Day 13/April 3, 2009 (Friday)
Leaving the comfort of the Himalayan Lodge of Pheriche, definitely 5-star by Khumbu standards (sit down flushing toilets!), we set an easy pace up the moraine towards Dugla. I had a great talk with 72 year-old Gene, who brought his son on the trek (with a climb of Lobuche Peak, to follow). Turns out he's a former marine aviator and a generally inspirational character who spends part of each year in Alaska fishing, kayaking, hiking and just plain living. I certainly hope to possess his energy level in my 8th decade, and also hope to share future similar adventures with my son Luke as the years go on...
The rocky terrain and surrounding high peaks were certainly very familiar, in particular rounding the bend to the seasonal "village" of Dugla at 4,620 meters. Prayer flags crossed the wide ravine, leading up to a veranda where the team convened for an early lunch. From the comfort of lawn chairs, sipping black tea and eating "box lunches" of hard boiled eggs and salmon spread, we could see the Singaporean Women's Team high on Lobuche, nearing the top of the summit snowfield. Several of our trekkers, and Everest climber Dave, will attempt this same route in a few days time.
After a 30-minute break we set off up the final hill of the day, perhaps 300 meters of easy switchbacks. As we crested the hill a vast array of chortens, shrines to fallen climbers, came into view. As several of the team stopped just below the chortens, I ran ahead to the opposite side and sat down alone on a large granite boulder. I couldn't help but reflect on the loss of so many talented and strong climbers, Sherpa and Westerners alike, who are represented in stone here. This is most certainly a very serious endeavor, not dissimilar to spaceflight, where training, technical ability, gear, physical condition and so many other factors have to be perfectly aligned to safely conduct a "mission." Seeing so many memorials in such a setting is both somber and a powerful reminder to keep strict focus in the weeks ahead.
A relatively short hike across the high plateau took us to the village of Lobuche, which brought about another powerful flashback: May 24, 2008, the date of my helicopter medical evacuation with my friend and fellow patient, Monty:
As a result of a back injury high on the mountain on May 21 of that year, I had a slow, painful descent to Camp II. Monty was a couple of days behind me on his summit push, and while at CII developed a very serious nosebleed that took considerable effort to stop, particularly at that altitude. We were the walking wounded as we returned to base camp on May 22, and as a result of his blood loss, a helicopter medivac was ordered by the Everest ER doctors. Owing to low cloud cover the morning of May 23, we left in relative haste towards Gorak Shep on foot, but no helicopters were to fly in that day. The following morning we continued on towards Lobuche and the unimproved landing zone right out my window as I write this. I'll never forget hobbling towards the Cheetah helicopter, quickly giving my good friend and climbing side-kick Kami Sherpa one final fist bump, followed by a brief hug and some inadequate words of thanks for all he'd done in the preceding 2 months. I hefted my backpack into the helo, and then tugged in Monty's behind me. Monty was last to board, and then the two Nepalese Army aviators tried to loft the craft away from the surly bonds of earth. No joy... we were over gross weight for this altitude, and the pilot-in-command opened the right side door and ordered Monty to get out. A tinge of panic set in: "But wait, Monty's the sicker of us!" It also struck me that all of Monty's gear was at my side: sleeping bag, money, and so on... I tried to get the pilots to land and swap us out, but they assured me that after they dropped me at the village of Pheriche below, they'd immediately come back to get Monty. Thankfully weather and machine complied, and within 20 minutes we were reunited and on our way to Kathmandu.
Quote of the day from Kamen: "Can you believe $3 a minute to talk to my mother-in-law?!"