On top of the world (almost)

Tim Salmon thought that as a keen climber, a trek to Everest's base camp would be within his reach. But an impromptu stroll nearly turned into disaster

Get a move on, grandad!" an irate biker shouted at a friend who was driving me through Athens. Hasn't happened to me yet, I thought smugly. "You look so fit," say deskbound friends, and inwardly I preen. If there are young women around, I am careful not to reveal my age. You can get away with it in your 40s and 50s, but at 60?

I got my comeuppance one spring day in Kathmandu. I knew the game was up. I was on my way to Everest with Paul, a climber friend, and two other friends of his, Al and Kathryn. Paul's sights were on the summit, which he successfully reached; our ambitions were limited to Base Camp. Some of Paul's equipment had gone missing on the flight out. While Paul and I started the search for it, Al and Kathryn went off to the embassy with our documents to register our presence. "Are you really 62?" said Kathryn, awed. She had seen my date of birth. I was old enough to have fathered the three of them.

I was generally out of my depth on this trip. Most visitors in Kathmandu looked like children. The climbers we hung out with had scalps on their belts not from the Mediterranean hillocks I specialise in, but Makalu and Annapurna, Chile's Torres del Paine and the north face of the Eiger. There was talk of friends who had died "on the hill". "Are you writing your last will and testament?" said Ted, one of Paul's expedition team, on seeing me writing up my notes. As it turned out, it might well have been - his too, come to that, because he ran out of oxygen on the summit and was only saved by a Sherpa handing him his.

I wondered what went through their minds, these tough guys, as they approached the last phase of a journey that could easily kill them. I was only trekking, but was apprehensive enough. When we finally left Kathmandu, it was a cloying, sweltering day, the city veiled in smog. We flew in a tiny Twin Otter. The pilot greased the nose-wheel and tested the plane's balance with his own hands. Ted, an airman, told us he would not be allowed to fly a plane in this condition.

I listened anxiously to the thrum of the engine as we laboured into the cloud. Suddenly we broke through to sunlight and there to port were the Himalayas, peak after peak of rock and shining snow, and Everest itself, with a great white vaporous flag streaming eastwards from the summit. We began to descend until there was Lukla below us, its short uphill runway ending in a cliff. Would the brakes hold? They did. We piled out. Soldiers were everywhere, guarding the approaches to Everest, one of the few parts of Nepal not yet subject to the Maoist insurgents.

Lukla consists of sturdy stone houses, many of them lodges catering for the trekkers and climbers. We made a brief halt for the first of many bowls of noodle soup and gallons of hot lemon - the principal daily chore is drinking enough liquid to fight off the symptoms of altitude sickness. Then we set off up the narrow trench of valley that funnels the seething meltwater of the glaciers and high peaks down to the lowlands.

We went slowly, careful not to gain height too quickly. The first big step to altitude was Namche Bazaar at 3,400m, where we stayed three nights, climbing high in the daytime and returning at night to sleep and drink. From the ridges above Shyangboche I got my first earthbound glimpse of Everest. We continued our acclimatisation, of sleeping low and climbing high, our goal a ridge-top shrine or the base camp of the 6,856m Ama Dablam. In Pangboche we caught up with Al and Kathryn and watched as the helicopter came to carry a poor soul who had succumbed to Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS).

Two days later, Paul wanted to reach 5,000m. I thought a tour of the villages would be more interesting and set off on my own. Feeling confident and fit, I overtook yaks, porters and other toiling trekkers. I climbed to around 4,600m. A cold wind got up in the afternoon and I turned for home. At Pheriche, feeling suddenly tired and weak, I stopped for tea and thought I was going to faint. I had noticed that the Himalayan Rescue Association clinic that Paul had told me about was only a few metres away. I went in.

Luckily, there was a Scottish volunteer doctor on duty. She went through the standard AMS tests which I passed to her satisfaction. Then she took my blood pressure. "Uncontrolled hypertension," she said. "I don't think you are having a mini stroke. But you shouldn't go any further."

She made me lie down. When she came back I was, to my surprise, still alive, though badly frightened. How was I to let Paul know what had happened? I was still 90 minutes from where we were staying and it had begun to snow. The doctor did not want me to leave alone. A Canadian volunteer doctoroffered to accompany me. It was dusk when I got back to our lodge. Paul was setting out to look for me. His expedition leader had just arrived, with several other expedition members, including two doctors. They too had a look at me, tested my oxygen to blood ratio and announced that I had one of the best scores in the group.

In the morning I wondered what to do. I had slept well. There were no new symptoms. I have a blood pressure problem, I knew that, and I had medication with me. Was I well? Was I not well? I was frightened. If it was not safe to go on, was it even safe to walk down alone?

I asked Paul's expedition leader what to do. He called the helicopter. We walked back to Pangboche together. Still I could not decide how I really felt. But next morning, when the little glass bubble of a helicopter showed up, I was the poor soul waiting in the snow-covered potato patch beneath the freshly sugared ice of Ama Dablam. Not suffering from manly frostbite or injury sustained in a fall, but an old man's hypertension. Cost: £2,100. For that, somebody's granny got a lift to Lukla, her nephew's spuds were delivered to Kathmandu and I got a tree-top flight over a country now largely out of bounds because of guerrilla activity.



There are no direct flights between the UK and Kathmandu. Gulf Air (0870 777 1717; www.gulfairco.com) flies from Heathrow via Bahrain or Abu Dhabi and Qatar Airways (020-7896 3636; www.qatarairways.com) flies from Manchester and Heathrow via Doha.


Everyone is susceptible to Acute Mountain Sickness above 3,500m. To avoid it, gain height slowly. You should never sleep more than 300m higher than you slept the night before. Also, you must drink plenty of water. Nausea and headaches are the milder symptoms. More serious are cerebral and pulmonary oedemas - which can be fatal. In all cases, the remedy is to lose height. Blood pressure, when controlled by medication, is not normally a problem at altitude.


British Mountaineering Council (0870 010 4878; www.thebmc.co.uk).

British passport-holders require a visa for Nepal, which cost £20 for 60 days. Contact the Royal Nepalese Embassy (020-7229 1594; www.nepembassy.org.uk).

Following the king's dismissal of the government in February, the Foreign Office (0870 606 0290; www.fco.gov.uk) advises: "There is a high threat from terrorism in Nepal. In recent months, Maoist rebels have carried out attacks, including in areas frequented by foreigners. Tourists have been caught up in some of these, although none have been seriously injured... We advise you to exercise extreme caution during your visit. We strongly recommend that trekkers travel in a group with an experienced guide. It also helps not to be alone in the face of Maoist demands for money on the main trekking routes."