Thursday, November 8, 2012

Ladakh 1991 - Boy Meets Himalayas

The following is a chapter from the book:

One weekend in early 1991, I was watching a documentary on TV about a group from Singapore who were trekking in Nepal to the base camp of Mt Everest. The organizer of the expedition was Bill Kite, a transplanted American who ran a company called Sagarmatha Trekking in Kathmandu. I was mesmerized, and was thinking about how cool it would be to go trekking with this guy. I didn’t have to wait for long. Within weeks, there was mention in morning assembly at school about an upcoming expedition to Ladakh in northwestern India. It would be organized by Bill, and Mr. Gibby. The thing that really caught my imagination was that the trek would take us right past a small (6000+m) Himalayan peak which, time and weather allowing, we would have the option of climbing. ‘Small’ is a relative term in the world of Himalayan climbing. Your base camp is usually located at altitudes that are higher than the summit! of anything located in the 48 contiguous US states, or in the European Alps.

When I climbed Kinabalu, I’d sworn I’d never set foot on another mountain… So, naturally I started reading all I could find about it. I also rediscovered my dad’s copy of Chris Bonington’s ‘Annapurna South Face’, after checking out ‘Everest the Hard Way’ from our school library. My favorite book by far though, was an old book called ‘On Ice and Snow and Rock’, by Frenchman Gaston Rebuffat. This one cost me a fortune in library late fees over the years, as I just didn’t want to give it back. It talked about all the climbing basics, such as balance and proper hand holds. I spent many hours reading it in the comfort of my bedroom while I should have been doing homework. In my mind, I was making epic ascents up the North faces of the Matterhorn and Eiger in raging snowstorms. I romanticized about a spot on the Eiger known as the ‘Death Bivouac’, completely ignorant of the fact that it has that name for a good reason… This trip to the Northwestern part of the Himalaya, was the opportunity I needed to put all this ‘armchair mountaineering’ into practice.

Ladakh is situated in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir. It is located near the Ceasefire Line/Line of Control, which marks the border of a long standing territorial dispute between India and Pakistan. Passions ran quite high, and there were occasional kidnaps of westerners. Most of those incidents took place in or around Shrinagar. Since we were separated from it by a huge mountain range, Ladakh was considered quite safe. Geographically, it is part of the Tibetan Plateau and Tibetan Buddhism is thoroughly engrained in the local culture. Numerous monasteries, or ‘Gompas’ such as Spituk and Hemis, are found throughout the area. Our trek took place within Hemis National Park, the largest such park in South Asia. The landscape is rugged and is often described as moon like. During the summer months the climate is very dry, and relatively warm. During the brutal winter months, temperatures can drop to 40 degrees below zero. In this ruggedness, a population of around 200 snow leopards thrives. These are breathtaking but highly secretive creatures that rarely allow themselves to be seen.

Our trip took place less than six months before the collapse of the Soviet Union. In those days, you could save hundreds, if not thousands of dollars on airfare if you flew an ‘Eastern Block’ carrier. As it happened, we flew from Singapore to Delhi on good old Aeroflot Soviet Airlines… Our aircraft was an Ilyushin 86. Many jokes were made about its potential safety, and about the tray tables being made wood. There was the fat male flight attendant who refused to let passengers say no to their inflight meal, because Aeroflot was a ‘civilized airline’. Or the thick white fog that filled the cabin on takeoff, as its underpowered engines struggled to get that big bird in the air. The fact remains, that in its entire operational history, an Ilyushin 86 has never killed a passenger… It was, despite all of its perceived shortcomings, a damned safe airplane to fly on. If our flight to Delhi was entertaining, it was nothing compared to the spectacle that awaited us the following day.

After a few hours rest at a hotel in Delhi, we returned to the airport for a 4am check in and security check for our flight to Leh. Departure was scheduled for 6. Flights to Leh leave very early. Reason being once the air masses over the Himalayas start heating up with the morning sun, the air becomes very turbulent. So turbulent in fact, that it is not safe to fly in. Leh airport is at an altitude of over 3,000m, making it one of the highest airports in the World. At that altitude a jet has to have both a very high takeoff speed as well as landing speed in order for the wings to provide lift. The runway slopes up at an angle. Takeoff is downhill to help gain speed. Landing is uphill to help the plane stop. About 45 minutes after departing Delhi, the Himalayas came into view and it was one of those sights that you have to see to believe. Officially, photography was prohibited, but I ignored that rule, too gobsmacked to care. The flight attendants didn’t seem to notice anyway.  I was able to identify two mountains. K2 in the distance, and surprisingly Nanga Parbat, which we appeared to be very close to indeed… I got a clear view of a feature known as the ‘Silver Saddle’, and in my mind could picture the lone figure of Hermann Buhl slowly making his way to the summit back in 1953, in what was one of the great climbs in history.

After a series of creative maneuvers and steep turns, dodging sheer mountain faces, we came in for landing at a speed which makes Formula One cars jealous with envy. Bill had joked that the pilots would start throwing out anchors out the cockpit windows. It seemed then, that he might have been only half joking. During the descent, I had felt a slight sting on my left wrist. After we’d landed I realized that the case of my watch (one of those 1980’s ‘Swatch’ waterproof watches) had burst due to the pressure difference. There was also a ringing in my ears. All that, together with the general sensation that my head was indeed hollow, told me that we were now pretty high up. The strange sensation intensified, and after about twenty minutes I felt ‘buzzed’, not unlike being slightly tipsy. Of course, at age sixteen I knew absolutely nothing at all about being drunk… Toward the evening the headache set in, and we’d been told to expect it. We were having mild symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). It is completely normal when you go from near sea level to over 10,000ft in just over an hour. The only thing you can do about it is rest, and wait for your body to acclimatize. For the next few days we did a little sightseeing around Leh and hung out at the guest house.

