Manaslu

Manaslu video

 

grey Manaslu video

Manaslu summit

 

So a mere two years since leaving Nepal, I have finally gotten around to uploading a video post about my climb with Mal. I’ll mostly let the video speak for itself, but below the link I have jotted down some explanatory notes if you’re interested. If you have any comments or questions, feel free to comment below.

Time tag

2:42 – Here I am explaining about my sunburnt tongue (from breathing/gasping with my mouth wide open due to a blocked nose); this is best avoided!

Up to summit push – We had a sound issue on our videos so there is no talking or sound. This is possibly a good thing, considering how much Mal and I were crapping on!

3:25 – Mal did most of the talking on the summit push videos … I was the mayor of ‘struggle town’ for most of the way up!

6:42 -  See my jacket? I am not that fat. I had my water bottle full of hot water stuffed down my front ‘cos it was nice and warm! **Science-nerd content** at higher altitudes water boils at a lower temperature than it does at sea level due to the lower pressure: Sea level = 100 degrees celsius, 4000 meters = 85 degrees celsius, 7500 meters = 75 degrees celsius. Read more here. I love that nerdy stuff!

7:51 -  See the guy using the toilet hole behind me as I yibber away?

8:24 - From here on I apologise for the language!

9:10 -  Mal is not mistreating our Sherpa, Sidi. Mal suffered some bad damage to his foot in Canada a few years back and his feet are prone to cold issues. Sidi insisted he help warm them up. I was in my sleeping bag behind relaxing.

10:16 - See the ice on the oxygen mask tubing and our jackets? This is our frozen breath. It looks nice and sunny, but don’t be fooled!

11:44 – Can you hear how I pause while speaking to search for words? This is because at 8160 meters above sea level your brain gets much less oxygen than at sea level, making you feel a bit drunk and really tired.

13:55 – Mal was a huge help on the way down. The night before this footage was taken I gave myself a bit of a fright and, that day, I was completely worn out and a bit shaky. It’s good to have great mates on this kind of mission.

Thanks for watching.

Altitude sickness prevention

 

grey Altitude sickness preventionIt is really hard to put into words how extreme altitude affects you but I shall try: Imagine waking at 3am inside a refrigerator with the worst hangover of your life. Inside the fridge is a treadmill. Run on this for 12 hours straight…with a plastic bag over your head.

Some of my most vivid memories were formed inside a high altitude torture chamber; climbing Island Peak (my first Himalayan mountain), trekking the Inca Trail with my parents, trekking parts of the Andes with a donkey and finally returning to Nepal to climb Manaslu, all involved various degrees of altitudinal discomfort. Don’t be put off though, I am going back this October for some more high altitude suffering with some good friends so it can’t all be bad news…right? Dealing with altitude can be seen as just a regular part of adventuring at the really good places.

So why does altitude affect the normal functions of your body?

As altitude increases, atmospheric pressure drops, this means that less oxygen is delivered to your body with every gasped breath. After some time the body responds by producing more red blood cells (to transport the limited oxygen) in a process called acclimatisation. There are also some changes in how the body manages its fluid.

grey Altitude sickness preventionGeneral rules for altitude sickness prevention are as follows:

  1. Go up slowly. When above 3000 meters try not to sleep more than 300 meters higher than the previous night and take a rest day every 3 days, or for every vertical kilometre gained.
  2. Take planned acclimatisation walks. On a rest day climb about four to five hundred metres then descend and sleep at your original altitude. This shocks your body into making more red blood cells. It is a proven method and is how climbers can survive at extreme altitudes.
  3. Remember the old adage “climb high, sleep low” Don’t sleep on top of a high pass if there is a chance to sleep lower in a valley. It is the altitude you sleep at which tends to dictate your risk of altitude issues.
  4. Drink lots of fluids. One thing that many people don’t realise is that you will pee a lot at altitude, this combined with exertion and dry air sucking moisture out of your system can lead to dehydration. Maintaining good hydration levels helps the body to acclimatise.
  5. Be honest with yourself and your trekking partners. A niggling headache or slight nausea can be your body’s warning that AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) is just around the corner. Rest and take it easy if you are feeling poorly.
  6. Have an altitude profile to plan your trek or climb (see image below). This will help you to plan your altitude gains and to factor in rest days at clever intervals.
  7. Drugs. Some people use them, some prefer not to. Diamox (Acetazolamide) is a diuretic drug which is commonly used to treat and prevent AMS. It is generally only used if a person is going straight from sea level to around 3000 meters or if someone is planning to climb (and sleep) at more than 600 meter altitude gains per day. This drug speeds up acclimatisation but takes a day or two for the full effect so is not super helpful in cases of acute AMS. A dose of 125mg once or twice daily is commonly used to aid acclimatisation, starting 3 days before going high. Higher doses are commonly used in cases of acute AMS. More detail can be found in the footnote*.

