Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Trekking Disaster

It's been more than a week since I was scheduled to return from trekking and yet I'm only posting about it now. What gives?

Here's the short version: I contracted typhoid fever while trekking and have spent the last week recovering. Also, my computer died because that's how Murphy's law works.

And the long version...
The trek started well enough. I arrived in Pokhara after a scenic, but also bumpy, eight hour bus ride from Kathmandu. From the bus stop, I went to a hotel near the lake, where I'd spend the night. There I met my guide, Santhos, and porter, Phorte. I was surprised to discover that Phorte looked quite young (like 15) but he fairly dubiously told me in Nepali that he was 18. The trekking agency had hired him and brought him out to Pokhara from Kathmandu, so I wasn't about to contest it. I had a nice Korean BBQ dinner, and went to sleep.

The next morning we got off to a late start. I had a good breakfast at my hotel and then around nine, we all hopped into a car and drove an hour and a half to Dhampus, where we would be starting the trek. Some people start a little further down at Phedi, but we cheated and drove a little further up to Dhampus so as to have an easy first day. Phorte took my bag and Santhos' bag, with the two of us just carrying small day packs. That probably meant Phorte was carrying about 25-30 kilos, something he was clearly capable of doing, but also something I wasn't entirely comfortable with. 

After two hours of moderate uphill trekking, we arrived at Pothana, just in time for lunch. We planned to spend the night at Pothana so that was it for the day's trekking. A nice easy first day, and the view from Pothana was stunning, as you could see all the way to the lake by Pokhara in one direction. In the other direction, were clear views of the Annapurna peaks, including a particularly clear view of Fishtail. The tea house we were staying at was pretty basic - plywood walls, a toilet that was pretty much just a hole in the ground, and a kitchen that consisted of some pots over a wood burning hearth, but the day had been such an easy climb and the landscape was so spectacular that none of this was much of a bother. That night there was a French couple, a Belgium man (who happened to be an amateur pilot who had worked as an electrical engineer in Cincinnati for several years), and a Spaniard. We chatted in English while waiting for dinner and then I went off to an early sleep. That first day would turn out to be the only day that I wasn't sick.

The next day (day 2 of trekking) we had planned a long hike from Pothana to Jhinu Danda. The original plan had been to go to Landruk, which is where we ended up having lunch. But with the hope of making the hard climb from Jhinu Danda to Chomrong a bit easier, we opted to go further the day before and do the additional 2-3 hours from Landruk to Jhinu Danda on the second day instead of on the third. This hike was made more difficult by the fact that I had decided to carry my bag (about 13-15 kilos) as I just wasn't comfortable with having Phorte carry that much weight (as you'll see these guilty concerns ended up being misplaced).

The trek ended up being hard, but I was capable of doing it and we arrived in Jhinu Danda around 4:30 pm. We had made a lengthy stop for lunch in Landruk, which unfortunately meant we ended up getting caught in some rain around 4pm. The landscape was mostly river valleys, as Landruk and Jhinu Danda both sit on hill tops above the Modi river. There were a few waterfalls, and quite a few questionable rope bridges to cross. Meanwhile we were consistently hiking under cliffs or bluffs that were really quite stunning.

We spent the night at Jhinu Danda and this is when the trouble began. Overnight, I developed a mild fever, about 100 F, and some congestion. The next morning, I was pretty sure I was developing a head cold, but, thanks to our long hike the day before, the hike that day (day 3) was only a two hour affair up to Chhomrong. Admittedly this was the steepest section of the entire trek, but it was also only two hours.

And even better, there's a hot spring at Jhinu Danda, so I took a long soak in that before we went up to Chhomrong. Again, I carried my bag up, and despite being quite steep, the trek was not too bad as it was quite short. We had lunch at Chhomrong and settled down to rest. Chhomrong was by far the most substantial settlement we'd come to so far, which meant that the tea house where we were staying had an English style toilet and concrete walls. Nice amenities.

However, that evening, I got sicker. My fever rose to 101-102 F, and I developed a crushing headache and serious neck stiffness. The fever gave me chills that were so serious that even in bed, wearing gloves, a hat, a fleece jacket, socks, pants, under a sleeping bag and an additional blanket, I was still shivering uncontrollably. Worse still, I was losing my appetite, and I could barely bring myself to eat a full bowl of rice or a couple pieces of bread.

So after that crappy night, you'd think I'd turn around, or at least take a day to rest, but I didn't. Our planned itinerary had us returning to Chhomrong a little later, so we were able to leave much of our weight in Chhomrong and take lighter packs. At this point I was also feeling too crappy to carry my bag, but the lighter weight made me comfortable with having Phorte take it for me. This was a mixed blessing actually, as it was the fact that I wouldn't be carrying a bag that allowed me to rationalize going further on the trek.

As I said, this ended up being a bad idea. What should have been a pretty moderate trek from Chhomrong to Doban, ended up taking a huge amount of energy and time. I also was taking Paracetemol all along the way to keep my headache and fever down. We came to Doban, which sits at 2500 meters, quite late around 5 pm and I immediately went to sleep with only the smallest meal. Overnight, my fever reached 103 F, and I was also starting to develop a cough. I still thought I had a head cold that had just been aggravated by too much physical exertion and a lack of rest.

The next day (day 5), we had planned to make the steep hike up to Machhapuchhre base camp, which sits around 4000 meters. That meant we were planning to ascend more than 1500 meters. It was, at this point, clear to me that I was way too sick for that to be a realistic plan and going to a higher altitude was only going to exacerbate my sickness.