At the start of our trek we took a group photo on the banks of the Indus. The weather was absolutely gorgeous and the views spectacular. As we made our way toward the Ganda La pass, the 6000m silhouette of the mountain Stok Kangri towered over us. Once across the Ganda La, we entered the gorge through which the Markha river flows. The source of this river was Kang Yatse. This was the 6,400m / 21,000ft mountain that I was absolutely determined to climb to at least part of the way up. To be quite honest, at the beginning of the trip it looked sort of unlikely that I would be capable of doing that. Thanks in part due to exam stress (having just sat for my GCSEs) I had for the previous months been gorging myself on huge amounts of late night snacks… Throughout most of the trek, I was walking at the back of the group and felt very embarrassed about it. I had all this nerdy knowledge about climbing techniques, but was not that confident about being able to put them into practice. Fortunately though, I got a bit of help on the way. With us was Patrick, an experienced American trekking guide. He’s the sort of easygoing chap you just cannot help taking an instant liking to. I had told him from the start that I wanted to get to 6000 meters. He knew that I was determined to get up there and he’d been sharing his knowledge. He taught me the basics of ‘pressure breathing’. In this technique, you focus on pushing the air out of your lungs. Your breathing reflex fills them back up automatically. This way, you get rid of the most CO2 and take up oxygen most efficiently. The second thing he taught me was to keep my steps small. Much smaller in fact than I would normally want to make them. It conserves energy, and even though it appears to slow you down, you can keep going for much longer periods of time. This really becomes important when you’re climbing a high mountain, because getting to the summit is only half of the equation. A lot of mountain deaths occur because climbers spent all their energy getting to the summit, and then just ‘sit down’ for a permanent rest on the way down.

We hiked past spectacular rock formations. Lhawang, one of our other trekking guides took out his rock climbing boots during rest stops for bouldering practice. Occasionally we’d come across shepherds and their flock of goats going up and down the trail. Our baggage was carried on the back of ponies instead of the traditional porters you see in Nepal. Every morning around 7am, we were woken in our tents with cups of hot tea. Keeping hydrated is really important at high altitudes. In these conditions you will lose up to two liters of fluid just by breathing in and out. When the body produces more red blood cells, your blood thickens. It will start to take on the consistency of maple syrup. At lower altitudes the reduced circulation makes you cold. When you get really high up, this is one of the bigger danger factors for getting frostbite.  All of us carried chlorine tablets which enabled us to use river water for drinking. It would taste like drinking out of a swimming pool, but it wouldn’t kill you. Being high up, the difference in temperature between sun and shade was pretty large. In the sunny parts it was quite hot, and a T-shirt would suffice. In the shady spots, it was time for a sweater and a jacket. Layering was the way to go. Having several t-shirts at hand you could just take off and put on as needed. It was the same with the wind. If it was sunny and calm, it was hot and sweaty. But a stiff breeze could cool you down within seconds.

This trek was also a big exercise in not complaining. I was wearing brand new Dolomite trekking shoes, and I had perhaps not taken enough time to break them in. Needless to say I started to develop blisters on my feet and they rapidly got worse and worse. My left pinky toe, by day three was a pocket of fluid that was held together by the nail. My heels on both feet were huge blisters. To be honest it hurt like hell, but I sort of breathed through it. I was captivated by the sights, as well as by the sheer ‘in the moment’ realization that I was actually hiking in the Himalayas.  We were approaching a 6400m mountain that I’d get the chance to go climb on. I was advised to cool my feet as much as possible. At every rest stop that was close to the river bank, I’d take off my shoes and socks and submerge my feet in the icy cold water. After about 10 seconds they were completely numb and the pain was gone for about a half hour while I read a bit. This worked quite well and the pain relief was good. I patched up my feet with anti blister gadgets known as Compeed Second Skin and they worked like magic. After a week, large areas of my feet were completely covered in those. The whole thing didn’t smell too good, but they did their job. The blisters eventually dried out and stopped hurting.

I kept to the back of the pack during most of the trek, slowed down by the blisters, and attempting to pace myself. After experiencing the stunning sight of the ancient ruins of Hankar Palace sitting precariously on the edge of a steep cliff, we got our first glimpse of Kang Yatse. The forepeak which we would climb on consisted of mostly gentle scree slopes, topped off with a nice snow cap. From here on out, the trekking became steeper and more arduous. There huge boulders to cross and it took some concentration not fall off.  Our overnight stop at Tachungtse was only a few hours from base camp. The following day would get us there quite early. This was probably when I’d get the most likely chance to climb as high as I could. Taking Patrick’s advice, I conserved my energy and drank as much water as I could. I ate like a pig at dinner, and stuffed myself with wine gums and probably half a bag of Cadbury’s Garfield chocolates. My backpack, which was more of a candy pantry, was well stocked.

That night, the excitement of what lay ahead in the morning made sleeping very difficult. I figured reading my book was more rewarding than tossing and turning around all night. This would also just annoy my tent mate. So I put on my parka and sat down with my back against a boulder outside. I was now reading Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris with the aid of the World’s biggest reading lamp. At 5000m, away from civilization and the light pollution it brings, the Milky Way  galaxy is bright enough to read a book by.. I read for several hours,  in the company of a flask of cold tea and more chocolate. The most surreal thing was that every so often a bright point of light would fly by overhead. It suddenly hit me that those were not airplanes but satellites. This was one of the single most memorable nights of my life…

The next day’s trek was indeed short. Still, I conserved my energy for what was hopefully to come later that morning. The whole effect was rather comical as I must have looked somewhat like a cat stalking its prey. After arriving at base camp I took a look through the basic climbing gear that had come along. This consisted mostly of a few ice axes. I grabbed an old 1950's wooden axe, just because it looked the coolest and most ‘classic’ of the lot. As soon as my tent was pitched, I got a day sack of snacks & my parka together. Then I went to find Patrick who had done the same. We took one look at each other and said ‘Let’s go’…

A few teachers went up as well, on a slightly different route with our third trekking guide, Jangbu Sherpa. Jangbu is a very capable climber and in May of 2011 he summited Everest. We set off on the slope, taking tiny steps, conserving our forces. Climbing at even a modest altitude of 5,500m in the Himalayas is a surreal experience. In good, calm weather the effect is somewhat like being in a Salvador Dali painting, but in 3D with a most unusual, completely silent soundtrack. The lack of oxygen, combined with the exertion of climbing, means that you start to mildly hallucinate. My ice axe started encouraging me to keep going, and was apparently giving me directions. At one point Patrick and I became separated, and I started veering off to the right of the planned route. I soon found myself on a rather steep and tricky field of loose scree. It was physically easier climbing, though much riskier. When I got to the edge of the snow, I had to make a sharp left and climb steeply up to get back to the ridge. I did it carefully, and slowly. I’d been climbing for several hours, and it was encouraging to see that ridge get closer and closer. The summit of the forepeak was covered in snow. I didn’t have crampons to the snow line would be as high as I could go that day. I would not be able to reach the top, but I was determined to get as high as I could. 6000m was definitely within reach. I climbed for another hour or so when the scree slope started leveling off, and the other ‘main’ summit of Kang Yatse became visible on the other side. The next thing I remember seeing was Patrick with a wide grin on his face, and a rather flabbergasted looking teacher who I don’t think had expected to see me, Mr. slow poke up there on that ridge. But I was there. About another 100 vertical meters, 150 at most separated me from the summit of the fore peak which was at around 6200m. I wanted to go above 6000m and my goal had been attained. It didn’t matter to me at that point that I didn’t make the summit. Up there it was very peaceful and my senses were one with the mountain. I was completely in the moment and could see the appeal the Himalayas have to Buddhist monks. It made sense now, why they would build monasteries up on high cliffs. The whole experience was very meditative. And the only material goods that mattered at that moment, were the clothes that were keeping me warm.

