Nepal and the Trip of a Lifetime
May 2015 – Reminiscing on the trip of a lifetime.
My heart goes out to Nepal and the devastation, tragedy, and loss of life they face.
Twelve months ago, I was there – just about one year ago I broke in my hiking boots, wore them to work into the laboratory, got a whole range of shots from the Department of Health, had bought my subzero sleeping bag and was proudly carrying around a light-weight trekking pole. I was ready to depart on a flight to Katmandu: ready to slowly trek through the Himalayas allowing my body to acclimate to the elevation of base camp Mt. Everest.
Once there we were going to spend one night in a tent and then begin the world’s highest marathon downhill – at an elevation of 5300m (17,800 ft).
My fascination with Mt Everest began as a child when Reinhold Messner was the first to ascend without supplemental oxygen. It was in 1978 and I was 7 years old. Being able to get close enough to touch this tallest mountain on our planet and combining it at the same time with my love for long distance running seemed like a dream too good to be true.
As scientist studying pulmonary hypertension (PH) I have to model the disease using insulated chambers that maintain a low oxygen environment. In patients with PH we observe extensive remodeling of the blood vessels, eventually getting fully blocked and the patients thus chronically experience low oxygen levels. Having studied this disease for years, I always was curious about what it truly would feel like to breathe, but to breathe without actually getting the oxygen my body needed.
Dr. Benza, a cardiologist at Allegheny General, does a PH fundraising trip to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro every few years – reaching half of normal oxygen levels at its summit (10%; normal is 21%), and it had crossed my mind to see if I could once participate in their adventure. But when a friend forwarded me the advertisement for this world’s highest marathon – as a joke – I was hooked and ready to go.
The trip was well organized and included about 100 people, broken up into smaller groups of around 20 with sherpas carrying our luggage on their backs as we ascended. We reached Katmandu, our starting point.
Katmandu is a beautiful, crazy, loud, dusty, and fascinating city where cows lie in the middle of large busy streets with buses rushing passed them just an arm’s length away. Monkey’s hang out in the trees and everywhere is the tantalizing smell of what I call Indian food (truly Nepalese food).
The adventure continued with a short 1 hr flight into Lukla (3000m), one of the world’s top 10 most dangerous airports. From there we began our slow trek through the most beautiful mountain scenery ever imaginable. There are no cars in Lukla and once you fly in, the only way out – from any point really – is by foot or rescue helicopter.
While tourists do visit the Himalayas it is still a rather untouched part of the world for one simple reason: no access. The terrain is extremely rough and the higher you go the more hostile the environment becomes. Our two-week ascent took us from sunny 80F with green luscious views into snow and frozen glacier lakes at 15F with a sun burning onto us with an unreal intensity the higher we got.
This was not a luxury trip. With limitation in luggage weight and limited facilities, we were dirty and smelly and topping it all of with a marathon at the very end. We were told to expect to at least double our running time due to the terrain and lack of oxygen.
We all started in the morning at nine and I reached the finish line in the pitch black night. Need I say more…?
I will never forget this adventure – the openness and kindness of the people we met and my heart goes out to the disaster they are experiencing now.