Paul Pottinger’s Adventures from the Top of the World

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Happy Birthday

Everest 2016  •  April 30

The route through yesterday’s collapse was repaired circa 9 AM…. We really made the right choice by turning around!  Today’s plan was identical to yesterday’s: Walk out of camp at 2:30 AM, head up the icefall, and make it to Camp 1 a short time after the sun hits the glacier.  Based on how good I felt yesterday, this seemed like a piece of cake.  Plenty to eat, early to bed, alarm set for 1 AM.

Everest is many things, but never boring.  For the first time, I had a truly terrible night: At midnight I awoke with a start, full of the feeling that I was dying.  My breathing raced out of control.  My heart pounded and knocked in my chest, going a mile a minute.  My vision deteriorated: Even though it was pitch black, I was blinded by a billion purple scintillating worms eating my vision.  You are hyperventilating.  You are hypoventilating.  It’s HAPE.  You are having an MI.  It’s a panic attack.  I could not reason through this, could not pin a proper diagnosis… all I knew was that I was dying.

In a fit of desperation, I flung open the rear door, unzipped the rear vestibule fly, and crawled out through it onto the glacier floor—in my sweatshirt and underwear—and breathed in the deep, clear, frozen air.  Breathe.  A billion, trillion stars greeted me above.  I felt sweat pour out of my scalp and wick along my hair until it evaporated into the night.  Breathe.  Within moments my vital signs improved, my vision stabilized, and the sensation of doom receded.  My core began to freeze, and I crawled back into my tent, to the warm moisture of my two sleeping bags and three sleeping mats, and tried to recoup some sleep for less than an hour until the alarm sounded.  I still do not know what this was about, but suspect that I had insufficient venting in the tent, allowing my pCO2 to rise to unpleasant levels.  Alternatively, this may have been a panic attack, but if so I cannot explain why things got so much better as soon as I left he tent.

Regardless, a short time later it was time to leave.  A lovely birthday celebration awaited be in the meal tent, including a miniature chocolate bar and a well-rehearsed rendition of Happy Birthday.  I was really touched by this.  Then a quick breakfast, few last details, and we were off.  Showering the puja altar with rice, watching the juniper boughs smoke, I realized that this was not at all as nice a night as the last.  Still clear, which is great, but the Withering Wind hand returned.  Breathing through the buff should help to reduce the cough, but there’s no way to fool those airways: they know the frigid, desiccated blast when it comes.  Breathing deeply with movement is generally ok, but stopping for a break brings on deep, irresistible rumblings of mucus that must go: coughing spasms made more unpleasant because of the injury to my right intercostal muscles.  I find that pushing with my hand against the ribcage helps to splint it, and reduces the pain substantially.  But, I still cough and cough at breaks, and my sinuses still become packed with copious, thick, dark, tenacious, bloody mucus.  Just get through this, and keep moving. 

Pasang Kami took the lead, I worked hard to keep pace, and Justin swept.  We made a good team of three.  After my shabby showing at the end of the last rotation, I was eager to show myself and the others that I could keep up the pace—and I did.  It was a cold, difficult morning, but I made it in plenty of time.

Pasang Kami, my amazing Sherpa climbing partner.
Pasang Kami, my amazing Sherpa climbing partner.
Justin Merle. IMG mountain guide. And super nice dude.
Justin Merle. IMG mountain guide. And super nice dude.
Another team kindly let me and Pasang Kami pass them on this steep feature (we are the middle two climbers). (Photo: Justin Merle)
Another team kindly let me and Pasang Kami pass them on this steep feature (we are the middle two climbers). (Photo: Justin Merle)

The section that had collapsed yesterday was complicated.  In my understanding, we were looking at revisions to the route both below and above the Pit.  Walking through fresh icefall is creepy, with table-sized features that shift subtly underfoot.  We resolved to get through these areas very swiftly.

