Category Archives: Mountains

Donate to the Nepal earthquake relief through art….

Reuben, my partner and fellow volunteer this season at the Himalayan Rescue Association Aid Post in Pheriche has put together a collection of amazing photos from our two seasons volunteering in Nepal. A freelance Action and Lifestyle Sports Photographer by background, this is his second visit to this beautiful country – a place that we have certainly had some life changing experiences.

Please have a look at the collection – it is Reuben’s way of sharing his visions of Nepal before the earthquake and a means to contribute profits towards the Nepal earthquake relief.

Thanks for reading and sharing!


Tragedy strikes on Everest again – the aftermath of the Nepali earthquake

It was five in the morning and the room shook again…..I jumped up ready to dash outside but it was just a brief aftershock. Some seventeen hours after the initial earthquake, we had experienced several brief reminders of mother nature’s powers. I couldn’t sleep anymore – it had been a difficult night, waiting for patients to arrive from Everest Base Camp. We had treated two the evening before – one was an inpatient overnight hopefully awaiting evacuation this morning.

Our only update up until this morning was that in the aftermath of the earthquake, an avalanche had swept into Everest Base Camp, taking out many tents in its wake, including the Everest ER tent and severely injuring ten climbers, wounding twenty more and sadly resulting in two deaths. Thankfully our fellow HRA volunteers, Everest ER Doctors Rachel Tullet and Megan Walmsley together with their manager Lakpha were alive and well. It was just one year and one week since the deadly avalanche that had torn through the Khumbu Ice Fall – tragedy on Everest had struck again.

Rewinding back to that moment the ground shook, we had been reunited back at the HRA Clinic in Pheriche as Reuben and I had returned from a few days trekking. We had in fact been due to visit Rachel and Meg – our chosen route being to trek via the Kongma La pass, one of the three passes that encompasses the so-called “Everest the Hard Way”. The day before, we had trekked up from our first camp to 5400m, just below the pass when heavy, dark clouds rolled in fast and snow started falling just after one in the afternoon. We had to pitch a tent and were grounded for sixteen hours in a snow storm, myself struggling with mountain sickness before waking at five the next morning to nearly two foot of snow and clouds glooming over us. The pass would have to wait, the route was now obscured – trails less obvious, visibility minimal. As we packed away a frozen, snow covered tent hurriedly, we set off with ice axe and crampons and descended back to Pheriche. We arrived just thirty minutes before the earthquake struck. Had we taken the usual route to EBC, we’d have just arrived as the avalanche struck.

“How much snow??” – looks like it’s going to be a long night in the tent…

“We didn’t expect to wake to such gloomy conditions…”

At first the room started to move. Renee, Reuben and I looked at each other in bewilderment; time seemed to stop momentarily. I recall thinking whether or not we should dive under the table. We then heard movement to our left – Andy, Thanasur and the clinic patient were exiting the building. As we left the threshold into the open space outside the clinic, we stood with a scattering of locals and trekkers who had just done the same. The ground was swaying – it was so surreal, the senses completely dumbfounded as we were simultaneously trying to comprehend and anticipate what might happen next. The noise…….a kind of unsettling creaking and moaning will stick with me forever…it was like being trapped in a zone – your senses on edge, trying to compute. What was happening? And then reality……the screams as surrounding lodges started to collapse. Not in total, but rocks collapsed out of the weaker structures. The puppies fleed for safety. We looked at each other for answers. And then it was over. We had been hit by an earthquake.


In the moments that followed we turned to each other for support. It was humbling to be part of such a close team after such a short period of time together volunteering at the Himalayan Rescue Post at Pheriche. Reuben and I had already volunteered for a season in the Gokyo valley at the Machermo Porter Shelter and Rescue Post and had been excited to spend time with the HRA volunteers that we now proudly call friends. Drs Andrew Nyberg and Renee Salas are both Emergency Physicans from the U.S. specialising like myself in Expedition and Wilderness Medicine. We were joined by our post manager Gobi Bashyal, Thaneshwar Bhandari and our cook Jeet Magar. What followed was a mix of trepidation and a rush of adrenaline. Most of us had never experienced an earthquake – Gobi, trained in post-earthquake management told us to keep away from damaged structures in the event we might experience after shocks. And so we set off slowly to explore the village and couldn’t quite believe the destruction that lay before us. The whole village had been affected – save for two lodges, all had structural damage that essentially had rendered the village closed to trekkers within a matter of minutes. Little did we know the devastation that had simultaneously hit Kathmandu and though insignificant in comparison to the thousands injured and those that perished, the tragedy that had followed up at Everest Base Camp.

The first helicopter up into the mountains after the earthquake flies up to EBC

The first helicopter up into the mountains after the earthquake flies up to EBC

Unaware of the events that were to unfold, Jeet signals he is okay after sleeping overnight int he sun room...

Unaware of the events that were to unfold, Jeet signals he is okay after sleeping overnight int he sun room…

Unsure of what to expect the morning after the tragedy and with only brief communication with our base office in Kathmandu, we remained alert though emotions were at an all time high and sleep deprivation was already taking effect. As the flow of adrenaline ceased and the nerves settled, I closed my eyes again to try and get some rest – it was difficult – was it normal to be still experiencing after-shocks so many hours later? Just as I’d dropped off, I woke with a start as a helicopter thundered overhead……a quick glance at my watch revealed it was 0542…..the day had started and the weather was good – it was time to prepare for the rescue and help in any way that we could. I strolled lazily over to the main thoroughfare just after six a.m. to look on ahead at the helipad and find out what was happening. It took off again and appeared to head down the valley – the rescue operation was in progress and we were on standby. Minutes later however, the same Fishtail Air eurocopter returned to the helipad. Reuben was ahead of me as I walked over and as I approached, I overheard the pilot saying we needed lots of hands to help carry. As I looked into the back door of the heli, I was a little taken aback to see two climbers crammed onto the floor. I then turned to the pilot who said Everest Base Camp was destroyed and from the air, in utter chaos with tents and equipment littering the glacier. Still processing, he then explained he would be bringing 51 critically injured climbers to Pheriche as quickly as possible whilst the weather window held. This was way beyond any of our expectations and though we had anticipated being busy, we had no idea we would be staging a mass casualty evacuation and receiving every injured climber from EBC.

