(Read about me developing trench foot and getting trench foot in “24 hours to escape Everest Pt. I”)
Getting Carried Down a Mountain and a Modern Case of Trench Foot: 24 Hours to Escape Everest Pt. I
Only 24 hours ago from writing this, I was sitting on the side of a road sobbing uncontrollably, unable to put any pressure on my foot as the top layers of skin had ripped away, leaving only raw, sensitive flesh that felt like razor blades every time I took a small baby step. The closest drivable town named Salleri still remained 2 whole hours away. This is where a jeep of my friends was waiting for me so we could leave the God-forsaken mountain trek and return to Kathmandu. I had put myself through hell for that jeep and 2 hours from the finish line I was left immobile. In 48 hours I had walked for 15 hours and around 50km up jagged rocks, through thick mud, over landslides, straight up for 4 hours, straight down for 2 hours, up a waterfall, through a river, exposed to leeches… I had done it all. For 4 days every action I took had been in order to leave the Everest region and return to Kathmandu as quickly as possible. Mentally, I was over it. I wanted to go home. I had waited 3 days for a plane that never came. I had agreed to pay for a helicopter but the weather was too bad for it to fly. I was feeling jittery and ready to get back to India to enjoy the few days remaining on my new tourist visa before my flight to the US. So jittery, I actually agreed to redo the most taxing and difficult part of the entire trek in half my original time. And it seemed like, just as I was almost there, just as I could almost taste the freedom, everything was caving in on itself.
Unfortunately, my foot would prove to be only one of many problems that occurred in those 24 final hours.
Taking a moment to back up, I have just finished my trek to Everest Base Camp (yay!). Most people doing EBC (as I discussed in my last blog) fly from Kathmandu to a mountain town named Lukla to do a moderately difficult 12- to 14-day trek. However, for those of us that like to make life difficult for ourselves, you can also take a jeep to Salleri, a town 55 km (34 miles) away from Lukla. This adds an extra 4 grueling days and the path is significantly more rugged and demanding compared to the more popular route. I told everyone that would listen that this was the hardest part of the entire trek, and I was happy about being able to fly from Lukla back to Kathmandu instead. Even on the third day of white fog blanketing Lukla and preventing anyone from leaving, I was telling my new trekking buddies in foul language how horrible that trek was, how crazy they were to attempt it, and that I was never repeating it.
Ten minutes later my bags were packed and I was walking down the mountain with them. I had panicked. The weather looked bad for more than a week and I worried that I’d get stuck in Lukla forever. I desperately wanted to get back to India for the mere week I had on my new visa. My friend’s Nepali guide said if we worked hard we could do the whole trek in two days and then take an overnight jeep. It seemed like a sure thing. The flights didn’t. So I took off.
Our group consisted of 2 Nepali guides from different tour companies, their clients (1 Aussie guy I had met early on, 1 Chilean girl no one knew), an American guy I met near the beginning of the trek, and 1 solo, lazy chick (me). We were all pretty desperate and determined to get out for different reasons and I believed we would, no matter how terrible it was. You can only drive to Salleri, after that the path is too choppy for a vehicle. Let me stress this: the only reason I agreed to this trek was because it would only take two days and a private overnight car. Any extra time and I would have mortgaged a house in Lukla and just given up on leaving the country.
The first day was taxing, but we made it halfway. The second day was brutal. It consisted of a 4-hour steep uphill climb full of blue skies in which we could watch airplanes and helicopters happily busing relaxed tourists out of Lukla while we sweated and panted underneath them. We had made the wrong decision. The weather was beautiful. It taunted us. By the time we were only a few hours out, I was significantly behind my group due to a pain in my foot. I told them to go ahead though, I’d hobble down the mountain as fast as I could to the jeep waiting for us. The hard part is over, I thought. Now it’s a gentle downhill for only about 2 hours. No worries. I even joked with one of the guys about the two of them leaving me in Salleri since I was too slow and he said, “that would never happen, we’re in this together.”
So let’s return to 5:24pm September 19th: Gwen is sobbing uncontrollably trying to remove a wet sock but the pain of even that is so much she can’t take it.
It will get dark in an hour and I’m two hours out. How do we solve this problem? Two Nepali men walked by on the path and saw me bawling and stopped to see what was wrong. They made a moaning noise upon seeing my foot. One tried to touch it and it made me sob more. The overly saturated skin was falling off leaving raw flesh. Luckily one spoke English quite well, better than most of the locals I had met. I explained that I needed to get to Kathmandu and my friends and a jeep were waiting for me in Salleri. I told him I had no phone and no number to contact them. I asked if I could arrange a horse; they said they didn’t think it was possible but convinced me to stand up and start walking with them. One of them took my bag and the other gave me an extra walking stick.
They stopped other locals to inquire about a horse but it wasn’t a possibility. They suggested I stop at a house for the night but I explained again that the jeep was waiting for me and I had no way to tell my friends that I wasn’t coming. Maybe my friends would wait for me for hours or even cancel the jeep. What if they sent a rescue party? No. We needed to get to Salleri as fast as possible. Plus, selfishly, I desperately wanted to leave. I guess I was hobbling at an extra pathetic pace because then one of the guys turned to me and said, “Ok. We carry you.”
And that’s how two Nepali guys started carrying me down the mountain.
The taller one took my bag and my walking stick. The smaller one, no taller than me and probably around my weight, bent over and threw me on his back and took off down the mountain in flip flops. After about 5-6 minutes he would get tired and I would go back to hobbling.
