Monday, 27 August 2012

Sunday 12/8/12 – ‘Mystery on the Mountain’ by Jenna Stevens

Following our return from base camp the previous afternoon, we had enjoyed a slightly better sleep and were ready to enjoy a pleasant walk to the thermal springs. Following a leisurely hearty breakfast of porridge, fruit flakes and tea (many thanks to our surrogate mum Cath), we got our swimming cosies ready and packed our day sacks with more crackers for lunch. It was about 11.30, and we were almost ready to leave the hostel, when Damien came to find us ‘there’s an emergency on the mountain’. The guide with our group had contacted the hostel owner Marcello. There was a male on the mountain who had suspected HACE and had fallen unconscious. This later became a female who was drifting in and out of consciousness. They were making their way back from the summit and were now at approximately 6200m. How were we going to get to them? Would we be able to get oxygen up the mountain? If we did get to them, how were we going to get them down? Would we get sick too? An action plan was hatched! Another guide was already en route to help the guide already up there bring the patient to a meeting point. We would be taken up in a 4X4 ambulance to 5200m, along with 2 paramedics from the ambulance. The local health centre could give us a supply of oxygen. I packed my bag with the remainder of the drugs to treat HACE from the medical kit left at the hostel, along with a few cannulae and some fluids which I had been trying to warm in my down jacket! Whilst we were up on the mountain, Marcello would arrange for an ambulance to meet us at the Bolivian Chilean border to take the patient back to a sea level hospital in Arica, once off the mountain. We set off from the hostel around 1pm. We (myself, Damien and Mark) squeezed in the back of the 4X4 along with 2 ‘paramedics’ and a doctor called Marybell, who spoke broken English, from the health centre. In the front was the driver, his wife the ‘nurse’ and their small child! We travelled along the main road for a few bumpy kms, passing some of our group on their way back to the hostel after camping out by the lake the night before, until we turned off right up a steep mixed dust and rocky track. After a few even more bumpy and hairy manoueveres in an attempt to negotiate a sharp steep rocky section, the engine stalled. We all jumped out of the back, and watched as the driver, after a few attempts, managed to negotiate the rocks. We all squeezed back in. Unfortunately, after only a few more hundred metres, the same thing happened again, only this time we jumped out to the pleasant aroma of a burnt out clutch! The driver had a look under the bonnet, whilst making a few grunts and groans, as all men seem to do in these situations. There didn’t seem to be any sense of urgency with these guys, so I suggested maybe we should start to walk. The paramedics started to gear up, although they didn’t have much to put their gear in. They borrowed Marks rucksack to put the oxygen cylinder in, and my head torch. We explained to Dr Marybell what dose of dexamethasone should be given and nervously handed over the drugs and fluids, along with the cannulae, to the ‘paramedics’ too. We were reassured that ‘they know what they are doing’. The ‘paramedics’ and Dr Marybell, dressed in her leather fashion boots and silver fashion ‘space jacket’, as Damien called it, set off up the path towards the mountain. From the position that we had stopped, the mountain was only just in sight, so I also started walking to see if I could reach a point with a better view. After about 20 minutes of puffing and panting up the hill, I reached the car park, where the 4X4 was meant to have stopped, to find the ‘paramedics’ and Marybell stopped once again. One of the paramedics was changing his trousers. I gestured to the other, that maybe if he wore his mountain boots he may not have to carry so much weight. He looked at me and smiled, as if to say ‘no estiante’. They set off once again, approximately 14.15 after saying that they were going to be 3 hours, although I wasn’t sure if this was for them to reach the patient or for them to return back down the mountain. From the car park, which was high up on a moraine, (which turned out to be about 4900m and not 5200m as we first believed) with base camp below to the right, the steep cliffs of Sajama in front, with the summit ahead in the distance, I could see the traverse of the mountain and the route up to high camp. I could make out little black dots of people on the mountain, but couldn’t make out who the little black dots were – if only I had borrowed Tom’s binoculars! Mark had decided to follow me up the path too. He had brought up my rucksack with some fluids, snacks and warm layers. We sat for quite a while trying to make out where the paramedics were on the mountain. They had disappeared from sight. We saw many people walking off the mountain towards base camp but never saw anyone walking up. It was about 16.30 when we decided to walk back down towards the jeep. It was getting a little nippy and we were wondering whether the jeep was ever going to make it up to the car park. On our way back to the jeep we saw what we thought to be a small mammal stood on a prominent rock peering up the mountain, almost meerkat like in appearance. As we got closer, we soon realised that it was in fact Damien! We still had no news of what was happening on the mountain. The ambulance driver had given up on trying to get any further up and had taken 20 minutes to turn the jeep around. We stood talking for around a further 30 minutes before we saw a Sajama national park ranger truck heading up the track towards us. It continued passed us, so clearly the driver was doing a better job than our own driver! About 5 minutes later, the jeep was on its way back down. We gestured and they stopped. In the back of the truck were the 2 ‘paramedics’ and Marybell. It was a ‘false alarm’ ‘False alarm’?? Marybell said that the patient was well and walking back down to base camp. The remainder of the group were ok and also heading back to base camp. Amid much confusion on our part, the ‘paramedics’ handed over our kit, drugs and fluids, and headed back down the mountain in the jeep with the national park guys. We jumped in the back of the clutchless 4X4 ambulance, with Marybell, and headed back too, still not really sure what had been happening on the mountain. After another rather rocky and bumpy journey we made it back to the hostel as dusk fell. We arrived back at the hostel to hear about the actual events on the mountain that day!

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