Note: First published on September 8. We took this post down after only a few days as we had to spend much more time than originally expected in Kathmandu, not far from the tour company and guide in this story. We didn’t want to risk bumping into them if they ever read this. That could have been very awkward to say the least.
28/08/18-05/09/18 (nine days)
Distance hiked: 50km / 31mi
Start altitude: Lukla 2680m / 8,793ft
End altitude: Lobuche 4940m / 16,207ft
Base Camp altitude: 5,364m / 17,598ft
Note: This is another long read. I know it was only a few weeks ago that I put a novel-length blog post before you, but to do this story justice, I’ve had to do it again – apologies. I’ve also changed people’s names, as we don’t have solid proof of any wrongdoing, and without proof, it’s slander.
As you know, last week we started our twelve day Everest Base Camp trek. This was meant to be a treat to ourselves after surviving the mess in Russia. We actually borrowed money from our house fund to pay for it *slaps wrist*. Yet this turned out to be another hellish experience, which resulted in Dan being airlifted to hospital in Kathmandu – and it wasn’t for altitude sickness...
The first six days of the twelve day trek were excellent. We’d survived the ‘death flight’, were getting on well with your guide – let's call him Tony – and we were acclimatising well.
On top of all that, Sagarmatha National Park was beautiful. It was so good to have escaped the claustrophobic, dusty streets of Kathmandu. And since it was off-peak season, there were barely any other trekkers on the route. To give you an idea of how quiet it was, in 2017, 531 trekkers entered Sagarmatha Park in August, compared with 4,400 in September and 12,473 in October. It really was bliss.
Then it was day six.
Okay, so before I get into the drama, here are a few fun facts Tony told us, and some from an Everest book my Dad recommended I read. The book’s called Everest 1953: The Epic Story of the First Ascent by Mick Conefrey.
Locals in Nepal and Tibet, the two countries that Everest straddles, don’t actually call it Everest. The British named it after George Everest, a Welsh surveyor and geographer most famous for The Great Trigonometrical Survey. This was a project that measured the entire Indian subcontinent with scientific precision, including Himalayan giants like Everest and K2. This is when is was realised that Everest was the highest mountain in the world.
In Tibet, Everest is known as Chomolungma, which means goddess mother of the world. In Nepal, it is know by the Sanskrit name, Sagarmatha, which means peak of heaven.
In the West, we think of the word ‘Sherpa’ to mean guide, but it’s actually the name of the nomadic Tibetan people who reside in the Everest region. It’s living at this high altitude that makes Sherpa people excellent guides on Everest expeditions, as they’re used to the limited oxygen levels.
‘Himal’ in Nepali means mountain, and ‘Himalaya’ literally translates as mountain range
We were surprised to learn that the summiting of Everest was something of both national and political interest for the British, from the 1920s to the 1950s. It was even considered a British mountain, despite being thousands of kilometres away.
Ironically, after all the British effort, Everest was finally summited by New Zealander, Sir Edmund Hillary, and Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay. I will mention that in 1953, Kiwis were considered to be British, by themselves and the Brits. God bless colonialism.
Also, notice how Hillary was knighted, yet Norgay was not…
Some people believe that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, two British mountaineers, actually summited Everest in 1924. They were last seen around 800 vertical feet from the summit, before they disappeared. Mallory’s body was found in the same area in 1999.
Everest 1953 was a fascinating read, and a rather appropriate one – if not a little clichéd – while trekking to Base Camp. I highly recommend reading it.
Back to our climb.
Like I said, up to day six had been spot-on. Well, day six was supposed to be an acclimatising day in Pheriche. This is when you spend a day resting at the same altitude to fully acclimatise, before climbing higher. Tony was very insistent that we didn’t need this acclimatising day, despite us both feeling pretty rough the night before. He said that the other three trekkers that we kept seeing were heading up, and that we should do the same.
