Today was our last rest day before our push to Everest Base Camp and the summit of Kala Pattar. I awoke early with my roommate Jeff and we went for an early morning walk to take pictures of the surrounding mountains. Due to the season and the weather, the mountains tend to be clear in the morning but quickly cloud over. So, getting out of bed at 5:30am in the cold was a necessity for us to enjoy the vista – and what a vista it was. Pheriche is in a valley surrounded by mountains – the most impressive of which is Cho Oyu, the 6th highest peak in the world, off in the distance. From Pheriche one cannot see Everest – but we know it looms over the hills that surround the valley.
This morning Jeff and I went on our acclimatization hike and we managed to get up to 14,600 feet (4450m) on an outlook overlooking the Pheriche Valley. As I noted yesterday, acclimatization hikes are crucial to get used to altitude. A lot of people do not realize this, but most climbers that summit Everest have actually climbed the mountain many times over. Indeed, one they reach Camp One, they go up to Camp Two several times and come back. Then, when they finally move to Camp Two they repeat this process with Camp Three, and then Camp Four, unit they finally make a summit attempt – weather and altitude issues permitting of course.
This afternoon was our last big data collection session – all teams were in gear with most of them collecting their last data. My team will collect one last data set – at Base Camp. Yes, the Krigolson Lab will be setting up shop at Everest Base Camp and collecting a full set of EEG data at 17,598 feet. Tomorrow however, we climb to Lobuche, it is not very far distance wise but we will be ascending almost 2300 feet (700 m) and it will be a slow, hard day. There is also a strong chance that a lot of people will finally succumb to altitude sickness as we will be sleeping at 16,210 feet (4,940 m). As our team leader, Trevor Day says, tomorrow it is going to "get real".
Today we left Tengboche for Pheriche, a net gain of 1350 feet (or about 415 m). Our trek initially took us down from Tengboche through a wooded valley and wound along a scenic river. After crossing yet another bridge, we began the long slow climb to Pheriche. The journey is always up – we are heading to 18,513 feet (5643 m) and the summit of Kala Pattar and thus we will be climbing for the next few days. Eventually, the we left the tree line as we are now too high and the landscape turned very barren. We hit our daily summit of an unnamed peak at 14,107 feet (4300 m) and then descended down into Pheriche.
There is not a lot in Pheriche – the town only exists as a midpoint on the route to Base Camp. Indeed, most of the towns in this region are uninhabited for most of the year and are only open during the trekking and climbing seasons. Shortly after we arrived we attended a session at the Pheriche Aid Post about Acute Mountain Sickness. We all laugh as they walk us through the symptoms as we have all experienced some of them. Trekking at altitude basically means you are sick or sore each and every day. The pounding on knees, ankles, and muscles is relentless from the trail. We are fighting all forms of illness as our Western diets are unused to the local food and water. On top of all this, altitude plays havoc with our systems. All of us are taking Tylenol, Ibuprofen, and other medicine on a regular basis.
Tomorrow is a rest day to acclimatize and we will follow the advice of the doctor at the Aid Post, we will complete an acclimatization hike up to 15,750 feet to expose out systems to this altitude but we will return to Pheriche for an afternoon of research testing and sleep. The general rule at altitude when trying to acclimatize it to climb high and sleep low. This we will do tomorrow. So far, our trip has been an amazing success. We have collected EEG data from 27 monks and we have collected altitude data at 4 different altitudes, and we will collect data here in Pheriche tomorrow and in a few days at Everest Base Camp. To my knowledge, the most comprehensive study of brain function done with EEG to date.
Our team wakes up just before 6am everyday to do “resting measures” for the physiological research – but today it was not quite as bad as usual as we awoke to a view of Mount Everest out our window. It is amazing to be so close to the tallest mountain in the world. My research team is not involved in the resting measures research – the resting measures research is being done by one of the physiology teams and is looking at blood oxygenation and other factors that are affected by altitude. Their setup is quite impressive and the other guests in the lodge are not sure what we are up to.
