Two weeks before I was due to fly to the Himalayas, I found myself sat in the Royal Free hospital in North London with 1st and 2nd degree burns on 7 of my fingers, stinking of smoke and burnt plastic, with my hands in a bag of frozen mixed vegetables. My mind began flitting between thoughts of pain, and guilt, and constantly back to anxiety as to how I’d somehow managed to get into this insane situation, and whether my mountain adventure was now over, a fortnight before it was due to start. My laptop charger overheated and set fire to various parts of my bedroom, fortunately I was upstairs at the time and eventually the aforementioned gross burning smell attracted my attention. I managed to stop the fire before burning down the whole house. Unfortunately my hands got burnt in the process.
I thought the trip would be off.
Fortunately all of the doctors and nurses I saw were incredibly helpful, I avoided anything likely to give me an infection and, I managed make enough of a recovery, just about in time.
So I made it to the plane, and into another series of unknowns. The highest altitude I’d done before was probably somewhere near Watford. The trip had been kind of last minute and the fire had reduced any ‘worry time’ as I had to deal with the array of overwhelming logistics involved in filming in a dusty, hot, freezing, dark, bright, electricity-starved environment. Basically buying tons of equipment, and consulting Dr Google for advice.
I was headed out to document a research project called Xtreme Everest 2. A study taking healthy volunteers on a trek up to Everest Base Camp, testing them all along the way, and seeing how they reacted to the differing altitude and the ever-decreasing availability of oxygen.
The mountains are useful for research because the low oxygen levels that are normal up here mimic a problem faced by thousands of people in intensive care back down at sea level. If the house fire had gone on for 15 more minutes the smoke inhalation could have seen me hitting dangerously low levels of oxygen myself.
The plane ride into the terrifyingly tiny landing strip at the foot of the mountains was probably when I started to realise just how alien this was going to be. As I filmed on the tiny, shaky, Yeti airline plane I wasn’t really paying too much attention to the outside world. Normally this diversion from the present is my least favourite thing about filming, but this time I was grateful for the distraction. I’m not a delighted flyer. Despite having a Masters in Science [however tenuous] I still don’t really trust that aeroplanes can actually work, it doesn’t seem right does it?
We hit the tiny runway and didn’t crash into the mountain at the end of it, no more motorized movement for a month.
As I went to bounce excitedly up the steps outside Lukla airport I was suddenly hit by how tiny my lungs seemed to have become. It wasn’t like I was feeling particularly tired, I just was conscious of every step I made. Walking was suddenly a ‘thing’.
A friend who has Rheumatoid arthritis mentioned how she feels like she has ‘tokens’ of energy that she can use each day. If she wants to cook a big meal, then that’s her
token used up so she can’t go out that night, or go swimming as she’ll be using tomorrow’s token, leaving her unable to get out of bed in the morning. It kind of hit home to me, how dependent I was on my physiology. I still had to go 3000m higher and I was feeling it already.
The second night in, I began to notice it affecting my brain too. Words don’t come to you so easily. Even having conversations with people becomes difficult as thinking guzzles your precious oxygen. My chat usually gets me in and out of most problems each day, but it was in short supply.
I guess I was acclimatising because eventually this stopped being quite so noticeable. I think I understood what I was capable of, how many tokens I had,and just scaled down my ambitions to suit that. You literally can’t do what you would at sea level. I’m used to working a full day with coffee and inhaled pollution for sustenance when a difficult shoot is at stake. But up there it’s impossible. The difficulty of lugging heavy camera gear around, constantly thinking, and concentrating on filming in a bastard awkward environment takes a big toll. But once you’ve adapted to what your abilities are, as long as you live within those and take it slow, you cope.
Filming was hard. It’s a ridiculously difficult environment, but I’ll probably write a whole post about that another time….
We stayed in tea houses which are basically wooden hut type things, they are very basic, but pretty comfortable and way better than sleeping in a tent. My ridiculously huge sleeping bag kept me warm and I found I slept really well on the mountain.
One hut in Dingboche was covered in flies which doesn’t fill you with confidence, and pretty soon sickness came to our group. But it did mean I could take this cool photo of a fly attacking a mountain, so it’s swings and roundabouts.
I went up to Loboche Pass which is the memorial for all those who have died attempting to summit Everest. It was a spooky place, hundreds of piles of stones and prayer flags commemorating the dead. It becomes clear that the higher and higher up the mountain you go the better the view gets. I’d never understood why you’d want to climb Everest, but looking up at these incredible peaks, I could comprehend it marginally more. The desire to stand at the top of the world is pretty powerful once it gets in your head. Despite this, the whole trip, I never once felt like I would ever want to try and summit Everest. Crazy people.
