Chebise

I slumped by a lively mountain river in the murky evening light. We had climbed 1500 metres in three days. Our guide for the Snowman Trek, Pema, assured us that he would keep a close eye on us. And he did have a portable pressure bag if anybody became too sick. The books say you should only climb 300 metres in one day, but this is not an option at the beginning of this trek.

 Three days walking had brought me here, each one bringing a worse headache. It had been a long, hard slog – everybody was stooped, using walking poles for support. Thankfully, I would soon have the luxury of a campsite where I could spend a day acclimatising to the altitude. Perhaps half-an-hour and I’d be there.

One look up the valley reinvigorated me. The snow on Jhomalhari sparkled, vibrant against a still, clear sky. It was a beacon in the late evening gloom as all around the smaller mountains prematurely stole heat and daylight. Trekkers looked up at the magnificence, ‘Wow!’ I hadn’t seen them smile all day. We were all grateful for any opportunity to stop and rest.

That day I had passed people dry-retching because of the altitude; pale and weak they struggled on. There was no quitting without a good reason – a really good reason. All of us had paid to be tortured so. This was the trek to end all treks according to everyone I had talked to; the trek of a lifetime. The best trek in the Himalaya.

People die up here at 4000 metres. The altitude causes their bodies to seep water into their skulls, squeezing their brains, or into their lungs, stifling their blood. Experience has shown me that my body does the former. My headache starts as a dull pain at the base of my skull. It then crawls up and over my brain to a point behind my eyes, increasing in intensity as it goes, enveloping me in throbbing discomfort. That day my brain had been clamped, and some malign being was turning the screw every five minutes. Painkillers do not work. Pema gave me Diamox, which he said would help me get rid of the fluid.

I lay awake that night with my head propped up in a vain attempt to relieve the pressure. But my headache was getting worse, taking over my world. Jhomalhari loomed over me, unseen, like a stupendous tombstone. People die up here at 4000 metres; they go to sleep and never wake up.

I made it through to the next day; it felt like quite an achievement. That morning I sat in a chair eating a deep-fried sandwich, gazing up at the ever-present Jhomalhari, its peak some three kilometres above me.  The Bhutanese cook assured me that this food was good for my endurance, if not my heart. The residue of my headache persisted, but the sun now shone down on me. There was nothing to do for the day but sit listening to the rumble of invisible avalanches, watching the mountain play tag with the ephemeral wispy clouds that tickled its peak, and continue to acclimatise. Perhaps later I’d visit the ruins of the nearby 17th century fort, but that would be the limit of my exertions.

Eleven high passes lay ahead of me, six of them over 5000 metres: three weeks walking through the most beautiful scenery in the world. I’d soon find out how well my body would cope. Pema said altitude sickness could strike without warning, strike at any time, but that I should now be over the worst of it.

A week later some members of our Bhutanese support crew were still suffering the effects and being treated, like me, with Diamox. At the same time a group one day behind us on the trail reached Chebisa. This is a gorgeous village nestled comfortably in a lush valley beneath a splendid waterfall. A 42-year old American woman was part of the group. Her lungs clogged, stifling her blood. She went to sleep and never woke up. This was the trek of a lifetime. A trek to end all treks.

About George Fripley
I am a writer who enjoys writing humour, satire, poetry and sometimes a bit of philosophy. I live in Perth, Western Australia and occasionally get a poem or article published. It's all good fun! I have two books available for unwary readers, Grudges, Rumours and Drama Queens- The Civil Servant's Manual (This contains all that anybody could ever want to know about why government runs so slowly) and More Gravy Please! - the Politician's Handbook. (available through Amazon)

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