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DB Lampoon! The Joys of Sleeping at Altitude

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Recalling a couple of bad nights on Mera Peak, Peter Sherwood decides he’s happy to settle for a hike in South Lantau this Christmas
PHOTO COURTESY OF Unsplash

Mera Peak in Nepal is no big deal – a trekking peak of 6,476 metres. I tried it twice to prove that my near-death clash with altitude sickness on Mount Elbrus was a fluke. On the Russian mountain, I’d watched in horror as two guides rushed a man down the mountain in a raging blizzard to save his life: He was foaming red at the mouth. I already felt pretty sick and wondered if I would reach that point of almost no return.
There followed a few days of throwing up and cursing: No choice but to lie there with my head about to explode contemplating one of the playful edemas – lungs or brain, take your pick. (Not an issue for our Russian guide who would stop for a break in the thin air and light up a thick, black, filter-free cigarette).

The first 16-day Mera trip involved a cavalier ascent – too high, too fast and with the inevitable result (the mountaineering maxim ‘climb high, sleep low’ was not on the itinerary). It was embarrassing, but not nearly as bad as struggling up steep rock and ice only to be overtaken at speed by a 15-year-old kid carrying the contents of an apartment on his head – wearing a t-shirt, shorts and ancient flip flops. Worse, by the time I staggered into camp he’d set up my tent and made me an apple pie.
There followed a titanic sinking of spirit and the crushing to oblivion of my ego – with altitude sickness the icing on the apple pie. I made it through the night when each minute seemed like six weeks, before descending in the right direction and down about 500 metres. (Nepalese geography dictates that for every strenuous altitude gain there will follow a descent designed to make you feel inadequate).

I imagine that, like childbirth, some silly psychological delusion makes us forget the agony, or we wouldn’t do it again. A few intervening years of slow hikes over 5,000 metres with no ill effect and I was back to Mera. It went well, until it didn’t. Up high and feeling like I’d been hit by a bullet train, I had to head down in the dark for some relief, accompanied by another half-naked flip-flopper bouncing blindly from rock to rock. Depression worsened as illness dimmed. I took solace, but not much, in Everest-summitting Sir Edmund Hillary’s collision with altitude sickness at just 4,000 metres. He had to be helicoptered out.

What’s it like? It makes seasickness feel like lying on a beach in Hawaii with supermodel Bella Hadid. It’s like food poisoning plus Arnold Schwarzenegger whacking a white-hot spike through the top of your head with a sledgehammer. But it’s free and full of surprises. You might get it and then again you might not. What you need is a skinny teen to lead your sorry soul down to thicker air.

Peter Sherwood has lived in DB for 20+ years. The former head of an international public relations firm, he is the author of 15 books and has written around 400 satirical columns for the South China Morning Post. Peter Sherwood decides he’s happy to settle for a hike in South Lantau this Christmas

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