I guess two Nepali guys carrying a beat up looking blonde down a mountain sparked some curiosity among the locals (there were no other trekkers in the area at this point in the day) because eventually another random Nepali guy joined our group of aid workers. Mostly only the small English teacher took me, but once the taller one gave it a try and, despite his appearance, he wasn’t as strong as the little English teacher.
At one point the English teacher, carrying me best as possible, came across a small flood on the road. Instead of just walking through the ankle-deep water, he decided to walk to the edge of the cliff, and in a moment of sheer terror, he jumped on a large rock on the edge with me on his back and then proceeded to hop from rock to rock. We were literally playing a piggy-back hop scotch game on a rocky ledge.
Anything to get to Kathmandu.
Yet another guy joined us, bringing our entourage number up to a whopping 4 Nepali locals and me, the sun-burnt, trench foot ridden, smelly trekker. The fourth to join our crew was a similarly short guy but it didn’t take long for us to realize he was the strongest of them all. He carried me for significantly further than the other two had at any point and would put me down for only a second before lifting me again and running across a swing bridge or up a river bank.
Dusk set. We stopped and asked a woman if we could borrow her motorcycles parked in front of her house but she said they didn’t work. More carrying. We stopped for tea and they ordered a jeep to be brought as far up the road as it could go. They said only 15 more minutes of carrying me. It was 7pm now and pitch black so they strapped a headlamp to me.
At first I felt a bit guilty for what these men were doing for me, but at some point I had a feeling they were enjoying it a bit. It seemed like they wanted to see who could carry me the longest and go the fastest and they would laugh and joke around. I heard one of them saying he wished he had a head strap to carry me the way porters carrying their 50 kilo loads through the mountains. At some point they experimented with innovation and slung a jacket under my butt to help support my weight without touching me anywhere inappropriate.
15 more minutes. I suspected my team arrived in Salleri at 5pm. I had mentioned to them that I may be an hour or so behind them so I hoped, knowing that I was injured, they were waiting patiently and weren’t too worried about me. I hoped they wouldn’t be angry at having to wait; I knew how desperate we all were to get to Kathmandu. More than anything I hoped they hadn’t assembled any sort of search party for me yet. As we finished our trek, I scrutinized every flashlight-holding passerby to determine if it was one of my friends or one of their guides.
And then finally we got to the beautiful jeep and drove to Salleri. And then we drove around Salleri looking for any foreigners in lodges. And then, when I didn’t see anyone familiar, the jeep driver called his jeep driver buddies and told me,
“Yeah, a jeep with some foreigners left an hour ago.”
But no. It couldn’t be my foreigners. I barely spoke with the Chilean girl so sure, maybe she left. But the two guys? We had been in it since the beginning. We’d talked about life and death and every juicy detail in between. They knew more about me than most of the Indian people I’ve been hanging out with for a year. They knew I wanted to be back in Kathmandu so badly that I had agreed to walk 48 hours in the worst trek I’ve ever done. And the one had even laughed at the idea of leaving me behind as if it was a ridiculous statement only 5 hours ago. He told me we were a crew now. We were in this together. And I had told him, “You guys leaving me in Salleri is the only thing I can think of right now that would bring me to tears” while chuckling at the absurdity of the hypothetical situation.
“Yeah, its your friends,” the English teacher said, “They are in the next district over.” He handed me a small cellphone that looked like it had been rejected from the year 1998.
It was one of the guys.
“Where are you?”
He said something I couldn’t understand. I asked him to repeat. Again just gibberish. I asked a third time as politely as I could muster.
“We had to go,” he said.
Four words. We had to go. And then silence. He hung up. Just like that. So I was stranded in Salleri, alone, with a destroyed foot, 4 Nepali locals looking horrified at the situation, and a driver who wanted his 800 rupees ($8) for rescuing me. The English teacher told me to spend the night in a lodge and I could go to Kathmandu in the public jeep the next morning. But I was devastated. I felt totally dejected and abandoned. Betrayed. Friendless. Plus, I wanted time to see a doctor about my foot in Kathmandu and I wanted to get back to India.
So I told them I wanted to take the jeep to Kathmandu that night and we agreed on a price: 16,000 rupees for the 9-hour ride. $160. It was a lot. Cheaper than most tourists get a jeep for (the going price is $200), but they typically split the cost between multiple people. More expensive than my plane ticket from Lukla to Kathmandu. I can’t stress how upset I was in this moment. I hadn’t washed my hair in three weeks. My foot was swelling and tingling. The time on my India visa was dwindling. And at this moment in time I really hated Nepal and really wanted to leave. Plus, emotionally, I was wrecked. I had opened up and been kind of these people and felt as though, since I was the weakest link, I was too inconvenient to wait for.
So I agreed on the price and it was agreed that two of the Nepali guys would accompany me to Kathmandu for free (my way of saying thank you for their help). And we left.
I spent most of the car ride thinking about this kind of balance, about how these men who didn’t know me had gone out of their way to help and the people I felt closest with hadn’t. I thought a lot about the type of person I wanted to be and how Westerners are so much more selfish than the people I have met in India (and Nepal) when it comes to favors.
A lot of emotional stuff went through my head that night. Eventually I drifted off around midnight with the jeep bumping manically up and down the rocks of the jagged rock and dirt road from Salleri. But soon I would wake up at 4 am on the side of the road to an empty van….
I’ll post the second part of my 24 manic hours finishing my EBC tomorrow. Before you hate too hard on my friends, the pt. 2 involves a bit of redemption and a visit to the police station.