Poetics set aside, it was now early afternoon and we still had to get back down. That night was likely to be another cold one. As we were pretty tired, everyone descended at their own pace. This was probably not the smartest of things to do, as that’s how you get lost. And that’s sort of exactly what I did. I lost track of Patrick, Jangbu and the teachers. It was a good lesson in situational awareness, and not panicking. I had to get back to camp while there was still light. The temperature was starting to drop as well. I was now a relatively wise 16 years of age, and the full weight of why the ‘Death Bivouac’ on the Eiger got its name started to become clear. Granted, the north face of the Eiger is a near vertical wall and Kang Yatse is completely non-technical. However, I was now at nearly twice the altitude of that miserable rock ledge in the Swiss Alps, and I didn’t fancy a night in the open without a tent.

So I took a look around. Directly in front of me, there was only one valley, and by logic it had to be the one that our base camp was in. I had veered off to the right of the normal descent route, so I figured if I found the safest way down into that valley, which was basically following the ridge, I could just hang a left in the valley and follow the stream down toward the camp. It worked. I got back to camp over an hour after the others did, and I was met by a lot of relieved faces. I was happy and winded. I was proud of having attained my goal, and took a rest in my tent, enjoying a cup of hot tea and another half bag of Cadbury’s Garfield. For me the next day would be a rest day. The teachers who went up with me set off again the next morning with full climbing gear. For them, the previous day’s climbing had been an acclimatization exercise. They summited easily and enjoyed the view of K2 from the top.

Our final day in base camp before trekking back toward Leh, I went for a walk with my former math teacher, Mr. Blythe. We explored the area around the glacier that emerges from the North face of the mountain. The terrain was spectacular, and we took some photographs. Since we were up high and there were no people (or too many animals to speak of) that could ‘do their business’ in the water, I decided to have a drink of the fresh glacial melt water that was flowing there. It was icy cold, but delicious. I think it’s still the best tasting water I ever drank. It had a very slight sweetness to it, comparable to the smoothness of Grey Goose vodka, minus the alcohol.

Our trek ended in the town of Hemis where we visited the 11th Century Buddhist Monastery. After a final day’s roaming around Leh and buying some souvenirs, we took an early morning flight back to Delhi. We had a flex day before we split up as a group. Some of us, including me would fly back to Singapore. Others would fly on to Moscow and from there to London. That extra day was well spent on a long bus drive to Agra where we toured the Taj Mahal. It was every bit as spectacular as it was on photos, probably more so. The inlay stone work of the tomb was supremely intricate, although the sweltering heat inside would compare favorably with the hottest Scandinavian sauna. At the end of our day, one of our teachers suggested getting a burger at the nearby Wimpy’s Restaurant. Throughout the trip, I’d been talking about paying a ‘major visit’ to Burger King for an overdose of junk food. This seemed like a good way to get a head start on that. The trek had done me good, and despite the wine gums and chocolate I’d lost nearly 20 pounds. That burger & fries though, was a huge mistake. Almost immediately I started feeling queezy, and by the time I made it back to the hotel I had a spectacular case of the runs. I made an attempt at forcing down some spaghetti carbonara at the hotel that evening, but I spent most of that night running between my bed and the bathroom.

The following mornings came the goodbyes. Most of my expedition mates I would see again in the fall for the start of term. Some were leaving for good.  Ian, a cousin of one of my classmates I really would never see again. I was briefly in touch with him through Facebook, but he passed away last year after a long illness. It takes a while, sometimes years before you can talk about incredible experiences like this. The sheer amount of stuff you soak up can be rather overwhelming, even if it is all amazingly positive. Doubly so as a TCK, where after a trip you don’t go home, but simply fly to another foreign country that happens to be the one you live in. The concept of ‘home’ becomes rather complicated, and it completely changes your perception. What to most people is a once in a lifetime experience, becomes almost a way of life and it never ceases to be a rather odd thing. At the end of this trip, having reached my goal of climbing above 6000m, I was absolutely determined to continue climbing in the Himalayas. One of the teachers who summited that day told me: “Now all you need is experience”. It came the following winter, but my beginner’s luck was running out. My next expedition was very nearly my last.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Close Encounters of the Slithering Kind – The Adventures of Snakeman.

“I hope that when you get to Singapore, you will do your homework the night before and not in class. Otherwise let them feed you to the snakes! (especially bushmasters)”

-Mr. Mitchell, 1987.

For those of you who are reading this blog for the first time, let me back up a little. My name is Wout Wynants, and I am a Third Culture Kid. This means that I spent most of my youth in foreign countries, ‘blending my home culture with foreign cultures to form a type of third culture’. We are also known as Global Nomads and are notorious for not being able to make up our minds as to what we want to do with our lives. I’m a rather fine example of this… A lot of us also had the privilege of getting to do stuff that few others ever get to do. I was lucky enough to have had many such experiences, and my favorite by far was getting to explore my interest in snakes…

As many a kid has done, I used to whine to my parents about wanting a snake as a pet. Annoyingly, they kept saying no… For lack of a genuine serpent, I checked out all available literature on snakes from the kids section of our local library in Eindhoven. One day my mom even bought me a book about the ‘adder’, (Vipera berus) which is the sort of thing I liked to read before going to sleep. It happened to have a complete list of all species of adders, vipers, and pit-vipers known at the time, including their scientific names. By the time I was 13, I’d memorized the lot… Back then, despite being afflicted with the raging hormones of typical young teenager, I dare say this geek was more interested in snakes than in girls…

My first ‘hands on’ experience with a real snake was when I found a dead one along the side of the road in France one summer. It looked like some kind of adder (venomous) so I made quintuply sure it was in fact dead by giving it several pokes with a big stick. The flies departing the blob of twisted entrails that were emerging from a gash in its side convinced me that it was safe to pick up. I carried it by the tail and took it back to our cabin. When my parents saw their 11 year old approach the premises with what appeared to be a venomous snake, they about had a heart attack (Wout-induced heart palpitations are a recurring theme in my life). Once their nerves had settled, being the cool parents that they are they drove me to the local pharmacist where we bought a large glass bottle of formaldehyde solution. The mortal remains came home with us to Holland and I got my ‘pet snake’ after all. Never mind the fact that it sat, dead as a rusty doornail, in a jar on my bookshelf. There was now a snake in my bedroom and as far as I was concerned it was a start.

