This is definitely not the blog I wanted to write… but ultimately, I feel lucky to be writing it, because it means that I am alive, that I have all my fingers (and toes!) and thankfully managed to survive a close call on K2, the world’s second highest mountain.
On an acclimatisation rotation to camp2 at 6600m on K2, I came down with AMS (acute mountain sickness) and early symptoms of Cerebral Oedema (swelling of the brain).
We arrived in Camp 2 at 6600m after a six hour climb from C1.
We got into our tents around lunch time, and within an hour or two, I started to come down with a head ache. “damn de-hydration” I thought, and got boiling more water. Noel could tell something wasn’t right too and took over the lions share of the tent admin. I’d been slowly shutting down all day. But, I was convinced I was fine, just tired probably, and dehydrated. I never get headaches. It must just be dehydration.
The more I drank though, the worse my headache seemed to get. By night fall, I couldn’t eat any anything, I felt sick and my pounding head was the only thing I could think about.
That night, I slept fitfully, waking up it felt like every 5 minutes, my temples searing hot, feeling like my skull was going to split in half. I was so exhausted, but my head just wouldn’t let me sleep. I was sure though, that my headache would be gone by morning. My body just needed to digest the fluids I’d taken on, and get some rest. I’m just a bit run down, I kept telling myself.
By morning, I woke up with the yellow hue of the tent burning through my eye lids. I felt exhausted, like my arms and legs were weighted down. I couldn’t even muster the energy to open my eyes. And that’s when I first saw the blood vessels in my eyes pounding with my pulse. Noel was awake. I could hear him rustling about. “Noel, I can see blood vessels pounding in my eyes, is that normal?” I said, my eyes still closed. “No” he said. Even then, I thought “damn head ache!”
Noel pottered around, getting a boil on, and making some tea for breakfast. I kept telling myself that it was time to sit up, help out, not be so lazy- I honestly felt like a lazy teenager or something! But, I just couldn’t seem to muster the energy to move, the headache was so blindingly painful, it took all my energy just to process the pain. I could feel my head pounding with every heart beat.
“Why have I still got this bloody headache?” I said out loud. Noel paused, then turned to me and said “I think you might have altitude sickness.”
The words lingered in the air. “No…” I finally said “I’m just run down. I’ve never had altitude sickness before. I’m pretty sure it’s just a headache.”
In all honesty, the thought of having altitude sickness had not entered my head even once in the 18 hours we’d been at camp 2. Even in my confusion as to why my headache wasn’t subsiding with fluids and pain killers, altitude sickness still didn’t even come into consideration. I have never had it before, I’ve always been strong at altitude, it just didn’t seem possible.
But of course, it was. Altitude sickness can strike even the most experienced mountaineer quite suddenly and seemingly out of the blue. I have climbed 3 8000m peaks, and been in the death zone for many days. We spent 2 nights at camp 4 on Everest, 2 nights at camp 4 on Lhotse and climbed Manaslu in one push, with no acclimatisation above 5500m. My body knew altitude, and it knew 6600m was essentially just the start. I had spent probably weeks of my life at this height, and never had a problem once, it felt so low, far too low, to get something as serious as altitude sickness. But I was soon to learn, just above 6000m is exactly where it typically starts.
The day seemed to pass in a blur of semi-consciousness. My head wanted to explode and that was all I could think about. I wanted to be sick all the time. I couldn’t muster the energy to eat, drink, even sit up to take a pain killer. I couldn’t think straight. I just lay there and prayed for the pain to go away. I tried to hide it, but finally, Noel called Yuri, our team mate and the team doctor.
Dr Yuri kindly came to our tent to assess me, as there was no way I could have even moved, let alone dressed myself to step outside. He asked to see my eyes (I had my sunglasses on because the light, even inside the tent, was painful). “Ok Bonita” he said, “I can see you have swelling all around your face and eyes- this is a typical sign of AMS, but tell me what your symptoms are.” I listed off the nausea, the searing pain, allergy to light, total lethargy. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was basically listing every classic symptom of AMS and more worryingly, signs of Cerebral Oedema, which is extremely dangerous and life threatening.
Dr Yuri took and deep breath and very calmly said in his Mexican accent “Ok. Bonita. You need to go down. I am going to give you some drugs, and in the morning, early, you go down.”
Noel was right all along. He gave me a dose of Diamox from the expedition medical kit.