One of the first two patients evacuated from EBC to Pheriche....

Reuben talks to one of the first two patients evacuated from EBC to Pheriche….

It had already been an incredibly busy season, seeing over 300 trekkers, porters and locals for a multitude of conditions including those symptoms associated with trekking to high altitude – acute mountain sickness, high altitude pulmonary oedema and high altitude cerebral oedema with over 30 helicopter evacuations. Now as I approached the first of the injured climbers, I spoke with a very calm male explaining I was one of the Doctors working in Pheriche and that we would carry him over to the HRA clinic. He had multiple broken bones and though one can only imagine the thoughts racing through his mind in the aftermath of the earthquake and avalanche, he was alive and we needed to act fast to continue stabilising his condition. As I walked round to the other side of the helicopter and glanced upon the other injured climber, I felt disheartened. A quick look beneath the down sleeping bags, revealed the extent of his injuries – that combined with the notes from the doctors treating overnight and laboured breathing painted a dismal picture. And yet he had also survived and we had to be thankful for this small miracle and do our best to keep him alive.

The HRA post at Pheriche was established in 1973 by the Tokyo Medical College and operates twice a year during the spring and autumn, serving both the local and trekking communities for a period of ten weeks. The facilities encompass a small reception, one clinic room and two additional rooms that can accommodate inpatients whilst behind the scenes, the volunteer doctors and staff have a lounge, bedrooms, kitchen and bathroom. Though we can treat many conditions and have a vast medicines cupboard, facilities are basic – it’s a remote mountain post.



Within thirty minutes of the first two climbers arriving into the post, more started to arrive on stretchers. The clinic started to fill as scores of trekkers approached volunteering their services, medicines and medical / first aid experience where able. Having stepped out of my clinic room to retrieve some morphine for my first patient, I found another – this time on the floor. It was quickly apparent that we needed to triage and move the more stable patients to a nearby lodge, thankfully Panorama, owned by Pemba was the nearest and still structurally intact to enable this. I found Renee in our sun room, usually a place of relaxation where we educate trekkers on altitude illness, now transformed into a makeshift ward with six climbers taking up the floor space as they lay bloodied, clothes torn in places with donated sleeping bags keeping them warm, with injuries varying from broken bones to head injuries and reduced conscious levels. As more and more climbers were brought into the adjacent lodge and with the weather appearing to close in, it crossed all of our minds just how we were going to cope overnight.

During all of this, I felt focussed however the commotion outside was distracting and it was difficult to try and stay calm. More and more climbers were being stretchered into our triage area – many straight into the Panorama lodge so from across the way, it was difficult to understand whether they needed to be seen and treated in the clinic. There was no room however and by now, many volunteers were involved in triaging in the lodge – coming across for bandages, oral pain medicines and materials to close minor head wounds. In a mass casualty situation like this, it is very difficult to see the bigger picture and admittedly, I got drawn into the care of my injured climbers who all appeared to be from the same team. At one point, I became quite emotional; a Japanese medical student had wandered into the post very early and was helping me communicate with my patients but then he had to leave with his family. My critically injured patient was starting to pull off his oxygen mask and I could barely record a blood pressure; I knew he was starting to get confused in addition to having sustained head injuries and the prognosis became worse. I pushed some fluids through but there was still so much to do elsewhere.

In the meantime, Reuben was busy trying to coordinate the scene outside the clinical areas with still more trekkers approaching to volunteer their services. He asked Jeet to make some food for all of us and I remember walking into the kitchen at one point, amidst the frenzy outside and in the clinic, and found him carefully shaping and slicing chapatti circles. If only I had been able to capture that moment on camera…. Reuben brought us hot juice and chocolate chapattis though I couldn’t initially face food; he had to tell others to stop what they were doing and remember to focus on themselves first. It was crazy. Next came a wave of locals from the lodges with milk tea for the injured climbers; they were intent to ensure their job was fulfilled. I felt awful when I snapped at them for lifting one of my patients to 60 degrees – they had sustained a dislocated and possibly fractured hip; the movement was agony for them. Though I am sure given the circumstances, the warm liquid was soothing I felt guilty that I had not supervised this more closely. That sort of encompassed the problem I was facing: there was no control, we were the middle-ground between the point of injury and initial treatment and were not really equipped or prepared to deal with this sort of tragedy. The best we could do was act fast and as a team to facilitate getting these injured climbers to safety and more finite medical care. We still had no idea how bad things were in Kathmandu.