Fast forward a year or two to some amazing news. My dad, who worked for a Dutch electronics company at the time was getting transferred to Singapore, and we’d be moving there for a period of several years. I found out that there were a whopping 144! species of snake (compared to 3 in Holland) lurking in various nooks and crannies on that island. These ranged from reticulated pythons to cobras, rat snakes to pit vipers, as well as sea snakes. This was a reptile nerd’s equivalent of a wet dream… On the practical side, it meant that I was off to an International school for the first time, and I started that school year (1987) at ISSE in Eindhoven. Within a few weeks I was known there as ‘Snakeman’. The school had a small library where I discovered reptile books written in English. It was fascinating, though I admit I was a little intimidated when I first read about the sheer size that a king cobra could grow to. But it was a time of discovery and anticipation. Would I really get to see sea snakes and salt water crocodiles? One animal whose sheer beauty captured my mind was the mangrove snake (Boiga dendrophila). Jet black with bright yellow bands, and considered ‘relatively mildly’ venomous, this was the one I wanted to get my hands on the most.

My first educational experience in Singapore was at a place called Dover Court. My English grammar needed a bit more fine tuning before I could enroll at UWCSEA. By the school office, hung a poster showing the most amazing photos of the ‘Dangerous Snakes of Singapore’. I was soon drawn toward the Wagler’s pit viper, better known as the ‘temple’ pit viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri). I was having visions of going out into the jungle and catching one to keep as my first ‘real’ pet snake. Never mind the fact that it was venomous... According to the poster, its bite was supposed to be non-fatal, but ‘extremely painful’. As a gung ho 13 year old snake expert, the ‘extremely painful’ bit was something I would just ‘deal with’. I was completely oblivious to the fact that the cause of that extreme pain would be tissue destruction and abscess formation, and that it would likely lead to permanently impaired function and possible amputation if I was really unlucky… To me it was a cool snake, and the part that probably intrigued me most was that it was allegedly very docile and could be ‘freely handled’.  Later that year, I got to test that theory out.

My art teacher at Dover Court (this slightly crazy Australian lady) intrigued me with tales of the blue coral snake (Calliophis bivirgata) which was then considered to be the ‘most venomous’ snake in Singapore. To this day there is still no anti-venom. The school had a sizeable ‘grounds’ area, and in one corner there was a big pile of rubble that I regularly sorted through during recess, hoping and hoping to find one… Alas, all I found was a big agamid lizard which nonetheless proved to be good entertainment. I showed it to a pretty girl from Poland who I had a crush on, thinking she’d be all impressed… All I got for my efforts was the loudest scream I had ever heard and a lot of swearing in Polish. Something told me this was probably not the most effective way of getting a date... I really could have used the book ‘Dating for Herpetologists for Dummies’ back then.

At ‘half-term’, we flew an hour north to the island of Penang in Malaysia. High on my list of priorities was a visit to the famous Snake Temple, where Wagler’s pit vipers wander around freely, being considered a sign of good luck. My first snake encounter of the trip occurred on our second day there. I had some time to myself and went for a walk on the beach in front of our hotel. There, sitting on the sand was a snake charmer. And he just happened to have a real cobra, complete with the famous ‘spectacles’ on its hood. He was a friendly chap and even allowed me to stick my hand in the box to pet it. It hissed quite loudly, but otherwise it was a fairly gentle animal. Seriously misunderstood creatures, those cobras ;-) He also happened to have a second basket sitting next to him, and when I inquired about its contents he pretty much made my day. He had a mangrove snake! This one he allowed me to play with and he was nice enough to take a picture of me holding it… My ‘WHAM!’ shorts positively date this picture to the 80’s:  

Toward the end of the trip we visited the Snake Temple.  As it had said in the guidebook, the vipers were crawling all over the ornaments in the temple, and were indeed docile enough to handle:

I was very tempted to let one ‘accidentally’ slip into my leather bag, but I figured Singapore Airlines might have issues letting me bring it on the flight home…

After the summer of 1988, I entered UWCSEA where the adventure continued. I’d gone on numerous visits to the Singapore Zoo, where I had inquired about the possibility of volunteering at the reptile house. I was told that the only way in which they would consider that, was if it was for an academic project. I mentioned this to my head of year. He then did something that I will be eternally thankful for, as it put in motion the single most incredible experience of my life. He wrote to the Zoo, asking if they could help me with my 3rd Year biology project. I wanted to do it on pit viper venom. According to my books, it had some interesting digestive properties (it breaks down tissues, essentially digesting the snake’s prey from the inside out) which I intended to explore. This study, of course required some venom… The letter we got back from the zoo was very positive. They would be happy to help out, and provide me with what I needed. I wasn’t (of course) allowed to do the venom extraction myself. Their head keeper would be doing that for me. He ‘milked’ two Kanburi pit vipers (Trimeresurus/Cryptelytrops kanburiensis) for me. The following day (when we were supposed to work on our projects in school) I took it to Biology class along with some cubes of chicken breast I was going to test it on. Another aspect of snake venom that had me curious was that it was supposedly safe to drink. According to ‘the literature’ it is essentially a cocktail of various proteins that should be processed by the stomach like any other food. So…I had myself a little taste and about gave my poor teacher a coronary. It wouldn’t be the last time. The venom, as expected didn’t do anything to me, and by my teenage standards this theory had been ‘peer reviewed’… ;-)

I have to say I miss the carefree days of the late 80’s. I don’t want to be one of those people who whine about the ‘good old days’, but it was fantastic, as a young teen to be able to walk along a beach in South East Asia without fear of being kidnapped. Similarly, if an eccentric kid were to bring snake venom onto a school campus anno 2012, it would likely result in a SWAT team being called, as well as felony charges being filed…

