Oxygen Debt

19 12 2010

Marlborough multisporters Andrea Koorey and Grant Clifford, recently did a 17 day trek in Nepal, which included a walk up Kala Pattar at 5500m (18,000 ft). Here’s Andrea’s story of experiencing the rigours of trekking at altitude.

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I used to think breathing got difficult when racing, or even training at times – think hill reps – but having spent 2 ½ weeks wandering around in the Himalayas including 12 days above 4000m, I have a different appreciation for breathing, exertion and oxygen.

A bunch of us got ourselves organised and flew off, in October, to Nepal for a few days in Kathmandu before heading for the mountains.

We flew from Kathmandu to the “worlds most dangerous commercial airport” (nobody told me of its claim to fame before I signed up) at Lukla (2800m) in the Khumbu Valley. Sir Ed did a great job developing a hospital, various schools, and said airport in the area but what a shame they couldn’t find a strip of land a bit longer and less steep on which to build it. The plane that crashed there between our arrival and departure only added to the reputation.

From there we walked – for 17 days. Amazing! I quickly forgot about responsibility, time schedules, cooking, washing dishes, (and showering!) and got into holiday mode taking in the 360 degree mountain views, Buddhist culture, friendly hospitality, and history of the region. I also very quickly became accustomed to being on the lookout for the next convenient bush or rocky outcrop to use for semi-discrete toilet stops which were annoyingly frequent due to the necessary intake of about 5 litres of water each day.

Above 4000m the lack of oxygen in the air was becoming particularly obvious and this was compounded by the chest infection I’d picked up. At least by that stage, I had stopped worrying about getting altitude sickness, possibly because my brain’s capacity seem to have diminished in the thin air and it was easier to limit my thinking to the essentials.

At 5500m there is half the amount of oxygen in the air compared to sea level and it felt like it! On the summit of Everest there is a third the oxygen at sea level – if I ever entertain ideas of summiting Everest I must remind myself of that fact.

Our route took us up the Gokyo Valley and to the top of Gokyo Ri (5300m) and over the Cho La Pass (5300m) and then on up the Khumbu Valley to Everest Base camp, with a side jaunt up Kala Pattar (5500m). Kala Pattar is a hill above Base Camp with outstanding views of the Khumbu icefall and Mt Everest, and it was the highest point of our journey. It has a similar gradient to Mt Vernon but climbing it seemed more like trying to sprint up Mt Robertson. This video will give you some idea of the exertion required at this altitude.

Unfortunately we didn’t have a nice day on Kala Pattar so we didn’t get the relatively close up look at the mighty Everest that we had hoped for but this didn’t detract from the overall experience of the trek – it merely means I will have to go again.

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