Saturday, November 25, 2017

Everest Base Camp Trek 2017 Part 3 ~ Lobuche to Gorak Shep & EBC!

Part 3 ~ The going got tougher, slower and more challenging as the altitude went skywards- Lobuche at 4900,  Gorak Shep 5160m, and the final last push towards EBC at 5350m.
The final push!

At 5000m, the oxygen level dropped to 53% of sea level.  We only knew this in hindsight.  But with this knowledge, in retrospect, we now could explain everything that happened on this third quarter of our trek.  It was really a last push, a burst of fire towards our destination.  This was what we came here for.  And hopefully nothing would stop us.  Hopefully.

[In this Travellogue, I have tried my best to credit all the photos to their respective photographers, and I tried my best to recall verbatim what members said during the whole trip. Most events are as I could remember them. Those who have expressed clearly to me their wishes not to have their photos shared online I have post-processed the photographs so that their faces are pixelated to protect their privacies.]

Table of Contents:

  1. EBC Trek Part 1 ~ An epic adventure.  Kathmandu to Lukla.  Lukla to Phakding.  Phakding to Namche Bazaar.   Acclimatisation in Namche Bazaar.
  2. EBC Trek Part 2 ~ The air got thinner & the body got more tired.  Namche Bazaar to Tengboche & Debuche.  Debuche to Dingboche.  Acclimatisation in Dingboche.
  3. EBC Trek Part 3 ~ The Final Push.  Dingboche to Lobuche.  Lobuche to Gorak Shep and to EBC and back to Gorak Shep. 
  4. EBC Trek Part 4 ~ Kala Patthar
  5. EBC Trek Part 5 ~ The unrelenting march from day to night - Gorak Shep to Periche.  Another long day to night march from Periche to Namche Bazaar.
  6. EBC Trek Part 6 ~ No matter how tired... just go into Cruise-control mode walking from Namche Bazaar to finally arrive back in Lukla in the dark, yet again.
  7. EBC Trek Part 7 ~ Flying back to Kathmandu.  Rest and Relax in Kathmandu and flying home!

EBC TREK Day 8 ~ The 500m ascent from Dingboche to Lobuche at 4900m.  Sounded simple.  But what a trek it was!
25 Nov 2017

Here is the Relive video of our trek from Dingboche up through the open bed of the old glacier to Lobuche at 4900m.

Relive 'Trek from Dingboche to Lobuche 4900m'

Here is the Strava Flyby of this day's trek.  Just click on the image below, play and zoom in and see. This one is another MUST see. Keep zooming in and I was truly impressed how Alex and Lai Peng led all the way, with Kc Tng leap-frogging with them. Kai Sing, Darric and Patrick were trying very hard to play catch up.. but were just a short distance behind.  Marvellous trekkers, these people.

Here is my Garmin record of the days' trek.  It was a 6 and a half hour trek.  Not too long, but definitely tiring.

The VIDEO:  A dreary day of trekking in the remotest of lands, and worsening physical conditions in many of us.

One week before Christmas day, back home in Singapore...

As I went through the drudgery of my daily grind (as predicted accurately by Adrian), I kept blowing out fresh blood and dark dried blood clots from my nose.  I had been sounding really nasal for the longest time, ever since my return from Nepal.  Even my patients asked me if I were sick.  I smiled at them and reassured them.  "Just the usual mountain cough lah," I said.  But I knew it was a bad sinus infection that refused to clear.
And reaching home and straight away hitting the ground running by going right back to work and not having even a chance to rest, had really brought my immunity down to rock bottom.  Exposures to patients who were ill probably gave me some secondary or tertiary infections, and made it even harder for me to recover.
Life is like that.. we tropical dwellers always suffered when we were up in the mountains.  But it was worth every single tablet of antibiotic I had to swallow.  And I would do it again.  And again.  And again....  and lost in my reverie in between patients, my mind drifted back to the mountains...

Three weeks before, somewhere in Solukhumbu at 4410m....

Silently the group set off from Dingboche.  We had all watched videos and photos on Youtube and online by other trekkers who had done this trek and we all were expecting the terrain at this level to be very different.  But nothing would ever prepare us for the real thing.

Early morning 8:30am set off from freezing Dingboche [Photo: Patrick]
The sun just started rising above Ama Dablam as we trekked.  It was always exciting to see the bright ball slowly rise above the tip and its ray expanding to fill up the valleys and start to warm up our frozen bodies.

Sunrise over Ama Dablam peak as Jeffrey made his way up. [Photo: Patrick]

Ah Leong and Mimi taking five. [Photo: Ka Lin]

The initial climb gave way to the wide open plains of the tundra.   There were no longer trees at this altitude, and the shrubs were tightly-compacted pile of needly vegetation.  I would have ask our arborist Darric, but my mind simply didn't work well at this height.  Many a question lingered in my mind as I walked.  Eventually even the most apparently-urgent ones that I wanted to ask got displaced and suppressed to the deepest abyss of my brain as my body got distracted by the physical challenges at hand.