The Singapore Zoo, like most others, had an on-site veterinarian. But when it came to reptile medicine, especially when it involved the dangerous ones, most treatments were done by zookeepers. The vet determined the treatment, and the keepers were responsible for administering it. One of the most common issues when keeping exotics of any type, is that they refuse to eat. In most reptiles, a feeding response can be obtained by administering an injection of vitamin B complex. If the vitamin B shot didn’t work, the animal was usually quarantined and observed to determine other treatment options.  This being a large zoo, inevitably specimens died. The staff was very aware of my keen interest in all things snake, so if one died, they were more than happy to give it to me for dissection. My teacher loaned me a dissection kit which I took to the zoo on Sundays. Usually I would dissect whatever was there during the day, and as a result gained quite an extensive knowledge of snake anatomy, as well as (occasionally) diseases and causes of death. A small (2m) king cobra died with a big lump in its body:

With local species the zoo didn’t usually bother with extensive necropsies. The frozen snake went home with me in a cooler, to be taken to school Monday morning, where my teacher had kindly allowed me to dissect it during activity time after classes. With help from my chemistry teacher, the skin was preserved as well. The swollen ‘lump’ turned out to be the heart, surrounded by a massive blood clot. It was swollen and torn in four places. Do king cobras have coronaries? Perhaps having too many reticulated pythons for lunch (king cobras eat other snakes in the wild, and at the zoo were fed primarily on small reticulated pythons which were readily available locally) has adverse effects on its cholesterol levels…

The list of stuff I was able to dissect while I volunteered there is quite staggering. It included reticulated pythons, a blood python, Indian cobra, spitting cobra, king cobra, many-banded krait, several species of Tropidolaemus Cryptelytrops & Trimeresurus pit vipers, a mamushi viper, false habu…the list goes on and on… When I enrolled at Ghent University for my brief ill-fated stint as a veterinary student last year, I quickly realized what a lucky bastard I was for having had access to all these exotics… The only dissection practical scheduled for that semester was an ‘Ascaris suum’, which is a worm…which lives up the ass of a pig…

My habit of continually bringing ever more exotic carcasses to school didn’t go unnoticed, and one day when I brought my (now infamous) yellow cooler to school containing a baby salt water crocodile which had been crushed by its minivan-sized ‘mom’, my teacher (and the other) had had enough. He was (quite rightfully so I should add) concerned about the risk of infectious diseases that these animals might carry. None of the staff at the school were reptile or exotic animal experts, and their insurance didn’t come anywhere near the coverage required for the stuff I was bringing onto campus. There was also no way of knowing for sure what diseases or parasites these animals carried. He wrote a letter to my parents explaining all this, and that for those reasons I would no longer be allowed to do dissections on campus. I was bummed about this at the time, but when I look at that letter now I can only look back in deep gratitude. I will be forever thankful to the science staff at UWCSEA for putting up with, and supporting my eccentricities for as long as they did. The experience was simply awesome.

I had now held snakes, fed them, and dissected them, but I hadn’t yet caught one… Our house in Singapore, at 25 Sunset Place, bordered a local park and the neighborhood has a system of storm drains. One morning I was taking a shower when I heard screams in the garden through the bathroom window. This was followed about 20 seconds later by my mom banging on the door saying there was a snake in the garden. I didn’t bother drying off. Soaking wet I put my clothes on. I grabbed my self-made snake hook and ran downstairs, through the kitchen and into the garden. On a low tree branch, was a mildly venomous green vine snake (Ahaetulla prasina). My mom took pictures while I caught it. My parents knew by this time that I more or less knew what I was doing and weren’t too concerned anymore. This was neat though. It was the first snake I ever caught, and she got it on camera:

When you play around with snakes, there are going to be occasional mishaps, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had one take a nibble on me. Getting bit by a non-venomous snake is something that’s really a lot more startling than it is painful, though for most people the thought of snakebite has this romanticized aura of sheer horror about it. If you want to see exactly how ‘not that big of a deal’ it is, I suggest you check out the ‘SnakeBytesTV’ channel on YouTube. There’s a colorful character there known as ‘Chewy’ who usually gets tagged several times in each episode. It isn’t a big deal and I really wish the broader public would ‘get’ that. There is currently some fairly vicious and above all, sleazy! legislating happening in the United States (those politicians should really be focusing on fixing the economy), which recently resulted in several species of python being banned from the reptile hobby. And it unfortunately seems to be only the beginning. A few highly publicized incidents with privately kept venomous snakes is threatening that hobby as well, which would be a big shame as the vast majority of new knowledge we gain about these animals comes from the dedicated studies done by private keepers. Most Universities have neither the desire nor the funds to do proper research on venomous snakes, and it is largely the efforts of those private individuals which stimulate the propagation of new knowledge. One of the finest examples of why the ‘venomous hobby’ should be here to stay is the amazing work done by Al Coritz, better known on YouTube as ‘Viperkeeper’. I would strongly encourage you to check out his YouTube channel for a look at what the responsible day-to-day work with a collection of venomous snakes looks like. One video which is a must-see is entitled ‘Polylepis on a stick’. It puts to rest a lot of the myths surrounding the black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) which has had a lot of undeserved bad press recently, and has traditionally had the reputation of being a vicious killing machine.

Looking back at my experiences, I can say without a shred of a doubt that the ideal ‘job’ for me would have been a hybrid between the late Steve Irwin, and Mark O’Shea (I’m far too geeky to be a pure Steve Irwin type). I went off to College as a double major in biology and music, hoping to do more research on snake venom, but at my University the one herpetologist was mostly an ecologist and had very little interest in snakes. The TV channel ‘Animal Planet’ didn’t exist yet, and I had no idea that within a few years there would indeed be a market for eccentric reptile geeks like myself. More recently, hardcore academics and passionate enthusiasm have been able to mix very successfully. Dutchman Freek Vonk, a PhD candidate at the University of Leiden, is combining a  television career with National Geographic and Discovery Channel, with his fascinating research into the medicinal (potential pharmaceutical) properties of animal toxins.
As for me, snakes will always be a part of my life in some form or another. I’ve been very, very! lucky to have had the opportunity to explore my interest in them to the max, and this at a very early age.

This article was a condensed version of one of the chapters in my book. There are more stories involving sea kraits, spitting cobras, komodo dragons, monitor lizards, and salt water crocodiles, but for those you will have to wait for its publication.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Phoenix from the Ashes: A Personal Journey in Healing.

“The secret of life, though, is to fall seven times and to get up eight times.”
-Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist.

In November 2009, my family and I boarded an Air France Boeing 777 at LAX for a transatlantic flight to Paris. For me, it meant the end of a combined 16 years in the United States, which had seen me through University, marriage, becoming a father…twice, and five years of running my own businesses. I weighed 130kg (285lbs), had high blood pressure, three severely abscessed teeth, chronic low back pain, and a rather fatalistic outlook on life. I was beyond spent. Completely burnt out… I’m going to deviate here from my normal blogging, and tell you about how my physical and mental health got to a crisis point and about the nearly two year journey it took to regain my overall balance.