Look at the state of us. We felt pretty rough during the first night in Pheriche, but by lunchtime the following day, we were okay and proceeded to hike four hours to Lobuche, at Tony's request.
Now forgive me for sounding suspicious and accusatory in the proceeding paragraphs, but you have to understand, that while we were researching this trek, one thing kept popping up: the helicopter scam. Although we have no proof that something sinister took place up in the mountains, we can’t help but draw parallels between what happened to us and the stories we read on Guardian, The New York Times, The New Zealand Herald and World Nomads Insurance Blog, to name a few. Not to mention the endless threads on TripAdvisor.
By all means, read those articles, but in a nutshell, trekking agencies sell a trek at an impossibly cheap price, then make their profit – and then some – through a trekker's hospital insurance claim.
How do they get them to hospital? The main way is by rushing them up the mountain so they don't acclimatise properly, causing Acute Mountain Sickness. Then they coerce the trekker into getting a helicopter evacuation to a private hospital in Kathmandu. In more serious cases, a trekker's food is tempered with, most often with something like baking soda, which triggers severe sickness and diarrhoea. Again, resulting in a helicopter evacuation.
Once in Kathmandu, the helicopter company and hospital exaggerate events and overcharge the trekker's insurance company, and then everyone involved gets a splash of cash: hospital, helicopter company, trekking company, guide, tea house owner. Tick as applicable. It’s apparently so rife, insurance companies around the world are threatening to blacklist Nepal.
Although we knew about the scam before we started the trek, we were so convinced we’d be fine. For one, our trekking agency is well reviewed on Google and TripAdvisor. It was also recommended on some blogs we had read. And – and this is the big one – we hadn’t paid the undercut, impossible price of $500 each, which is the main reason for people committing this scam. We’d paid $1,100 each. My heart just sank again…
Anyway, back to it. We arrived in Lobuche after a tough 700m climb. We checked into a tea house – let’s call it Tony’s Mate’s House – which Tony later told Dan he wouldn’t normally stay at. Usually, he said, he stays at a much quieter tea house down the road, but had decided to stay here since everyone else was heading here, too. Who were we to question him?
Call me silly, but I’m a big believer in gut feelings and something about this place just did not feel okay from the get-go. The walls were littered with handwritten posters describing the dangerous affects of high altitude on the body. Of course, there were also posters advertising the fact that they can check your oxygen levels, sell you supplementary oxygen – and arrange a rescue flight… The first page of the food menu even advertised that they can arrange rescue flights.
It might be worth pointing out here that unlike the previous villages we had stayed in, where Sherpa communities have lived for hundreds of years, Lobuche and Gorak Shep (the final two settlements on the Base Camp trek) were solely set up for trekkers. Meaning they were set up to make money.
The tea house owner was also unlike any other tea house owner we had met, too. We never actually got his name, but let’s call him Terry. Terry was a big, burly Nepali man with a hard face. There was nothing friendly about him.
Our first interaction with Terry was around the dining room fire. This is when alarm bells started ringing. Everyone was sat there: me, Dan, Tony, the other three (solo) trekkers and their respective guides and porters. Terry made a long, impassioned speech to the guides and porters in Nepali. It was so long, us English speaking folk tuned out. Upon hearing the words ‘trekker’ and ‘helicopter’ repeated over and over again, I tuned back in. Terry didn't seem to mind that I was now staring right at him. I mentioned it to Dan and he said not to worry.
Terry never once spoke to us trekkers, except for when he shouted at Clover, a Canadian trekker, for letting her dinner get cold. He said that it was a very rude thing to do. She apologetically turned around and started eating, at which point he carried on talking at her, but in Nepali. He was such a rude man.
Dan ate his usual dal bhat, the meal he’d eaten for dinner every night since we started trekking –and even some lunches. Coincidently, myself and the other trekkers all ordered veg curry. Dan and I checked our oxygen levels and heart rate and we were both a-okay. We felt good.
