Tag Archives: the Himalayas

Don’t Panic!

First published: 20/04/2010

It is almost a year since my mammoth marathon challenge and you may be wondering what has been ‘happning man’ since, well are you?   Oh Good.
Then I shall endeavor to tell a few tales of  highs and lows of the past 12 months. Of course it won’t be all in one sitting and it may go on a bit but at least you can pop back now and then for a little snippet or two and at least you haven’t got the embarrassing scenario of acting interested whilst I waffle on endlessly to you face to face, now that’s a bonus believe me.

So, where on earth do I begin? Well I will start by telling you that until a couple of days ago I was signed up again for this years Edinburgh marathon race, I kept this a bit of a secret from Paul as I did not want him to anticipate the trauma of enduring my moans, groans, ache, pains and more groans throughout my training regime. As it happens though amidst my plans for life and life’s plans me, somethings sometimes just do not always go to plan.

In November Paul and me headed out to Nepal for 5 weeks of mountain trekking in the Himalayas. Paul had worked a hectic year with his wedding photography and I had just finished my exams for my 3rd year Open Uni degree, so we were really excited about returning to Nepal. This would be our 4th trip since 2001.  We had researched and planned a 2 week trek around Manaslu and continuing along parts of the Annapurnas for another 10 days. We had to hire a guide to be able to be permitted to trek independently as at this time it was only open to guided tours.

We have always trekked unguided and so to overcome the legalities to obtain our trekking permits we found a guide who was willing to just set off in the mornings with us and meet up in the evenings, leaving us to do our thing in the daytime.  Tikka was more than willing to just come along  for the easiest guiding trip ever.

Manaslu is ‘still’ relatively free from tourists but is on the cusp of change, much due to I feel, the problems arising in the Annapurna region, the beautiful but often very crowded ‘Annapurna Circuit’ and ‘Sanctuary’ treks have gained some controversy over road building projects which now enable visitors, and of course locals alike, to practically drive the circuit apart from the Thorung-La pass and a few of the higher places around the village and area of Manang.  These changes equate to many disgruntled trekkers who value the ‘off the beaten track’  now searching further afield. Manaslu is the neighbouring mountain range and the valleys all link up with established paths used by locals for carrying supplies up the valleys to remote villages are already in place. I sensed whilst there that we had trekked Manaslu at a golden time, selfishly wanting it to remain the unspoiled place that it is. Anyway I will not enter the politics of tourism versus improvements for local communities as it will lead me off on many a tangent. Perhaps for another time.

Like I said, this was to be our 4th trip and all of them have been about trekking to high altitudes of five and half thousand metres, some a little more. Sally and altitude are not good companions, this doesn’t mean that I suffer the normal symptoms of altitude sickness but I seem to have my own ‘bespoke’ ailments that have baffled the medical staff that I have encountered.
When the air is thin, [ lacking in oxygen ] everyone feels breathless with the slightest physical exertion, its hard to walk at any pace than a tortoise and trying to talk the same time is out of the question. Nights are blessed with erratic sleep patterns as your breathing stops, then you gasp and wake up, then fall back to sleep again only to have the same gasping breath again and again, you have very weird dreams also. Then morning comes and you awake in the cold and dark  [even though you haven’t really slept] feeling dreadful.  After a breakfast usuallyof porridge or eggs with Tibetan bread, comes  the delight of shoving on your backpack to continue the ascent. Oh and I forgot to say, its bloody freezing at night, actually as soon as the sun goes down around 5 to 6 pm, on go the woolly socks, hat, mittens and ‘down’ jacket and you try to keep warm all huddled together in the basic, often quickly erected un-insulated wood lodges.
So yes this is the usual experience for everyone, but on top of that you can get very poorly if you ascend too quickly that your body does not oxygenate sufficiently and you are dehydrated which is easy in the dry air with your body working overtime; a poor diet and having to filter water to drink.
Symptoms of altitude sickness often begin with headaches and nausea with a high heart rate that do not abate at rest. When this occurs it is very wise to descend at least to your previous nights stop and if all is well after a rest day you can gently ascend again.

