Where the Crow Came to Die
I was running as fast as I could, but the yak kept gaining on me. All of a sudden, I found myself in my lodge room. I jumped on the bed, only to discover to my horror that the yak had made it to the room as well. With all its fury, the yak jumped on me. That is when I woke up from the vivid nightmare with cold sweat all over my body. Perfectly horizontal on the bed, my head felt fine. I couldn’t put a finger on it, but I knew that there was something that was not right with my body. I decided to get up for a quick trip to the latrine. As soon as I left the bed, the entire room started spinning around me. I could hardly stand or walk straight. That is when the troubling night began.
It was the night before we were supposed to head for the base camp- we were in Gorak Shep, at an altitude of 5190 meters (approximately 17000 feet). Gorak Shep is the last stop before getting to Everest Base Camp or Kala Pathar. Lying in the foot of the beautiful Mount Pumori, it is a frozen lakebed with nothing but sand, ice and stones for miles around. There is a not a spec of vegetation - not a single weed or needle of grass. As if that were not enough, it is structured as a valley, so if you were to get sick with AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) over here (which is very likely when you are 5190 meters high with no vegetation and have had very little time to acclimatize), you would have to climb up and cross about five or six hills before you could start to actually descend.
Earlier that day, one of my friends had asked one of the locals what “Gorak Shep” meant. Gorak is the Himalayan black crow. It is larger and more agile than normal city crows and has a noticable gliding fashion- quite like that of an eagle. The word “Shep”, in the local language, means “to die”. Legend has it that a Gorak from Tibet flew over to Nepal and as soon as it reached this place, it dropped dead. While I have not verified this story and cannot be certain if it is accurate, based on this, apparently this was a place where even the crow, a symbol of immortality in our culture, could not survive. This was also where what the route that the Dalai Lama dubbed “the steps to heaven” ended, implying that this was the beginning of heaven. Oh, it was heaven- alright: it was scenic, it was calm, and it was beautiful. Except what the altitude does to your body makes it feel like hell.
Still earlier that day, while ascending from Lobuche to Gorak Shep, I had noticed quite a few people sick with AMS being escorted down to Lobuche. Now that I projected back, I realized that this route must have been the one where I had seen the most number of people descending due to AMS. I also remembered hearing about this guy from Dingboche (which is at a height of about 4300 meters, mind you) getting sick with AMS at Gorak Shep. All of this combined was in no way helping my psychological state.
I somehow made it to the latrine and back and lay myself down on the bed. I tried closing my eyes, but as soon as I shut them, I felt dizzy as hell, nauseaous and felt like throwing up. So I opened my eyes back again. It was dark. I lit my flashlight and looked at my friend over on the next bunk - he seemed to be sleeping soundly. As much as I wanted to help it, my mind started to recollect on the alleged symptoms of AMS: headache (I’d always had a mild one), dizziness (strike two), vivid nightmares (remember the yak?), insomnia, loss of appetite, nausea, vomitting and so on. The words “pulmonary edema and cerebral edema” started to ring around my brain. The number 12 kept coming back to me - 12 hours: that is how long it takes for a person to go from mild AMS to coma or death.
Sleepless, I lay there in the dark: thinking. My only wish was that I be able to spend the next four or five hours pass without getting any sicker. To hell with Base Camp: as soon as morning hit, I would descend to Lobuche. Around 2 AM, our trekking guide came knocking. Surprised, I answered. I was even more surprised to see him all dressed up.
“Good Morning!” he says.
“Good Morning? It is 2 AM!”
“What? I thought it was 5 AM! I have this terrible headache and I can’t get any sleep. I woke up and it just felt like 5 AM. Sorry about that.”
Even the trekking guide, for whom traversing these altitudes was all in a day’s work - could not get any sleep. I did manage to get some sleep, though - sometime during the twilight hours.
The next morning, my headache had somewhat subsided, but I was still dizzy. I asked both my friends how they were doing. Apparently, they both could not get any sleep either- both had terrible headaches and were dizzy beyond belief. My friend who seemed to be sleeping soundly was only trying to do so. If anything, their conditions were worse than mine. We had to reconsider whether we wanted to go on to the base camp or to descend to Lobuche. We decided to get some breakfast and see what our body told us.
With a weak and dizzy body and no appetite whatsoever, getting that bowl of porridge in through my mouth and down to my stomach that morning was as tough as anything. After breakfast, we all felt somewhat better, though not all that much. We reached a consensus: we had come this far, it would be disappointing not to reach the base camp. We would therefore make our way towards the base camp (5300 meters). If, on the way, any of us got any sicker, we would head back right away. In any case, once we were back from the base camp or from the middle, there was no way in hell that we would be spending the night in Gorak Shep. With what energy we had left, we would descend to Lobuche even if it was the last thing we did.
Somehow all of us made it to the base camp and back. As planned, we mustered up all our energy and made it back down to Lobuche (4950 meters). Boy, was I glad to get out of Gorak Shep.