Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Chachani, A mental challenge

and a unsuspected reunion with some old friends

Trying to go onto the 6075m Chachani we got picked up at our hostels at 8 in the morning in a jeep. After leaving the city we soon left the road and went over dirt roads to the Chachani Base Camp at 4855m. Our group was in this case 3 white South Africans Dave, Nick and Christine and Sandra a German girl. The South Africans where not acclimatized, Sandra had spent quite some time at altitudes above 3000. For me it was semi-optimal, as due a week long sickness I spent one week at just 2300.
As the equipment (headlamp, ice Axe and crampons) is shared between the groups going and coming back from the trek, we had to wait. It got pretty late (between 3 and 4pm). Too late to do the one hour hike to the high camp at 5300m. So what we did was to hike a little up the mountain, to get a little impression of what to expect the next day.

But even that got interesting. The guide started on the trail amazingly slow, little less than a second per step. I felt pretty good, I started finding my pace which brought me soon quite in front. Sandra and Dave were in the middle, but very far behind the Nick and Christine. What happened was that soon after hitting the trail Nick, Dave and Christine had developed serious headaches. We walked for about an hour to about 5300m.

I noticed that the brain activity is definitely slowed, but apart from that I felt fine. When we came back from the trail, Christine started vomiting and at dinner I was the only person eating more than a few bites.
Soon after the dinner, we went to sleep as we had to start on the trail at 1 in the morning, therefore wake up time was at midnight. I think I was the only person sleeping for at least 3 hours. If you are about to fall asleep, your breath lowers. What happens if you are not acclimatized, is that every time you fall asleep your breath is lowered too much for the altitude, so you automatically start gasping for air and waking up again.
At wake up time, we got served a breakfast which consisted of untoasted toast and some strange marmalade. I ended up chewing some raw slices of toast. As Nick and Christine had not slept at all and still had serious headaches they decided not to go. Dave decided to go despite his serious headache and Sandra had started developing a cold (I assume the same crap as I had before) but also decided to give a try. So not having done a single step on the trail we had lost almost 50% of our group and the rest besides me was in bad shape.
The temperature at the start was at about -5 Celsius. We put on our headlamps and started slowly on the trail. We made it to the high camp as group, but then we already had to split the group as Sandra preferred a slower pace so she was walking with the second guide.
Everything went fine, after the high camp we soon came to the first traverse of a snowfield. We put on crampons and ice axe and maybe it was not that bad that we could not see the area where we were walking. Being at 5500m now the temperature had dropped significantly. I assume it had less then -10 degrees. Breathing heavily the air was definitely too cold to swallow so I had to put a scarf before my face.
In the crystal clear night we could see Arequipa sparkling yellow from above and many stars from below. Even the milky way was clearly visible.
Soon after the traverse the first light of the day showed up. Our guide now told us that the heavy part was just ahead. The heavy part was a steep ascend along the flank of one of the lower summits of the Chachani. And heavy it got. Dave still looking miserably started to get worried about our way back.
Until this point I felt lightheaded, noticed slow thinking and a minor impact on speaking as I spoke little blurred. I was not able to pronounce the words clearly. But still I felt fine.
Doing now the ascend from 5500 to 5800m the altitude sickness now hit me severely. First thing you noticed was that you get out of breath after a few steps. The step frequency was dropping but apart from that it started affecting significantly all my senses. Worst of all was the effect on my sense of balance but also vision and hearing.

In vision I started developing tunnel vision and the picture starts getting noisy. Blue and black sparks are coming up that can turn into patterns. Your eyes start fail focusing or watching on the same spot. The ability to measure distances was significantly impaired.
In hearing I started to hear the same way as if you have a pressure difference between your ear and the environment or you hear high pitched tones.

And speaking of speaking, this was most embarrassing. Unable to pronounce the words with breaks in between them, I more babbled than anything else. I definitely avoided speaking as it was so embarrassing to hear myself. When I later asked Sandra on the summit and after some minutes of rest for taking a picture of me on the summit, I spent all my mental energy on speaking yet what was coming out of my mouth did not sound much better.

This combined with headache, highly impaired ability to think, being very dizzy, your stomach feeling bad and being absolutely breathless it was now going to the lower summit. During the ascend the sun was raising making at least the temperature a little more enjoyable.
Coming to the top of the lower summit we had to cross a second snowfield before we did the final ascend. Something interesting now happened. Dave being struck by altitude severely until here suddenly started to feel better and started the final ascend on his own.

For me it was doing 10 steps and then stop for taking breath. Usually I can find the appropriate pace easily but no more. For Sandra it was like 2 seconds for a small step. Knowing the people of my group from the talks we had at the base camp, seeing the whole scenery was now becoming quite surreal. I started going into auto-mode which means I spent all mental energy on simply breathing, looking in front of me, keeping balance and doing one step after the next. I stopped thinking. It took me a long while to get to the summit. I can not even say how long as the sense for time was long lost.