AMS has stages, almost everyone who visits areas at high altitude will suffer some or many symptoms, I sure haveplenty of times.    The most common symptoms include: Headache, breathlessness, insomnia, nausea and loss of appetite. Keeping a close, honest track of these is very important in monitoring and managing your acclimatisation. There is a great worksheet here which helps in tracking and monitoring progress of symptoms.

If in doubt, descend and don’t push yourself too hard.

Below is the altitude profile of a climb to extreme altitude. It shows a lot of up and down done to shock the system into acclimatising as well as possible. Most treks to high altitude have available altitude profiles where you can plan rest days, acclimatisation walks and see which days to watch closely with regards AMS risk.

grey Altitude sickness prevention

(Reproduced with permission from Mal Haskins @ Speedfly8000)

 

HAPE and HACE

Many of the serious health issues that occur at altitude stem from water’s nasty habit of shifting location as we go up in the world. At sea level much of the body’s fluid spends its time helping out in our circulatory system, moving red blood cells and nutrients about and flushing away toxins. This arrangement is rather agreeable for survival. At high altitude the water can go where it’s not wanted or needed. The fluid not being where it is meant to gives rise to the symptoms many trekkers suffer at altitude. If too much moves to the brain or lung cavity it can cause serious, often fatal, conditions such as HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary (lung) Oedema), and HACE (High Altitude Cerebral (brain) Oedema). Yes, Australians spell Oedema differently to the rest of the world, deal with it! The mechanism is similar to how ankles can swell on long haul flights but much more serious.

Don’t cancel your adventure just yet though guys, HACE and HAPE rarely occur below 8000 metres and only ever kicks in after you body has given plenty of warning signs. It can occur much lower at altitudes as low as 3000 metres but usually this is due to a rushed or non-existant acclimatisation plan.

I will not go into details here on treatment of HAPE and HACE, treatment involves rapid descent if possible, Adrenaline, Dexmethasone and oxygen given by qualified physicians.

HAFE 

HAFE is another uncomfortable part of trekking at altitude. Gasses expand at decreasing pressure, this also happens in the bowels. This expansion, combined with a trekking diet commonly high in carbohydrates can lead to High Altitude Flatulent Extravaganzas. There is no cure for HAFE. It can be managed by walking separately from the group from time to time and by leaving the tent open a bit at night.

Sun Smart 

grey Altitude sickness prevention

Recent research has confirmed a long held belief that people get sunburn more readily at high altitudes. UV-B levels, the most damaging UV band, have been proven to be around 60% higher at 2500 meters than at sea level. Higher UV-B levels combined with snow reflecting the sun’s rays can lead to sunburn in some interesting places, like under the earlobes! I once ended up with a seriously sunburnt and swollen tongue after an extended climb at altitude. It happened after gasping with my mouth open for too long. I could hardly talk let alone eat properly and it was absolute agony. This is one experience I certainly do not want to repeat. It is crucial to cover up and regularly apply a high SPF (Sun Protection Factor) sunscreen while up high.

The dry air and harsh sun can lead to cracked lips so buy, and regularly use, a high SPF lip balm as well. I have a special top with a little pocket in the sleeve near my wrist which just fits a lip balm. Remember guys, it is not seen as dorky to use lip balm above altitudes of 2500 meters.