I don’t remember much of that night, other than that I wondered how on earth I was every going to climb down the mountain. “You have no choice” I told myself. And yet, I couldn’t even muster the energy to sit up and take another Diamox pill because my headache was so encompassing that I daren’t turn my head or even move an inch.
Morning came, and the thought of moving was overwhelming. I lay in my sleeping bag, the tears streaming down my cheeks. “How am I going to do this?” I thought “I can’t do this.” I had to.
Noel and I made it back to base camp later that day. I had to sit down every few minutes- even with the end in sight, I had nothing left to give. He was a true hero sticking with me, and looking after me for those 2 days in Camp 2.
Upon reaching base camp, I knew my expedition was over. A helicopter was called (the key thing with altitude sickness is to get the patient down to lower altitudes as fast as possible) and just like that, I was going home, and not back up the mountain.
When I arrived at the Military base a Doctor assessed me and told me that I was lucky to be alive. He said that Cerebral Oedema typically happens very fast, and leads to death very quickly, often within hours of symptoms developing. When I heard those words, I thought of myself in Camp 2, refusing to admit to having a serious problem, trying my best to act normal, convinced I needed to stay there with the team. I could have killed myself with my stubbornness.
Now, back in the UK, I am still trying to process what happened. How can nearly a years worth of preparation end in the blink of an eye? Why did I have to get altitude sickness then? Of all the expeditions I’ve been on, why this one?
But despite knowing that I had no choice but to leave, I felt like I had been robbed of my chance. People have said to me “you did your best”, but really, I don’t feel like I got the chance to give my best. The whole expedition felt like it was over before it had really started.
It’s even more frustrating when I look back on my life as a climber: 5 Himalayan peaks, a ski to the North Pole, two Kilimanjaro trips and various other smaller expeditions, and I’ve never come home empty handed. The feeling of failure is very new to me, and it’s been really hard to take.
But, then I sit back and reflect and actually think about what’s really important. I read back through my blog posts and diaries from the trip, and see that the most important thing was to come home safe. I achieved that goal, and that’s the most important thing.
The mountain will always be there, and as Doug Scott said “the best mountaineer is the one who comes home.” I’m not saying I’m a great mountaineer, not anything like that in fact, but I am trying to put into perspective the fact that it is just a mountain. It’s hard to have that perspective sometimes, when you out so much of yourself into a goal, but it’s the hard truth- it’s just a mountain.
As I’ve just finished writing this, I’ve heard the news that my team have had to abandon their summit attempt, due to a massive avalanche wiping out camp 3 on the mountain, where all their gear was stashed.
I feel desperately for them- many on their second attempt, having given up so much and pushed themselves to the limit in every area of their lives, just for one more try, and still, they’ve come home having gotten no further than last year.
I haven’t spoken to my team yet, but I hope that despite not reaching the top, they feel fulfilled that they gave it their all, did their absolute best, and enjoyed being in one of the most remote and beautiful places on Earth.
That’s the thing about mountains, you go hoping to reach the top, but what you come away with is often far more valuable- renewed gratitude and awe, and a rich life experience that you’ll never forget.
Finally, people ask what was the best thing about the expedition was, and for me, it was getting to visit Pakistan and hang out with so many awesome people.
I was a little worried before I left about how safe Pakistan was. My only knowledge of it was what I’d heard on the news. I can’t tell you how pleased I am to be able to say that it was absolutely nothing like the country that is depicted in the press. Every single person I met, without exception, was kind, welcoming and just well, “normal”! But I really did feel their love and kindness very strongly, and that feeling will always stay with me.
The thing I heard a lot was how they felt their country was misunderstood by the rest of the world. I would absolutely recommend visiting Pakistan, and discovering for yourself the beauty of both the landscapes and the people.
Finally finally finally, I want to say a huge thank you to my family and my sponsors. I am so thankful to have been surrounded by people who believed in me, and trusted me to give it my all on this mountain. Dear Kate were an immense support, not only helping the fund the expedition, but also with their amazing sports wear and tonnes of positive vibes and loads of supportive messages all the way from New York. Also The North Face and Ordnance Survey, who have been a continuing support, I look forward to getting stuck into the next projects with both of them. And then my family and Adrian. Where do I start? I wouldn't have been able to do any of this without you all. Thank you for everything. You will never know how much it means to feel so much love and support. I am truly blessed to have you all in my life.
Now for the next step… I have learnt what it feels like come home empty handed. And I can tell you, there’s nothing like a set back to fire you up. I am already planning the next challenge, and I know for sure that the sense of failure from K2 will be just what I need to keep me going for future crazy goals!