The highlight of the day, and possibly, the trip was a helicopter flight around the valley that included a flyby of Mount Everest. The summit itself was covered in cloud by the time of our flight but we had an excellent view of Base Camp and the infamous Khumbu icefall – which has killed almost as many climbers as summit attempts have. Base Camp looks like more of a city that a collection of tents – the size of the camp is astounding. The helicopter took us through mountain passes and we had amazing views of all of the famous surrounding peaks such as Pumori, Lhose, Ama Dablam, and of course Everest.
When we got back we went right to the Tengboche Monastery – our time to film and collect some data there had arrived. The monastery is impressive – it is the largest monastery in the area and it is obviously old. The monastery is filled with all of the trappings that one would expect but filming and photography is quite limited and our entry was delayed until we provided a sizeable donation to the monastery. However, soon we were in and we were able to collect data from two Buddhist Monks during meditation.
Tomorrow, we head for Pheriche, a gain of another 1300 feet (400m) to bring us up to 14,340 feet (4,371 m). There we will collect more altitude data and have another rest day to acclimatize before we begin our final push up to Base Camp and the summit of Kala Pattar.
Today we left Namche for Tengboche, a long day as we faced a 6.5 hour trek with a 600m vertical ascent at the end to rise into Tengboche. It is hard to explain but these tiny trails are the road system of this Kumbu region of Nepal. Literally, there are no roads into this part of Nepal – everything is carried in by yak, donkey, or porter. The porters are amazing – they carry up to 220 pounds (100 kg) on their back up these trails. And the trails are tiny – and steep – and very rocky. We saw one porter today carrying sixteen 8 foot 4x4 poles. It is truly amazing.
Our trek winded down for most of the day and we had lunch at a nice restaurant at our halfway point. We continued down and crossed a river across another prayer flag covered bridge and then we began the ascent. Unfortunately, we had lost 200m over the first half of the day so we were faced with a 2.5 hour climb up 600m to Tengboche. But, we reached finally reached Tengboche at 12,716 feet (3876m). Tengboche is very small, there is only the lodge, a few stores, and the monastery which we will journey into tomorrow to conduct more of our monk EEG study. Our lodge is incredible on the outside but the inside – well…
We sat inside the lodge and relaxed and unwound after the hard climb. Our guides served us tea and cookies and we were happy to be here as tomorrow is a rest day. Suddenly, people began to stream outside – the wind was up and the mountains were coming into view. We had an incredible view of Ana Dablam to our right and then suddenly there it was – Mount Everest – off in the distance over the Nuptse and Lhotse ridges. We go to bed with our goal in sight.
Today was the first of three acclimatization rest days. When climbing to altitude, it is critical to acclimatize in order to avoid acute mountain sickness otherwise know as altitude sickness. Altitude sickness is brought about by the reduction of the partial pressure of oxygen at higher elevations and typically begins to occur above 8000 feet (we are now at 11286 feet). Symptoms range quite widely and can be as simple as a headache or a flu and increase in severity if one does not acclimatize properly. Last year in Peru I experienced altitude induced sleep apnea which is a wonderful little condition wherein you are exhausted but can only sleep for minutes at a time because you cannot catch your breath. And that is what it is all about really, trying to breathe at altitude. So, most climbers adopt a climbing profile that includes two key factors: a gain of not more than 2624 feet (800 m) in one day and rest days after ascents to acclimatize and let the body adapt to elevation. Climbers also take Diamox - which re-acidifies the blood and thus helps with hyper-ventilation. We are being very careful with our precautions as careless climbers have died from altitude sickness.
At lunch time we had a visit from four more Buddhist Monks and we tested them again examining their neural response to our cognitive assessment task and the EEG pattern of their meditation states. So far we have tested 15 expert monks and 10 novice monks and we hope to test a few more at Tengboche tomorrow and on our rest day there.
We are also continuing our high altitude research and today we will test the research team again to see whether or not their neural responses to our various tasks have been impacted by altitude. It stands to reason that they will, people are reporting minor symptoms of altitude sickness and we have all noticed that at times we are not as sharp as we usually are. Just this morning it took me a bit longer than usual to remember the passcode to my phone!