I suppose the beginnings of the downward spiral started in 2004 when I had to take a medical leave of absence from my work at JPMorgan Chase. I was needed at home to help my wife, who was now unable to take care of our son. In one sense, this was the push that I needed to finally become fully self-employed. On the flip side though, this meant my benefits package ceased to exist, and I had now joined the 40 million+ Americans without medical insurance. The state of California provided rudimentary coverage for our son, but adults generally didn’t qualify. In addition to taking on most parenting duties, I had to continue building my music teaching business (until then I had only taught students during weekends). Rent still needed to be paid and we had to eat… In other words, the pressure was on.

Things went well for a year, but then I caught a particularly heavy cold that wouldn’t go away. It rapidly turned into bronchitis and then pneumonia. I remember going in to teach on a Saturday morning, and the effort of carrying my instruments into the studio left me wheezing and gasping for air for 20 minutes. During my first lesson, I was demonstrating a Bach Partita on clarinet to my student Michael when I nearly collapsed. There was a deep rumble in my breathing, and it was obvious there was water in my lungs. He jokingly called it the Partita that nearly killed Wout! I needed medical attention, but visiting a doctor without insurance would have cost in excess of $300, not including any prescription medication. At the time, that $300 was needed for food and rent. I could in theory go to the ER, but there’d be a long wait, and it wouldn’t have been safe to leave my wife alone for that long. Luckily, JP, the voice coach at the music school was very knowledgeable about natural remedies and suggested I take a very high dose of garlic. It would kill any sort of bug in my system. After my lessons, I drove over to Target (a popular American retail chain) and bought a bottle of (supposedly odorless…) garlic pills.

That night to my wife’s chagrin, (there is no such thing as odorless garlic pills…) I took half the bottle, 50 pills in total and went to sleep. After an hour or two, I woke up in a cold sweat and with a tingling sensation in my chest. I fell back asleep, and by morning I felt much better. I repeated the 50 garlic pill binge the following night, and after that all symptoms were gone. I stank to high heaven and people turned up their noses at me for a week, but the pneumonia was gone. Impressive for $4,99 worth of garlic pills. I had dodged a bullet.
My next ‘incident’ happened as we were driving home from that same Target store two years later. I was eating a chocolate bar which suddenly became a little too crunchy for comfort. Half a tooth had broken off. The other half, including most of the root, was still stuck in my jawbone. It didn’t hurt as the nerve was long gone. The tooth had cracked and rotted away from the inside, until inevitably bits started falling off. I went to the dentist who charged me $75 for an x-ray. The tooth needed surgical extraction which would cost another $375… This was again beyond my meager means at the time, and I decided to take a wait and see approach. Eventually, the root became infected, forming an abscess. Now it did hurt, and the left side of my face including my upper lip was swelling up. Part of that lip had gone completely numb. This was right on my flute playing embouchure. There were mild episodes of panic, as playing and teaching flute was how I made a living now.

My parents were visiting from Belgium when the swelling was at its worst. Dropping them off at the airport on their last day, my dad pretty much ordered me to go straight to a dentist. I was very glad I listened to him because if I had waited another day, the abscess could have gone into my brain. The dentist wanted to extract immediately. It is impossible however, to administer a local anesthetic into infected tissue. But the dopey bastard dentist decided to try it anyway. All this did was create even more pressure inside the abscess, which was now a ridiculously painful bubble of pus and lidocaine.

By now it was obvious that this tooth was not going to get pulled that day, so he sent me on my way with a prescription for antibiotics. After paying $30 for Penicillin, it promptly gave me an allergic reaction and I went back in for advice. He (as well as everyone in the waiting room) was rather shocked to see me as I could have now modeled for one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Grotesques’. I got a prescription for Keflex which did the trick, and the swelling subsided. A week later the tooth was extracted, and the source of the infection was gone. The damage however, had been done… The abscess had invaded my upper lip and messed up a nerve. The flute embouchure I had worked on for years was gone. It was impossible to play, and panic really started to set in.

It was time for some solid advice. Not a friendly chat, a shoulder to cry on or a bottle of bourbon, but solid information from a reputable source. Was it possible to recover from something like this and play again? And if it was, how the hell do I do it? There’s a place online where the greatest bunch of flute players on the planet hangs out. It’s called ‘Galway Flute Chat’, on Yahoo groups, which is organized by Sir James Galway. I posted my predicament on there, and a short while later, Sir James himself responded. He told me not to worry and that I was probably onto a ‘very good thing’. Some years back he had pulled one of his own teeth out while eating a crusty piece of Swiss bread. It had been impossible for him to play too, and as he was scheduled to go on tour, he had a dentist install a temporary bridge. He advised me to rebuild my embouchure in a different part of my lips, and if I worked diligently, I would probably end up sounding better than before. I took his advice and moved my embouchure. It felt weird at first, and it was quite uncomfortable, but I gave it a chance and with many hours in the company of three French gentlemen named Moyse, Taffanel, and Gaubert, I could play again, with a bigger sound and more projection power. I still have a copy of that email and will never forget Sir James’ support and kindness.

My bliss was short lived. Another abscess was right around the corner, this time in my lower jaw. A root canal would have fixed it, but this was a cheap emergency dentist. If you were an adult he would only do extractions. He estimated that to be completely pain free, I’d need several root canals, two bridges and an implant which would run me a whopping $35,000. I was both shocked and skeptical. I started to have serious thoughts about spending some time in Belgium (my official home country), where a dentist asking this sort of money would under normal circumstances be lynched. I was given a prescription for antibiotics and told to come back in a week. This time the drug did absolutely nothing at all. Whatever bug was causing this infection, it was resistant to Keflex.

I didn’t want to go back to this dentist yet again, because I frankly couldn’t stand his face anymore. Thinking back to the pneumonia incident, I started wondering about natural remedies again. Because of the smell, my wife forbade the use of any more garlic. I went online and researched herbs with natural antibiotic properties. Eventually, I stumbled upon oregano oil which supposedly is 18 times stronger than Vancomycin (the strongest antibiotic known to modern medicine). I found some at a store called Henry’s Market. As soon as I’d bought it, I pipetted a full squirt right on top of the offending molar, and instantly realized I should have read the instructions first. I had a flashback to that fateful ‘summer of sushi’ in New York in 1996, where what looked like guacamole, turned out to be wasabi…

When my eyes had stopped watering and my heart rate & breathing had returned to within serviceable parameters, I went back into the store for a bag of empty capsules. At the end of the day, the experience was no less effective than the garlic. As recommended online, I took 4 drops of oregano oil 4 times a day in a capsule. Within three days the abscess was gone, and I do mean gone. Dodging bullets was becoming the fashionable thing to do. These natural remedies were seriously effective, but I couldn’t help but think that perhaps there might be something to this whole ‘socialized health care’ debate after all… Several other teeth and molars had begun to hurt, and it had become virtually impossible for me to chew anything tougher than burgers and pasta.