[Photo: Patrick]
I found the expansiveness a total new experience.  We would never have the luxuries of beholding such scenery back in land-scarce home, especially not one ringed by the grandiose of high snow-peaks.  The Himalaya ranges were in their full glory as we gingerly tread upwards.   Our being was simply insignificant in comparison.  The mountains looked down upon us as we intruded into their private spaces.

[Photo: Lay Khim]
Looking around at the contrasting mountains and plateaus, my mind could only imagine the tumultous explosions 50 million years ago when multiple series of massive earthquakes brought on by enormous tectonic plate movements fired the granites sharply skywards, leaving them gridlocked in their current contorted states, frozen in time.  Nothing would have survived.  And even up till today, only the most robust vegetations and hardy human beings occupied this bleak terrain.

Photo: Serene
I remembered telling our children before the trip:
"We sometimes watched in Youtube videos where western trekkers and climbers used expletives on the Himalayan mountains... 'Let's go f&*# the mountain', they'd say.. and such.  I find that most disrespectful.  The mountains are sacred.  And in the local culture, be they Tibetan, Sherpa or Nepali culture, the people hold the peaks in reverence. "

"We all come in peace and with respect.  And in turn, the mountains allow us a blissful passage through their soil.  Bring a calm mind and a heart that is in harmony with Mother Nature.  And we will all be handsomely rewarded."

[Photo: Patrick]

KC Tng called out to us: "Wee How, Serene... come! I want to take a family portrait for you all here with the background."  Wow.. when the Leica man with the Summilux 35mm called for a portraiture, we would be more than thrilled to oblige!

The power of Leica Summilux 35mm [Photo: KC Tng]

After trekking for a week, our minds became blase and every trail and almost every peak appeared the same to our eyes.  We would lose track of the days, and the time.  We were only living and walking in the now, and focussing on keeping our footings steady and our breathings consistent.  One day merged into the other day in a blur of hypoxia-induced confusion.  Soon, we found it difficult to tell where we were, on the occasions when we were lost in our own minds.
Although the trek on this day appeared gradual, but the ascent was pronounced, rocky and abrupt at certain parts.  Crossing the icy stream somewhere before lunch was the only drama that broke the monotony of the trek.  Unknown to us, this trek up towards Lobuche WAS a tiring one, as it would prove later in that evening.

Crossing the icy stream. [Photo: Fann]

[Photo: Patrick]
Crossing the dried up retracted glacier. 
I couldn't believe people could be so happy trekking up at this kind of altitude. These two
really far outstripped my wildest dreams. [Photo: Lai Peng]

A quick check on all during our short lunch time found several of us starting to feel unwell.  The altitude increase had taken a toll.

We started trekking again after lunch. [Photo: Kc Tng]

I was walking behind Ah Li all the way.  And I noticed that she was extraordinarily quiet.  At 4700-4800m, she was starting to experience AMS in a silent way.
"I cannot remember anything walking towards Lobuche," she admitted afterwards.
Poor girl.  I kept looking at her face but could not tell anything amiss.  She was blinking her eyes.  And she was still walking.  I felt that she was getting tired and I lifted her daypack off her with every intention of carrying it myself.  But Binot was very good, he straight away grabbed it from my hands and offered to carry her daypack for me.   For that I was very grateful.

For myself, on this trek to Lobuche, I suffered my worst episodes of diarrhoea.  I had to run three times to look for big rocks to let go of watery stools.  My food poisoning was getting worse despite starting on Ciprofloxacin.  This was not good, because I knew I could get severely dehydrated.  I needed to do something fast.  I popped another pill of ciprofloxacin, and a couple more Vacontil (Loperamide).  A physician could always overdose himself, couldn't he? Haha...

Photo: Kc Tng
Soon at 4800m, we came to an opening where monuments were scattered with prayer flags hung over them.
"These are memorials for those who have died in Everest," said Babu.
It was a solemn moment, in a funereal atmosphere.  We slowly walked around and read the plates on the stones.  How many had died trying to attain their dreams? Why did people attempt to summit Everest, knowing that it could very well be the swan songs for these lives of theirs.  

[Photo: Kc Tng]

I felt that this place was too sorrowful.  We did not linger long.  A short while later, we continued our climb.

