The Accident At Tashi Lapso Pass, Part Three: Rescue In A Doko

In part two of The Accident at Tashi Lapso Pass, Lakpa Sherpa and his team desperately began to improvise a way to get Louise off the Ngole glacier and back down the treacherous terrain to Thangbo  to call an air ambulance. In part three, Louise recalls some of the most harrowing moments of her ordeal.

 

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Before we set off down the pass for medical help, Lapka spent some time instructing me about how to sit in the doko.

I had to lean my head as far back as possible so that the angles of my back and head were parallel with his. This meant I had to keep my head unsupported at a 30 to 40 degree angle for much of the ride. My healthy right leg was hanging over the side of the doko. My broken left leg was at right angles, resting against the side of the doko. I supported it there with my left arm, while I used my right hand to hold my boot to ensure that my splinted foot was as stable as possible. Lakpa also told me not to move or shift my weight while we were walking because any movement could unbalance him and cause him to fall, or worse – drop the basket.

Uttam was coming with Lakpa and I to carry both of our backpacks and to relieve Lakpa of carrying me when he got too tired. The two women porters were left to try to organize the camping gear.

With Uttam and Nima busy with other tasks and one basket now being used to transport me, they could only bring half of the camping gear down to Thame. They also had to find a safe place on the glacier to leave the rest until it could be collected in a day or two.

Despite my own self-preoccupation I hated leaving the two women behind. With four of our group evacuating the glacier, it didn’t seem right to leave the two women, even knowing they would be following us shortly. I learned later that the women sat on the rocks and cried for an hour before they could start organizing the equipment, so distressed were they about what had just happened. I wouldn’t see them again that day. Two days later, Lakpa’s wife would call to tell me they were with her, and that they wanted to express their ‘emotion’ over what had happened. They also wanted to send their best wishes for my recovery.

Initially, I didn’t find sitting in the doko as difficult as I imagined it was going to be. The basket was large, my crew had made a comfortable seat and I was able to hold my leg relatively steady against the rim of the basket. I was, however, aware each time the ends of the broken leg rubbed together and the way each jolt of Lakpa’s step caused a small stab of pain.

 

A traditional Nepalese 'doko' - would it be able to help get Louise off the Ngole glacier to safety?

A traditional Nepalese ‘doko’ – would it be able to Help get Louise off the Ngole glacier to safety?

 

I was very aware of the terrain we needed to cross to get down off the glacier and I knew we could slip or fall on the moraine with every step.

First, we had to come down the incredibly steep and slippery slope that we had just climbed up. We’d need to come back across the rock-littered glacier to our campsite, up another rock-littered slope and then down the other side of this – even steeper, and just as slippery as the first.

With my head leaning back in the doko, I had stunning views of the surrounding mountains as we descended, but I also felt very vulnerable because I couldn’t see where we were going. A couple of times I turned my head sideways to try to see where we were going but could only see the terrifyingly steep slope we were descending from the corner of my eye which only served to make me feel dizzy and nauseous.

As Lakpa carefully picked his way through the rocks, he made small whistling sounds through his teeth, almost as if he was trying to focus himself. I found myself periodically holding my breath… waiting, almost expecting him to slip or stumble, to give some indication that he was walking across incredibly slippery glacial moraine rather than on a flat suburban footpath. A slip or fall that resulted in Lakpa dropping the doko basket probably would have been fatal for me because I would have continued to roll down the steep hill.

Lakpa, though, never slipped. He covered the most treacherous terrain without faltering even slightly. Not only this, but he walked in a way that minimised the jolting impact on my broken leg.

Knowing how hard it must have been, every ten minutes I would ask him if he was okay and he would say yes. I have always had enormous respect for Lakpa’s strength, poise and technical ability as a mountain guide. I have climbed with him on ice and always felt totally secure with him on the other end of the rope. But after his efforts today – carrying this woman who weighed the same as him, in a basket, across the terrain which we had just walked – my admiration for him found new heights.

When we were off the dangerous slope and at a height of about 4,800 metres, Lakpa said to me, “Bauju (sister-in-law), I need a rest. Uttam will carry you for a while now”. I felt nervous about this change of basket-carrier but knew it needed to happen. Lakpa had completed the most challenging part of the walk and needed a break. He placed the doko carefully on a rock, then got out a thermos of warm tea and insisted that I drank some. Until this time, I’d had nothing to drink since breakfast, three hours before.  After some tea and with Lakpa’s help, Uttam hoisted the doko onto his own back and we set off again.

Immediately, I noticed a difference between Uttam’s and Lakpa’s walking styles. At 19, Uttam was more than 15 years younger than Lakpa and weighed at least 10 kilograms less. However, he wasn’t as fit as Lakpa and was only able to carry me in short bursts between rests. Most significantly though, he had a very bouncy walking style and I found I was less comfortable being carried by him. My leg hurt more, I felt more uncomfortable in the doko, and I felt more vulnerable while being carried. I didn’t say anything though, as I knew that every step down the valley was one step closer to evacuation.

For the next hour and a half, Uttam and Lakpa took it in turns to carry me. As I was being carried I remember looking up at the peaks on either side of the valley. Most of the time while trekking and climbing I am looking at where I’m puttting my feet rather than at the surrounding views. This time I was just sitting there with a broken leg and able to enjoy the views directly from the doko basket. I also felt strangely peaceful for a while; comforted by a feeling of surety that we’d get out of there safely and that everything was going to be okay, one way or another.

But then another problem emerged. After a while I became desperate to relieve my bladder. Initially, I was able to ignore it, then it became more and more painful and I couldn’t ignore it anymore. And then finally, it became more painful than my leg. I told Lakpa about it and he said, ‘and how are we going to fix that?’

At one point I made them stop and put the basket down on the ground. I don’t know why – probably my state of desperation, but I thought that even with a broken leg, if I could just get out of that basket I could somehow relieve myself. But I couldn’t even shift my body weight in the basket and moving my leg even slightly gave me a sickening pain that I couldn’t bear. So that idea was abandoned, the basket was picked up again and we plodded on.

I tried to give myself permission just to pee in the basket but personal hygiene standards and self-dignity were stronger than physical need. Our sleeping bags were in the basket, our camping mats and most of all, Lakpa’s down jacket. In the end, I just hung on and tried to ignore the pain in my bladder. Thinking back on it now, it would be another six hours until I would have a chance to relieve myself.

With its vast array of open fields making a helicopter landing possible, our goal was to reach Thangbo as soon as we could. Lakpa had told Nima that if the helicopter could come to Thangbo and land there it would be a better option than us having to walk more hours down to Thame. With our communications knocked out, we had no way of knowing whether Nima had been successful in arranging the desperately-needed airlift for us.  As we continued our descent, we had no way of knowing whether a helicopter would be waiting for us or not.

As we finally approached Thangbo, the sun dipped behind the mountains. Accordingly, the temperature plummeted. My hands, which had been holding my broken leg together, started to throb with the pain of the cold air. I also still had my dark glasses on from this morning. Nobody, including me, had thought to take these off and replace them with my normal glasses.

We arrived in Thangbo at about 1:30pm – almost four hours after we left the glacier.

There was no helicopter.

There was no Nima.

There was just an empty, abandoned village.

 

 

About Louise Currie

Originally from Australia, although I have been living in Nepal since 2005. I worked for a long time for an international aid agency in Kathmandu. I am interested in community development and having adventures in remote places. I am married with one daughter.

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