 

 

 

Above: The author being very sun smart after suffering a sun burnt tongue.

Altitude affects everyone differently. Some unfit people will spring along without an issue while some super-athletes can struggle at the slightest elevation. One person’s response to altitude can differ from trip to trip as well. Once I was in the Andes trekking at around 4500 meters and had to spend an excruciating 24 hours in my tent, curled in a foetal position with a pounding headache, nausea and no chance of descent; yet the next time I went high I got to 7000 meters before even getting a slight headache. The main rule is to be gentle with yourself and to descend if in doubt.

So, if you are smart, plan your height day by day and don’t push yourself too hard, you can have a healthy and most importantly fun time playing in the world’s high places.

Much more detailed information on this topic can be found here: Medex Book English Version and Guide to High altitude medicine

Thanks to Mal Haskins for his input into this post. Mal does loads of cool stuff in extremely high places. Check him out here: Vertical Resources 

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*Acetazolamide.

Action: This drug works by forcing the kidneys to excrete bicarbonate which leads to a slightly more acidic blood. Our bodies monitor levels of (the slightly acidic) Carbon Dioxide (CO2) by detecting the blood’s acidity. Making the blood more acidic fools the body into thinking that CO2 levels are higher than they actually are. This triggers an unconscious deeper and faster baseline breathing rate. By breathing deeper and faster more oxygen is taken in.

Acclimatisation: I eluded in the text above that a low dose of Acetazolamide can be used to aid acclimatisation. The normal dose is 125mg twice daily. This only speeds up normal acclimatisation processes, hence if acclimatising to a certain height normally takes 24-48 hours, Acetazolamide can reduce the time by 50%. Stopping the drug will not reverse acclimatisation, the rate will just return to pre-dose speeds. Being a diuretic or fluid pill Acetazolamide also ‘concentrates’ the blood, that is, less fluid in circulation means there are more oxygen carrying red blood cells in every millilitre of blood.

AMS While the mainstay of AMS treatment is rest and descent if possible, Acetazolamide can be used in higher doses to treat the condition. The dose is much higher than for prevention at 250mg every 4-6 hours. The diuretic effect reduces over the course of a few days (by which time you should be feeling comfortable again)

Cheyne Stokes Breathing: Gasping rapidly at altitude means the lungs are clearing CO2 faster than Oxygen is being taken in. As mentioned above, the body ‘listens’ to CO2 levels more closely than to oxygen levels when setting baseline respiration rate. Having the body clear CO2 so efficiently can lead to a drop in respiration rate to nil in some climbers during sleep (as the body reads a low CO2 level and assumes a relative high oxygen level). When the breathing stops during sleep a climber will wake up desperately gasping for air and rather upset about the while situation, not to mention tent-buddies waking to find a friend lying there peacefully not breathing! By artificially increasing respiration rate, a low (125mg) dose of Acetazolamide before sleep can counter this whole scenario.

Random fact: When you drink a carbonated soft drink whilst on Acetazolamide you can feel but not taste the bubbles (which are CO2 and acidic). I have no idea exactly why this is but guess it is due to the blood being more acidic, closer to the pH of the bubbles of CO2 and harder for the taste buds to pick up. It is a really, really weird sensation, try it if you get the chance!

grey Altitude sickness prevention

Manaslu expedition – lessons learnt

grey Manaslu expedition   lessons learntI had many important lessons when on my Manaslu expedition with Mal in October last year, not least of which are the four golden rules of good mountain communication:

1 Thou will not assume knowledge in others.

“The sat phone does not work on the hill babe, but we’ll be right”

2 Thou will always consider the other person on line.

“I’m in some tricky terrain man”

“Can you get back up to camp 2?”

“I’ll try” *Radio silence, Mal exhausted but starts preparing for a rescue*

3 Your voice changes at altitude.

“Is thith Yeh-the?”