The rest of our rest day was spent wandering Namche and resting for the ascent to Tengboche tomorrow morning - we will be heading up another 1400 feet or so and we will be covering a greater physical distance. But, we laugh today and even managed to have a bit of fun at the local bakery! (pictured is my co-investigator on these projects, Dr. Gord Binsted and my friend and Camino companion Jeff Zala who joined us on this adventure)
A group of us began the day early - we were off to Namche to collect EEG data from the Buddhist Monks at the monastery in Namche but we did not know when we would be able to work with them so we headed out for Namche at 7am leaving the main party behind to trek later. The path today was considerably less populated, especially in the later stages and was incredibly beautiful. Probably the only downside is we were ascending - a net gain of 1968 feet or 600 metres but we began the day heading down so the final climb up into Namche was considerably more than this. We crossed several spectacular bridges and there were some amazing viewpoints.
The climb was well worth it - Namche is an incredibly scenic town with breathtaking views located ona very steep slope. Namche is the traditional crossroads for trade routes between Nepal, Tibet, and India so it has been a regional centre for a long time.
The highlight of the day was our visit to the monastery. We were welcomed warmly and first sat and had tea and watched the monks study - the monastery here is only opened for punjas - or celebrations where the monks come from all over the region to study sacred scrolls.
Following tea, we were led into a special meditation room in the heart of the monastery where we set up our EEG systems and literally began to record the brain wave activity of expert and local monks while they meditated and completed one of our experimental tasks that assesses cognitive function. To say that the experience was amazing would be the greatest understatement of my life. We worked with the monks for 6 hours and when it was time to leave we were all given the traditional khata - or ceremonial scarf by the head monk of the monastery. I left with tears in my eyes feeling blessed not just to be able to conduct such cool research but simply to have come to such an amazing place.
Tomorrow, we hope to work with the monks some more on our rest day to acclimatize in Namche and also collect some more altitude data, we are 11286 feet (3440 m) after all!
Today started at 5am - an early wakeup call to head to the airport for the flight to Lukla. We all had a bit of a case of nerves. We have all heard of Lukla - home of the Tenzing-Hillary airport which has been proclaimed "the most dangerous airport in the world". The airport is chaos and thankfully our Sherpa guide is there to help us navigate it. We are not there for long before we are taken out to our plane - a small 10 seaters specially designed to land on the short mountain runway at Lukla.
The flight to Lukla is surprisingly short (35 minutes) and is very smooth - however, we know what lies ahead. The reason Lukla is so dangerous is due to several factors. First, and foremost, once the pilot commits to land there is no room to go around - he must put the plane onto the runway as to turn to either direction would result in a crash into the steeply sloped surrounding hillsides. Second, if the pilot lands short - he will hit the cliff face that slopes up to the edge of the runway. Third, if he lands long then he will crash into the cliff wall at the end of the runway. To top it all off, fourth, there is no control tower at Lukla - pilots land the plane with no radio contact with the ground. The runway appears as a speck in the distance and it seems impossible that we can land there - but we do and thump hard onto the ground. Another quirk of the runway at Lukla - it is sloped steeply upward to assist in slowing down landing planes and speeding up planes that are taking off.
We are stuck waiting in Lukla for several hours - due to the size of the planes our team and baggage is split across three planes. However, eventually we are all gathered and ready to go - a "short" seven hour trek to Mongu where we spend the night. We spend the first half of the trek descending down into the valley that we will eventually climb up at the far end. The trail is surprisingly busy on the road to Namache - a large market town where we will begin the monk EEG project. The trail is busy with trekkers, guides, porters, locals and - yaks and donkeys. There are no roads here so a lot of supplies are brought in by yak and donkey and trekkers do not want to be on the trail when the animals go by. The trail is also quite populated - the gaps between tea houses and towns are quite short and there are actually very few long stretches where one cannot see signs of civilization - but we know this will change when we get higher. After a long, hard climb we reach Monju, where we spend the night in a really nice lodge. A warm shower is had, we unpack, and sit down for our first dinner on the trail.
Today we continued our data collection. Essentially, we are planning to collect our EEG data at several different altitudes but we intend to use Kathmandu as our baseline for comparison. Are "participants" - the research team - will complete tasks that will specifically measure activity within the prefrontal cortex, their learning and decision system, and general brain function.