Looking down the Khumbu from the lip of the Pit.
Looking down the Khumbu from the lip of the Pit.
A new iteration of the exit plan from the Pit of Despair. New ladder... same old pit.
A new iteration of the exit plan from the Pit of Despair. New ladder… same old Pit.
A climber below us approaches the traversing rope leading to the entry of the Pit.
A climber below us approaches the traversing rope leading to the entry of the Pit.
A climber below moves through the popcorn littering the bowl beneath the lip of the Pit.
A climber below moves through the popcorn littering the bowl beneath the lip of the Pit.
Does my expression capture my mood? "Really? Are we really going to grapple with this feature again?" (Photo: Justin Merle)
Does my expression capture my mood? “Really? Are we really going to grapple with this feature again?” (Photo: Justin Merle)
Yes, of course we are. No choice. Here I start up the ladder. (Photo: Justin Merle)
Yes, of course we are. No choice. Here I start up the ladder. (Photo: Justin Merle)
Only takes a moment to scramble out of there. No worries. (Photo: Justin Merle)
Only takes a moment to scramble out of there. No worries. (Photo: Justin Merle)
Mingma Tenzing makes his way out of the Pit of Despair.  (Photo: Nicky Lowry)
Mingma Tenzing makes his way out of the Pit of Despair. (Photo: Nicky Lowry)
A second ladder, totally new, awaits us above. It is tucked under a pretty menacing feature that motivates us for speed, which I call the Fearsome Head. (Photo: Justin Merle)
A second ladder, totally new, awaits us above. It is tucked under a pretty menacing feature that motivates us for speed, which I call the Fearsome Head. (Photo: Justin Merle)
A better look at the Fearsome Head looming above the ladder (just visible at the bottom center of the photo). (Photo: Justin Merle)
A better look at the Fearsome Head looming above the ladder (just visible at the bottom center of the photo). (Photo: Justin Merle)
Sunshine greets us in the Icefall.  (Photo: Nicky Lowry)
Sunshine greets us in the Icefall. (Photo: Nicky Lowry)
Past the Sea of Destruction, we see the final obstacle for the day, the last headwall. (Photo: Justin Merle)
Past the Sea of Destruction, we see the final obstacle for the day, the last headwall. (Photo: Justin Merle)
Siva on top of the last headwall. (Photo: Justin Merle)
Siva on top of the last headwall. (Photo: Justin Merle)
Atop the headwall, one of the safety lines from a prior year is visible stretching across a crevasse, framed in shadow on the left side of the photo. (Photo: Justin Merle)
Atop the headwall, one of the safety lines from a prior year is visible stretching across a crevasse, framed in shadow on the left side of the photo. (Photo: Justin Merle)

Above the headwall, blazing sunshine and the promise of camp just half an hour away.  Negotiating the crevasses here involves walking in a serpentine fashion, along snow fins and between chasms, and this took a toll on me.  I was first into camp 1, but I had to leave an hour early to manage it, and when we pulled in I felt tired, hungry, and dehydrated.  And, of course, the coughing spasms came hard.  Camp 1 has grown since I was here last, with new tents pitched to make room for waves of climbers.  This means that there was a tent to spare for me to inhabit alone, a blessing that would spare my teammates from having to put up with a sickly tent mate.

Camp 1, Nuptse beyond. (Photo: Justin Merle)
Camp 1, Nuptse beyond. (Photo: Justin Merle)
The Khumbu glacier actually has lots of stone and dust debris, if you look carefully for it. (Photo: Justin Merle)
The Khumbu glacier actually has lots of stone and dust debris, if you look carefully for it. (Photo: Justin Merle)

Of interest, several of the tents were festooned with laminated posters for “Anzac Day… Lest we Forget.”  Later I learned the meaning of Anzac Day (it commemorates the sacrifice of Aussie service men who died senselessly in WWI—think Gallipoli—and by extension all Aussie veterans), but at the time it was mysterious and the source of considerable conjecture.

I managed to pull myself together over the ensuing hours, but the bloody sputum just kept on coming in spasmodic waves.  I would end up with a mouthful of discharge, and nowhere to put it but the poor rear vestibule, which began to resemble a Jackson Pollack painting (did he have a crimson phase?)  I resolved to build a new vestibule floor before we leave for Camp 2 tomorrow.  Just a few hours of rest and I will be fine…. Not necessarily my favorite birthday, but one hell of a way to celebrate turning 48.

Concept of the day: Respect your Eders… and your Mucus Membranes.

21 thoughts on “Happy Birthday

  1. Thank you for continuing to keep up the blog. I enjoy it and share it with everyone! The pictures are magnificent but scary to me. Glad you are getting some rest. Love and prayers continue.

  2. Hell of a bday Paul. I’m so glad you know what you’re doing up there. I hope the cough has subsided and that you’re resting comfortably again at base camp. I’m sending all my best thoughts and prayers that your health will be at 100% when you start the next climb. Love you.

    1. Love you Katie, happy birthday! Yes, all is fine now a week later. Miss you and your clan, hug all the boys for me. Eager to see you again soon!

    1. Awesome, I love being called mucusy. Suits me well. Actually I am much better now, but will keep this in mind!

  3. I’m into art, Paul, but a Jackson Pollack in your own crimson mucus? Get better and get a new art form.

  4. Paul happy birthday. I wish I could say something like “at least it’s not like my triathlons aka your age doesn’t mean anything :)” (age groups come in 5’s so 48 is better than 49 when you are the oldest in your age group!) but seriously GET BETTER.

  5. Hi Paul,
    Thanks for your post. Don’t push yourself too hard with your respiratory problems. When do you plan to start using oxygen?

    1. Hi Dave! All now fine here… we will use O2 starting on arrival at Camp 3. Hope to shoot for summit circa 5/20/16. Hope all is great in Seattle. Miss you guys.

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