At one point, I went for a walk to the mani stones that are a waymark in the village for the HRA Clinic as well as to pass good tidings for those on their journey into the mountains. Gobi was here with Reuben and both were talking whilst awaiting news on whether we would be able to evacuate any of the climbers to Lukla. At that time, a few of the Eurocopters were still ferrying the injured down from EBC but clouds had rolled in and there were no flights down the valley. Conditions were looking ominous. I also needed a hug and got one from both of them – another example of teamwork. I had left my three patients with the Japanese medical student and they were communicating – it had given me some space to try and clear my head and get perspective. When our first two critically injured patients had arrived, I had started with the usual ABCDE assessment and started to try and gain IV access (it proved difficult but we got the original IV line working again) and then I glanced into the other clinic room watching one of my colleagues using ultrasound. At home, I can ultrasound a neck vein before placing a large neck line for powerful medication use in intensive care or theatres but I am not trained to evaluate the abdomen and I got a little hung up on this. I had questioned my clinical skills when in fact, as patients continued to arrive, we barely had the chance to triage them as by now there were so many others doing this job for us!  Back at the clinic, feeling more positive, I went to help Renee give some of her patients i.m. injections of dexamethasone and tramadol. She was busy making labels for each of the injured climbers; we had decided early that this would be a quick way of triaging those in need of early evacuation and so attached tape to their chests detailing names and injuries. This became a very useful and important tool later that morning.

Whilst Gobi remained at the helipad coordinating with the locals who have authority in Pheriche and neighbouring Dingboche, Thanasur continued to help us treat our patients. At one point I caught him looking a little tearful; the Nepali patient we had on the floor in the middle clinic room looked very unwell and all of us were praying he would make it. Whilst scanning the three rooms to see how each of the clinic inpatients were fairing, I heard a commotion outside and Reuben came flying into the clinic saying “get the two sickest patients ready for evac now….” and so the moments of doubt surpassed in an instant and one of the greatest achievements I have witnessed of a community and its volunteers working together was about to start. Though it needed some authority amongst the chaos and finally, I found my place in all of this…..

As we moved my climber out towards the helicopter, the adrenaline flowing in every volunteer was evident. People were rushing, stumbling and IV fluids dropped to the floor which jeopardised the IV access. “Bistari, bistari….” I shouted – “slowly, slowly…” as the stretcher was carried out for all to see. Another moment to remind us of the gravity of the situation was seeing the helicopter so close to the footpath – rather than in its usual place some 250m away at the helipad. It’s strange how thoughts like these sink in when you are so busy and have hundreds of other more important things to be concentrating on. Again I called for the team to move slowly down the bank towards the helicopter – it’s blades were still spinning however working for two seasons in the Himalayas, I know it is safe to approach from the front. Our stretcher team was a mix of Nepalis and trekkers – I couldn’t see Gobi or Thanasur initially as their presence is so reassuring; they can tell the Nepalis to take things one step at at time. There were two Spanish volunteers who I later found out were firefighters – they were very good although still the adrenaline was charging. I rounded one side of the helicopter and climbed in to help guide the stretcher in; before I could stop the other team however, they were loading a second climber in whilst my patient with bilateral leg fractures still had their legs outside one of the helicopter doors. It was less than smooth but we got them on and the helicopter took off down the valley.

The helicopters landed as close as possible to help facilitate casualty evacuation...

The helicopters landed as close as possible to help facilitate casualty evacuation…

One of two critically injured climbers are lifted into the helicopter

One of two critically injured climbers are lifted into the helicopter

In the excitement that followed this first evacuation, two more of the four sickest patients arrived out towards the evacuation point. I was talking with Reuben when one of these, a Nepali with significant head injuries and facial swelling, started to sit up and become quite combative. He had been secured overnight with hand ties and we had to do the same, trying to keep him calm as a combative patient in a helicopter is a flight safety risk. It was difficult. A few of us stepped in to keep him still and in the stretcher – I got chatting to the lady firefighter and we formed a friendship in that instant. After a rescue of this proportion, there are always people who stick in your mind more than others – people you can look to in a sea of faces, people who are reliable and know how to get the job done. A helicopter landed once again and in an instant people were lifting this patient and he nearly fell off the makeshift stretcher; “not yet….” I said – this was not our ride but people didn’t understand this. Just as we were preparing for the next helicopter, an almighty roar came up the valley and a Russian MI-17, operated by Shree Airlines came thundering into view, landing on the helipad in the distance. This was the first of what was to become three big lifts down the valley – we loaded 16 injured onto the craft in a matter of minutes but it was not pretty. And sadly, walking wounded were trying to jump on board before those on stretchers; Reuben caught someone with a finger injury trying to queue hop. People were frightened; they wanted out and who can blame them? But what was certain was we needed more order otherwise people were going to get injured; Gobi had to motion for one stretcher party to follow the crowd – they were trying to cut upstream of the unsteady bridge crossing which put them at risk of the rear rotors. This MI-17 was a beast and watching it take off, fully loaded, was impressive. I felt so proud that we were a part of this.

As the Russian MI-17 awaits, casualties are carried across the plateau to the helicopter....

As the Russian MI-17 awaits, casualties are carried across the plateau to the helicopter….

Reuben takes a photo of critically injured climbers loaded into the back of a Russian MI-17...

Reuben takes a photo of critically injured climbers loaded into the back of a Russian MI-17…

I stayed put for the remainder of the evacuation and made a quick decision how we were going to make order out of the chaos. Though the rescue mission was flowing smoothly, there were hundreds of people, each in teams with stretchers trying to get their patient rescued. More and more stretchers started to arrive on the footpath outside Snowland Lodge. And so I started to open jackets and look at the labels; I numbered them in priority of injury for evacuation on the next helicopters. We had eight lined up and ready but more injured climbers started to be lowered out of order onto the footpath. Andy shouted out at one point to follow my orders – nobody was going to get on a helicopter without my say so. With that, people obeyed and watched – waiting for the go ahead to lift and carry their stretcher and its injured climber to the inbound helicopter. It made such a difference; yes, we had to jiggle the order once or twice according to injury and also explain to some trekkers who had become fixed on their one patient that they would eventually get evacuated but it was a smooth and effective operation. When the MI-17 returned, I asked everyone to wait as the default was for all to launch down the bank as had happened previously and with authority we had “number 1….go….number 2….go….number 3…and so on”. It worked like clockwork. A few people tried to get their group members down but I managed to intervene – there was no time to be lenient nor to change tactics.