In addition to physical ailments, my mental sanity was at that point put to the test as well. Enter a recurring theme in the domestic misery that was my life in Southern California, my mother-in-law… I had a very special ‘secret name’ for her, but for the sake of keeping this article suitable for more ‘choice-word-conscious’ readers, I will refer to her as ‘Major Stress Factor 1’. I endured the manic and sociopathic tendencies of ‘Major Stress Factor 1’ for a full seven years. She is one of those manipulators who will get your guard down before going in for the kill… She had my wits seriously weakened, and hammered it into my mind that I was basically this horrible loser of a person, who didn’t deserve her daughter, and who certainly didn’t deserve to be a parent. The problem with long term exposure to a career manipulator is that eventually you start believing the lies. She was a huge financial drain on us as well, always needing more money. It’s insane really, the magnitude of funding that got funneled into her little schemes and demands. And all that time, I was too weak to put my foot down and put a stop to it. Then, in early 2009 she tried to take something that really wasn’t hers to take and we ended up in court for the next several months. This was a horrifying, and at the same time a very ‘therapeutic’ experience as it allowed me to excise this stress factor from my life once and for all. It was one of those situations where the term ‘failure is not an option’ ceases to be a Hollywood catchphrase and becomes brutal reality. She had to be stopped. Enough was enough…

Even with the income from my two businesses, $300/hr. for an attorney was out of the question, so I had to act as my own. This is never recommended, but there was no time to think about that. I had to get the job done, the alternative being too depressing to consider. After many sleepless nights, endless research, and some brilliant assistance from the Legal Aid Society of San Diego, I found the paragraph that would ultimately sink her case like the Bismarck. What I read to the judge during the trial’s closing arguments, was the ‘plural unisex legal’ version of Molly Weasley’s words before she dispatched Bellatrix Lestrange in the final Harry Potter book. The judge actually grinned at me when I read it to him…this was the precise bit of textbook legalese he needed to rule in our favor. If in the future I get into another long term relationship, I might just ask my partner to provide me with a notarized certificate signed in triplicate by two independent psychiatrists verifying that her mother is not a sociopath, psychopath, multiple personality, or any other form of bug nuts bat shit crazy!!! Until you’ve experienced it first hand, it is impossible to understand the sort of damage a toxic ‘in-law’ (or partner) can inflict on your life.

The way I have traditionally coped with stress is by eating. Between our house and my music studio was a McDonalds, which in the USA is a dirt cheap place to eat, especially if you order from the ‘dollar menu’. At the time, that menu included the double cheeseburger, which was one of the few things I was still able to chew without being in too much pain. For my afternoon snack on my way to the music school I’d usually get a large fries, 4 double cheeseburgers, and a big cup of Coke. In between students I’d go to 7-11 to get a few hot dogs. After teaching it was back to McDonald’s for more double cheeseburgers. I conservatively estimate that during my last two years in California, I consumed around 1700 of these… Once home, there was more stress and therefore more eating. Food was only half the story however, as I still had to be able to unwind at night.

Enter several large gin & tonics, a bottle of wine, and several glasses of absinthe. Right before bed I had a swig of Pepto Bismol to control the heartburn… In the morning I resurrected myself with ludicrous amounts of coffee, flavored with equally ludicrous amounts of Coffee Mate. I was now 34, weighed 130kg, and had stage 1 hypertension. I was completely apathetic. I figured, ‘you know what, I’m fat and it doesn’t matter’. I had mentally gone on autopilot and into combat/survival mode. I was focused on the court case, and little else mattered. I was comfortable with my weight and I had accepted that I was fat. By this time, the US economy had started to unravel. My two music businesses were tanking and it was time to pull the plug. They had supported a family of four (plus parasitic relatives) for five years and it had been a good run. Three weeks after winning the trial, we packed up and moved to Belgium, where one of the first things I did, was go to the dentist…

He took x rays of my jaws, and concluded that there were a few root canals to be done, some holes to be patched, but that it was unlikely that I would lose too many more teeth. Over the course of a week, my left side was fixed. Some say much happiness lies in the ‘simple things’. One of my best ever memories is coming home from the dentist and being able to bite into an apple again! I ended up losing the molar that had the abscess. A specialist in Ostend did his best to save it, but it had a crack across two roots and became re-infected. I had it removed, along with a wisdom tooth that was also behaving badly. Teeth fixed, I still weighed 130 kilos and with my shoulder length hair, I looked like a pixie frog with a pony tail.

In April 2010, ‘Major Stress Factor 2’ stepped out of my daily life. It was painful for less than two weeks, and after that some interesting things started to happen. Firstly, seven years of chronic heartburn spontaneously disappeared. The medication I took for it went in the bin. Also, my desire for alcohol went away, completely. For the first time in years, I was able to fall asleep the ‘normal’ way, without needing booze to knock myself out. For the next year I stopped drinking completely, and to be honest, it wasn’t very difficult. I had just lost the taste for it. My mom encouraged me to start going outside after taking the kids to school, and go for walks. Breathing the crisp morning air was fantastic. I enjoyed these moments of peace so much that I began to walk multiple times a day.

When I was confident that my knees could take it, I began to jog. First short distances, then eight months later, I was averaging 30k a week. I was losing weight, and dropping pant sizes. I went from a size 38 down to a 32 and had to buy a shorter belt. Having to go into the store to buy smaller clothes was fun! Curious to see where I was at, I hopped on the scale. When I did, it was quite a shock, and my first thought was that these numbers couldn’t possibly be right. But surreal as it seemed, it wasn’t a lie. The scale read 93kg! In just under a year I had lost 37 kilos (82 pounds). Encouraged, I joined the local gym to tone up my muscles. I was determined to take this all the way and to have that coveted six-pack of abs. This went well in the beginning, but it didn’t last long. I was finally starting to feel those abs under the last bit of remaining belly flab when disaster struck.

