Days 11-13: Pangboche to Lukla
Pikey Peak, Nepal
Day 11: Pangboche to Namche Bazaar
Ascent: 571 m
descent: 1116 m
Distance: 14 km
Elevation at Destination: 3440 m
My symptoms didn’t miraculously improve overnight. I had lost my voice, I was producing more snot and phlegm than I knew what to do with, a headache was beginning to develop, and I could barely nibble at the plain chapatti I ordered for breakfast. I knew I had no choice but to go down.
I hardly noticed any of the scenery on the entire journey back to Namche Bazaar. I completely zoned out and put all my effort into placing one foot in front of the other.The only photos I took were of a Himalayan tahr (mountain goat), which I never would have spotted if it wasn’t for the crowd that had gathered around as it stood on a rock high above our heads.
Going downhill was manageable; uphill was excruciating (the reverse of how I usually like my hills). To my dismay, there was a large, steep hill to climb in the middle of the day. No matter how slow I walked, I was gasping for breath. Other hikers overtook me continuously, a sight I was not accustomed to. By the time I plodded down the final hill into Namche, I was on my last legs.
After getting a little food into me, I went straight to bed. Despite the thermals, sleeping bag and thick blanket, I spent the next three hours shivering. The frequent coughing attacks were agonising, and just the act of rolling over in bed caused breathlessness. As exhausted as I was, I couldn't fall asleep.
I forced myself to venture down to the dining room for dinner, where I couldn't even finish a bowl of two-minute noodles. Sitting in front of the heater didn't help me to warm up, and I felt worse and worse the longer I stayed upright.
In the middle of the night I woke up sweating, necessitating the removal of several layers. An hour later I was freezing again, reversing the procedure. Coming down was clearly the correct call.
Day 12: Namche Bazaar to Phakding
Ascent: 250 m
descent: 1080 m
Distance: 11.2 km
Elevation at Destination: 2610 m
After a sleep in, I managed to force down a piece of chapati before hitting the trail. The first section was a long descent back down to the park entrance, which was good for my lungs. For the second time on this trip, I passed runners taking part in a trail race, all pushing up the hill at an unbelievably speedy rate. At least it provided a slight distraction from how unwell I was feeling.
Although there was only a relatively small amount of uphill today, each set of stairs brought my speed down to snail pace. Even the minimal incline at the end of a suspension bridge had me wheezing like an emphysema patient. As I continued on I could feel my energy draining, a result of two days of not enough calories. I stopped several times to refuel on sugary cans of juice, each time wondering if I would have the strength to get going again.
Pulling into my destination, Phakding, I managed to eat a plate of potatoes before taking the longest shower I've had in decades. Surprisingly, I didn't feel the need to go to bed in the afternoon. I was alert enough to sit up, read and use my phone without suffering from the usual exhaustion or shivering uncontrollably. The lower altitude must have agreed with me.
I managed to finish my entire dinner tonight but immediately felt sick afterwards. The hacking cough had not improved, my nose still ran like a tap and the laboured breathing continued. I guess my health still had a long way to go.
Day 13: Phakding to Lukla
Ascent: 428 m
descent: 178 m
Distance: 7.8 km
Elevation at Destination: 2860 m
My appetite had returned, but my stomach wasn't happy about eating full meals again. Even a small bowl of cereal was enough to upset it.
There was very little flat today. Even the sections that looked flat on the map consisted of short up and down segments. My lungs hadn’t improved like I expected they would at this lower altitude, resulting in numerous rest stops to catch my breath. The last section to Lukla was a long uphill slog, where I was passed by the trail runners I had seen yesterday going up to Namche. The race ended at the entrance to Lukla, and I felt a sense of achievement myself as I crossed their finish line.
My first impression of Lukla was that it was incredibly noisy. Helicopters continually landed and took off again right on the edge of town, mule trains with their ringing bells travelled back and forth, and the sheer number of people here meant there wasn’t a moment’s peace. Happily, there was a slightly wider range of food available, which I couldn't pass up. Lunch consisted of chauchau soup (2-minute noodles in a spicy broth) plus a kathi roll drowned in a fantastic homemade chilli sauce. My mouth was on fire, but I loved that it wasn't traditional trekker food.
Then all I could do was rest up, relax, and wait for my fight to Kathmandu in two days’ time, hoping my health would improve by then.
I was stuck in Lukla for three nights. My flight was delayed 27 hours, which saw me sitting on the floor of the world’s crappiest and coldest airport for long stretches. I was freezing, fatigued and had strained several muscles around my ribs from coughing so hard, causing excruciating pain whenever I coughed. I wanted nothing more than to return to the warmth and comfort of Kathmandu.
Things didn’t improve once I landed in the capital. I had presumed that my symptoms would diminish at the lower altitude and warmer temperatures, but that didn’t happen. Three days after arriving, the staff at my hotel took me to the emergency room of a nearby international hospital. After running a series of tests, I was diagnosed with pneumonia and immediately admitted. I wasn’t prepared for this. I had no change of clothes, no toiletries, no phone charger - nothing. I had a pay a hospital worker to go out and buy me a toothbrush and toothpaste.
For three days I stayed in the very old but friendly hospital, receiving dozens of medications at all times of day. I stayed in bed almost the entire time, only rising to use the bathroom and to get my chest x-rays done. There was nothing to do but I didn’t care - I was too miserable to focus on anything anyway.
When I was finally discharged I wasn’t fully recovered, but the doctor was pleased enough with my progress to release me. The extended bed rest continued at my hotel, although I managed to venture out for short periods to eat meals. It would be several weeks before I could climb a set of stairs without panting, cough without my chest rattling or go through a day without a mid-afternoon nap. Even though it was a long journey to recovery, it hasn’t put me off returning to Nepal one day to finish what I started.