The Memorial of those who died at 4800m. [Photo: Kai Sing]

Hydration along the trek

We had tried to hydrate ourselves as much as we could along the trek. But it was obvious that many of us were not drinking enough. My own urine was deep yellow over the past few days, even as I drank at least 2 litres of water.
"Each of you need to drink at least 4 litres of water, if you all are taking Diamox," I remembered Babu emphasizing.
"My urine are very yellow," admitted both Kong Wan and Kai Sing. "We are really still quite dehydrated."
The price of one litre of mineral water cost 15 NRP (S$0.20) in Kathmandu. By the time we arrived in Lukla, each one little bottle would cost 100 NRP (S$1.33). As we ascended, at Namche Bazaar each bottle was at 200 NPR (S$2.66). And at Debuche 250 NPR. Dingboche was at 250 NPR. By the time we arrived at Gorak Shep, each one litre bottle of mineral water was at 300NPR (S$4). Every day despite the reluctance, I made a point to spend all that I needed to at least ensure that each member of the family had at least two litres of water. In retrospect, I felt that it was still insufficient. A daily consumption of at least 3 litres would be more ideal, a point that I had taken note and would enforce in our future treks.
Darric moving slowly behind.  He must be feeling the effects of the altitude. [Photo: Kong Wan]

Dust, rocks, boulders, plateaus, hills, mounts, peaks, streams, ice-covered brooks, shrubs - the desolateness pervaded the air around us.  Gone was the joyousness that came with greeneries and human settlements, leaving only the melancholy of remoteness.  In my heart I felt this was really not where human beings belonged.  One could not possibly live for long periods in these lonely lonely lands without sinking into an irrecoverable state of depression.

Photo: Patrick
I could understand how Ah Li could develop an insidious onset of AMS without realising it.  This trek was too dreary, and one could too easily withdrew into oneself and lost connection with the surrounding.  I needed to check on the young lady as soon as we arrived in Lobuche.

Getting nearer to Lobuche. Walking through some icy ground. [Photo: Lay Khim]
Everyone trekked in silence.  I wasn't sure if Jason and Matthew were still singing or dancing way ahead in front.  All I knew was, those of us at the rear were toiling and wondering when the trek would end.   Serene and I were still hyperventilating.  But I was thankful that my average heart rate remained at 109/min.  That was my only consolation.  My lungs and respiratory muscles were working overtime.  But my heart and my lower limbs were still being preserved.  The front boys and girls were so far away we'd totally lost sight of them.  Khim and Mimi were our constant companions.  It was good, as long as I kept right at the rear, I would be fine, physically, and psychologically.  Serene and I had to be right at the back.

Photo: Patrick

I really didn't know when.  But out of nowhere, a settlement appeared in the distant.  That was Lobuche.  We were delighted deep inside, though many of us might not have expressed it externally.  Six and a half hours of climbing at 4800-4900m with 53-54% of oxygen level in the air compared with sea level, certainly had drained us of plenty of energy.

Photo: Patrick
4900m.  Another level in our quest for height. 

Man, finally arriving at Lobuche!
A jubilant Khim! [Photo: Kong Wan]

That fateful evening...

Members were getting sicker.  I had to start Casey on antibiotic for his throat and cough, similarly for Cantona too.  Even Vngks finally caught the respiratory bug and started on medication.  Ashley was getting sicker as her poor appetite really drained her and the AMS was weakening her.  I continued some more oral Dexamethasone for Ashley, and tweaked her medication.  I knew she was suffering, and we had to try everything to settle the more critical symptoms.  Even BennyJeff finally had to go on antibiotics for his throat because at this altitude we knew things would turn bad overnight.  And the next day was our final push.  We needed to keep everyone in as stable a state as possible.

Ah Li was given double dose of Dexamethasone too and something drowsy to knock her out.  On this night in Lobuche it was Ah Li's turn to sleep with Serene and I.  Fann and Ah Sing had recovered and they could be on their own.  I was all ready to give Ah Li an intramuscular Dexamethasone had it not been for her adamant refusal.  I would let her sleep on the bed that night, and perhaps secretly give her a jab.

Sharan was really helpful.  He and Prem offered to bring us an extra mattress and blanket so that I could sleep on the floor in between the two beds where Ah Li and Serene would be sleeping.  These guys were really fantastic.  Their attention to details made our trip so much more bearable.

During dinner time, Cantona's SaO2 was still lowish on the 80% range.  He was remarking in jest when he saw mine SaO2 at 95% and heart rate at 67/min:
"Wah lau.. how can? Let me try the pulse oximeter again! I want to see if my heart rate can come down to 60+ and my oxygen go up!" But he remained at 85% and heart rate of 89/min.
I laughed and went around checking.  TJK was getting better.  His SaO2 was actually pretty good at 90% after he stated on Diamox at Phakding and didn't stop them, despite his stridulous breathing all along the way during the trek.

None of the members suffered from any muscular pain.  I was still pleasantly surprised.  It was either they really conserved their legs, or the freezing cold might have numbed whatever soreness.  But that was of course, good news.

