The Perils of High Altitude
Mon, April 12, 1999 Base Camp, Rongbuk Glacier
The Everest team shrinks by one member tomorrow as Graham Hoyland heads home to the UK to seek medical evaluation. He will leave in the morning by jeep to Zhangmu and will reach Kathmandu the next day. Graham experienced symptoms most likely associated with a TIA (transient eschemia) in his brain while at ABC. This disruption of blood flow resulted in the left side of his body going partially numb. The symptoms continued through yesterday, and he was able to descend to Base Camp while breathing oxygen at three liters per minute. The use of oxygen caused the symptoms to diminish, and he is doing fine now, though he is somewhat disturbed by the experience. He feels it is not in his best interest to go back up.
I can certainly relate to Graham's experience, having been through the same thing myself. In 1987, our small American team came very close to making the first ascent of the Great Couloir on the North Face of Everest via Central Rongbuk. Our summit day ended at 8750 meters when Ed Viesturs and I decided the last 100 meters of the Face was too difficult to climb (and descend) without a rope (we had fixed our rope below in the Grey Band).
After a long and strenuous descent, which took two days and about 12,000 feet of rappelling, I was back at ABC, pretty whipped. The next morning my left side suddenly went numb. It was quite an epic getting down to BC where a Swedish doctor was able to check me out. Over the next few days, he pumped me full of heparin (an anti-coagulant), which left my legs purple (the sites of multiple injections).
When I finally got home, I had an MRI and was pronounced to have had a small bit of damage upstairs. It doesn't seemed to have made much difference however. The numbness lasted on and off for about four years. My recollection of the whole incident is that I was pretty scared. When you are young and immortal, you are used to being able to dump endless abuse on yourself without ever having a problem. This whole experience made me realize that sometimes the body says "no", and you don't have any say in the matter. It was a valuable lesson, in retrospect.
I think Graham is going to be okay, but this points out a very common set of problems associated with high altitude. Many times, I have seen people with vision problems (including blindness), the loss of speech (known as aphasia), dizziness, confusion, and partial paralysis. In each case, the best thing to do is get on the oxygen and get down fast!
The rest of the team is doing great and will be heading back up in a day or two.
Eric Simonson, Expedition Leader
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