News: Rescue Stops First Summit Team Eric Simonson - Basecamp Mon, May 07, 2001 3:30AM
About the only thing we can be sure of on an Everest climb is that our plans are going to change. This was certainly the case yesterday, Sunday May 6. Our first summit team of Tap, Jake, and John had left Base Camp after breakfast and was making good time on their way up to ABC. At the same time, our two non guided climbers, Terry LaFrance and Mike Otis, who had both climbed up to Camp 5 on an acclimatization run the day before, were heading down to BC for a few rest days.
At about 11am Terry came on the radio, calling from about 20,000 feet, near the site of Camp 2. He had come across a bizarre entourage of four Chinese and one Tibetan carrying an unconscious Chinese man.
Terry's call to Base Camp on his 5 watt Icom walkie talkie was picked up by me (Eric) on the Base Station here. Terry's description of his condition (severe dificulty breathing) made it clear that this guy was in bad shape, likely suffering from Pulmonary Edema (see earlier dispatch from Dr. Lee Meyers on HACE and HAPE). I instructed Terry to help squeeze a nifedipine gelcap under his tongue, stabilize his airway, and help them carry the guy down. Mike, who left ABC a few minutes after Terry, soon joined them and offered additional horsepower for carrying this Chinese man down the rugged boulders of the East Rongbuk. I knew from past experience (in 1994 we had a Sherpa suffer a stroke at ABC, and had to evacuate him) that a carry to Base Camp would take a large number of people. At this point I talked to our Sherpas at Base Camp (who were enjoying a rest day) and told them we needed some people to go up and meet the crew coming down and provide help. Four of them volunteered immediately, and we sent them up at noon.
Shortly after this I was able to piece together the story of just who these Chinese people were. It turned out they were not climbers, but were in fact glaciologists from a Chinese University. They had driven all the way to Base Camp in four days, spent two days at BC, then gone immediately to ABC with Tibetan yaks. In eight days from sea level, they were at their 21,000 camp, a little below the main site of ABC. They were planning on studying the East Rongbuk glacier, and had brought equipment for drilling ice cores, etc. Most of them were graduate students, accompanied by a couple of professors. They had little if any high altitude experience.
Now one of their team mates was very sick, and his small procession was moving slowly down the glacier. At some point they were joined by some more Tibetans, who assisted with the carrying (after being promised money by the Chinese). At noon I talked to Tap, Jake, and John, who were getting close to IC, and told them that they were going to be running into this group of people coming down. Within the hour, they did, and they reported that the Chinese patient was indeed very sick, with bloody froth coming from his mouth, and difficulty breathing. At this point I had them administer another 10 mg of nifedipine, and sent John back to IC to get our emergency oxygen that we had stashed there. One of the accompanying Chinese informed Tap and Jake that there was another sick Chinese coming down behind them. Tap and Jake started up to investigate, and a few minutes later, they ran into a second Chinese patient, who had appeared out of nowhere. This guy had cerebral edema, and could barely walk. He was being assisted by a couple more Chinese glaciologists, who themselves were pretty sick. Another radio conversation followed, and it became clear that there were some pretty sick people up there, and that they all needed our help. At this point I told Tap and Jake to load the new patient up with dexamethasome and help him down.
Meanwhile the first entourage of Chinese, Tibetans, Terry, Mike, and the pulmonary edema patient (who now became known as Papa Echo on our radio transmissions) had made it to IC at 19,000 feet, where John had the oxygen ready to go (and a second bottle in reserve). At the same time, the cerebral edema patient (who we started calling Charley Echo on the radio) ceased being able to stumble any more, and Tap and Jake started taking turns piggy-backing him. Once John got the oxygen on Papa Echo, they were ready to go again, except that now the Tibetans who had been helping, all decided to go on strike. A big argument ensued, and the Tibetans started taking apart the improvised litter, since they said it was using their rope. It was looking like a big problem, as Charley Echo was fading, it was now 2pm, and darkness was not far away. I organized our remaining Sherpas to start up from BC with more oxygen, in case Charley Echo got worse, and they left along with Brent, Dave, and Andy. Meanwhile, John and the Chinese agreed to buy the rope from the Tibetans, which enabled them to keep the litter. Then, with no alternative, and no further help from the Tibetans apparently forthcoming, John, Terry, Mike, and the Chinese started carrying Papa Echo (now on O2) down the trail, just as our first four Sherpas showed up. As soon as the Tibetans saw the Sherpas, they all decided to help again (maybe they realized the Sherpas were taking their job, and that their bargaining position had just gone to zero). Anyway, it was good that the Tibetans stayed to help, because they were quite strong.