Casey's SaO2 were also lowish, at 80+%.  That was understandable at 4900m.  But I would have expected him to acclimatise better by now.  I had to keep an eye on both Cantona and Casey.  Those with SaO2 of 80+% and below were at higher risk of developing insidious AMS.

The 90% ones should be safe.  Well, at least that was what I thought.

I woke up suddenly with a tightness in my chest.  I had difficulty breathing, tried as hard I could.  I didn't have any headaches.  I'd already made it a habit to hang my pulse oximeter round my neck constantly 24 hours so that I could check anyone anytime.
A quick check on myself found my SaO2 to be 73%.  What-the-fertiliser.  I was developing a sudden onset of AMS!
I quickly woke Serene up.
"Dar, I cannot breathe.  And my oxygen is very low.  I need you to give me the injections and the pills," I instructed her.
She was really calm.  Two intramuscular injections - one Dexamethasone, one Copan (for my abdominal cramp as I was recovering from food poisoning), two tablets of Dexamethasone 0.5mg, one Theolin SR (Theophylline), and a Sildenafil 100mg and one more tablet of Ciprofloxacin were all administered to me in an instant.  I knocked out again very quickly.

When I woke up at 6am that morning, I felt like a brand new man.  My diarrhoea and stomach rumbling had settled, and I could heave a deep breath with little resistance.  I knew my worst was over.
Waking up Ah Li, I saw that she was more alert, and her SaO2 had returned to normal.  She had also recovered from her AMS miraculously overnight.  That was a real relief.
With this experience I learnt that AMS could occur to any one, any time, even those with good SaO2 readings, when one least expected it.  Thinking back, perhaps my food poisoning-induced dehydration might have been the trigger.

EBC TREK Day 9 ~ The frantic day of trekking from Lobuche to Gorak Shep, and the rush to push on to EBC... and finally the U-turn back to Gorak Shep.
26 Nov 2017

The map of this nightmare of a trek on this fateful day

Here is the Relive video of the rush from Lobuche to Gorak Shep at 5190m, and the mad push to EBC at 5350m followed by the frantic return trek back to Gorak Shep.

Relive 'The mad rush from Lobuche to Gorak Shep and the final push to EBC and back to Gorak Shep'

Here is the Strava Flyby of this day's trek.  Just click on the image below, play and zoom in and see. This one is another MUST see. Keep zooming in and see how Alex and Lai Peng led initially,  for a short distance, and then Kc Tng caught up and led for another distance. Finally it was Kai Sing, Alex and Lai Peng who pushed on further and further in front, leaving KC Tng, Darric and Patrick a short distance behind.  Kong Wan was slightly in front of me, but he also ended up hurrying as he needed to catch up with Ai Lin.  A very exciting day to watch!!!

Here is my Garmin record for this tough day's trek. We set off at 7:19am and the trekking time was almost 10 hours.  By the time we returned to Gorak Shep, it was evening, and we arrived at a dark dark 6pm.

The VIDEO:  The final push to EBC!

We were all getting used to the negative ten-ish celcius kind of early morning temperature by then.  The deep cold had made it possible only to conduct at most wet wipes cleaning of our bodies, followed by powder bath, a process that I totally disliked because even the wet wipes were like ice to my skin.  We hadn't had a shower in six days.  I was sure none was in the mood to do so.  As our objective drew palpably near, that was the last thing in our mind.
Full layers were the norm.  But when it came to layering none could beat TJK.  He had been having seven full layers on for the major part of the trek and they had stayed on for most parts of the days.  That was really smart, because no matter how cold it was out there, he would always be well-insulated, the only exception being in the warmth of the central fireplace in the guesthouse, when tiny droplets of perspiration would start to shimmer on his forehead.

We all set off from Lobuche, knowing well that a long day laid ahead of us.  This was it.  The defining day.  The fast boys and girls were off like rockets right from the start.  Should I start to push the family a little more? The question could draw no answer, and I was none the wiser.  The status quo was thus maintained.

This morning started early with breakfast at 6am.  Some were fresh, some were tired, 
As always, when we set off before the sun rose above the peaks, we were always shrouded in the dark.  Today was no exception.

Early morning departing [Photo: KC Tng]
Very soon, the sun rose and we started looking around the bleak, expansive land which we had now begun to accept as the norm at this altitude.  Ai Lin was a really natural.  She was soon way ahead, following her natural metronome.  Kong Wan, who originally was trying to conserve himself by staying with us in the rear group, found himself pushing harder to catch up with Ai Lin.  Soon, I also lost sight of Kong Wan.

Pumori peak was very prominent on this trek and Kala Patthar just below Pumori was constantly in sight. Binot pointed out that black rocky hill just below Pumori to us.  We made a mental note that Kala Patthar would be the next objective after EBC.  But that would have to come the next day.  Meanwhile today we just needed to focus on EBC.