The walking wounded are lined up awaiting their turn to be evacuated...

The walking wounded are lined up awaiting their turn to be evacuated…

During the time we were waiting for the helicopters or MI-17, there were volunteers approaching saying they had someone who needed to go down urgently. Despite the fact climbers lay before us with varying degrees of injury, they had come from the lodges with a message and we had to take this seriously. A quick check of oxygen saturations and respiratory rate reassured myself and the volunteer that these individuals could wait a while longer. I also saw trekkers arriving into the village who had no idea what was going on. Communications had been shut off since the earthquake so people were none the wiser; it must have been quite a shock to see casualties lying everywhere with helicopters flying fiercely up and down the valley. Looking up to the ridge, trekkers were also visible in their throngs looking out onto the events in the village below – it must have been a sight to behold especially given the devastation that had hit Pheriche the day before. Reuben tapped me on the shoulder at one point and introduced me to Dr Ken Zafren, HRA Director with whom I had been in email contact intermittently over the preceding four years regarding the posting. What a time to make introductions! We were able to chat and talk through the mornings events – he seemed pretty impressed with how the evacuation was progressing.

As we evacuated all those injured on stretchers, we were then left with walking wounded – many still significantly so with possible limb fractures and also others with chest and head injuries. Still requiring order, I grabbed chairs from the nearby lodge and asked people to do the same. We sat everyone down and started to triage once again. One Sherpa didn’t have a label and looked upset – he’d picked up on the fact that we were evacuating those with labels. So I made him one and added his number – that seemed to rectify his situation. As I filed up and down in front of them, each Nepali climber grabbed their jackets and made their number visible. They did seem to make up the majority of the walking wounded simply as they outnumber the Western climbers 3:1. Luckily, the MI-17 came back for it’s final sweep and somehow, I managed to maintain order even though I was gradually being pushed down the bank as swarms of injured and their volunteer helpers motioned towards the helicopter. I hadn’t seen much of Reuben during this time but his job was loading people onto the MI-17 in addition to much of the groundwork between volunteers at the clinic and the HRA Staff. As the final climber was boarded onto the MI-17 and the doors closed, he headed back towards the crowds now gathered on the path that had been the site of the casualty evacuation. Andy shouted up to all to say a massive thanks to all involved and that they were, as of this morning, also Himalayan Rescue Association Volunteers. A rapturous round of applause filled the air and then the crowds departed; just like that. It was an amazing feat; in just 5 hours we had received, triaged, treated and re-evacuated over 70 injured climbers from Everest.

Back at the clinic, we took a moment to sit down in the reception and debrief. Ken sat with us as did Meg – during all of the commotion she had flown down to assist and now told us of the horrors that had occurred the previous day. She had been treating a climber in the Everest ER clinic when the earthquake hit – minutes later the avalanche had swooped down off Pumori and flattened everything in its wake, destroying the middle of EBC and taking with it tents and throwing climbers frightening distances. Luckily, she had been fully dressed in warm layers on what was a cold morning for after that instant, all her belongings had been buried. In the hours that followed, they worked together with the other camp doctors and hundreds of team members to treat the injured – I cannot imagine the scenes nor the sights they witnessed; it must have been horrific. In brighter spirits now as we revelled in the success of evacuating all of the climbers, we drank some Coca Cola and ate digestives. But then there was a thud and with that we launched for the door; we were being hit by another giant aftershock. The ground swaying again was just awful. And then it stopped.

In a moment of calm, the team of HRA Volunteers - Meg, Katie, Andy, Reuben and Renee relax by the helicopter.....job done

In a moment of calm, the team of HRA Volunteers – Meg, Katie, Andy, Reuben and Renee relax by the helicopter…..job done

In the hours that followed, we each turned to our inner selves to try and seek comfort and solice. Jokes were less prevalent, worries more rife. Our staff were concerned about their families back in Kathmandu – still we didn’t have internet. I rang home on the satellite phone and heard Nepal was all over the news but we were still locked in our bubble up here. The ground was still moving and the building popping from time to time; I was suffering with vertigo. Sleep didn’t come lightly that evening as we wound down from the day’s events. We had finished our job and now had to wait to find out what would unfold next. The following morning Meg flew back to EBC and so we spent the day trying to get back some normality. For things to be the way they had been 72 hours ago…..we watched The Lego Movie singing “Everything is awesome…”. Light humour seemed to be the way forward. And then at 6pm on the evening of the 27th April, we reconnected with the world. Having craved this since the moment of the earthquake, the reality was more difficult to deal with. The influx of messages though incredibly moving was so overwhelming. I couldn’t bring myself to read the news nor face the true devastation that was occurring in Kathmandu. It is my seventh visit to this beautiful country and I have friends whose families live less than an hour from the epicentre. It hurt too much to know the numbers, the crisis unfolding and whether we would get out and to safety. That, and the continued aftershocks has been hard to deal with and four days later, I am still experiencing unease as the building vibrates with the wind or helicopters flying overhead. Hopefully this will settle in time. One thing I am grateful for is to have Reuben here with me; I am not sure I could have coped without him.

