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January 2020
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Evacuation From Manang

Thorung PhediPhotowalk 02-11-2009, originally uploaded by Vincent J. Brown.

Chamar located a guide from a large organized expedition who had a Gamow bag (pronounced “Gamof”), a portable pressure chamber which basically raises you to the altitude where you already are, and then gradually brings you down in pressure to the altitude to which you must descend (following pressure in the bag) or die.

So there I was, covered in vomit in this strange space ship of a yellow bag, with porters, Sherpas and our Australian friends all looking through the bag’s porthole window, as the Sherpas and porters laboriously worked over an oxygen pump. David and Chamar kept rapping on the porthole to prevent me from going to sleep. It was nearly impossible not to (sleep), but in some dark recess of my brain I knew that if I succumbed I would fall asleep forever.

Once out of the bag (two hours later) Wendy, an Australian trekker who is also a doctor, gave me a shot in the rear to put an end to the vomiting as well as pills for my brain swelling. After that we began the hellish four and a half hour descent (two days worth of trekking on the way up) down to Manang, lower altitude and safety.

The descent was steep, rocky and treacherous, and keep in mind that it was 2 a.m. Chamar wore David’s miner’s light and led the way. Raj and Kirin propped me up and assisted in dragging me down the hill. Despite this I still had to walk, and as I mentioned, the night was cold and dark and the terrain deadly. Added to that, I was weak and bereft of any sense (literally) that I would make it out alive. I think it was the first time in my life that I wanted to just give up and die. I just couldn’t see how I could possibly make it for five hours, let alone five minutes.

Chamar and the other guides would allow me brief rests when I was too weak to go on. However, they refused to let me lie down (very smart on their part) and I often sat on one of their laps, while another guide would prop up my head and force-fed me some cold water.

-From an undated letter written in Kathmandu. Sometime around April 25, 2000.

This letter excerpt and the previous day’s post were written in a diary I kept while trekking through the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. The letter was written to my dear friend Kelly, who also gave me the beautiful Italian journal I wrote my entries in.

For several years the diary had gone missing, although it was really just sequestered away in my grandmother’s old-fashioned desk of many treasures. From a young age I had kept copious journals in which I would festishistically scribe, record and document my life’s experiences. These diaries now fill several boxes, but it is a rare occurrence for me to reread them. As life unfolds I find that I am in complete agreement with Eckart Tolle—that is to say, I have little use for the past and rarely think about it. On the other hand, the high drama of certain stages is worth occasionally revisiting, if only for a glimmer of grace and the intense gratitude I feel for my survival, not to mention the way in which it opened up the road to the present I now inhabit. Indeed, reading these old entries quickly points up what was enriching about the experience. Walking the razor’s edge of death, out of necessity, allowed me to intensely inhabit the realm of Being. There was neither time nor compulsion to be anywhere else. I realized there might well be no future. Later, after walking through several more stages of life, I came to understand that the future is one of the greatest mind-made illusions of all. It doesn’t exist and never did.

Obviously, the story had a happy ending. I reached Manang safely and was attended to by American doctors from the Himalayan Rescue Association. I was able to take a shower and collapse into bed. And because I didn’t improve in Manang, the doctors arranged for a helicopter evacuation. The helicopter arrived and transported David and me back to Kathmandu in less than an hour. Our guide and porter, however, could not come aboard due to weight restrictions and were forced to return to Kathmandu on foot. They became tired and sickened as a result of so much exertion, and I felt a great deal of concern for them. Of course we paid them for the entire sixteen days of trekking and tipped them handsomely. Chamar continues to be in touch, though his life as a village farmer has been hard due to the political problems that have pockmarked the last ten years in Nepal, and trekking work has been difficult for him to come by. But he soldiers on, and remains for me a larger-than-life hero.

As I reread diary entries written after my rescue I feel a sinking sense of disappointment. There are many petty musings about people I had angry feelings toward, useless boyfriends and disgust toward life in general. Despite this I was living in one of the most beautiful places in the world (Santa Fe, New Mexico), and had just returned from one of the most beautiful places in the world. My mind, however was somewhere else—embroiled and hardened by my own perceptions. These perceptions were distorted, to some extent, by depression and the false feeling that the future, that illusory ghost, wasn’t handing out the goods as expected. Life wasn’t living up to my projected visions, even though I had accomplished some meritorious things and an  ambitious course of travel. Of course, the mind is always restless and displeased with present experience. It wants what it doesn’t have and has what it doesn’t want.

The most surprising part of remembering and reading about these experiences has been the gentle, compassionate heart I have toward my former self. That self is a phantom of the person I was to become, of the person I am becoming in this moment. This is why, I realize now, that dying to the past in every moment is one of the most beneficial things any human can do. Looking back I understand that because the soul is immortal, there is no absolute death—only the death of illusion. In this sense, I died a profound death in Nepal.

I died the only death there is.

Photo courtesy of Vincent J. Brown under the Creative Commons license.