Panorama by Alex - Pumori peak on the left with the black Kala Patthar just below it.
Where there were shrubs lower down, at 5000m, we saw hardly any vegetation.  And it was simply rocks, gravels, soil, and dust.  Again and again, we walked on relatively flat ground with rocks strewn all over.  These were old glacier beds.
Another question that kept emerging in my mind was, I knew up here out there many found fossils of ammonites.  Would I be so lucky as to pick up one of these?  How would I be able to tell that a smooth piece of stone was actually a fossilised ammonite?  A question that I burningly wanted to ask the guides but somehow escaped my mind.  Must have been the low oxygen level.
At 5000m, oxygen level was only about 53%.  And the hyperventilation persevered.

Mimi, Khim, TJK and my whole family were trekking slowly at the rear.  I could always tell when TJK was behind me, as his breathings were the reassuring signs of his presence.  Kong Wan was a really caring fellow.  He would trek in front of TJK or any one who needed help, and pointed out the way, the rocks to step on, the paths to avoid.... until he himself had to chase after Ai Lin.
Our good Kong Wan

Cheng Cheng, Zaid and Raymond showing what they were made of. [Photo: Cheng Cheng]

Tediousness characterised the trek on this final stretch.  Every rock appeared similar to another, and every twist and turn was indistinguishable from the previous.  I had given up using my trekking sticks.  Instead I hooked them to my day pack and walked with my frozen hands in my pockets with the heat packs inside.  The fingers felt more comfortable this way.
"I gave up using the trekking sticks.  I get confused by them," admitted Fann, who had been trekking without her sticks for the past few days.
"I also find myself confused by the trekking sticks, I didn't know how to make us of them.  I'd rather walk without." said Kong Wan.
Patrick and Kc Tng going for the kill.

Without the walking sticks, I suddenly found that I was more aware of how I stepped.  How I engaged my core muscles, and started to be mindful of keeping my balance each time I lifted off a foot to put it forward.  This proved very important when the path was rough with bumpy rocks, some of which were not stable.  My knee guard on the right knee was serving me well.  I had no knee pain at all.  So was Ah Sing's knee guards on her bilateral knees.  On long treks like these, those with knee injuries were at a disadvantage because going downslope was always injurious to the knees.  But so far we had been fortunate.

Serene would walk a distance, and then take a short rest of several deep breaths, before continuing.  This became the SOP for most of us at the rear.  We would thus leap-frog each other, sometimes passing each other as the other one stopped for a breather or two, only to be over-taken again later.  I was very encouraged by the determination shown by Mimi, Khim and TJK.  They were all obviously tired.  But they would not give up.  They kept pushing.

Approaching Gorak Shep. [Photo: KC Tng]
Almost midday, we finally caught sight of Gorak Shep, the landmark village at 5190m where we would launch ourselves towards EBC.
The front guys and gals had already had their lunch and were eager to move off.   It was 12pm.

So happy to be seeing Gorak Shep!
"Ok, those of you who just arrived.  It's 12pm now.  You have only 30 minutes to grab a quick lunch.  We need to set off at 12:30pm," announced Adrian.
We really had to hurry.  We had only less than three hours to reach EBC.  Time was not on our side.  During lunch time I was surprised to hear from Cantona:
"Ok, I have enough already.  I am going to stay here at Gorak Shep,  I am not going up to EBC."
Huh? Did I hear wrongly? No lah... wei we were so near already.  Just try lah.  And all the guys and Adrian also came in to encourage him..
"Go lah! wah lau eh! It's just another couple of hours only. Slowly walk lah you! Come lah!"

Coming in to Gorak Shep.

Miraculously, Adrian managed to delay to move out and coaxed everybody for a group photo before setting off towards EBC.

Our group photo before moving out from Gorak Shep [Photo: Adrian]
I remembered way before the trek, Cheng Cheng was telling me:
"I am very scared of cold one!" when I shared with her how susceptible I was to cold.
But throughout the trek, I remembered seeing her at most with just her thin outer shell, perhaps with some not too thick middle layers inside.  She had none of those bulky, fluffy down jackets that all of us were piling onto ourselves. 
Impressive was this lady.  Fast trekker, and really not wearing a whole lot of layers.

Cheng Cheng, Prem and Babu. [Photo: Cheng Cheng]

The flat plain right after the Gorak Shep guesthouse Himalayan Lodge was a temporary respite for the rocky climbs.  We shared this plain with a herd of yaks on our way outwards.

Leaving Gorak Shep.  Onwards to EBC! [Photo: Fann]
Fatigue was obvious in many of us.  Ah Sing was really not feeling well again.  On this part, she actually had nausea and vomited.  I had to sit her on a rock and give her an injection to help with possible AMS. After checking and making sure she was ok, I encouraged her to bear her nausea and to keep going.