Wednesday was also a day of last minute shopping, tomorrow we head for the mountains and we begin our ascent. Many are worried that they are missing gear and we frantically shop for essential ingredients for high altitude - ibuprofen and Tylenol to deal with aches and headaches for instance. Kathmandu is famous for "knock offs" - I buy a 95L Northface duffel for the equivalent of 20 Canadian dollars, but this bag is only for storage of gear I will not be taking up the mountain as I am not convinced it is actually waterproof.
We go to bed with conflicting emotions - excitement as we start our ascent in the morning and no small amount of fear for our flight into "the worlds most dangerous airport" - the Tenzing Hillary airport at Lukla.
We awoke our second day hot and tired – the jet lag from coming right around the world is bad and the 12 hour time changes has our internal clocks in disarray. Couple that with the power failures which kept our fan off for most of the night and it is honest to say it was not the best sleep I have ever had.
The morning was free so a group of decided to walk to the Monkey Temple which has recently been restored and reopened after the damage it suffered during the earthquake last year. The streets are chaotic and dodging cars and motorcycles is a dangerous game that you have to play as there are very few sidewalks. The heat is oppressive and the 45 minute walk has us sweaty and tired.
The Monkey Temple sits on a hill and the impressively steep staircase up to it is an excellent foreshadowing of our coming ascent. You are continually approached by people in Nepal trying to sell you something and everything you can imagine is for sale. We fought our way past the “guides” for hire and began the steep climb up to the temple. It was quickly apparent where the name came from – there were monkeys everywhere!
The temple was impressive. It was clearly very old and it definitely made me feel like I was in Asia. We wandered the temple for half an hour as it was not very big then began the trek back to our accommodation. Signs of the earthquake were all around as there were numerous collapsed and damaged buildings along our route. The poverty is almost overwhelming and it would be safe to Kathmandu is not the cleanest city I have ever been in – we are all concerned about dysentery and hand sanitizer is used frequently.
We spent the afternoon collecting our first baseline data – an assessment of learning and decision-making systems in the brain at low elevation. Our team is keen to help and things went relatively smoothly. I am also realizing that field research is not easy and problems crop up that at home would be trivial – for example the power outages make it very difficult to charge our equipment and we spent a good part of the afternoon reorganizing our testing schedule. With that said, we have collected our first data set.
The day ends with a team dinner at the hotel restaurant and curry that redefined the word “spicy”. A team briefing from a mountain doctor gets our attention as he clearly outlines the danger of acute mountain sickness, dysentery, and the yaks that we will encounter on the trail up to Base Camp.
We head to bed early as the exhaustion of travel and the heat has worn us down and sleep will be the only cure.
Our arrival into Kathmandu was exciting before we even touched down - our plane had to do an emergency go around when we were only 100 feet off of the ground. Upon leaving the plane I was immediately hit by the heat - it was impressive - 30 degrees and very humid. The airport was an exercise in controlled confusion - visitors to Nepal require a visa that one gets at the airport but we were unsure of the process. Eventually, for 40 US dollars we were allowed in.
Outside the airport we were met by our guide, Nima Sherpa. The interesting part of our trip to the van was fighting off the scores of people who were trying to carry our bags for us for money. The drive in was chaotic - our van was brushed twice by other cars and the traffic was incredible. We arrived at our accommodation, the Kathmandu guest house where Sir Edmund Hillary stayed before his successful summit bid in 1953. The hotel is a UNESCO world heritage site and quite beautiful. Our team assembled for a beer and dinner and the food was delicious. Everyone was thankful given that some of us had been in transit for close to 40 hours
Our team meeting had a buzz of excitement. Trevor Day, our team leader know Nepal well and he is organized and prepared. Our lead Sherpa, Nima, has expertise than cannot be questioned - he summited Everest in 2009. Everyone is ready to start heading up be are here in Kathmandu for a few days to collect baseline data and recover from the journey.
We end the evening discussing some of the quirks of Kathmandu that we have already experienced - for example, the power in the hotel is only on 10 hours a day on average - a consequence of last years earthquake. The wifi is fades in and out on a regular basis. And signs of the physical devastation brought about by the earthquake are everywhere.
We head to bed exhausted but looking forward to tomorrow so we can begin to explore the city.