In 2010, Gary Pinder conquered the fabled Inca Trail to Machu Picchu with his wife Lisa and their two young children, ages 13 and 12. In 2011, Gary went bigger: he took his family on an adventure to Everest Base Camp 16 years after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
The Journey to Phakding
We sit on the runway in an 18-seat plane in Kathmandu, Nepal, waiting to fly to one of the world’s most dangerous airports, Lukla. From the United States, Canada, England, Germany, Estonia and Sweden, 15 strangers have come together with the shared dream to hike to Everest Base Camp, or EBC for short.
We take off—luggage piled haphazardly in the aisle of the plane, noticeably obstructing all emergency exits—and take in the clear view of the hills ringing us. The very, very close hills. Less than 30 minutes later, the 1500-foot long, 60-foot wide Lukla runway appears and, after a collectively held breath, we all cheer our safe landing. Day 1 of our 12-day roundtrip hike to EBC begins.
Large rocks marked with the script of the Buddhist prayer “Om mani padme hum” adorn the path. Countless prayer flags flutter, their five colors representing the elements of life—blue for sky, white for air, red for fire, green for water and yellow for earth. Dramatic suspension bridges cross natural barriers of streams and gorges. Flowing rivers gush with water colored the turquoise-green of glacier melt. Parades of porters and yaks march by with loads of every size and shape. The spectacular, soaring, snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas reach for the sky.
Within a few hours we reach Phakding, the stopping point for our first night and our first “tea house.” A tea house is a Nepalese guest house where you eat and stay while trekking. After eating a meal of dal bhat, a traditional Nepalese dish of rice, flatbread, and lentil soup, we retire for the night. By Western standards, our rooms are sparse—a wooden platform with a thin foam mattress for a bed, wooden floors, and un-insulated wooden walls. But they are comfortable and provide protection from the elements of rain, snow, hail and cold.
The bathrooms are communal and were described in my wife’s journal as “a porcelain hole in the floor with markers for your feet so you can stand on either side of the hole.” Accuracy is key. To flush, you bail from a large barrel of cold water.
A strange dichotomy of technology exists on the trail. Every porter and Nepali you meet has a cell phone. In every village there is internet access. Every tea house has an array of charging stations for various electronic devices. Yet locals wash their clothes in cold streams. Hot showers are rare. Toilets are not flushable. There is no heating, save for stoves in common areas where yak dung is burned.
The Effect of Altitude on Multiple Sclerosis (and My Family)
That first evening I begin to take Diamox to help manage the effects of altitude sickness, highly likely at altitudes above 10,000 feet. That night I visit the “porcelain hole in the floor” every 60 minutes or so. Not through choice, of course—more to satisfy the familiar multiple sclerosis urgency, enhanced by Diamox. I had experienced similar patterns in bladder behavior at high altitude previously, so I was not surprised. After experiencing this again the next night and not being in any hurry (pun intended) to sleep for only an hour between rapid trips to test accuracy, I concluded that a solution must be found. The hypothesis was that if Diamox was the culprit, then perhaps taking the medication with food would help. Thankfully, this hypothesis proved correct!
The omnipresent shadow of MS appeared in other ways. While hiking 6 to 8 hours per day in ever higher altitude caused no material physical problems to me, other issues caused by MS eventually started to present themselves. Since my last major relapse in 2007, my bowel movements have not been as regular. During my Inca Trail hike in 2010, I had noticed that when I was above 10,000 feet that their frequency had reduced even further. The same pattern occurred. Only this time it was worse given the higher altitude. Despite the usage of a glycerin laxative and some long nights crouched over the porcelain hole in the floor to stimulate activity, I went about 6 days without a bowel movement. As the days passed this became increasingly uncomfortable if not painful. It was not until we returned to Kathmandu (4,500 feet) at the end of our trek that things began to flow again. Due to the 6-day backup, it was weeks before the abdominal discomfort subsided.
Each day of the trek brings different weather—sunshine, rain, snow, hail. And with each day of the 7-day ascent from the 9,110 feet of Lukla to the near 18,000 feet of EBC, the temperature gets colder and colder. More and more clothing layers are worn. The tree line is left far behind. Due to the cold and altitude, my son’s orthodontia changes shape, causing the metal to rub the inside of his mouth. The resulting sores are significant enough to prevent Kyle from eating normally, and he gets weaker each day from lack of food. My daughter Brianna suffers from food poisoning, reducing her normal fast pace to a slow walk. They both continue, determined to reach their goal.
Reaching Everest Base Camp with MS
On the 7th day we awake early and begin a long hike. It is a frigid yet clear day with overnight snow on the ground. After a brief lunch in Gorak Shep, we come to a sign pointing the way to our objective of the past 7 days - “Way to Mt. Everest B.C.” On the approach to EBC, we pass frozen and nearly frozen lakes, huge icicles dripping from their sides. At a brief rest break overlooking the Khumbu Glacier, we see in the distance for the first time EBC and its array of brightly colored tents. The emotion of having our target within reach starts to hit me. Within 30 minutes, we reach EBC. Shrieks of joy are let out by members of our group. The satisfaction of reaching this historic yet barren place is just, well, tremendous. And to do this with my family—what a moment. My son is 12 years old. My daughter is 14. This journey is one they will remember and share for the rest of their lives.
I imagine that if I were to ever be free of this disease, then it would be in a place like this. Free from physical discomfort, medication, and the adaptions one must make in daily life. Free to see the beauty of the world in which we live, unencumbered by the thoughts that everyone with MS lives with on a daily basis.
I wish that my late mother who died far too young from cancer a few years ago could have known that I was still in good enough health to be in this place on this day. Somehow I imagine her in this place, far above the clouds, connecting with me in a way that only a mother can.
My darling wife Lisa has been unwavering throughout my journey with MS. She told me after we returned that she would not have put EBC on a list of things to do in Asia. Yet when it became my goal, she became a more than willing partner in reaching that objective. She knew it was something that I just had to do. To prove that I can still make such journeys after 16 years of this disease.