Photo: Patrick]

Ashley herself was beginning to labour under the altitude and her walking pace was getting sluggish.  At one point, she had to sit down and rest for a prolonged period.  We walked up to her, took one look at her pale and tired face, and put the stethoscope to her back to make sure that her lungs were clear.  Her SaO2 was really still low at that point in time.
I held her hands and I could totally empathised with her.  What she was experiencing was exactly how I felt when I was at the 17km of my running leg of my Full Ironman, after having done the 3.8km swim and the 180km cycling- totally shagged, unable to eat, and simply weak and nausea.  Her gastroenteritis and respiratory tract infection were compounding her already exhausted state.

I turned my gaze to the distant and wondered how long a distance more we would have to go before we arrive at our end point,  and I turned back and look straight into her tired face.  In my heart, I knew she wanted to complete what she set out to
"Ashley, listen to me.  You are getting weaker.  But you are still ok.  I have to give you another jab of Dexamethasone and some more oral medications.  You will feel better in about 1 hour's time.  Meanwhile I want you to walk really slowly, OK?"

That was all I could do.  I could merely help a little and encourage her a little.  But for the team leader Adrian, circumstances like these would forever be tough decisions.  I could imagine how fine a line a tour leader like him had to tread, between pushing his team members onward and making the unpopular judgement call to evacuate them.  Ashley hadn't been eating well and she was also very energy-deprived.

Looking around and visually checking on the others, LayK was just tired.  But she was in a better state, as her appetite had returned and she was able to replenish herself.
TJK was a constant yak, emitting the unending stridor and reassuring everyone around of his continuing efforts.  Otherwise his oxygen levels were good.  Serene was the mountain goat who loved nothing more than to kao-beh-kao-boo.  Despite her slow pace, she was perfectly fine.

From far ahead Adrian walkie-talkied me:
"Wee How, if you see Ashley, please tell her if she cannot make it, just U-turn back towards Gorak Shep."
"Roger that, Adrian," was my reply.

[Photo: KC Tng]
This type of terrain was totally out of this world.  I only ever saw something like this in a movie.  It didn't feel real.  It had an uncanny resemblance to perhaps the scene on Mars or on some remote planet and here we were, walking on the surface of this forsaken waste of a land.  Serene and I fell back right to the rear of the pack and continued our panting.
I could tell that this trek was getting more taxing on my cardiovascular system because as I monitored my heart rate, I kept getting an average of 119/min, 10 beats higher than my average for the past few days.  This was understandable.  At 5100-5200m, I would be telling a lie if I said the trek was leisurely.  It was anything but.

Cheng Cheng and the Cheongsters Ka Sing and Adrian [Photo: Cheng Cheng]

Take TEN! [Photo: Ah Li]
When I finally reached Ashley once again, I held her shoulder with both my hands, looked her in her eyes and said:
"Hey you know, Adrian wanted me to tell you that if you cannot tahan, you can U-turn back."  But with a cheeky twinkle in my eyes, I continued. "But hor... between myself and youself, I think you can make it to the end."
She smiled a weak smile and nodded her head.  From that point onwards, I only saw sheer determination in her face.  Pure grit.  A resolute decision to reach her objective against all odds.

Photo: Patrick
I would not say I enjoyed the trek towards EBC.  We ended up walking along a ridge on a long stretch.  And my Garmin watch went haywire, despite me putting in on Glonass (a more accurate GPS mode on most Garmin watches) earlier on and despite my calibration based on GPS.  At several points it read the altitude as 5700m and once even 7000m.  My GPS signals must have strayed way out from the ridge to the nearby peaks.  I was quite sure, in my heart that the actual altitude should be somewhere around 5200-5300m all the way to EBC.

Cheng Cheng and Jason showing the sign TWICE! We all undersood what he meant by 'TWICE'! [Photo: Cheng Cheng]

When even the simplest act of breathing became pure hardship,  I found that most everyone would withdraw deep into himself or herself and dig hard to find that last reserve.  Hardly anyone spoke, and only the usual one or two hardcore ones bothered to take pictures.  
The brilliance of the ranges opened up around us.  We could only take the  occasional fleeting glance, and then retract back into ourselves.  It was otherwise quiet all around.  The only noise audible was my own heavy panting as my lungs laboured to suck in as much oxygen in the rarefied air at 5190m. My footsteps were tiny shuffles, weighed down by my pair of trekking boots which, merely a couple of days ago felt as light as feathers, but now behaved like tonnes of Himalayan rocks bound to my feet. 

