Base Camp to Hell

Everest base camp is a mess of rock, mud and a spattering of yak shit, all on top of a massive moving chunk of ice. There is not one flat area anywhere in the camp. It is a twisted, winding, grinding mess of a place which is constantly changing with ice spires protruding from the rubble and temporary pathways turning into streams which then turn into small rivers over the few weeks climbers stay there. The team Sherpas must clear out platforms for the tents in each campsite only to rework it a couple of weeks later when the tent sinks into a pool of glacial water or the whole platform shifts 30 degrees making it unusable.

When I first walked into our camp I was greeted by Kami, our Sirdar (Base Camp Boss/Coordinator) who showed us around. Kami is a legend. A very welcoming and nice guy. I told him it was my second time here, we discussed 2015 a little and he seemed to know which climber I was straight away as Tim probably gave him my back story. With Kami’s assistance, I selected a tent and started moving my kit bags over to get settled in.

Base Camp unusually covered in snow

The past three weeks of trekking was a necessary inconvenience and I was glad it was over as I am not a huge fan the trek in. I am in Nepal to climb, not to spend three weeks following yaks, crowds and dodging infections.  Having said that, Tim’s route is by far the best and I am happy with the amazing places he showed us and the gentle acclimatisation schedule it provided.

I had finally arrived at, what I considered, the beginning of my journey. Now my second Everest Climb can begin!

Looking at the Khumbu icefall from my tent. If you look carefully, you can see three people at the top in the middle and appreciate the scale of it!

Once I was finished dropping all my kit bags off in my tent, I wandered over to the mess tent to take a load off and hydrate. Having arrived ‘home’ and now starting to relax, maybe even becoming a bit complacent, I dropped my guard. As I wandered over to the mess tent. FLASH. A hot knife shoots up the outside of my right ankle as my foot rolls out on a loose rock perched on some smooth ice. This is the exact same point in my ankle which had the mysterious pain that morning at the Kongma La campsite and the spot which had twinged a few times over the past few days while navigating the steep scree slopes of our trails. I ignored – no stifled – the flash of pain as I was mid-conversation with Tim and didn’t want to make a big deal. Just another shitty ankle pain, they were becoming so common that the pain didn’t actually hurt anymore, it’s was more of an attention grabbing alert notification being sent from my leg to my brain, informing me something has gone wrong, I put it in the junk folder as I was getting them too often these days and kept walking to the tent.

We spent the afternoon and evening checking out all the new amenities of our Base Camp and having our first proper meal which was much better than any tea house. After a nice evening with my ankle quietly throbbing but no pain, we all headed back to our tents for our first night of many in Base Camp.

It was a very strange night. The clouds had come in and it was starting to snow – something I don’t think I saw once last time I was here. After I got settled, I turned off my MPOWERD LUCI solar tent light (which is awesome by the way) and there was nothing but darkness. Not for long though. After a few seconds my tent was flooded with light. Someone’s head torch? BOOM, thunder goes off overhead. Then another with its sound rippling and echoing down the Khumbu valley.  A little later, the deep rumble of an avalanche starts. The sky lights up again, more thunder, another avalanche releases – much bigger this time. The Khumbu was busy this evening and it was quite nice to listen to nature do its thing.

Hearing avalanches Base Camp is almost reassuring after a while as you tend to get a few big ones each day and it becomes common place. It’s quite amusing sitting in the tent with people new to Base Camp and every time one comes tumbling down nearby, their eyes dart around looking at each other with concern.

Having said that, while listening to the show that evening, in the back of my mind, I couldn’t help feeling a little unwelcome. Maybe it was me she was after in 2015? Maybe she know’s I’m back? Everything I remember of Base Camp from 2015 (pre-Earthquake) is clear skies and relaxing nights. There was something ominous about this night. To the sounds of the rumbling and my mind venturing down the rabbit hole, I drifted off to sleep.