Trekking to Pheriche…

After eight days in Kathmandu, we woke early on Sunday 8th March for our flight to Lukla. The taxi was scheduled for 5am – after several days of the main runway being closed at Tribhuvan Airport, the HRA had ensured we would be on the first flight out to the mountains. Sure enough, we arrived to a queue for entry into the domestic terminal – lots of intrepid trekkers waiting to start their Himalayan adventure. Once through security (a very small X-ray machine and quick check of our ticket) we had our luggage weighed and hand luggage checked and within 30 minutes we were in the tiny departure terminal. No sooner had Reuben and I managed to drink an overpriced cup of Nescafé, our flight with Goma Air was called and we were rushed onto the departure bus and in the air for 0627! The aircraft was a new design – quite plush by the usual standards and a very comfortable flight, landing to my surprise in 35 minutes. With relief to be back on Himalayan soil, we were able to start the first leg of our trek to Pheriche. Their was certainly excitement in the air!!

Safely in Lukla, breakfast down the hatch….time to trek…

Our first stop was for a hearty breakfast in Lukla. Well, hearty for some – after three treks in Nepal and three months living in the mountains, all I could muster was the heart to order chapatti with peanut butter and a milk coffee. It was no surprise really – breakfast has never been my favourite trekking meal and why would it be any different today? We set off not long after 9am and made our way through lush green valleys and trails to the tiny village of Phakding for lunch. It felt great to be back in the mountains with new friends on their first visit to Nepal and living out an ambition to volunteer with the HRA. Andy is an ER physician from Salt Lake City, Utah and Renee is another ER maestro who currently works in Boston, Massachussets. Together, the four of us nattered and told tales of adventures past and to come as we made it to our first overnight stop in Monjo. Renee was feeling pretty tired after the 4am start and a bit of a leaving present from Kathmandu so opted for an early night as Reuben, Andy and I sat down for dinner at 7pm. By 8.30pm it was lights out and time to rest and dream of exciting times ahead…..that and hoping we didn’t wake with headaches or other signs of AMS the next morning.

“Do I really have to get up now……?!” Probably the worst thing about having a Rab Andes 1000 sleeping bag is having to get out of it in the morning – it was pretty chilly as we rushed to get ready and pack our bags for the Porters who were keen to make a head start to Namche Bazar. I was surprised just how cold it was – though I have plenty of layers with me this season, it felt much colder than December. We set off just after 8am for the big climb to Namche at 3440m. The trails were pretty quiet save for a number of yak trains and donkeys laiden with kerosene, propane gas or sacks of rice. We did pass trekkers on their descent back to Lukla – many having failed to reach Everest Base Camp as the trails have been hit with heavy snow over the last two weeks rendering many parts of the trails impassable to the uninitiated.

Taking in the awesome view of Namche

It was a long day up to Namche – 4 hours trekking in all but over 600m of ascent and out of the shade it was very hot. Great to feel the sun on our backs but it made the climb harder – I was waiting for the lungs to really feel the thin air but it soon became apparent that Reuben and I had retained some of our acclimatisation as we recovered quickly with each rest stop. Along the river and up through trails that wound through the forest, we came to a rest stop which if we looked hard enough, revealed our first glimpse of Sagamartha for the season. After some trail snacks and a quick reshuffle of rucksacks, we were on our way again, arriving at Panorama Lodge ready for lunch! Reuben and I had stayed there in December on the way back from Island Peak so when we were sure it was the owners greeting us, we were able to say “Tapaai laai sanchai chha?” and receive a familiar warmth as they greeted us on our return.

Approaching Khumjung – we were in for a surprise…

Everest in the background....what a view...

Everest in the background….what a view…

The remote Himalayan village of Khunde…

Meeting Dr Kami Sherpa…

The rest of the day was spent unwinding with an essential visit to Namche bakery for a slice of apple pie and coffee with free wifi on the side. You’d think we’d been away for weeks on end as most of us connected to the ether to see what we’d missed in the last 48 hours….. A second day in Namche allowed us to acclimatise to the altitude and take the opportunity to visit Dr Kami at Khunde Hospital. Renee stayed back to rest her knee which had been giving some jip on the descents. It was a pleasant hike first to Khumjung, following the trail of slush and mud that had been carved through the recent snowfall. In places it was very muddy but it was worth it as we rounded a stupa and looked upon a magnificent winters vista of Everest, Lhotse, Nupste and Ama Dablam in the distance. Arriving into Khumjung, we pointed out the school built by Sir Edmund Hillary as we heard giddy children shouting out from the playground and then left the green village for nearby Khunde. As we arrived at the hospital, I recognised Dr Kami and managed to ask him if indeed it was him whilst introducing the three of us and our jobs and plans to head for Pheriche all in Nepali! Although convinced I had jumbled my new verbs and words, he did reply in Nepali – to which I quickly reverted into English! We had a tour of the facilities and then headed on our way as the locals were called in for their consultation. It felt more real as we walked back – maybe as I had put a face to the name having sent many patients to Dr Kami last season. The positive vibes were quickly dashed however on our return to Namche as we negotiated slippery mud trails the whole way down; twice I pirouetted and landed on my arse, covered in mud! I was not impressed! Having befriended a puppy with a quick “Namaste”, Andy disappeared – either a case of hitting the trails and not looking back or being very aware of the chimp!