My eyes almost never lifted off from the ground as rocks after rocks appeared in haphazard fashion, threatening to trip my trailing foot should I be just so careless to lift it a little less high. A few steps. And another long pause to catch my breath. Peering in front, the ridge led straight to Everest Base Camp. We were not far, but time was running out for us.

Excitement builds up as we saw the signage!

The 50% oxygen level really made life difficult.  I became 'Serene-like' in my trekking pattern - walking several minutes, only to stop and breathe for a while before I continued my slow trek.  The distant peaks remained, and the retracting Khumbu glacier lower down on our right below the ridge was a gentle hint that EBC was not far.

Photo: Kc Tng

It was not windy, but merely cold with plenty of fine dust in the air. By this day, my sinuses were already badly congested with bloody discharge despite my sinus washing, which continued diligently on a daily basis until the last 2-3 days when my spray froze up and refused to work and my Avamys steroid spray also became frozen and no longer delivered the usual stream of medicine. Many of the teammates had already started suffering from bloody sinuses and blood clots in their noses by now. Our supply of antibiotics were running low, and cough capsules were in short supply that we had to ration them. The anti-histamine tablets were moving faster than the pain killers and muscle relaxants. At these altitudes and such weather conditions, our upper and lower respiratory tracts were most susceptible.
I asked Binot: "Which one are we heading towards? The old EBC or the new EBC?" 
Without directly answering my question, Binot pointed out to the base camp down below us.  "This is the old EBC.  But nowadays because the Khumbu glacier has retracted so much, mountaineers have moved further northwards to set up camp in the new EBC.  From here to the new EBC and back is about one hour."
We were just putting one determined foot ahead of the other, in our dull trek, when suddenly I saw Darric turning back.
"I'm done.  I am going back to Gorak Shep," he said.
"Wow, you are fast!" I replied.
Before I even finished my words, I saw KC Tng hurrying backwards. "I have reached the new EBC and now I need to hurry back because it is going to turn dark soon.  It is a sharp climb down towards the new EBC.  Quite dangerous." 

Approaching  EBC. [Photo: Alex]
As these two good men made their way backwards, we finally came to a clearance with some rocks and prayer flags.  Kong Wan, Ai Lin and many of our teammates were standing there.  Kong Wan was flying his drone and trying to land it.
"Hey guys, give way give way! I need to land my drone," called out Kong Wan.
So this was where the old EBC was.  The front boys and girls were further ahead at the new EBC.  Now came the difficult decision.  Should we as a family move forward to the new EBC and spend the next one hour on the trek?  I radioed Adrian:
"Adrian, this is Wee How here.  Hey, which one are we supposed to go to? The old EBC or the new EBC?"
"Wee How, the new EBC is further forward.  Our U-turn cut off time is 3:30pm," replied Adrian on the walkie talkie.
I glanced at my watch.  It was 3:48pm. Shucks. "Adrian, Adrian... my watch says it's 3:48pm.  So how? Should we U-turn now?"
"Yes, make the U-turn. Make the U-turn now," instructed Adrian. 
I remembered the 1996 ill-fated Everest expedition by Scot Fisher and Rob Hall and I knew the deaths were because the members did not respect the cut-off time.  We were at the mercy of an extreme environment and I was the last person to go against the team leader's words.
"Children, I'm sorry.  We cannot go towards the new EBC.  Let's take a shot here and then we will need to make our way back already because we only have another one more hour of day light."
I saw the disappointment in Fann's eyes.
"Uncle.  I have to come back to EBC again," that was her immediate reply to me.  Adrian only got to understand her OCD-ness when it came to completing missions later that evening.
"Had I known, I would have asked you to release your three girls and let them push forth quickly towards the new EBC while you and Serene walk slowly," Adrian later said. 

A panorama of EBC [Photo: Alex]
Meanwhile, further downwards, our courageous teammates had successfully climbed upon the platform of the new EBC and taken their well-deserved group and individual shots.

Group photo at New EBC [Photo: Adrian]

[Photo: Darric]

Afterwards when we finally gathered back at the guesthouse, Kai Sing shared with us:
"The climb down to the new EBC platform was actually quite treacherous and we had to get on all fours just to climb down and then after that climb up."
Lai Peng recalled: "It was so scary.  We were the last ones coming back from the new EBC.  And it was getting so dark.  Looking back, and looking in front, there was no one.  We were just us by ourselves, and the rocks all around.  And we had to rush in the dark to make our way back to Gorak Shep."

It was 4pm as we picked up our pace back towards Gorak Shep.  When the peaks around us were so high, the sun dropped below them very early and soon, we were surrounded by darkness as the temperature once again plunged.
It was not safe trekking in low lights, especially among rocky terrain.  Soon we had to whip out our headlamps and illuminate the trek.
It was treacherous, but it was really quite an experience for all of us.