Shortly after starting down from IC, Papa Echo started lapsing into unconsciousness, despite the oxygen. It was becoming apparent to me and Dr. Lee at Base Camp, that this guy was fading fast. At this time Lee had Jake administer the first (of what would eventually be more than a half dozen) injections of dexamethasome, which seemed to help a little. By this time the motley parade consisted of Charley Echo, who could occasionally walk, as the dexamethasome kicked in, Tap, Jake, John, Terry, Mike, four Chinese, a half a dozen Tibetans, and four Sherpas. Then it started to snow.
As Papa Echo went from bad to worse, we had the rescue team turn up the oxygen from 4 to 6 and finally to 8 liters per minute. At this rate they blew through the first bottle in a couple hours. Fortunately, they had the second O2 bottle from IC, which was put on him. In the rocky and bouldery terrain below IC, the team finally decided to re-rig the litter into a pack system, to be carried by one person at a time on the narrow rocky trail. This they did, and started a succession of individual carries of Papa Echo, which would ultimately take him to Base Camp.
Andy met up with Charley Echo, as it started to get dark, administered more dexamethasome, and helped him (along with a couple of Sherpas and Chinese, supporting him under each arm, walk and stumble down the trail. Meanwhile, Papa Echo, sucking O2 at 8LPM, and getting 4mg of IM dex every hour, remained responsive only to painful stimuli. As it continued to snow and get dark, the team picked their way down past Camp 1 and finally down the steep trail to the Central Rongbuk moraine as it got pitch dark. By this time the second bottle of O2 had been all used up, and the third, carried up from BC by the Sherpas, was plugged in to his mask. Also, at this time, an additional 10mg gelcap of nifedipine was squeezed under his tongue. By moonlight, the party picked its way down the rocky trail to the jeeps, waiting at the glacial snout. From here, the patients were driven the last half mile to our Base Camp, where Lee was waiting.
In our communications tent, we had set up an infirmary. First Papa Echo was unpacked and quickly evaluated by Lee. On 8LPM his O2 saturation was 91%, but as soon as we took the mask off, it dropped to 73% in two minutes because of his severe pulmonary edema. He was still unresponsive, due to the lack of oxygen to his brain for an unknown length of time before we started O2 on him. After checking him over, and giving him yet another shot of dex, we put him in the Gamow Bag on oxygen at 4LPM (this is not a normally approved technique, but due to the severity of his problem, it was felt that it was reasonable). He remained in the bag for two hours while preparations were made for his evacuation. During this time in the bag he responded occasionally by opening his eyes to the Chinese who were yelling at him from the outside. After Papa Echo went in the Bag, Charley Echo was checked. He was doing a lot better, with 4,000 feet of descent under his belt, and a lot of meds on board.
After two hours in the Bag, Papa Echo was pulled out (still unconscious, but apparently stable and breathing), given another shot of dex, loaded in the jeep, a fourth bottle of O2 connected to his mask (his O2 sat remained at 87% on the O's), and the driver told not to stop until he got to the hospital in Shigatse. And that was the end of our epic day.
The aftermath this morning was like the morning after a big party. Tap had sprained his back carrying the litter and was suffering from sciatica. Jake had twisted his knee carrying Papa Echo on his back and was hobbling around. Brent had aggravated the cough he had brought down with him from his last time up the hill. Only JR, Dave, and Andy looked relatively unscathed.
So that is our next summit team. Tomorrow, Dave, John, and Andy head up the big hill. Everyone else gets a few days of recovery time. All we can be sure of it that our plans will probably change again.