We found Andy in the Namche bakery enjoying a slice of warmed apple pie whilst chatting to the Machermo volunteers. We ordered some chocolate cake and a warmed fresh sesame roll knowing these would be rare treats over the next ten weeks. The afternoon was then spent in the 8848 Cafe watching the film Everest which tells a tale of the Sherpas involved in one particular Swiss climbing expedition a few years ago. It was brilliant to see the work they undertake – a very eye opening account; and yet so sad to see the risks taken for a wage of $5000 USD in the short climbing season; all to get wealthy westerners up the mountain. That evening we all sat down to a hot towel and amazing daal bhat before it was time to turn in and get some sleep before the alarm sounded early the next morning.

Hiking out of Namche…

Prayers to the heavens above…..another Mani wall…

As we left the Panorama Lodge the next morning, the trail rose steeply and sighs could be heard from our weary selves. Having trekked this section of the trail three times before – most recently in the dark coming back from Chhukung and Island Peak in December, Reuben and I both knew it was a beautiful section of trail. The path winds around the hillsides for kilometres – up and down in places but mostly flat – with a fair amount of ‘Himalayan flat’. We passed Stupas on the way and in places hopped throug slush and mud as the sun melted the trail ahead of us. Dropping down to the river by lunch, it was a steep and slow climb up to Tengboche – made more tough by the heat of the afternoon sun. Finally, sapped of energy we arrived onto the plateau of the tiny, but historically important village of Tengboche and its Monastery. We headed over to see the sacred site and were lucky enough to see inside the chambers where the Monks are called to prayer for several hours at a time. It was stunning inside – so colourful with Thangkas decorating the room and a giant golden Bhudda statue sitting magnificently at the head of the room.The views of Everest and Ama Dablam were spectacular – made even more special as we watched the sunset over the magnificent mountain vista.

Reuben spinning the Mani wheels at Tengboche Monastery....

Reuben spinning the Mani wheels at Tengboche Monastery….

Sunset over Everest, Lhotse and Nupste…

It was an early start for Pheriche as Gobi had emailed to say the trail ahead had the potential to be very muddy and best to get a head start on the sun. We were up at 0530 though breakfast was a little late and not the best….. Just after 0700 we were walking down towards Deboche through the rhododendron forest. It was so different to the trail we stamped up in December – this time we were delicately hopping from frozen mud to frozen snow in an attempt to avoid the slippery ice that had yet to thaw under the heat of the sun. We made good progress and were up at the small holding of Orsho by 11am. After a quick hot juice, we were keen to press on for our final destination of Pheriche. It was snowy and muddy as we trekked up and out of our rest stop…..Reuben and I meandered ahead recounting the last time we had made this journey towards Dingboche at the end of last season. We passed two Yakbees (baby Yaks) as we veered left and up towards the trail for Pheriche. It was heavy with snow but shortly before 1pm we had the village in sight and hastily made our way to the HRA Rescue Post to find Gobi and our cook, Jeet smiling away at our arrival.

Ready and raring to go...."how early is it...?!"

Ready and raring to go….”how early is it…?!”

Renee and Andy taking in the sights...

Renee and Andy taking in the sights…

Arriving at Pheriche...."home for the season'...

Arriving at Pheriche….”home for the season’…

After nearly 4 years, I was finally here at Pheriche ready to volunteer as a HRA Rescue Doctor. And what an awesome team – this was already going to be a brilliant season!

The start of another Himalayan adventure…..

Today is the 1st March, St George’s Day, and yet we are many thousands of miles from England. We landed in Kathmandu, Nepal some ten weeks and three days after departing in December on the 27th February. The time at home has been busy – locuming to earn extra funds, sitting an exam and preparing for a job interview for August, visiting family and friends over the festive season and making numerous round trips between Scotland and North Yorkshire to plan our wedding in June. So as we met up at Manchester Airport and ditched our heavy duffels at check in, we barely spoke as finally we were able to switch off and relax.

I was waiting for the excitement to hit as the plane departed but even at Doha it was just a feeling of necessity as we queued through transfers and then had nearly 8 hours to while away in the airport. We found a quiet spot to catch some shut eye and then it was time to eat (again) and have a coffee ready for the next leg. The excitement levels definitely raised as we boarded the flight to Kathmandu – we’d had our seats changed to 4J and 4K – it didn’t twig until Reuben was directed to the left and somehow we were in business!!! A no frills upgrade alongside 28 others but having declined the option to upgrade for £160 each, we had the amazing seats and space to completely chill out for the next four hours!!!

Reuben relaxing in Doha airport en route for Kathmandu

Reuben relaxing in Doha airport en route for Kathmandu

As we left the aircraft and stepped onto Nepalese turf, the smells and surroundings seemed instantly familiar. A few “namastes” later and already it felt like home again. I can’t really explain it but if I said this was my seventh visit to this beautiful country, you would maybe understand the addiction and love of the people and their home. After an unusually long wait for baggage and the usual chaos, we left arrivals to a sea of people waiting to either pick up weary travellers or try and snap some unsuspecting tourists for the usual overpriced taxi fare into Thamel. To our relief (as I couldn’t face bartering with a taxi driver), Reuben spotted a sign reading ‘Dr Katie & Reuben, HRA’ and came running back excitedly to say we had our lift. And so with excitement, we met familiar faces from our time here in the autumn and were taken to the hotel where finally we could sleep…..

Our first day passed in a bit of a blur……we had breakfast and then slept – a lot. I don’t think either of us realised how tired we were up until that point but after weeks of cramming everything in and months of living out of our duffels, we just switched off. We had to – both full of a cold and weary from nearly 30 hours of travelling, there was no point in rushing out to revisit places we’d already seen. Besides, the next three months are going to be hard work with early starts and 24 hour on calls. A lie in was allowed! Later on we went out and explored the streets of Thamel, taking photos of the daily humdrum as it was played out before us….it never quite fails to amaze me how people make a living out here. We ate at one of our favourite spots – OR2K, which does amazing vegetarian cuisine and is always packed. In fact, Thamel is bustling at the moment with travellers – it’s not quite trekking season yet but lots of young wannabe hippies and boisterous groups packing the bars late at night – it’s quite a different place than when we let just a few months ago.

