent her an update – mainly about what the two guys did (physically) to save my life.

8am and everyone (two guides, Doctor and Nurse) are in the shed getting my things together and rushing me out to the helipad – a raised small circle of rocks. Only Umesh and I got into the chopper – Denzi headed back up the mountain to re-join our group – trooper!

We landed at the door of a clinic in Lukla and I was taken straight into a nice room and put on oxygen and a drip again. This clinic was a little more sophisticated. It’s a little strange that no one was really communicating anything to me; it was more just like a process. This room was comfy and warm and I had Wi-Fi so I was on Whatsaap chatting to friends – not even mentioning that I was in a clinic after a traumatic evening. I felt completely fine. The doc did ask me if I wanted paracetamol but I said no, I had no headache or any discomfort.

I was in this clinic (nice room) for 2hrs before they said a helicopter was 20 minutes away and I needed to be outside ready to jump in, to go down to Kathmandu and directly to a big hospital for a series of test. The chopper ride was great, I was in the front seat, I think it was about a 1hr trip. We were just skimming over the top of all the low mountain ridges with big mountains either side of us. The chopper driver was really cool…. We had LOTS of communication coming through our earmuffs – which was educational and entertaining too.

When we landed at Kathmandu we were greeted by the boss of our travel agency who had arranged all of the insurance, chopper related business etc. His name is Deven and he is an amazing guy! He drove Umesh and I to the big hospital in Kathmandu and helped me fill out all the admin forms and get checked in as a day patient. The process at this hospital went very fast. I got into my private room, bloods were taken immediately, blood saturation levels were stabilising at 91-92 (Kathmandu is still at an altitude of 1400m) and then I had a chest X-ray.

My blood results were soon back indicating that I had a nasty infection but even though the chest is still scratchy and noisy, the chest X-ray was normal. On a positive note, I have a high haematocrit – much higher than when I was an elite athlete!! Come back?

The long day was coming to an end at around 5pm. The hospital staff were happy to let me go and check into a nice hotel. Deven (the agency boss) asked where I wanted to stay, I asked if there was a Crown Plaza as I have the highest loyalty membership and get the royal treatment. No problem! We got my reports and test results – and drove to the Crown Plaza hotel. I asked Deven and Umesh what they do now and if I could shout them dinner and a room for the night. Deven lives in Kathmandu and he had arranged a bus to take Umesh home (6-10hrs away) the next morning. Umesh works for Deven’s travel agency (as a guide) and Deven had already booked him a hotel elsewhere so I shouted them both dinner at the Crown Plaza hotel and we had a great chat over a nice meal.

I’ve just spent a lovely day in bed watching Netflix and enjoying room service. Trying to let my infection clear up with the help of antibiotics. Tomorrow I need to be back at the hospital at 10am for pre flight/travel tests and clearance documents.

Saturday the 9th, I will continue to have another full days rest at the Crown Plaza, a nice massage and if I feel ok, maybe some hair and nail beauty therapy too!

Sunday the 10th I’ll go and re-join the team at our originally booked hotel – for a nice celebration dinner with everyone and hopefully if all goes well at the hospital tomorrow, I’ll fly back to Europe with the team!

It’s so crazy that I’m laying in bed after this experience just wishing I was able to descend EBC by foot, I was looking forward to the descent so much. I just love letting the body go downhill and using the adrenalin and concentration to ensure every foot placement is perfect…. I love being on the edge and having to focus 100%!

Interestingly, I don’t feel like I failed, I just feel like I’ve experienced another wild but wonderful thing in life – the wonderful thing; being exposed to the selflessness of two strangers, putting their bodies through immense and extreme pain – to save a strangers life.

Official diagnosis upon arrival at the Pheriche clinic:

Hypoxemia

High Altitude Pulmonary Edema.

High Altitude Cerebral Edema.

Pneumonia/Fluid on Lungs.

Blood Saturation of 31%.

Dangerous consequences of oxygen saturation under 60%

The symptoms I experienced:

Loss of Coordination

Loss of Consciousness

Complete Confusion

Respiratory Arrest

Kidney Failure

Cough/Wheezing

Slow Heart Rate

Shortness of Breath

Cherry Red Skin

If you have some thoughts or ideas on how I can adequately thank Umesh and Denzi for saving my life, it would really help if you could please pop back to Twitter or Instagram and post your ideas. 

 

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