When I woke from my very comfortable sleep, I put my boots on and stood up outside of my tent. I nearly fell over. A sharp pain in my right ankle shot up and I couldn’t put any weight on my right foot. “Damnnit!”. I hobbled over to the mess tent and explained to the guys.

The next few days are a blur of me not being able to join the team on training and acclimatisation hikes, constantly finding myself stuck in one spot between my tent and the mess tent being unable to take another step left or right due to searing pain. Watching hurricane force winds tear through Base Camp, rip tents from their anchors and sending them into the air. Watching the radar shaped kettle boiler get blown 100m into another camp (could have killed someone!). Seeing the toilet tent get blown away with people inside it – mid-morning routine (quite funny). All to the backdrop of the high winds and Jetstream smashing into the surrounding high peaks producing a constant groan which I can liken to being next to a 747 at full thrust during take-off.

Shot of the guys in the lower icefall getting familiar with the ropes and ladders

During this 4 day haze. My right ankle would improve, then get worse, then improve all the while the left ankle which was badly twisted over a week ago slowly swelled fatter and fatter with pain starting to manifest deep inside the joint and up the edge of the fibular bone. I visited the ER clinic which luckily was 100m away from our camp. They did the usual diagnosis for such a situation, provided some tape and pain killers without really being able to predict a recovery time – fair enough, soft tissue damage is difficult to diagnose, especially without scanning instruments.

I was taking about 2000-2400mg of ibuprofen a day mixed with 1gm paracetamol pills which seemed to quieten the waves of pain notifications..

The team did a familiarisation climb into the Khumbu icefall. I missed this one too as a) I had done it before and b) moving on 45+ degree ice slopes with crampons on was not an option. The day they were out in the icefall both ankles felt a little better, I did everything I could to encourage this positive swing. Small exercises, calf raises, stretches…etc. Things were looking up.

On the 19th, the day after the Icefall introduction and the day of the Puja blessing ceremony I woke up confident. The right ankle was getting better (as it should because there was no major trauma there, just lots of little tweaks). The left ankle was not hurting when I woke. The sun was shining, there was no wind, the day optimistically invited me out of my tent. I looked up the Icefall and told myself “Of course these injuries will mend and I can get climbing soon”, “Of course I will stand on top of this mountain”. I put my boots on and got out of the tent. Weight bearing on the right foot? OK. Now the left? EXPLODING PAIN. It could not hold any weight at all. Here we go again, the cycle continues. I hobble down towards the mess tent wincing and swearing with every step. Once inside, I fall into my seat. I get the usual question, “How is the foot?”, I have a nice collection of prepared responses for this point of the conversation. “Better”, “Worse”, “Getting there”, Thumbs Down Sign, but today I had a new one.

“Absolutely fucked”.

As the monk who had arrived at our camp to conduct the Puja ceremony gets things set up, the team finish up their breakfast and move outside. I try to stand and move but cannot. I slump back into my chair, wait for everybody to leave, ask Tim to stay for a minute and once we have the tent to ourselves, tell him “I’m done”. He knowingly and disappointingly nods his head in agreement. This cannot go on any more. Climbing the Icefall, Lhotse Face and tackling the summit ridge in this state would be stupidity.

We had a few quiet chats over the previous days about the prospects of recovery, continuing, waiting and the risks involved. A couple of days earlier I almost called in a chopper but then that afternoon there was improvement. Tim was supportive the whole way constantly providing solutions to the problem. Waiting a week to recover, going down for an ultrasound in Lukla (no MRI in the Khumbu), trying to recover at a lower elevation then coming back…etc. We considered it all.

I have a pretty high pain threshold and this was not a question of putting up with the pain, I can do that any day, especially with the focus of Everest on my mind but this was a structural problem, one which could cause major issues for me, my Sherpa, my leader or my team up high. I could have pushed through the pain and grimaced my way up the Icefall. The Western CWM would have been fine as its quite flat. The Lhotse face would have hurt but once again I could have done it. Even summit day could be done with enough pain killers plus the ankle may have healed by then as that is not for weeks.