So instead, we turned around and retraced our hike from day 4 to return to Chhomrong. Because we wouldn't be attempting the base camps at all, we had gained two free days in our itinerary and the plan was to use these to rest at Chhomrong. I was still operating under the assumption that I had a bad head cold and just needed to rest. The hope was that two days full rest at Chhomrong would leave me feeling much better, and we'd still be able to make the second leg of the trek to Ghorepani and Poon Hill (yes, that's actually the name of the settlement).

So day 6 and 7 were spent resting at Chhomrong. During this time, I did recover a little bit, but I also manifested new symptoms (vomiting and diarrhea) and I still did not recover my appetite. My fever went down, but only to 101.8, where it stubbornly refused to fall further. After two days of only moderate improvement, it became very clear that it was time to call the entire thing off and get back to Pokhara. This would require two days of moderate trekking.

Day 8 was pretty uneventful. I was absolutely exhausted and took a long time to cover easy, gradual downhill terrain. I was still taking paracetemol to make my headache bearable. Phorte was carrying both Santhos's and my bag, but even with all that weight, he was having the easiest time of the trek of the three of us. It turned out to be pretty ridiculous that I had thought earlier that he might not be able to handle carrying all that weight.

Day 9 was a disaster. We absolutely had to reach the trek exit point by lunch, as the trekking agency had managed to secure an afternoon flight to Kathmandu for me. Given that most flights had been cancelled for the three prior days due to bad weather, I was extremely lucky to get a ticket. The flight from Pokhara to Kathmandu only takes 25 minutes and so given how sick I was, it was far preferable to the eight hour bus ride.

But I had to get to Pokhara first, and after several days of being sick I was now undernourished, lacking in sleep, and dehydrated. Even though I'd drink 4-5 liters of water a day, I'd wake up the next morning completely dehydrated as I was sweating much of this out due to the fever. We started at about 8 am and by 11:30 I was barely trudging along. Finally we reached Birethanti, which put me only 30 minutes from Nayapul, where we were supposed to meet the car back to Pokhara. But at this point I was too exhausted to make that last 30 minute walk. Fortunately, we were now close enough to Pokhara, that there were local roads. Trekking vehicles were not allowed up these roads, but we managed to hire a local vehicle to take me down the last small leg to Nayapul.

As I got into the car back to Pokhara, I noticed that I had a strange rash all over my arms. This had only just appeared in the last few hours and consisted of pink spots that did not itch or irritate at all. I wasn't sure what to make of it.

Back in Pokhara, I managed to grab a less than hot shower and sleep for an hour before I had to rush to the airport. In the airport, I quickly discovered that my 3:30 flight had been delayed and might not fly at all that day. The planes that make the Pokhara to Kathmandu route are tiny (they hold about 20 people) and they lack the instruments necessary to land at night. Basically, if my flight didn't take off by 5:30, I'd be stuck in Pokhara for another night at least. By 5:00, I was certain I was going to be stuck in Pokhara, but at 5:20, the plane arrived and we happily boarded and returned to Kathmandu.

The trekking agency gave me a ride back to my host family (who were quite surprised to see me early) and I quickly went to bed, though not without first vomiting up the tea that Aamaala gave me to drink when I arrived home.

Next morning, Yanik took me to NIC, which is one of the two excellent international clinics in Nepal. There the doctor tentatively diagnosed me with Typhoid Fever or possibly Paratyphoid based upon my prolonged fever and the strange rash I had noticed the day before. Apparently this rash appears in about 30-40% of Typhoid cases. The blood work required to confirm the Typhoid diagnosis would take four more days but they prescribed antibiotics in the meanwhile. For you medically curious types, the Typhoid here in Nepal is often antibiotic resistant, particularly to Cipro, so I was prescribed Azithromycin instead.

And four days later, I was feeling much better. After seven days of antibiotics, all I had left for symptoms were a minor cough and some congestion (which I still have a little of...) However, I remained quite weak and have spent most of my time resting and regaining my strength. I haven't been able to actually weight myself, but I'm guessing I lost somewhere between 20-40 pounds in about a week, so that gives some idea of how sick I was. When I first arrived back in Kathmandu, I had to hand onto railings to make it up stairs and even walking ten feet was a chore. But it's incredible how quickly antibiotics can fix you up and once that happened and I got my appetite back, things started improving.

I should also mention that I got back to Kathmandu, tried to turn on my netbook (which had just been sitting on my desk, unplugged while I was trekking, and discovered that it wouldn't power on. Plugging it in to an outlet, I discovered it also would not even recognize that it was charging. So that was wonderful. After only 9 months of use, my netbook was FUBARed. Get what you pay for I guess, as the crappy little thing was only $300. Incidentally, that's why this post has no photos.

And now I'm in France, with Marina. I arrived last Saturday and will be here for the next two weeks or so. After that I head back to New York for a while before I move on to Ghana. There are a number of photos that I want to post when I'm back in New York with a working computer, so you can expect to see that in the near future. But other than that, I will be taking a break from blogging throughout the holiday season. I will pick back up with the blogging when the trip to Ghana gets under way, probably in late January.

Take care and happy holidays...


  1. I'm glad the story had a happy ending. What an ordeal. You are one lucky guy. Welcome home.

  2. Oh, Nick, I can't believe what you went through. I'm so glad you're back and on the mend. Please know that we're all thinking of you.

  3. That's a hell of a nasty trip, Nick. I'm so sorry you had to endure all that, but awfully pleased to know you are home safe and sound.