Wondering the streets of Thamel at night

Wandering the streets of Thamel at night

Today we met with Chhewang briefly – he was our manager at the IPPG Machermo rescue post last season. As expected, it was only brief, but so lovely to see him again and catch up on the last ten weeks. He was waiting to meet the new team for this season and unbeknown to us, we were about to meet ours just an hour later. Lazing in our room again, we heard a knock and found three of our fellow HRA doctors seeing if we were up and ready for a meeting at 1130! Whoops! We’d had 24 hours to recover from jet lag and yet still hadn’t quite managed to look as fresh despite at least one of the team arriving to the hotel at midnight last night!! I think the rumour quickly spread that we’d been asleep……!!!

Half an hour later, we arrived at the offices of the Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA). The excitement continued to grow as we chatted and got to know each other whilst sipping milk tea and filling in paperwork. It has been nearly 4 years since applying to volunteer with the HRA so to finally be here and on the back of a Fall season at Machermo, was pretty special. We had a tour of the building too and found that we are getting new beds and pillows for the season (with mattresses – practically glamping!) and then got more excited as we looked at all the kit being readied for Everest ER later this season. It is going to be another epic adventure!!!

Now however, it’s time for more coffee in Himalayan Java, avoiding the thunder and rain, whilst preparing for our Nepali lessons later today.



UTMB Race Doctor

Last week the North Face UTMB series was held in the alpine mountain mecca of Chamonix, France. This annual event sees thousands of competitors arrive in anticipation of their race, whilst taking in the atmosphere and endless celebrations as various events start and finish as the week progresses.



Throughout the entire week, runners returned to Chamonix at the end of their adventures in various states of exhaustion and elation. Crowds lined the streets for over an hour to see the elite athletes finish each race and yet there never seemed to be a shortage of supporters or passers by to cheer competitors in as they finished way down the field. The sense of achievement as individuals realised their ambition was a stark contrast to the bewildered daze they may have adopted some time afterwards, walking around Chamonix with their red finishers gilet and lining up for a well-earned coupe de glace or ice cold beer. Amongst the many hundreds of other visitors and locals wondering the streets of Chamonix, some oblivious to the buzz and hive of activity as they sat discussing their ascents of Mont Blanc or other alpine peaks, it was easy to spot those who had pounded the trails as they hobbled around with their kit and wristbands.


And then there were those who hadn’t finished…….too unwell to continue, too sore to contemplate another ascent…..too slow to reach the checkpoints in time for the cut-off. Each of these competitors also had a story to tell…..some were elite athletes predicted to come in the top ten…..others were highly experienced at ultra-distance running…..some had maybe underestimated the race and could not possibly continue. The whole week was a marvel of endurance, ambition, dedication and pure adventure. Those individuals running some 42 hours after the start of the final race and well beyond the finish time of the winners were still entitled to the same celebrations and sense of achievement as anyone else.

So where did I fit in?

First and foremost was my role in support of Reuben who was running the TDS (Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie) representing the Torq Trail Team. This was his first alpine event and no mean feat – a total of 119km and 7260m ascent which he achieved in an amazing time of 29h31m. It is easy to underestimate the role of the ‘Accompanying Person’. We too had woken at 4am on the morning of the start and had relied on text updates – some through the night – whilst we estimated the finish time and planned our days around this. His brother Edward and I had cycled 8km out to Les Houches to wait in surprise and push him to his limits as he made for Chamonix. Seeing Reuben run most of the last 5km, more than many other competitors at this point, was a very proud moment – not least as he packed away his poles and made a heady sprint for the finish, running to cheers and applause as he made his way through the main street in Chamonix. I followed on the bike, totally taken in by the moment – as if it was just the two of us – after all, we had been preparing for this event for nearly 12 months.







Once our own celebrations had been completed, focus turned on my contribution to the week – something I had been planning since January but which I still felt a little unprepared for. So at 1pm on Friday, I turned up for the UTMB Medical Brief. After being handed out a North Face bag, t-shirt, fleece gilet and jacket (much to my surprise), I sat in a room and listened to an entire brief in French! I can follow the jist of some conversations – that ability I guess is from years spending holidays in France although it is very easy to suddenly have no idea what is being discussed… The medical aspects are of course very similar and so at the end of the brief I raised my hand and posed a question, in French……and at that, I was in and hooked.


My first post was on the Friday evening at Les Contamines, roughly 30km into the UTMB or rather, the Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc. This race, the highlight of the week, is a 168km tour of the alpine trails circling Mont Blanc and totals over 9000m of ascent in its entirety. The race had started in a frenzy at 4.30pm with over 2000 competitors heading out of Chamonix as jubilant spectators and supporters cheered them on their way. I had missed the start and ended up on a bit of a detour trying to find the lift that had been arranged – turns out I had misunderstood the conversation back at the brief and thus the chance to see the start from the VIP box. Not a good start for my language skills!

Once en route with my team for the evening (Fanny, a student doctor and Yveline, a nurse) we made conversation – a mix of french and english – and talked about the evening ahead. Once at Les Contamines, we set up the first aid tent with various medical supplies and waited for the first arrivals. Before our work began, we had a quick graze from the food station – a little cheese, bread and saucisson with coffee – little did I know this was going to be my last chance to eat for about 4 hours!