Mimi almost reaching old EBC!
As we started our trek back, we were overjoyed to see Mimi making her way to the old EBC slowly with Mani on the ridge.
Despite her tiredness, she had overcome all and was victorious!  We all shouted out our encouragement to her as we past her.

3:48pm. The exact moment I walkie-talkied Adrian and was instructed to turn back. [Photo: Patrick]
As the sky darkened and our surrounding became veiled in an eerie and surreal gloom, the guides and porters became crucial here as they were the ones with the experience to navigate and ensure our safety,

Sunset on our way back from EBC [Photo: KC Tng]
I didn't know how long it took.  But according to my watch, we took two hours to arrive back at Gorak Shep.  It was a dark dark 6pm when we finally stepped into Himalayan Lodge at Gorak Shep.  And everyone crumbled into a heap at the carpeted benches and seats of the dining hall.  We were simply too shagged, physically and emotionally.

Rushing back to Gorak Shep as the sun set. [Photo: Ah Li]

Later on that evening during dinner...

While waiting for dinner, Serene and I did our rounds.  Some were recovering from their coughs, but others were still blowing out thick bloody nasal mucus and coughing with chesty phlegm.  I had to change to stronger antibiotics for several of them.

Photo: Ka Lin
AhLiangSS started having watery stools.  He must be one of the last few to catch the food poisoning E.coli bug.  The usual Ciprofloxacin and Vacontil was prescribed.  Even KK also started having some respiratory symptoms.

Casey was coughing, and Cantona was coughing,  Both were chesty and both were tired.  The past 9 days really had taken a toll on their immunity.  Cantona was very funny, he made a remark later:
"This Casey ah.. I think he was something short short already up at EBC.  He was talking to TJC 'Hey, how come you breath so loud hee hor hee hor until like that ah?'.  That was very strange.  It wasn't like Casey at all.  Not his usual self."
In retrospect I finally understood.  Cantona's reluctance to go up to EBC was most likely as a response to his body's protesting.   He was likely to be starting to feel unwell and fatigue.  But he was really the Giant, and he pushed on with encouragement from everybody to complete his objective.  As for Casey, all these subtle little signs, his talking strangely to TKJ, were telling us that he might have been harbouring some early symptoms of AMS.
"I think I might have pushed myself too hard earlier on," he admitted much later.
Kong Wan was suffering a massive headache after coming back from EBC.
"Wah lau.. I had to really push myself to chase after Ai Lin.  I knew I was exerting myself.  And on the way back, I could feel my headache coming.  And now my headache is bad.  I think it's AMS."
All were given medicine.  Ah Sing was turning out to be quite ok.  Ah Li, Fann and Serene were fine.  Interestingly my diarrhoea had stopped and my AMS no longer bothered me.
Alex, Kai Sing, Lai Peng all had a couple of doses of oral dexamethasone as preventive measures before the morning trek from Lobuche to Gorak Shep and I believed that had helped them in staving off some AMS symptoms.

Kala Patthar and EBC (again!) for tomorrow
"OK tomorrow morning those who want to trek up to Kala Patthar will set off at 4:30am.  You will follow Babu, and bring your personal porter with you." announced Adrian.
I asked everyone, but very few were keen to do Kala Patthar.  I was really shocked.  I literally arm-twisted Kai Sing to do Kala Patthar with me, and was really thankful he agreed.
I looked at the daughters - Ah Sing and Ah Li were all ready for Kala Patthar.
Fann was overjoyed when Adrian allowed her the chance to do EBC again the next day, specially allocating Sharan to accompany her, with the plan to set off at 6:15am, so that she can accomplish her objective of setting foot on the new EBC.  Kai Sing was a strong advocate of Fann's prowess, and he strongly vouched for Fann's re-attempt on the new EBC, reassuring Adrian that she will be very fast going out and back from EBC.

Somehow Adrian was skeptical when I told him the girls all can do Kala Patthar.  He looked at Serene and asked: "Mother knows best.  You think Ah Sing and Ah Li can do Kala Patthar tomorrow?" 
Serene gave him an affirmative.  And thus the stage was set.   YES! We would be going up to the highest point tomorrow.  In my heart, I held Kala Patthar even dearer than EBC.  It had been something that myelf and the girls had wanted to do on this trip.

I had been a very strenuous day for all but the fittest among us.
Adrian was very proud of the whole team - we all made it to EBC and back.  It was time to rest, and to prepare for another long long day of trek from Gorak Shep to Pheriche the next day.  For those who decided that Kala Patthar was not their bucket list, it would mean an extra 4 hours of sleep and rest.

But for Matthew, Jason, Jeffrey, Kai Sing, Zaid, Ah Sing, Ah Li and I, this would really be another highlight.

Click here to continue to:
EBC Trek Part 4 ~ Kala Patthar