“Yes, who is this? What has happened”

“Is thith Yeh-the…”

4 Thou will never assume the worst.

“Melanie, I am in Kathmandu, call me soon”

grey Manaslu expedition   lessons learntIn October last year I climbed a mountain called Manaslu in the Gorkha region of Nepal. Manaslu is 8162 meters high and quite remote, for me it was an incredible adventure and the fulfillment of a life long dream. I learnt a lot about what to (and what not to) tell loved ones before, during and after such a climb. I climbed with Mal Haskins who is a serial adventurer, world class paragliding pilot, professional mountaineer and (I am proud to say) a good mate. My experience is embryonic compared to Mal. Mal has had his head firmly in the clouds for years since he shelved a promising career as an electrical engineer with the Australian armed forces to, as he says; “Get into the hills Bro” He has guided in Nepal numerous times-most notably on Lhotse which is an imposing 8000 meter high lump of ice and rock very near Mt Everest. Mal has lead climbing trips in Peru and is constantly dragging paid clients around his now native New Zealand. For Mal a climb of New Zealand’s Mt Cook is just a standard day at the office. Me? Well, I have survived a ten day mountaineering course in New Zealand, climbed to just over 6000 meters in Nepal and turned back just below the summit of Cotopaxi in Ecuador due to bad snow pack conditions. Embryonic.

You are wondering, no doubt, what was I thinking when I signed up to tackle this intimidating beast with a small team of four climbers. Put simply, I love being on mountains, even without the plan of getting to that final pointy bit, I love prancing around in crampons, swinging off ropes and looking at the view from high places. Like many people I find peace in the hills. In big hills I find inner peace flavored with awe and wonderment. My initial goal was to climb to a camp at 7450 meters and to film Mal flying past me. On this mission Mal was planning to not only summit but to also launch from the top with a speed wing and skis. Speedflying is a sport where people use a small version of a paragliding wing and skis to zoom down mountains occasionally kissing their slopes with skis while reaching speeds of up to 120 kilometers an hour. In the thin air above 8000 meters Mal was expecting to go much, much faster than this and no one has attempted such a feat. On the climb I felt strong, conditions were not right for Mal to fly and he didn’t need a cameraman so I pushed on to the top. I would have been really happy to reach my initial goal of 7450 meters so when I found myself enjoying half an hour at the pointy bit gasping for air and snapping self portraits I was beyond ecstatic.

As little as I knew, my girlfriend and emergency contact Jette knew even less. While Mal and I were crunching onwards to the top Jette was frantically chewing her nails back in her native Denmark.

‘Thou will not assume knowledge in others’

When I sent Jette an email casually mentioning that the phone did not work on the hill I assumed that she would figure we had regular scheduled radio contact with base camp (base did have contact with the outside world should we need to order an emergency KFC bucket or even rescue helicopter). However, Jette thought that Mal and I were bumbling about on an 8000 meter high hill without any communications at all, this caused her significant angst.

The second communication law involves use of radios. Mal and I reached camp three fairly late in the afternoon, we were extremely tired after four big summit days, however I decided to continue down to camp two with the understanding that Pemba was planning to follow shortly with a load. I happily set off in the afternoon light and Mal crawled into his tent, comforted that I would soon be in good company. However, Pemba changed his mind and instead of descending with gear he went to bed at camp three, completely exhausted he didn’t tell anyone. This would have only meant a lonely night for me at the abandoned camp two…had I not got off trail. As the sun set I veered too far to the left and what started as ankle deep and supportive snow became soft, thigh deep snow. Each time I broke the thin, icy crust I would lunge, pull myself up, roll onto my belly and stand to take a few more steps. Every few steps the crust gave way and I fell back into thigh deep snow. Now, every time the crust broke and I broke through I was convinced that I would fall into a deep crevasse. After four days going up and one down I was understandably exhausted and very, very scared.

I sat in the snow watching a truly spectacular sunset paint nearby peaks while trying for about half an hour to get Mal, or anyone, on the radio without success. I gave up and prepared for a very lonely and cold night out in the elements alone. Survival is not guaranteed when outside overnight on big hills, even inside our highest camp with four people crammed into one tent we recorded minus twenty-eight degrees. Finally Mal, who unknown to me, had been trying to follow my progress visually without success, turned on the radio and we had a crackly conversation:

“Ben, you there? Do you copy Ben?”