IMG_0087 IMG_0088 IMG_0092

Just after 7pm, the first elite runners arrived through the checkpoint. No sooner than 10 minutes had passed and we were out in the area sectioned off for competitors and their families, helping out one of the runners who had collapsed. It was quite a shock to the system – the speed at which the cameras and media intruded to pry on one of the favourites, the rapidity of conversation and the sudden phone calls made back to Chamonix and the medical person in charge (PC Secours). Once in the sanctuary of the first aid tent, we were able to carry out our jobs and as we did, more and more competitors appeared for help.




It was a brilliant evening – we saw over 40 competitors in under 4 hours – at least 15 of whom abandoned the race for a variety of reasons. The day had been hot with hours spent queuing at registration and wondering around Chamonix in preparation for the start. By 8pm, many individuals were suffering with exhaustion, vomiting, GI upset and viral symptoms – somewhat indicative of the fact they probably shouldn’t have started the race in the first instance. One runner had flown from the USA only 2 days before, feeling unwell on arrival into France with cold-like symptoms. Perhaps not the best preparation for a 168km race….

So why, you have to wonder, do people line themselves up for a 168km race when they are feeling unwell? Perhaps to cross the start line and commit to the (months) of training and then have to withdraw on medical grounds is better than not starting? Expectations maybe……of family, friends and colleagues? It certainly is no mean feat to enter a race thousands of miles around the globe and then not start for fear of not finishing. Maybe they could rely on the medical teams to withdraw them from the race if too unwell…….or they could make it round just in time if they simply walked….. And the amount of money spent on kit… seemed every other person had the Salomon S-Lab rucksacks (retailing around £150) or an equivalent as well as the trail shoes, compression socks, vests, shorts and ultra-running poles. The weight of requisite kit to be carried can be minimised with purchasing more expensive equipment – and so many individuals perhaps had this financial burden in mind. Whatever the reasons, people were on their own individual journey and had a story to tell – and it was my job to help them continue that journey wherever possible.

Just after 1pm on Saturday 31st August, the first UTMB runner into Chamonix, Xavier Thevenard crossed the finish line to raptures of applause and celebration in a record time of 20h 34min. The atmosphere was electric – such an achievement on his first attempt – and still looking so fresh. Second and third place followed within 20 minutes…..these three were in a different league – minimal rucksacks, some without poles and none with compression socks. And yet they were home and finished….



So what for the other 2000+ competitors? I arrived at Vallorcine (altitude 1260m) at 10pm to find only 200 people had passed this checkpoint at 149km into the race. By now the clock had been ticking for 30 hours and hundreds of runners had dropped out and at least 1500 were still out on the course. It was going to be a long night….

The first aid post was housed in the train station overnight and together with Romain (a student doctor) and Alain (a nurse), we formed the last of the medical support for the UTMB. A total of 45 people came into the building for attention over the course of the evening – perhaps the same number again just to get a powernap ranging from 15 to 60 minutes. We popped blisters, strapped joints and massaged sore muscles with ‘Decontractyl’ for most of the evening. It was quite different to the initial pitfalls at Les Contamines – this time people were arriving in drips and drabs – sheer exhaustion and despair written across their faces. Tired families followed suit……many perhaps relieved they could take their loved ones home (despite the disappointment)…..others frustrated not to be able to get a seat on the half hourly coaches back to Chamonix…..some just as focussed on the finish line as they had been at the start of the race. It was amazing – all night the crowds gathered, cow bells rang in the moonlight and headtorches drifted slowly downhill from the mountain tops, headed straight for the food tent.




I surprised myself, spending most of the evening laughing and joking in French – where I had the vocabulary stored I will never know…but to have that confidence to tell stories and tales in another tongue was something I didn’t think possible. And even to speak with the locals…..they were just grateful for some rest and attention….


By 8.30am, the runners still coming in were a little more stressed out……the checkpoint closed at 9am…..they had been running all night and feet sore with blisters, joints aching from “mal de descent”, they barely had time to restock energy supplies, seek first aid and set off again. A few were in tears….it was awful to see. Once 9am had passed, runners coming through looked dejected…..their journey was over for this year. Still, a brilliant achievement to have made 149km. And yet for some……so disappointed and frustrated with themselves…… You have to think why but for some losing is not an option……one lady wearing an Ironman cap clearly had the drive and ability to go the distance but can that be translated so easily into the Alps? Maybe next year……



And so we packed up the post and waited for the last three runners and the two officials who had swept up the back of the course and collected all the waymark points. I boarded the bus back to Chamonix…..watching with intent at the many runners drifting in and out of sleep as their relatives sat with a sense of closure as they returned to comfort. For those still out on the course, it was a case of pushing on and testing the boundaries of physical and mental strength now – the latter perhaps more poignant to get across that finish. All that sat between them and glory was 19km and another massive climb…..

Once in Chamonix, I joined in the cheers and applause as runners trickled in towards the finish. I was in a happy daze…….shattered myself from supporting Reuben mid-week and for the time spent volunteering…. As I rounded the corner into the Place du Mont Blanc, I heard an uproar in the crowds. Looking up, I saw a British runner I’d given advice and simple treatment to overnight. He had been determined to finish despite having seized up a little and it was brilliant to see him finish….. And then another competitor who had almost given up with fatigue but who we encouraged to eat, take on some fluids and rest a little while longer…..


And so I returned to the apartment with a big smile on the face and many happy memories of a week spent in Chamonix. And how did I reward myself? Why, I entered the Lakeland 50 race in July next year. I am hooked – who wouldn’t be?



An alpine start for my photo safari!