Fast-forward to midnight. Dan had a sudden onset of sickness and diarrhoea. He rushed to the bathroom at the end of the corridor several times. I woke up around 3am to him violently puking into the bin at the end of his bed. He looked dreadful. Frustratingly, there wasn't much we could do at such an early hour, except to try and get some fluids into him.
At 6am, we went to see Tony in the dining room. He stressed how serious sickness and diarrhoea was at this altitude. He took Dan’s oxygen levels again, which were still very high. They actually remained high the whole time he was sick. He definitely had food poisoning, not altitude sickness.
After taking an anti-sickness tablet from Sarah, a Canadian ER doctor who was also staying at Tony’s Mate’s House, Dan decided to try and sleep it off. He also took one of our diarrhoea tablets and hydration sachets. I politely refused to take tablets from Tony.
By 11am, Dan was much worse. He now had painful stomach cramps as well as unrelenting bowel movements. I decided to get Tony to see what our options were. I didn’t want to have the the conversation in front of Terry, so asked Tony to come to our room.
Tony took one look at Dan and said he looked very weak and should be evacuated. We had no choice but to agree. To be fair, Dan was in a really bad way and people often take days to recover from food poisoning. We really didn’t have much choice. Tony went to arrange a helicopter evacuation.
We were slightly concerned that our insurance wouldn’t cover a helicopter evacuation. We had bought a twelve-month policy with the sole focus of cycle touring. Yes, it covered medical up to 6000m, but did that include a helicopter?
When Tony reappeared, he said the helicopter would be with us within ninety minutes. He also assured us that our insurance would cover it, as the owner of the trekking company – let's call him Tom – had spoken to them directly. He said if they didn't, Tom had kindly offered to pay for half of the helicopter fare.
Sadly, Dan's ride to safety only made it to Lukla – the beginning of the trek – before the weather took a turn for the worse, forcing it to ground. The helicopter didn't reach us at Lobuche until the following morning.
To say that afternoon and evening, stuck in Lobuche, were extremely distressing would be an understatement. Dan couldn’t keep water down, never mind food. He had painful stomach cramps and couldn’t rest. We had no phone signal and there was no WiFi available. And we were at the mercy of people whose agenda I was questioning. During the night, Dan did pick up ever-so slightly. He managed a rehydration sachet and the sickness and diarrhoea stopped. I was like a woman possessed watching over him that night. In my delirious state, I’d convinced myself that something else was going to happen to Dan, so that we didn't cancel the helicopter. It was horrible.
The next day, the helicopter arrived at 7.30am. Terry was waiting for it, of course. When it landed, he shook hands with the pilot and retrieved several large parcels from the back seats. Then he ushered us to board. Now if that doesn’t scream scam, I don’t know what does.
After first flying to Lukla for fuel, we headed to Kathmandu Airport. When we landed, there was an ambulance waiting to take Dan to the hospital. As it turned out, the hospital we were taken to happened to be the same one that appears in several of the articles. It’s also been blacklisted by World Nomads insurance.
At the hospital, Dan was feeling much better, just a little nauseous and very weak. He was taken for an x-ray, ultrasound and had blood, stool and urine tests done, before being plugged into an IV drip. Yup, I know what you’re thinking, an x-ray, for food poisoning? I had the exact same question for the doctor. In fact, I questioned everything they did – suspicion got the better of me I guess. Is that a new needle? What drug is that? Why is that IV yellow? Dan ended up telling me to pipe down.
Hospital staff asked for Dan's passport. I refused to give it to them. We’d read in some cases, hospitals had kept passports for days, even when patients had been discharged, for ‘insurance purposes’. Rather than hand it over, I emailed a scan of Dan’s passport and wrote out our insurance details.
I called our insurance company within one hour of arriving at the hospital. They had already heard from the hospital and trekking company and a claims case had been set up for Dan. I just had to confirm a few details of the incident. The guy I spoke to assured me that they would take care of everything from here and that we didn’t need to worry.