“Mal, when is Phemba coming down? I’m a bit off the track and in some pretty deep snow…”

“Um …. it appears that Phemba is not coming down tonight bro … Can you manage your way back to the track and come back up?”

“%^**….$%^^% – I’ll try man….”

I turned off my radio to save batteries and backtracked, comforted that Mal was now aware of my predicament.

‘Thou will always consider the other person on line’

Mal grew increasingly concerned at my lack of radio contact and decided to send Sidi Mama (our other climbing sherpa) down to get me. In my own little world of pain I did not consider Mal and had not even turned on my headlight in the dusk light. I did not have the presence of mind to realize that a bright light on my head may help both Mal and Sidi to find me. Finally back on the trail I was met by Sidi who aided a very exhausted (emotionally and physically) me down towards camp two.

When Sidi reached me I still had not thought to turn on my headlight or radio and all that Mal could see was a lone headlight (which he knew was Sidi’s) going down to camp two. With the limited knowledge available to him Mal grew concerned that I had fallen into a deep crevasse and was in real trouble so he started quickly preparing his gear for a rescue. Finally down at camp two Sidi thought to radio Mal;

“Mal, this is Sidi – Ben and I are now are C2″

“Whew, thank F#$K, goodnight”

Sidi and I had a very cold, hungry night under a single sleeping bag at camp two. I was more than happy to only be a bit cold but in good company. When Mal came down to the following day he spotted the tracks from my little adventure and commented on how close to the trail I was. This brought home just how easy it is to get confused and scared when at altitude and beyond tired. Next time I’ll just stay at camp and drink a cup of tea. Lesson learnt.

Mal’s finance Sophie was stationed at bast camp where she radioed us weather reports and updated the expedition website (www.speedfly8000.com) with information, she also kindly offered to send Mum, Dad and Jette personal emails of our progress to keep everyone in the loop. During our descent Sophie was kept very busy retrieving useful weather information for us and with monitoring progress so for the two days of our descent she did not have a chance to contact the outside world with an update.

When I did arrive at base camp and despite telling her I would only ever email, the first thing I wanted to do was to call my normally unflappable girlfriend. At the time of my call she had not had any news for two sleepless nights and was at a conference, it is kind of ironic that the conference was about her employer’s safety protocols. Jette sat next to a mountain climber who spent the entire morning gleefully telling her countless stories of missions gone wrong on descent and with ensuring she was fully conversant with the fact that descent is the most dangerous part of a climb. Right before she had to do a role play about the dangers of staplers her phone rang and displayed “Manaslu Emergency Phone” Understandably concerned Jette grabbed her phone and ran into the hallway. This is where I managed to unwittingly upset her further. ‘Your voice changes at altitude’

Standing beside my tent at base camp I had bad reception and my voice was different due to exhaustion, altitude and emotion. Mostly my voice was unrecognizable due to a recalcitrant tongue. Numerous blood noses caused by the thin, very dry air had blocked my nose and forced me to mouth breath while climbing. With UV’s flooding in my mouth my tongue had become sunburnt and was swollen, red and sore. I sounded like a patient after root canal surgery. She did not recognize the voice that repeatedly asked;

“Is this Jette?”

I could not recognize the voice squeaking

“Who is this?”. Finally I managed to convince Jette that it was really me calling with good news of a successful climb. Lesson learnt.

The last communication lesson was not a first hand one. My sister Mel was relying on both our expedition website and on Mum for news. She had noted no updates for a few days during our ascent and had emailed Mum asking for news of her little brother. A day after sending this email Mel received the following message;

“I am at Kathmandu, call me now”

Mel immediately assumed the worst, picturing Mum in Kathmandu weeping over my corpse she found a teaching aide and left her classroom quickly to contact Mum. When Mum picked up she asked Mel,

“What size is your son wearing these days?”

“Why are you in Kathmandu? What has happened! Is Ben OK?”

“What, Yeah, I am just buying your kids some clothes, what size does Ameer take now?”

“Oh…thank F#$K, Kathmandu, the clothing shop, yeah?”

“Yeah, where else?”

‘Thou will never assume the worst’

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