But now the view from the top was amazing. On 6075m you definitely feel like standing on one of the rooftops of this world. It is a view I only knew from a plane. The clouds are 2000m below, looking up the sky you look into very dark blue giving you a sense of space.

We did not spent much time on the summit, before we started going back. The guides had noticed that I had started developing serious problems, so the second guide now got followed on my step. Going down we were talking shortcuts which was a serious problem with my impaired sense of balance. I more stumbled and fell my way down. Getting back to the traverse he would even put on my crampons. I would have managed on my own, but yet I was too devastated to resist his help.

The situation got little better when we came down from the smaller summit to about 5500m. But walking for 10hours in altitudes of more than 5500 now claimed his prize. You simply go to auto-mode.

Breath, Walk, Breath, Walk, Breath, Walk.

To think about how far you still have to go is not good for your morale. So don't.
When we came back to the high camp I noticed another side affect of altitude sickness.

Have you ever thought what you see or hear is reality? OK, then sorry to disappoint you. Reality is far too complex for our conscious. As migraine is the result of our perception filters failing, everyone who has ever enjoyed a migraine can tell you a story about this. So your reality is in fact the final result of impressive filtering, scan for threat, enhancing, categorizing, and association process. It has also a lot do with expectation. So for a human reality is always subjective. How do I know? Well, combine lack of oxygen and exhaustion and you might find out.

What happened was that the association process your brain uses to enhance vision of unclear, dusky or remote objects was going wrong. From The high camp I could *clearly* see a couple of tents between some rocks in several hundred meter distance. "Strange place to camp" I though before I continuing my way to the base camp. Coming by the "campsite" the tents were no longer tents but only big rocks.

After 13hours, two hours earlier than the last group, I finally came back to the base camp. Apart from 2 snacks, I had eaten nothing. You simply do not feel like eating.

There is basically no technical difficulty on the trial, I have not even sore legs today.

But going onto the summit of the Chachani was a true a mental challenge.

As a follow up of this post in my travel blog a friend wrote me the following message

Great that you got back OK - it would be a disaster if the Guides had got into trouble too!

Check out the following talk from TED called "
Stroke of Insight":

It relates an experience where the logical side of a scientists brain stops working, but the creative side keeps going (a friend of mine who is a Buddhist, said that this is similar to the stat that he tries to achieve via meditation).

Presumably both parts of a person's brain are affected by altitude, and stop working properly. Do you think that they 'degrade' differently (in terms of how each side of the brain copes)?

I could imagine that some functions just become less effective (e.g. your speech), while others reach a 'cut-off' and stop completely, or they act incorrectly (e.g. seeing tents instead of rocks)."

Here is my answer

"thanks for the very interesting link! Some things I definitely can confirm.

For me it definitely looked like that certain functions degrade differently. In this case it seems that energy or oxygen is diverted to the vital functions (in this case everything it takes to get you out of situation you are currently in) like breathing, walking, keeping balance, finding the way.

A first indication might be that one of the first things you loose the sense of time.You start being in the very moment only, you stop thinking about yesterday, tomorrow, why you are there (I did not take too many pictures for example, or spent much time on enjoying the view). This might indicate, that what she refers as the "right side", might be more supplied with oxygen than left side.

As thinking was slowed down but definitely working I for example was very amazed by what was coming out of my mouth. As you hear yourself speak you think "??? What the hell was that?", then you try again, putting more focus on speaking but still it does not improve much. Compared to the degradation of thinking, speaking had degraded disproportionately high. If we assume that degradation takes place differently, this would indicate that the area in my brain responsible for speaking is in my left half. And I just googled for "speech area and brain" and this comes up:

"For nearly all right handed persons the speech area in the left half of the brain. For left handed persons this association can not be done."

This would also explain the effect that I saw rocks as tents. The image that finally comes to our mind consists of objects not pixels. According to the film association with our knowledge or past is done in left half. Like described in vision there is definitely a process which takes the raw pixel image, tries to associate it with things we know, and when it is quite sure it found the right thing it converts the pixels into an object. As the failure occurred in this left side association process this is the another indication that the left side might be more affected.

Also you can clearly see how perception is clearly connected with our expectation. I saw the rocks as tents between the high camp and the base camp. So the likelihood of of someone camping there is actually not too low. From the raw image the distant rock could probably equally probable be a Rhino, but a rhino in the mountains seems far less likely.

Meditation in the sense of trying to leave the conscious and to enter the subconscious is probably one of the most interesting things to do. I would like to learn more about it. But I think it is quite a hard thing to do, that requires quite a lot of training an incredible mental discipline."

No comments: