Pneumonia: Running Out of Puff: Everest Base Camp Trek #6


Three weeks ago now since I left Namche Bazar for Everest with this awful life form growing in my chest like some incubus from ‘Alien’. Since then it and my body have waged an uncivil war back and forth with my life for stakes. Sometimes one has the ascendancy, sometimes the other. The medicos have been entirely unsuccessful in isolating it, and the three types of antibiotic I have quaffed so far have only managed to hold the line – if that. The outcome remains uncertain, though some days I do seem almost myself. Others though I am back to being as weak as a kitten, even if (as today) I have pumps to fix, or other jobs must be done.

I have had I think five crises since it hit; once between antibiotics, I was so weak I could not rise from my couch, and could not even call loudly enough to alert Della , (whom I could actually see just in the next room) to take me to hospital. Fortunately, instead of slipping away, the other antibiotic kicked in after about an hour, and I was able to rise and resume my conversation with the world.

Pneumonia is not particularly distressing: when you are at your weakest you feel quite unconcerned that you are slipping away, though I must say I do not particularly enjoy the not breathing! The most unpleasant it has been was on my ‘trail of tears’: the 60+ km interminable two day journey (normally four short!) staggering myself back from Dingboche to Lukla desperate that Della would have a chance to save my life. (She still seemed to want to – habit is a funny thing!) And she has, so far, succeeded! ‘It is the physician’s love heals the patient’ was Ferenczi’s dictum.

Many people succumb to this dreaded ‘Khumbu Cough’ on the Everest Base Camp Trek. The trail is suffused with the most awful dust during the dry season as there are thousands of trekkers on the trail with their attendees of yet more thousands of guides, porters, yaks, donkeys, horses, dogs…all of them defecating , hacking and spitting on the trail which is bleached dry by an eternal sun, so that the dust ever whirls up, become a loathsome fug of bacterial stew which you means must breath in. The air is too thin to breath through your nose so you are eternally gulping in huge but unsatisfactory lungfuls though your mouth which you make your best effort to keep covered with a neck warmer, buff , scarf or balaclava (against the cold mostly) – but it is not enough to keep whatever these bugs are out.

The excessively dry air probably aids its malevolence. The altitude, exhaustion, poor diet & etc no doubt do not help, so that many people become quite ill and may take long to recover – if at all. Some cough so much they break ribs – thankfully not me! Pneumonia used to be such an infection: ‘the ‘old man’s Friend’ they once described it as – as it gently led him to his end). If you survived, a long sea voyage of rest and recuperation for six months was normally prescribed – for the well to do. The poor, no doubt simply perished. It may be possible to wear a more serious dust mask to keep it out. I would do some research on that if you are silly enough to be contemplating this awful trek. I will have a subsequent post with recommendations. Watch out for it!

For my own, I wish I had cleaved to my nearby haunts. I may not travel overseas again – certainly not to the Third World, or anywhere so crowded. I confess I have a passion to see the boreal Forests, perhaps in Canada. I have not seen anything more beautiful than The Baw Baw Plateau has ten times the delights of the chewed over, nutrient depleted or bare hills of Nepal. It is also much less crowded and less than two hours drive from Melbourne – so that you can be back in your own bed the same night (if you wish) after a delightful day exploring such magical places as Kirchubel ( , Downey, ( & ) , Newlands Rd ( , Toorongo (,  Tanjil Bren (,  Western Tyers (,  Yarra Falls ( , the Forty Mile Break Rd, the Ada Tree, Mt St Phillack Saddle( , Whitelaws Hut Site ( , the Mushroom Rocks (,  & etc. Just so much nicer too, really.

Photo: Namche Bazar, Nepal.

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4 Responses

  1. Z

    No wonder you got a sweeping pneumonia and couldn’t deal with it. Oral corticosteroids are heavy meds, you can make your immune system ignore foreign tissue inside your body, not to mention some germ. You need some proper, hospital style continuos concentration of a straight germ killer in that situation, which not all antibiotics are btw (macrolids for example). Diamox is good for extreme mountaineering but not as a precaution for a trek where you can easily aclimatise if you take some time.

    • admin

      Thanks Z, I took 1/2 tab of Diamox twice a day on my doctor’s advice and I did not get symptoms of altitude sickness though I did follow the ‘climb high sleep low’ strategy with a day’s break every few hundred metres too. My young friend did not take the Diamox, did get symptoms of altitude sickness and also succumbed to the chest infection – like thousands of other people on the trek. I was carrying some antibiotic (against diarrhea) which were broad enough spectrum to treat the chest infection too. I will try to work out what antibiotics I used to knock the dreadful thing on the head and include them in my post. If you have some medical expertise, I would be glad to update my posts with some medical advice. I think something to prevent the ingress of the bacteria from the dust would be the best preventative – or go somewhere else where there aren’t so many people and the scenery is better (like the ‘Upper Yarra Track’ as I suggested would all be good ideas.) Cheers, Steve.

      • Z

        Sorry but I seem to have mixed up Diamox with Dex (dexomethasone), just few days before have read about people taking steroids for treks and the stupidity must have touched me quite significantly. The other excuse is, I was quite feverish myself writing that comment. Anyway, yeah, not much you could have done, and Diamox was non factor probably. Some piece of cloth can work wonders for sore throat/ blocked sinuses
        but it’s hard to say whether it would stop your pneumonia or not – probably depends on the infection type. The exertion alone can compromise your immune system enough, not to mention all the other factors.

        So, to sum up, a cloth on the mouth is all wisdom I can share here heh. I tend to acclimatise much over the top, for Himalayas I’d probably go to the Alps (rockies I guess for the US) and spend good 2 weeks there sleeping as high as possible and climbing the highest summits. That’s probably overkill though, regards.

        • admin

          I used a Buff. It filtered out some (but not enough of the dust), but it did warm the air and helps prevent sore throat anyway. Something finer might keep the bacteria at bay. I spent a few days in Kathmandu, then a couple acclimatizing at Lukla, then did all the approved acclimatisation things. They and the Diamox worked well for me. I may have fallen ill with pneumonia at home anyway. May have picked it up on the plane even. I have had it before, but I hope not to get it again. Cheers, Steve.

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