One early morning in June of 2011, I was sitting on my son’s bed, putting on a sock when this electrical jolt shot down my right leg. This was immediately followed by the worst pain I have ever felt in my life. My L5-S1 intervertebral disc had ruptured, and its contents were now wrapped around my sciatic nerve. All those years of being fat had taken its toll on my back. It’s difficult to describe the pain, other than that it was so intense that it was impossible to think of anything else. My mind was completely focused it, and in the most perverted sense of Zen, it was oddly meditative… I was taken to the AZ Damiaan Hospital in Ostend by ambulance to see to their neurosurgeon. Awaiting further tests, they gave me an epidural injection with an anesthetic which sort of took the edge off the pain, but nothing more. I then got a strong narcotic injected into my right butt cheek. Again, it helped take the edge off, but that was about it…

The annoying thing about nerve pain is that other than surgically removing the source, there really isn’t a damn thing you can do about it. An MRI scan was done to map out the damage, and I was scheduled for surgery. In the meantime, I met some interesting fellow patients in the Neurosurgery ward. One gentleman was being rebuilt after the electrical platform he was working on got hit by a city train, plunging him 20ft down into traffic below. Another chap was there to have a blood clot removed from his brain after being struck on the head by a crane cabin. I’m telling you, socks should come with safety instructions…

Surgery itself was (from my perspective at least) quick and painless. In the operating room, a nurse came with three syringes that were hooked up to my IV line. Two smaller ones containing clear liquids (one of which was the paralytic, curare), and a large one that contained the thick white propofol which two years earlier had helped Michael Jackson ‘cross over’ to the spirit World. When I woke up from surgery, the pain was completely gone. Unfortunately, so was about half of the feeling in my right leg… The surgeon told me that the disc fragment had been jammed so tightly against the nerve, that it was bright purple from bruising. This was not a good sign, and it could take a year until it was clear how much of this damage was going to be permanent.

The following day I practiced walking for the first time with the hospital physical therapist, and I nearly fell on my ass. I had virtually no power in my leg, especially in the calf. I had to lock my knee to balance myself. This was another panic moment. Back in high school, I had gotten involved with mountaineering and eventually did some climbing in the Himalayas. As my health was returning, I’d started hatching plans. Perhaps in a year or two, with intense training (and winning the lottery perhaps to fund these plans) I might be able to drag my previously fat posterior up Cho Oyu or Broad Peak. In my current state though, it looked like that would very likely be a pipe dream. Even basic walking was a struggle now, and climbing seemed as elusive now as flute playing was right after that first dental abscess. But I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel quite yet. A healthy mind resides in a healthy body, and on a positive note, it was clear that my brain was once again capable of generating eccentric thoughts. My sense of ‘self’ was starting to come back.

I was prescribed physical therapy and ordered to strictly avoid anything even remotely resembling a gym or a piece of exercise equipment. That was the worst part for me. I was getting used to being active again, and the thought of taking it easy for several months was sheer torture. For climbing (and in the more immediate future, learning to walk again), I realized the key to my recovery would be regaining full use of my calf muscle. I figured that if there were some viable nerves & muscles left, I could work on strengthening those to compensate for the ones that had joined the Belgian railroad Union. Every time I walked up the stairs I did it slowly, and with every step of my right foot, I would put it on the tippy toe, and then slowly put weight on it until my foot was flat. At first it just seemed silly. But I stuck to the routine, and slowly strength started building up. It was nothing compared to my normal leg, but it was a start.

I began talking to one of my physical therapists about my climbing aspirations, as well as the fact that I had serious cabin fever. I had not done any form of exercise in three months, and I had re-gained about 20 pounds. Because of the stress it places on the lower spine, I was not allowed to go jogging anymore (ever) and he suggested stair climbing as an alternative. Lucky for me, my current home town of Diksmuide is home to a peace monument & museum called the Ijzertoren. It is an 84m (275ft) high tower and has stairs all the way to the top. I drove over right after my session ended and explained my situation. This being Belgium, they don’t generally make a big stink about ‘insurance issues’, and they gave me full use of the tower facilities during opening hours. I was still in sports attire, so I gave it a go right there and then. It took me 9 ½ minutes to get to the top, and about that much to get back down. I felt pretty good so I went up and down 2 more times before calling it a day.

I really liked it and started going multiple times a week. I would drop my kids off at summer camp & then go climb ‘The Tower’. On August 22nd I decided to give myself a birthday present in the form of an endurance test (yes I’m odd at times, but it really felt like a ‘gift’ to be able to do this). I brought a small backpack and several liters of drinking water. Over the course of 3hrs, 55min I went up and down the tower 12 times. Total vertical height gained was 1008m. Afterward I put on a dry t-shirt, went to a restaurant and ordered spaghetti Bolognese. I figured I had earned it. All this exercise meant that the weight was once again coming off, and my leg (as hoped) was gaining strength.

Fast forward another four months to the present time. I can stand on the toes of my right foot again. Some areas are still completely numb, but overall strength is about 95% of what it is in my ‘normal’ leg and I can live with that. My ‘op-site’ has healed and I’ve been back in the gym doing mild to moderate weight training. I was at ‘The Tower’ a week and a half ago and went up & down 8 times in 1hr, 47 min. This stair climbing feels like an obsession, but it’s a relatively healthy one and damned good preparation for climbing. They’ve offered to let me try and climb a full 8 hour day as another endurance test. What would really be neat would be to do a 17 hour ‘marathon’ climb. 17 hours is the average roundtrip time from the South Col of Mt Everest to the summit and back. I wouldn’t get the effect of the altitude, but again, it’s a start, as well as completely & utterly barking mad, which for me is half the fun. I’m unlikely to ever forget the support from the staff at the Ijzertoren either.

So is this the end of my struggles? I seriously doubt it. I’m due for another MRI in March to look at a disc in my neck which is in danger of the same thing happening. Part of my routine in the gym is strengthening my neck muscles to support it. It needs to be perfectly stable before my neurosurgeon will sign off on me for a return to Himalayan climbing. I found out it’s possible to safely climb again after a hernia. Through Facebook I contacted former NASA astronaut Scott Parazynski, who summited Everest after having recovered from the exact same injury that I had. His advice was ‘spin classes’ and loads of them…

If in March the disc turns out to be toast, it means more surgery and at least another six month setback. But to be honest, it really isn’t that big of a deal. Absolutely everyone is at some point in their life exposed to hardship, whether it be financial struggles, tormentors, accidents, illnesses, or death of friends and relatives. I’ve come to the conclusion that happiness and inner peace are not determined by how much, or how little of it you endure, but by how you eventually make the decision to focus, keep going, and are able to get through these experiences with your sense of humor still intact.