Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Go Save Jesus On Your Birthday...

Due to spotty (read... none) interweb, this is a post from last Saturday.
Today we completed a 24 hr rescue of 2 Slovakians that were trapped on the Southwest face of Everest. More on that later.
For now... May 7. 
The older you get, the less important birthdays are... right?
Well, this one was pretty important. 
I woke this morning only to remember that it was my birthday after seeing the date on my watch as I quickly pulled myself from bed to get dressed. We had work to do and birthdays were an afterthought. 
We received a call last night that there was an extremely critical climber circling the drain at Makalu Basecamp (19,100 ft). The report was that he was very close to death and everyone there was concerned he would not make it through the night. All the other important facts like age, gender, nationality, history or chief complaint were not filtered down to me so this would be flying in to the darkness towards an unknown situation. Pretty much par for the course over here. 
We spooled up the helicopter and were just about to lift off as a massive cloudbank enveloped the heliport in Lukla. The pilot turned down the engine and we watched in awe as the helicopter was instantly swallowed by white. Couldn't see 10 feet beyond the bird. 
And just as with most important things in life... the timing was quite auspicious. Moments later the bottom dropped out of the sky as a monsoonal rain pounded down for a solid 2 hours. If we had lifted off two minutes earlier, we absolutely would have never made it up to rescue this fellow some 10,000ft higher up and surely would have been shut down from returning to Lukla... and potentially a lot worse. We were grounded and would have to delay till the next morning. 
I went to sleep last night not knowing anything about this sick person that was surely having the shittiest night of their life. Perhaps he/she wouldn't even make it through the night. Maybe this person felt like we had abandon them. I tossed and turned wondering how alone and scared this person must feel. 
So this morning dawns with patchy clouds and no wind. I was fired up to get going and hopefully save this persons life. We spooled up again to go see what we would find some thirty nautical miles and a lifetime away from Lukla. 
Makalu is a stunning mountain a couple dozen miles east, southeast from Everest. It sits very close to the Tibetan border as a stand-alone sentinel almost to distance itself from the crowds on Everest. To fly there requires crossing one of several high passes. On marginal weather days it's advisable to start evaluating the succession of passes from lowest to highest... obviously using the the lowest one possible, only using the highest one as a last resort. 
As we crept up the valley, my pilot Nischal and I kept gazing out the right side of the bird to see if the lower, standard pass was open. Not a chance. Completely socked in. OK, higher up the the valley we eval the next option. Nope. Massive wall of clouds. Higher and higher up the valley we go. Past the last, highest village of Chukung. Then over Island Peak Basecamp and into a sea of clouds. Captain Nischal and I started referring to our strategy as "connecting the dots". He would fly a hundred yards and then find a little "sucker hole" and take it, each time gaining some altitude. We continued to climb... now over 20,000ft. I would occasionally catch a glimpse of some Himalayan giant out of the glass in front of me... just popping through a veil of clouds. We were heading for what I thought was the absolute highest pass over to the Makalu region and it looked fairly clear on our side. As we drew closer we both let out an audible "shit" as we saw the impassable cloudbank resting just on the other side of the pass. 
I thought that would be the end of it and we would turn back, but Nischal in his 18 years of Himalayan piloting said... "Let's try the very highest one. Our last shot." 
OK. Let's do it. 
We climbed another couple hundred feet and followed a massive, corniced wall as it hooked around to the north until a small nook appeared. The captain deftly crested about fifty feet over the ridge down the other side. The helo altimeter read 21,000ft. I could feel that the helicopter was straining at its max, cutting through the thin air with every rotor spin. 
Five minutes later we came in hot on top of Makalu Basecamp. Our patient was a mid 30s, Spaniard named Jesus that could not walk. With the help of the ground crew of Sherpa, I loaded him into the helo till he flopped into the back floor. I turned his oxygen mask up and told the captain that we were locked and loaded. He powered up the bird and I listened again as the rotors thwapped through the thin air. 
Jesus was a very experienced climber with five, 8,000-meter peaks on his resume. He had never had any physical problems in his 10-year career. Throughout the flight he continued to describe to me in Spanish how he was convinced he would have died within two hours of our arrival. He had been suffering from a very elevated heart rate and chest pain for 2 days and told me he was losing his will to fight. 
We flew him straight to the Lukla hospital where his tears flowed freely. I told that him that today was my birthday and he had given me the best present ever. He gave me the opportunity to be a part of a renewal of life. I was a part of a team that gave him the chance to celebrate another birthday of his own. 
I can't imagine a more profound gift.
Well... that, and we got to rescue Jesus on my birthday.
Pretty dope.