I got to climb one mountain called Kala Patthar. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done. There was a realistic chance I could have died, clambering to the summit over a tangled web of decaying prayer flags, with absolute certain death on my left if I tripped or got caught by a gust of wind. It was incredible. Here is a photo of me on the summit and my eyes are half closed and I look stoned.
It’s something like being on drugs [I would guess] it’s not reality, your body is firing at your mind, grasping, and failing, to deal with where you are and how you should feel about it. I made a quick film whilst on top…
I felt changed as I walked down. Then I realised I’d left a glove somewhere half way down on a rock and it struck me that I probably hadn’t changed too much.
This is a photo of me after walking for two hours and discovering my room key from the previous night’s lodge. Fortunately my Sherpa Passang just handed it to the next guy coming down who laughed at me, and took it down the mountain with him. This probably sums up my entire experience with the Nepalese people. Fun, cheeky, friendly, and so keen to help.
As we reached Everest Base Camp I was feeling really strong, I was in good shape, still hadn’t taken as much as a paracetemol in the preceding 20 days. Having said that I drank a lot of Tang, which is a kind of fruity sugar powder, and I think contains all the drugs, and is highly illegal in most continents.
Sleeping on ice is strange,
This looks pretty uncomfortable but when you’re exhausted you tend to sleep pretty well. The guys at Base Camp have an incredible set up. There are no solid structures up there, only tents, fancy tents, I’ll give them that, but it’s such hard work being up there. They are there doing research in this environment for up to 3 months at a time.
One Sherpa carried an exercise bike up the mountain on his back. That made me feel less proud of my achievement of making it there. It reminded me of the time I got overtaken by a man dressed as bee in the Swindon half marathon.
The people I got to hang out with on the trip were so ace. It was great to get to know my two working buddies really well, we didn't argue [much], and I learned a lot from them. Spending a month with people, and within a culture, makes it impossible for you not be to be influenced by both. All the volunteers on the trip were there because they really cared about the science. You speak to one person, they are part time doctor/part time mountain rescuer, doing this in there holiday time. You had nurses, doctors, scientists, and ambitious students. They were a fun bunch of people. It made me want to get involved in these things more often. I’m pretty outdoorsy, but considering I’ve lived in the UK forever, and not climbed Snowdon or Ben Nevis, been to the highlands, or the New Forest is borderline criminal, if the people who do it are as cool as the guys I met on Everest, then it’s a no brainer. Think how fun we would all be with 50% extra oxygen to play with. Eventually we would find out when we got back to Kathmandu after a month in the mountains, it was pretty nuts. They were even nicer and more fun, we all smelled better when we got back to bricks, mortar, cars, and rum.
I felt like I needed more acclimatisation going from the sparse mountains to insanity of Kathmandu than I did going up to Base Camp. Everything was fast, polluted, and noisy. I still found the locals to be super friendly, not the kind of hassle I expected before I got there.
I would love to go back to Nepal, it was my first proper travel trip and I need to do it more. My rucksack that was with me every day for a month looks empty, and depressed in the attic, but we will ride again.
I’m really grateful for Greg Foot taking a gamble of bringing me out with him. I think we’ve made some great content. Below is a film I edited from the footage shot up the mountain. I hope you like it.
For more on the science and the insanity of working at Base Camp check out our film on the Guardian and Ri Channel:
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=watch?v=tovsOiSvZ_c&w=560&h=315] Watch the full video with photos here: http://www.richannel.org/xtreme-everest
I should probably shave my moustache and terrible beard off now.
Not quite yet though. But maybe soon.
I tried to read ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ by Italo Calvino on the mountain, but it was so mind melting that I literally couldn’t cope [This also happened when I tried to watch Looper on the flight on the way home]
I read it on the way home and it changed me; probably almost as much as going up that mountain, read it. It’s cheaper than a month expedition to Everest.
Let’s go on an ADVENTURE again soon yeah?
Some good links:
Greg Foot's Website [including links to a schools science show tour based on the adventure]:
Jenna Wiley's Blog - Detailing one of the volunteers adventures in travelling and science
Some badass Tweeter's from the trip
Greg - @GregFoot
Emily - @ejghio
Nick - @NickInsley22
Jenna - @wilesjm
and me too if you like @thomhoffman