For me, I have never experienced such symptoms but no matter which way I approach my walking in altitude, I end up with the same problems. I start to feel weak and very breathless,never a head ache but  my heart racing and leaping about all over the shop. Then I just come to a complete standstill, unable to put one foot in front of the other, it is hard to describe the feeling but you become quite spaced out and just want to lay down [even in the middle of the track]. I really thought that I could conquer this and even though the past experiences had been really horrid and scary, my goldfish brain manages to forget it and off I go on another high altitude expedition!
All was well, we had reached our camping spot at 4,500 metres and although it was slow going for me I felt OK with just the normal breathlessness. The next morning we rolled out of our frozen tent into are frozen boots, packed  and headed up to the Lark ya-la pass at 5, 310m which is lower than many I had walked before. But my god, it was one of the hardest days I have ever encountered in the mountains and the last 200m to the top of the pass felt like a never ending torture. I could hardly walk but I could not face turning back either which was a much further distance.
Paul reached the top and then came back down to me and insisted on carrying my pack the last 50m as by this point I was a mere shuffling zombie and could only do about 10 painfully slow  paces at a time before I conked.
I got to the top, we rested a while and I tried to take in the scenery which was pretty splendid. We ate the last of our supplies of hard boiled eggs and a snicker bar.  After a long rest we continued slowly down, we had no choice but to go slow, the path was extremely steep. Snow and ice-covered and having taken so long to get this far, the sun had melted the surface into a downhill skating rink. we didn’t have crampons but thankfully had sticks to aid our journey down to Bhimtang at 3,800m where a couple of lodges lay in wait.
Now the strange thing is that all my symptoms vanish as soon as I am descending, no exertion I guess but we had the longest and most arduous of days ever. We got to Bhimtang in the dark, greeted by a smiling Tikka our guide who we had sent on ahead the day before with a local villager on horseback as he did not have a tent to camp out with us before the pass. We were elated and that evening ate our dhalbat and drank our drinks with a siege mentality. I slept so well that night too.  The next morning we sprang down the valley with renewed vigor and enjoyed every moment absorbing the landscape of woods, rivers and mountain vistas. We stayed in the last village of the Manaslu valley before it joined the Annapurna route.
We reached the part of the journey where the path crossed the bridge and joined the lower part of the Annapurna circuit and we felt like we had arrived in asome cosmopolitan town. Dharapani had hoards of hotels offering hot showers and a food menu to die for. We had only walked a couple of hours that morning to reach Dharapani where we would say farewell to Tikka our guide and rest up for a couple of days before heading out to Pokhara via a route which would take us along the lush middle hills and valleys making a contrast to the high mountain terrain.
We were now at 1900m and well out of the altitude zone but all was not well. After a hearty breakfast we ventured the couple of hundred metres to the little village store for shampoo and soap, Quite suddenly I developed all the symptoms of being up in 5000m, I just conked out and  sat down on a rock unable to move. Thinking that I could be low in sugar, Paul returned to the little shop for chocolate but it made no difference so I slowly returned the few metres to the hotel and went to bed. later that day I got up and ate some food and drank lots of tea thinking that I could be dehydrated but I just felt ridiculously breathless and my heart just seemed to beat peculiarly. I felt very uncomfortable and unsure what we should do. Paul went to the village to find a doctor. He arrived in later but spoke little English, he told me my blood pressure was quite low [it usually does drop in altitude] and gave me re-hydration salts. I drank them in a litre of water immediately and through the rest of the evening and next morning sipped away at fluids but I wasn’t getting any better and by the 3rd day I was in fact worse and took to bed where I felt like I was going to die, I could not even lift my hand to hold a drink, I developed spasms in my legs and lower body and my heart would not stop racing, it was horrid and I felt very scared.
Much to our dismay we had left our insurance emergency contact card in Kathmandu, very clever eh!, Paul by now in a state of despair in seeing the condition I was in, rushed to the local conservation office where there was a telephone and tried to get help from the officers there but they just shrugged and were most unwilling to help, they didn’t have any emergency rescue numbers to give either.  Thankfully Paul spotted the British Embassy number for Kathmandu pinned up by a trekker on the notice board. [thank you so much whoever you were]. The Embassy were brilliant and immediately found our insurance number online and telephoned them. They responded and organized a helicopter rescue, there was no other way out of the mountains as the road end was a few days away.
Meanwhile back in my room I was secretly saying my prayers and actually saying my goodbyes as I really thought I was ‘popping me clogs’. It was now 3pm, the emergency call had been at 10 am, we were told that if the helicopter did not get to us before 4pm they would have to wait til the morning, the cloud would be too dense for them to attempt to fly.
I was carried by  Sundar the hotel manager and a porter out to the school field where the helicopter was expected to land with Paul carrying both of our heavy backpacks. By now I was starting to feel a little better but very weak. We sat on a wall and waited, and waited, the minutes ticked by until it was 4pm and no sign of the helicopter. More time passed and hearts were sinking fast, at 20 past 4, Sundar and the porter decided to go back to the hotel to find out if there was any news. Paul and me sat huddled watching the thick clouds roll in up the valley. We feared the worse.

“‘They are coming! they are coming!’ Sundar was shouting and with that we heard the sound of the rotor blades. In a cloud of dust the helicopter dropped down onto the dry dusty field, we crawled down under the blades and hurled ourselves inside covered in lumps of the whisked up grass and dirt, there was no stopping at this hour of the day, they had to get back out of the narrow valley and down to Kathmandu fast.
Well if I don’t die of whatever I’m suffering this flight  may just finish us both off,. These were my bleary thoughts as we flew in thick cloud with no visibility except the odd peep of the gigantic mountainsides which looked touchable from where we sat. an hour and a half later we were being driven by ambulance through the noise, dust and chaos of the Kathmandu streets to the hospital.

