Tusker’s Medical Advantage: Cultural Cross Pollination
For decades high altitude medical expertise was not a priority for companies leading treks to Everest Base Camp. Many relied on the two local health clinics en route or the seasonal medical tent, Everest ER, during the spring Everest summit climbing season. Many sick clients were evacuated via helicopter costing them a minimum of six thousand dollars.
Tusker’s owner/guides Eddie & Amy Frank were not comfortable with this medical situation for our EBC clients soon after we started our EBC treks a decade ago. On their EBC scouting trek they saw nearly all their fellow trekkers get the dreaded “Delhi belly” from contaminated food and water. They knew they had to customize Tusker’s approach and upgrade sanitary conditions on our treks.
New faces in the Himalaya
The first big change was to provide all Tusker’s own food and drink to Tusker trekkers. Eddie and Amy quickly realized that most gastrointestinal issues on the Everest Base Camp trek resulted from Nepal’s compromised sanitary conditions and tea house cuisine. Often they found that the tea-house kitchens were really close to the open latrines. We now bring in Tusker’s own chefs and create strict sanitary food standards which have alleviated the common gastrointestinal issues that other trekkers continue to face along the way.
Tusker’s latest Nepal medical move is also unique. We are sending 3 of Tusker’s top Kilimanjaro guides, Kombe, Shabane and Urio, specially trained and experienced in high altitude climbing, to Nepal to act as the medical guiding team. It’s an experiment that Eddie believes will pay dividends in increased medical safety as well as cross-cultural understanding.
“By marrying up our international guide teams it assures cultural interaction, but more importantly it brings value by having our knowledgeable and highly experienced Kilimanjaro guides go to Nepal. “We have the ability to stabilize clients if they are suffering from altitude sickness before it becomes severe,” Eddie said. “Our Nepali guide Mingma Sherpa will continue to lead the group and expose the members to rich cultural and geological history, while our Tanzanian guides will provide the medical support.”
The medical team is experienced in assessing altitude problems and also utilize monitoring devices, a portable altitude chamber and oxygen which is carried everywhere the group goes. By having experienced medically trained guides with the right equipment, our Tusker team can react to problems instantly, and either treat the trekkers or evacuate them before the problem gets severe.
“The first Nepal trip with Kilimanjaro guided medical support will be the April 7 EBC trek. Kombe and Shabane will make up the medical team. The fall EBC trek (Oct. 2-19) will have Kombe and Urio. To get Tusker’s guides prepared for these trips Eddie and Amy brought Mingma to Kilimanjaro for a climb so he could see how Tusker does it there, and to connect culturally with the Kilimanjaro guides.
Mingma has worked for Tusker since 2009 while the Kilimanjaro guides being sent to Nepal have been with Tusker for 12-14 years, and are considered to be among the company’s top guides. No other Nepal trek company is using African guides on EBC trips, but our bold move might be a sign of changing guide demographics in the Khumbu Valley.
Big Apple Sherpa cab drivers
In our global economy it shouldn’t be surprising to see Africans leading treks in the Himalaya and from your safety’s standpoint that’s a good thing. The world’s changes are readily apparent in the Himalaya as there has been a Sherpa exodus.
Sherpas leading Mt. Everest climbs have been the norm since Tenzing Norgay led Edmund Hillary to the top of Everest in 1953. Today Sherpas continue to be the stars above Everest Base Camp. The best Sherpa guides work the famous, but deadly route to the world’s highest peak. They can make upwards of $5,000 during the spring Everest summit season, a small fortune by Nepalese standards, but the job’s dangers have taken a toll.
Once married, Sherpa wives often beg their husbands to do something safer, and many of guides have changed professions. Many non-Sherpa Nepalis from the lowlands have been recruited to work on the mountain and are now common, especially on EBC treks. These workers don’t have the gift of super lungs that Sherpas have and sometimes get sick at high altitude.
Sherpas have taken their earnings and started safer businesses with some leaving Nepal for the U.S. and Europe. Several thousand live in New York and some drive cabs.
EBC’s medical challenges
While not as high as Kilimanjaro, a trek to Everest Base Camp presents its own set of medical challenges for trekkers, guides and porters. Altitude is public enemy No.1 in the Khumbu Valley. You arrive in Kathmandu (4,390 feet) and you top out over 18,500 on the summit of Kala Pattar after reaching EBC (17,585 feet). Most trekkers can start having altitude issues at 12,000 feet, but it becomes most apparent at 14,000 feet where the mountain village of Pheriche has a small clinic that treats mostly Nepalese villagers.
The Everest ER medical tent at EBC has been in existence since 2003 and is operated by the NGO, Himalaya Rescue Assoc. It is staffed by three volunteer doctors who saw around 400 patients in 2017 treating eight cases of severe AMS and High Altitude Pulmonary Edema. More common cases were high altitude cough (the dreaded Khumbu cough) and diarrhea. Pneumonia and five cases of minor frostbite were also treated.
Khumbu cough is caused by the low humidity, subzero temperatures that tests your bronchi when you over exert. This dry high altitude hack can be so bad that trekkers get broken ribs when the cough becomes uncontrollable.
Tusker’s guides are aware of these maladies and their job is to detect them early, treating them before they become major problems. Our EBC trekking itinerary is designed for acclimatization with overnight day-long rest/acclimatization stops in Naamche Bazaar (11,306) and Pheriche.
Our track record has been solid in our decade-long EBC travels with well over a 95 percent client success rate of reaching base camp.
Having a globally respected evacuation player like RIPCORD as Tusker’s last line of defense has made a difference. The April 2015 Nepal earthquake was the biggest test and Ripcord was able to find a chopper to get our stranded trekkers out of Nepal in the midst of chaos. According to Eddie and Amy, Ripcord is one of the few evacuation services that walk their talk when it comes to evacuation.
All Tusker clients have Ripcord’s evacuation service bundled into the trip at a specially reduced price, and it is a bargain considering the costly alternatives. You are unlikely to ever have to use it, but you will sleep better knowing it is there for you.
Old school meets 21st century high tech
Climbing to Everest Base Camp isn’t the most dangerous thing you will ever likely do, but there are medical challenges that require an experienced guiding team to help you. If you have climbed with Tusker on Kilimanjaro you know the competency of the Tusker guiding team in monitoring, treating and in some cases evacuating clients who have high altitude problems.
That same level of high altitude medical training is now being offered on the EBC trek by the same African guides who cared for you on Kilimanjaro. It’s a unique program designed to keep adventure travelers healthy and safe while at the same time offering a cultural experience unlike any other.
Most companies stake their mountain credibility on offering a wilderness experience at the lowest price. Our approach is different. It’s not the cheapest trip on the market because Eddie won’t compromise his clients’ health and safety. Pushing the adventure travel envelope remains its core mission and to do it in today’s world requires a self-sufficient backcountry medical proficiency that combines old-school and 21st century high tech along with cultural cross pollination.
Hike to EBC with our Nepali and African guides for an enhanced experience. And who knows, after a few days in the company of Kombe, Shabane and Urio, you may be climbing Kilimanjaro next year.