Monday, September 12, 2011

Could I Choke to Death?

At 3AM on August 26th I woke up in the tent at Advanced Base Camp coughing.  That in itself was not unusual - I had been suffering from a bad cough for over a month now.  What was unusual was my cough produced a thick mucus that I couldn't get all the way up - it was sticking in my airway and I was choking on it.  After a couple of episodes of this I woke Mark and Freddie to get some help.  He witnessed me gasping for air after each one of my coughing episodes where I could only clear part of my airway.  We decided to call my friend Dr. Brownie Schoene in Bozeman on the satellite phone to see what suggestions he might have.  Brownie specializes in high altitude respiratory medicine and I had been communicating with him the past month on how to treat and recover from my sinus problems.  Mark and Brownie were discussing my situation as I wasn't able to talk, but I did write a note for Mark to ask Brownie, "Could I choke to death on this thick mucus that is getting lodged in my airway"?  Mark listened to Brownie's response and then turned to me and said, "Brownie says that yes you could".  That wasn't what I wanted to hear and now I was pretty frightened.  Sometimes the coughing would leave me with a completely obstructed airway and I couldn't breathe at all until more coughing and hacking created a passageway to let in just enough air to allow some restricted breathing.

We decided that I needed to get out of here so calls were made to initiate a helicopter rescue.  While we waited I moved outside and sat in a nice snow chair working hard to keep up my breathing.  I decided that the best thing I could do was to not cough and drinking warm tea seemed to work best to suppress that urge.  By around 11 AM I had been sipping tea for about three hours which helped me rehydrate and during another coughing episode I was able to clear my airway and cough everything up onto the snow.  It was a tremendous relief to not be choking any longer and I felt that I was now out of danger - but still pretty sick .

After some bureaucratic wrangling, two Indian Air Force helicopters showed up around 4PM.  They made a circle around our camp on the glacier and then one landed on the helipad that Freddie had laid out in the snow.  Freddie and two of our Sherpas pulled me out of the tent where I was resting and we hurried to the helicopter where I climbed into an empty seat in the back of the small bubble cockpit.  The two pilots sitting in front of me got us off the ground and we immediately headed down-glacier.

From inside the cockpit
 The views on the flight to Leh were pretty spectacular and I tried to snap a few pictures along the way while breathing through the oxygen mask the pilots gave me.

South Shukpa Kungchang Glacier

Confluence of Nubra River on right flowing into the Shyok River on left which flows west into Pakistan

When we landed in Leh we had about a 30 minute photo shoot with the pilots, wing commander, army doctor and district commissioner.  They were all involved in helping in some way and I was grateful to them.

Landing at Leh

After the formalities on the tarmac they drove me to the hospital in Leh.  It was a pretty grim place, but more on that tomorrow.


  1. The 2012 Annual Benefit Dinner Weekend will witness accounts of - Steve Swenson, Mark, Freddie, and the rest of the Saser Kangri II team for a journey—vividly told in words, images, and video—to one of the last frontiers of Himalayan climbing.

    This mission also involved the daring rescue of Steve Swenson by Two Indian Air Force Choppers from a record 23000+ ft. This is being considered as the hig...hest ever helicopter operational rescue mission ever conducted.

    It would be prudent to invite the four pilots of the helicopter rescue team which comprised of Wg Cdr D C Tiwari, Flt Lt A Agrawal and Flt Lt A K Bharmoria, led by Wg Cdr S Srinivasan from the Indian Air Force to flew their helicopters to more than their limits, risked their own lives and saved critically ill Steve very efficiently from the unforgiving terrain.

    This would be an ideal occasion to felicitate and thank the brave professionals

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