Tony had accompanied us to the hospital and when he came to say an awkward goodbye, we felt obliged to give him the 10% tip we had been carrying around for him, despite only completing six of the twelve days. Tom came to visit, too.
Initially, we suspected it was all Terry the tea house owner. He'd been in charge of the food. He'd picked up that delivery. He was the one I had a bad feeling about. But we came to realise something in the hospital, which was very worrying indeed...
During the trek, I'd asked Tony for a paracetamol, as we had forgot to bring some. He handed me your standard paracetamol tablet. Later, when Dan asked for one, it was different, but he was so sick, he never questioned it. Tony offered to leave one with me for Dan, the night we were stuck up the mountain. He tried to give me the tablet bare, but I insisted on taking the packet. He never got the packet back and Dan never needed to take one. When I checked what they were in the hospital, they weren't paracetamol; they were nimesulide tablets.
Now I'm no expert, but a quick Google of nimesulide shows that it's not paracetamol. It's actually an an anti-inflammatory used to treat acute pain associated with osteoarthritis and menstruation. Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't you need to take anti-inflammatories with food? Dan definitely didn't have anything in his stomach. Also, common side effects of nimesulide include stomach acid, cramps, dizziness and nausea and vomiting. It's also been withdrawn from several markets, including the UK, due to concerns about the risk of liver toxicity.
We didn't trust anyone at this point. I know Tom had offered to pay for half of the helicopter... but he'd also spoken to our insurance company and knew they were going to cover it. Tony had seemed like a top guy during the trek and he genuinely looked worried about Dan the night we were stuck up the mountain... but he gave Dan medicine that could have, and maybe did, make him worse. And, if you remember, he'd pushed us not to have our second acclimatising day in Pheriche.
Dan had to stay in the hospital overnight and thankfully I could stay with him. He managed to eat a little and felt a lot better come morning. They woke him up at 6.30am for his dose of antibiotics. Yup, same thought: why did he need antibiotics when they never found any trace of a bacterial infection in his stool or blood.
The doctor checked his oxygen and heart rate once more before saying that Dan would be discharged today. Although, he said, it'll likely be late afternoon after they had spoken to our insurance. Wait what? If Dan is well enough to leave, he should be able to leave now, not after you have spoken to our insurance company. We have nothing to do with that now. The doctor had no response to my question. He simply said he would be back at 11am with an answer.
At 9am, another member of staff came to see us and said he understood that we were ready to leave. Erm, yeah, your doctor said Dan was well enough to be discharged. He also tried to fob us off with some insurance nonsense. I explained, that if they could please prepare Dan's discharge forms, we would leave at 10am. Thank you very much.
Just before 10am, a nurse came in to offer us a lunch order. No thanks, we’re leaving soon. Another nurse came in to offer Dan an anti-sickness tablet. No thanks, he hadn’t felt sick since the previous evening. At 10am, we left the room, which I’d actually been scolded for doing the previous day when I went to find a nurse.
In reception we asked for the remaining antibiotics (he has to finish the course he started). They seemed to be doing everything in their power to keep us, but ultimately, they had no right. They also offered us a ride to our hotel. We politely refused. We did not want anyone knowing where we were staying. Maybe the lack of sleep and stress was sending us loopy, but the whole situation just didn’t feel safe.
Outside, we flagged down a taxi – Dan felt well enough to barter will the guy – and headed to a hotel in town. We’ll now spend a few days resting up. Although Dan feels better, he’s drained and exhausted. We’ll get a few big meals in him and plan our next move. Maybe we were unlucky and got scammed; maybe it was all a huge coincidence. Either way, we won't let it spoil Nepal for us. The Slow Race will continue cycling to India.
Let’s not end on a dull note. Here’s something that’ll make you giggle; it had us in tears of laughter in the cafe…