As you can see, I survived to tell all, albeit briefly [yes truly this is brief]  there was a lot more to the story.

To sum up. I stayed in the hospital for 2 days and nights. That was an experience which I wish not to repeat which I will describe another time. I left with the doctors unable to find anything wrong but suggested that it may have been exhaustion.

Our holiday still had another 10 days left so after a couple of days we decided to get out of the Kathmandu pollution and go to Pokhara where I could convalesce. I was still feeling very weak and breathless with the slightest effort of walking. After the mad 8 hour bus journey to Pokhara, I insisted on Paul going off to do a few days walking, he deserved it and after all, I was now in a comfy hotel with telephone etc. I would be fine and I was. I just pottered around every day, eating loads and regaining my strength in the relative calm and fresh air of Pokhara.

So what was it all about? you may be asking, I was asking myself the same thing when after a month of returning home we set off for a day in the snowy Scottish mountains where to my utter disbelief I encountered the same symptoms; heart leaping, legs coming to a halt and feeling dreadful. Thinking I may have a heart problem or something peculiar I saw my own doctor the next day, she booked me an appointment with the cardiologist, but a week later after seeing the nurse for blood tests, I was walking in town and came to a halt again, I had to sit on the pavement and eventually got myself to a the nearest shop where they called me a taxi to take me back to my doctors surgery.  This was just crazy, what was happening to me? I have never had to call a taxi in my life, I walk or cycle practically everywhere but I truly couldn’t  get myself  even to the nearest bus stop, my heart was racing so much I thought I was going to pass out or even worse drop dead!
My doctor sent me off to hospital but by the time I got there I was fine again, now this was weird. The nice hospital doctor did all the necessary tests and more chest x-rays looking for sinister blood clots etc but nothing showed.
I was promptly kitted up with a heart monitor for 24 hrs and launched myself up the Pentland hills to give it a good test, I felt fine. in all the 24 hours of monitoring  but on occasions over the following weeks I would wake up feeling ‘not quite right’ and sometimes when I attempted to walk up the road to the shops, the symptoms would start, only mildly but I would scamper back home just in case.  To be honest I was becoming afraid every time I left the flat.

I wanted to find out what was going on so turned to the internet,typed in my symptoms and up came Panic Attacks. Paul’s sister, a nurse had suggested this as a possibility but I couldn’t relate to it until I read on…yes, this was it I WAS, I felt sure, having panic attacks, albeit my initial symptoms in the mountains may have been triggered by exhaustion but the trauma had set off a pattern of bodily responses to me getting out of breath. It all made perfect sense to me even though everyone I knew said that I was not a ‘panicky’ kind of person, I felt that this was it. I began to work on the advise offered and it helped me so much.
When I saw the cardiologist a month later who had all the results and case history  but was baffled. She just couldnt find what was wrong. I put the panic attack theory to her, ‘well it could be that, but you don’t come across as a panicky type of person to me’   was her response. Yes I know, but is there a ‘panic attack’ type of person? I had by now read so many accounts from a wide eclectic mix of people of their experiences that I felt that the subject was not fully understood by the majority of people and even the medical profession had not suggested it to me.
I silently worked with my gut instincts and slowly but surely I built up my confidence, I diverted my panicky feelings but did not shut them off or block them but grew to understand my physical irrational responses to situations, the more I spoke with people, even in my immediate family, the more people opened up  about their own panic attacks…there is a lot of it about but we just don’t know whats happening to us.

It is August and I am now panic free but it doesn’t mean to say that they could not return but at least now I wont ‘panic over them’.One thing that worked for me was to reduce my caffeine intake. I have never drunk more than the occasional coffee but drink pints of tea. I switched to Roobosh/Redbush tea as its natually caffeine free and it really did help me recover.

If anyone reading this is suffering the same and feel they need to talk about it with someone, please feel free to get in touch, I think it is something that most people would keep secret from others, feeling embarrassed or they really don’t know what is happening thinking its all psychosomatic.
Panic attacks are for real and so disabling. They can take away so much freedom and choice turning many lovely people with so much ability into a recluse, living in fear. Because that’s what you feel like when the adrenaline button switches on at the wrong moment and sets your heart thumping around all over the shop.

I didn’t quite make the marathon as you probably would have guessed but I am back running again for pleasure and to wear off all the cakes and chocolate that I adore eating. My goldfish brain is still with me and we booked another trip to mountains but this time they were under the 3,000 metre mark in the Pyrenees in France, so I’m learning. I won’t be venturing any higher than this in the future but that’s fine, there’s a vast array of mountains out there to explore.

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