Evacuation From The Base Of Everest
Adventure Magazine|April 2020
Interview with Robert Bruce
Last issue we talked to Robert Bruce, founder of the adventure group Got to Get Out, who'd just completed his fourth group trek to Nepal, this time to Everest Base Camp (EBC). With 30 mostly Kiwis (or people with strong NZ connections) they headed into the Nepal winter enduring temperatures of -20 to -40, while we enjoyed the NZ summer.

As leader of this large group, Rob learned the hard way no matter how prepared you are, at altitude there's always a chance that things can go wrong. He shares what it was like arranging an emergency evac from the foot of Mt Everest..

Some guests got altitude sickness, tell us about that? What happens up high?

Altitude sickness is an unfortunate reality of trekking at altitude, and despite EBC being considered relatively 'easy' by some, it should not be underestimated. I've done EBC three times now as well as Annapurna Circuit trek in Nepal, and I can confirm the risks are real. Trekkers to EBC are climbing five hundred or more vertical meters a day for up to eight hour a day, for fifteen days (there and back). With reduced hygiene facilities, extreme cold in winter, unusual foods and fatigue added in.. there's certainly a risk of altitude sickness, as I have now experienced first-hand.

How had you prepared your guests for altitude sickness?

I must start this answer by saying that in my opinion our group of trekkers were highly prepared for this trip. Some of our precautions included pre departure meetings and many emails discussing gear list, medical needs, likely temperatures, what to bring and how to train. I shared links to information like blogs and videos, and other useful tips to help get my guests ready for nearly three weeks in a third world country, in the middle of winter. In-Nepal when we were all together for the first time, we held a huge group briefing with our expert local guides, recapping the route, discussing how to pack, and basically sharing what to expect in their adventure ahead. During the trek itself I hosted daily check-ins with the whole group, providing significant support to anyone feeling unwell or offering to lighten loads.

I believe guests knew full-well the chance of getting ill from altitude sickness, and what symptoms to look for (in themselves, and others). I feel they also knew what would happen if the guides or I deemed them too unwell to continue ascending or descending.. Our trained Nepalese guides from a leading Nepal-based trekking company have hundreds of EBC (and other Himalayan) treks under their belts and knew what to look for in terms of identifying altitude sickness. Though, it should be noted a mountain guide from most trekking company’s, as far as I am aware, is not the same as an alpine doctor, so they are not mandated to provide medical care per se, only to identify sickness and act on this by arranging help or sending someone home.

What is altitude sickness?

In simple terms, as a human ascends higher in altitude, there is less oxygen in the air so people need to breath harder, more often, to get the same amount of oxygen into their blood as at ground level – it gets increasingly harder to perform both physically and mentally the higher up a mountain you ascend. The effects of less oxygen can be alleviated with ‘acclimatization’ days whereby you ‘climb high and sleep low’, though, in general, descending is the best / only way to improve your health quickly, if you start getting ill.

Some of the main (early) symptoms of altitude sickness include;

Loss of appetite

Headache

Nausea

Fatigue

Coughing

High heart rate

Low blood oxygenation.

If left untreated or if a patient does not descend fast enough, these early symptoms above can eventually become quite serious altitude sicknesses like HACE (high altitude cerebral edema) or HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema. Over the years many climbers and trekkers including those to the relatively low level of EBC (when compared to climbing a Himalayan summit, let alone Mt Everest) who continued upwards instead of heeding the warnings, have become very ill and some have sadly even died. So altitude sickness is a serious matter for trekkers in the region, and everyone on the Got To Get Out trek knew of these risks, and understood they would be sent ‘down’, if they got too sick

How did you deal with altitude sickness of guests?

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