BUT, if there was one wrong step, slip or fall, I could be immobilised. If that happened above 7000m where helicopters don’t fly I would be putting my life and rescuer’s lives at risk. Something I am not prepared to do.

I spent these 4 or 5 day in Base Camp constantly stewing about either ‘Manning the fuck up’ as some helpfully suggested and pushing through the pain or putting my ego and finances aside and applying common sense, realising that one does not climb the highest mountain the world if he cannot walk.

I eventually decided the latter as Everest is not going anywhere but a life could be gone in an instant up high.

Tim climbed one of our ‘cellular mounds’ which had signal and made the call. The chopper was on the way. In a highly stressful 45 minutes in fact! It took 10 minutes to hobble back up to my tent! Time to get organised!

I got to my tent, tore through all my kit like an emphysemic Tasmanian Devil and quickly divided up what I will take and what I will leave trying to reduce weight where possible. I left all my perishables (food, meds and other bits) and ended up leaving some things I simply didn’t have time to get in the bags. In the flurry of stressful speed packing I was slashing items from my kit list left right and centre. I ended up leaving too much good kit in the tent “for the other guys” I said in my pitiful state. Perfectly good sleeping kit, clothes and other things. Being unable to bear weight, it was almost impossible to actually pack and that is where Tim stepped in. As I was throwing everything out of my tent, he was right behind me packing everything as neatly as possible in my kit bags.

We got it done and within 10 minutes, the chopper came thumping up the valley. It was a bit early and caught everybody off guard. Some of the guys and Sherpa came to help me scramble up to the helicopter pad while the machine waited with the blades still spinning. Some climbers from another team hopped in the chopper taking my seat only to be then kicked out once the pilot told them this was not their bird. I remember trying to run up the slope in the noisy, windy chaos, falling onto my hands, trying to hold onto the back of my Sherpa’s neck for balance, team members popping up in front of me wishing me well and shaking my hand, scrambling up more rocks, more hands to shake, more well wishes, then piling into the passenger seat of the chopper. I look left and realise nearly everybody from the team, Sherpa, climbers, Tim and others all next to me waving goodbye. I finally caught up with my breathing, clipped in my seat belt and greeted the Nepali pilot Kumar. Bags on board. Doors slammed shut. We lifted off. The guys were holding their hats as the blades spun at full speed almost blowing them away. I gave a final wave and in seconds we were thumping down the Khumbu. The stress of the past few days all culminating in this high intensity quick exit got to me. I shed a tear.

Within a minute or two we were over Gorakshep, then Lobuche, then Pheriche, Pangboche, Tengboche, Namche Bazaar and then following the river towards Lukla. I couldn’t believe how quick we were rewinding the past three weeks. Before even knowing it, we landed in Lukla for a refuel and to pick up an engineer of Manag Air – the helicopter company.

We took off again and then spent the next 45 minutes thumping towards Kathmandu airport in near zero visibility. The pilot was a ninja, absolute control of the machine despite the gusts of thermals and invisible mountains all around us.

We touched down at Kathmandu airport. I was back too soon, I was devastated, it didn’t feel right. A brand new ambulance was waiting to whisk me off to the western hospital. I did not order this but I guess it is standard procedure for people being helivac’d from Base Camp as they are usually dying of HACE or HAPE. I thanked the nurse but told her I don’t need an ambulance and will just get a ride to the hotel instead. After some confusion, a flurry of phone calls, things got sorted and Tim’s fixer Rajan was there to pick me up and take me to the hotel.

I got to the hotel and finally laid down on a bed with my foot elevated. I felt all the blood and liquid drain back down my leg and the pressure in my foot start to lower. I stayed there for a few hours just staring at the ceiling processing everything that had happened.

On Facebook, all my fellow climbers – some who already have Summited Everest ask me “Why not just wait a few days”, “Why not go see a doctor to get it put in a cast for a week”, “Why not wait in Lukla or Pheriche and see if it heals”. I question myself constantly with the same thoughts but I know something is structurally destroyed in this ankle and continuing would be wrong. I love their support and optimism but despite sounding like a pussy, I know this is the sensible thing to do.

