That time I died?
I hesitate to write this article for fear that someone in my family will stumble across it, and realize how seemingly dangerous my life is... But I think it will be worth sharing if not for the interesting strangeness of the event, at least as some type of warning to the dangers of altitude sickness/Acute Mountain Sickness, HAPE and HACE.
Let me set up the story:
I was born and raised in Wisconsin, elevation 800 feet...
I got on a flight leaving Wisconsin, and 4 flights later I landed in Kathmandu Nepal (4,593 feet) I slept downtown the day I landed, and got on the first flight out to Lukla the next morning (elevation 9,383 feet) I got off the tiny 2 propeller plane which landed on a small, slanted runway (more like a glorified driveway), grabbed my 40 pound backpack and immediately began my upward hike to Mount Everest.
Swiftly I marched up and through the tallest mountains on Earth. Alone on the trail, I had no partner to hold me back, to keep me at a sane pace or to even keep my thoughts occupied on other things. It was just me and the trail, and my uncompromising will to power forward as fast as my legs could take me. (After 6 years in the army as a cav scout, I was quite good at hiking fast) A few things motivated my un-advised speed. 1: I was too poor to stay in Nepal for longer than necessary, I only had so much Nepalese cash left and therefore could only buy a limited amount of food. 2: My Nepal Visa was only good for 15 days as I had not opted for the 30 day visa (to save money..)
3: It was mostly my stubborn, unyielding motivation that made me view the Everest base camp trek as some kind of a race against time and my own self.
Anyway, my point is, that I was going really, really fast, and to make matters worse, I did this all without any 'rest-days.'
I had actually studied all the Wikipedia pages about altitude sickness, acclimatization, HACE and HAPE several times before I left the States, so I knew that what I was doing was dangerous, but again, refer to points 1, 2 and 3...
I hiked as fast as physically possible for 5 days straight, often without breaks, not even to eat.
To the surprise of no one, over these few days I gradually developed all the signs and symptoms of acute mountain sickness. These symptoms went from bad to worse, and eventually I became extremely altitude sick. I had every sign and symptom in the book.. I couldn't walk straight, I couldn't think straight, I couldn't eat, it was hard to breathe. To make matters more annoying, some of the blood vessels in my eyes were popping, leaving me with little blind spots here and there..
On the fifth day and 40 miles into my upward journey to Everest, I arrived at Gorak Shep, the last and highest village on the trek. (When I say 'village,' I mean 4 tea-houses in the middle of the towering Himalayas.)
I arrived at Gorak Shep late in the evening at the height of my sickness. I entered one of the houses like an outlaw in a western movie, pushing open the door and leaning against the door frame, hardly keeping my weary body upright. I hobbled over to a chair, sat down, tried to eat a bowl of rice, couldn't because I was too altitude sick. I was so sick, I could barely muster the strength to move and just stared at a wall for a solid 30 minutes, then wandered to my tiny, dark little room. The room was 50 paces from the single wood-burning stove (only source of heat). My room was also conveniently next to a swinging door with a crack three inches wide, open to the Himalayan wind and snow. The old wood door would blow open every time the wind raced through the mountains. I was really high up now, 16,942 feet (5,164m) and only a few miles from mount Everest.
I crawled into the little hand-made bed with literally all of my clothes on. I had my pants on, my T-shirt, long sleeve shirt, down jacket, Green Bay Packer hat tight around my head, scarf across my face with little hole for breathing and even my boots on and under the one blanket I acquired from some nice Sherpa dude I met earlier that night.. Through a little hole in my scarf and with my red headlamp shining like blood against the wall, I watched my breath billow out of my lungs into the darkness. I was extremely sick and weary as I laid there struggling for warmth.
(Being from Wisconsin, I am used to the cold. I have worked outside at night loading bags onto airplanes in winter winds of negative 45 degrees Fahrenheit (-42 Celsius). In college my friends and I would leave the heat off to save money, Colin had to type his papers with his winter jacket, scarf, hat and gloves on while we were inside our house lol. My point is, that I know what cold is, and this dark, damp little room was cold!!)
Eventually I fell asleep despite the cold and time passed as normal, no dreams no nothing, just regular sleep. A few hours later, around midnight or 1am, I started having a lucid dream.
(Lucid dreaming is again something I am familiar with, and actually spent many sleepless nights in college trying to get better at. In a lucid dream, your brain is essentially awake and aware of the fact that you are dreaming. You have some control over what happens in your dream, and you can essentially wake up whenever you want at that point if you decide to. Usually mine are really fun and involve driving Ferraris)
The lucid dream I was having at Gorak Shep was different. This Lucid dream was NOT fun.
This was perhaps the most lucid I have ever been in a dream. I was 100 percent aware of the fact that I was dreaming. I was 100 percent cognizant of the situation, where I was, what I felt like and what I wanted.. I wanted to wake up.
This dream was different. I wasn't in some La-La land, driving around in a red Ferrari California with a buxom beauty by my side, no.
I was hovering 10 feet over my body. Staring at myself like one looking into a mirror. I was floating there in that dark, musty, cold room, exactly as the room appears in real life.
I was floating over my own body, staring at my closed eyes from above, Lucid as I have ever been. Fully aware of the fact that I was dreaming, the only desire I had was to wake up... But I couldn't.
From my position above the bed looking down I was screaming to my sleeping-self, "Wake up!" "Wake up!!" "WAKE UP!!!" But I could not wake up.
My fear and darkness seemed to grow tangibly in the room around my two bodies as I yelled from above.
One last time I screamed to my body below, "WAKE UP!!!!!" and my body jolted upright, the words "WAKE UP!" shouting out of my real mouth, in my real bed, in the pitch darkness.. I was awake. Finally.
I had probably woke most of the Sherpa in that tea house but I was just happy just to be awake.
Was this a dream? Was I dying? Was I kinda, half dead?
If I had to make an educated, quasi-scientific guess, I would say I was in some kind of a coma for that couple minutes as I lay there in that bed.
I woke up the next day, powered though my pain and arrived at the foot of the tallest mountain in the world. Watching the single, ghost-like cloud whisp over the black diamond of rock that makes up the summit of Mount Everest. I stood there. On the brink of total body shut-down, I stood there in the snow motionless for an hour. The sun glowed warm upon my face, the wind was absent, other people were nowhere to be seen. It was the most surreal experience of my entire life. This moment mimicked the out of body experience I had the night prior but with reversed feeling. I was not fearful, I was not in darkness, I was in control. My soul received consciousness in this moment regardless of whether or not my body was alive to notice.
After base camp I high-tailed it back to lower elevations, feeling better with every lower step. I eventually made it back to Lukla and to my bed at 800 feet of elevation in Wisconsin. A few weeks and a lot of protein later, my body was almost back to normal but with a sense of appreciation and bodhi.
If you are planning a trek to Everest Base Camp, I think the moral of the story is... take rest days 🙂