Robert Ferguson, trustee of Explorers Against Extinction the conservation charity supported by PureTravel, remembers his Himalayan battles with thin air and thin ice.
It’s almost impossible to explain to someone whose never been up at high altitude what its like to be at high altitude. Thin air. How does someone compare something thats invisible and all around them with something somewhere they’ve never experienced?
Imagine standing up right now, wherever you are, and taking ten slow steps across the room/garden/library/bar. (If you’re in the restroom, probably best to imagine those steps.) Now try and remember the last time you were truly out of breath. The panting, hands on knees kind of out of breath. Perhaps you’d just finished at the gym or returned from a run. Or chased a bus down the street ot train down a platform. Now put the two together; 10 slow paces and a pounding heart, sucking air into lungs. Thats what thin air is like.
My first trip to altitude was on a climb in Nepal when I was 18. Chulu East in the Annapurna Range is an easy 6,000 metre peak and I was young and fit. I was with great guides and some experienced climbers. The world and its challenges seemed easy. Of course we had acclimatised during our walk in and I had noticed that my heart was beating strongly and breathing was harder than usual but our sirdar (head sherpa) set a slow, steady pace with plenty of breaks that mitigated the worst of it.
We spent the night before the summit at a high camp, leaving before first light in the very early hours. I dozed but woke after a hour needing to relieve myself, the consequence of drinking lots of fluids (easy to get dehydrated at altitude) and the diamox tablets we were taking, a diaretic to help prevent altitude sickness.
It was cold, in the vicinity of -20 degrees. I took my hands out of my glove inners and undid the toggle of my fleece liner, wriggling my hands out to undo my inner sleeping bag. Next I undid the outer bag and extracated myself from them all. I crawled over my two tent companions to the tent flap and undid the inner and outer zips. I pulled on my boot outers over the thermal inners I’d been wearing and hauled myself to my feet.
Before I could wander off to relieve myself I had to stop, hands on knees to catch my breath. My heart was beating so fast and strongly the sound of rushing blood was deafening in my ears. I was panting so hard that the clouds of vapour it became as it hit the cold night air were hitting the ground and forming ice crystals on my boots. 10 seconds later I was fine, no pounding heart, no panting and I shuffled off to create another small stalagmite of wee that formed as the flow hit the freezing earth. Thats thin air.
The day of the breakthrough
A few years later I was descending Mera Peak in the Khumbu region of Nepal. Its a straight forward climb that rewards you with stunning views of both the High Himalayas and the plains far below. We’d set off early, climbed a small ice cliff that the glacier we were following had formed that year and crossed a large crevasse on set ladders. Lunch on the summit has been glorious, spoilt only my the fact that the boiled egg I’d been looking forward to had frozen sold.
It was late morning and we were about half way down to the snout of the glacier, where we would hit solid rock again. It had been hard going. The fierce high altitude sun was blazing down and the crust on the snow had softened, meaning that on every step we sank in up to our knees. Add in the thin air and the fact we were tied together on ropes made it hard going – every time you or another sank in you were yanked forward or back.
I remember trudging down the slope. I was second on the rope of three, awaiting my turn up front kicking the route. My mind had wandered, probably back to my boiled egg (have you ever tried sucking a boiled egg? Its hard.) My mind came back to the present as I felt snow and pressure on my crotch. For a second I thought I’d stumbled but then realised my legs were still both straight. I tentatively wiggled by feet and felt nothing but (thin) air.
With a squeaky, snowy whoosh I suddenly fell as the last frozen crytals of the snow crust gave way under the weight of my 80 kilos. Instantly I was hanging upside down in a crevasse. I hit out with my ice axe and on the second attempt got some purchase, enough for me to pull myself to a horizontal position and kick my crampons into the ice wall opposite.
I look up and see a small hole on the white ceiling above filled with the most brilliant blue. I’ve never appreciated the sky more than in that moment. The silouette of a head appeared, thick snow goggles reflecting light down at me so much they seemed to glow. “I’m OK”, I replied to their shouts into the black void. “I’m anchored”.
I waited what felt like hours but what was a matter of a minute as they anchored the rope on which I hung and to which they were tied, saving me from death. I looked around. It was beautiful. The walls of the crevasse shimmered pale blue all around me, capped with a steak of white where the snow had covered its opening. Below me, the light faded to a black void I tried not to look at but listened as fragments of ice and snow dislodged by my axe and crampons and the activities above fell into the darkness in a seemingly endless fall, tinkling and hissing away until I could no longer hear them.
With one hand I held the rope on which my life hung. I could feel the tension in it and me. The end of a new rope landed on me, a hoop tied in its end. I bent a knee and looped it over my boot . I yelled up for the slack to be taken in and once it went taut took a deep breath. Pulling your axe from the ice wall was hard as it felt like your only grasp to life but what else could you do? It came out and I grabbed the rope, the axe swinging free on its wrist loop. I was now hanging on the rope, like an orangutan on a rope in the zoo.
Another rope end, about 40 cm shorter that the first, appeared into which my other boot went. I pulled my weight up onto this and my colleagues (rescuers/heros) pulled the first rope up to 40 cm above that. So it continued until my head was in the snow and I felt my arms and shoulders being pulled into dazzling light.
I lay on the snow panting, dazzled by the brightness. I’d survived. I would get to eat my boiled egg back at base camp after all.
Give me thin air anytime.