Even as I write this on the plane about to land in Barcelona, I imagine going to the hospital, somehow getting it fixed and heading straight back. If they could fix my ankle in a few days I would fly straight back but unfortunately, I think this will take weeks not days before I can do any significant movement.

Maybe I have a 3% chance of quick recovery and returning in a week to KTM? No. It’s not going to happen. 2017 is over.

If I have to sum up how I feel right now it is: Content in knowing I had no option and made the right choice, mixed with a little bit of SEETHING RAGE.

Do I think I failed on Everest in 2017? Not at all, just an unfortunate event snatched away the opportunity like in 2015.

Have I ever failed on a mountain? No, I’ve never turned back because ‘I didn’t have it in me’

Do I think I could have got to the top (and back down)? Without a doubt.

Will I go back? I am already in the process of booking up 2018.

How do I feel about this whole situation? Annoyed I have to wait another year with the Everest monkey on my back. Next year will be an express visit with minimal trekking and some sort of pre-acclimatisation before I arrive in Nepal.

Now it is time to recover at home with my beautiful girls and then do some rehabilitation by stand-up-paddle-boarding all summer in the Mediterranean. 😉

14 thoughts on “Base Camp to Hell

  1. Sam K says:

    Dude….Gutted for you but glad you don’t see it as a failure as in all aspects of life…Shit Happens.

    You’ll get it done next year for sure!

  2. Doug Hesse says:

    I’m so sorry. This was eloquently written. You did absolutely the right thing, and surely anger is the most reasonable emotion.

  3. Maria says:

    I have never nor will ever climb a mountain. But I can certainly empathize with your pain both emotional and physical. This was a heart wrenching post and I can feel your emotions through your words. As a physician I can tell you you made the right decision. Everest is going nowhere.

    You are a gifted writer and I have loved following your blog and will continue to do so.

    I wish you all the best from Kentucky !

  4. Bradon says:

    Bad luck Penson, but have to ask… Did anyone shout ‘Get to the chopper!’ while you were scrambling up the hill? I certainly hope so.

  5. Charles Lamb says:

    Blake, just came on here for a catch up and read the news… So sorry for you but keep your chin up. Did you get the ankle checked out in Barca?

    • Blake says:

      Cheers Charles. Xray doesn’t reveal much (hairline fractures invisible on Xrays in the first few weeks). MRIs tomorrow. Foot has stopped swelling now.

  6. Kevin says:

    Blake you don’t know me, but alas I understand all too well how you feel and how you are suffering. Last year I got stormed off Aconcagua, so I went back again in February this year, fit and well and absolutely certain I would get that all important weather window this time. All going really well until the compulsory medical check at basecamp. I had a really high blood pressure reading and was grounded from climbing higher – despite feeling no adverse effects from altitude, sleeping and eating well, clear chest, no headaches and good oxy sat. I have no pre-existing blood pressure issues. Now these medical checks on Aconcagua have long been disputed as irrelevant as indicators of serious altitude related heath problems. Having gone through them on my previous attempt without any problem, I never saw this coming. Slipping out of sync with the rest of the team and wondering if there really was a problem, like you I made the only call possible and helicoptered off. I wasn’t the only one either. I was emotional and like you angry. I felt cheated but knew it was the right call – if my wife had been there she would simply have said it’s not worth the risk, go down. Didn’t help when I discovered that the team got a perfect three day summit weather window! So sorry reading your story, but you will come back from this even stronger. A brilliant emotive piece of writing by the way – thank you for sharing something which is still so raw. I really look forward to following your blog next year and have no doubts you will fullfill your dream. You are inspirational in the face of adversity.

    • Blake says:

      Thanks Kevin. Its always a tough call but we need to err on the side of caution in these environments. I hope you can get back to Aconcagua and get to the top, it is a great climb! Thanks again for your kind words.

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