Some life experiences bring us into razor sharp focus. They allow us to look into the small eyepiece of the microscope, magnify, and lay bare that which really matters in the world. I have had two such experiences. Both of them had me standing upon the brink of the abyss…on that thin line between life and death. I will share one of them with you now. Perhaps I will speak of the other at a latter time. This is the story of a man who, for a moment, knew very clearly what the most important things in life are about.
Once upon a time, there was a man who lay in his sleeping bag in the early morning hours of the Northern Indian Himalayas. Tibet is a stone’s throw to the North. At 16,000 feet, outside the thin nylon of the tent walls, the stars are so brilliant that it hurts to look at them. The night is cold and quiet beyond reason.
The man is coughing frequently and uncontrollably, as he lays there. Checking his spit…It is bloody. It has been bloody now for the last 24 hours. His tent mates are close by. His wife and two daughters are on the other side of the world. Laying there he tries to calmly remember what the medical books say about what he believes is happening to him. To wit:
“High altitude pulmonary edema is a life-threatening medical condition, which manifests as a leakage of blood and plasma into the lungs. It typically happens at altitudes above 14,000 feet. This is due to a reverse osmotic pressure gradient between the lung alveoli and the small capillaries. In a healthy human lung, the alveoli pass oxygen into the blood-infused capillaries. In an edemic lung, the reverse happens…blood leaks into the lungs. Patients who contract this condition are drowning in their own fluids. They might have a few days or they might have a few hours to live. Descent to the higher atmospheric pressures of lower altitude is the only way to avoid eventual death.”
This man, so strong, yet so momentarily fragile, is put into that piece of equipment which the expedition carried, which they hoped they would never have to use.
A portable hyperbaric chamber is approximately eight feet long by three feet in diameter. it is tubular and constructed of nylon and vinyl with a number of strategically-placed clear windows. It is connected to a foot pump which, when regularly and consistently pressed, creates a difference of atmosphere inside the bag which mimics the higher pressures of a much lower altitude. This, in turn, fools the body into thinking that the person residing in the bag has descended to a lower elevation…an elevation at which capillary blood will stop leaking into the lungs.
The man lays there and is strangely calm and reasoned, even relieved. He realizes that he might very well die. His bloody coughs remind him of this every few moments. This doesn’t make any sense to him, that he is close to passing from this world into the next, yet he is happy and feels a peace that he cannot ever remember feeling. At this nexus of the shadow world and the world of light, everything he has ever worried about, or longed for, or dreamed that he would have some day…all this fades into insignificance. What he feels in his whole body is the warmth of knowing that there are three people in the world who are so precious, and who love him so much. His wife and two daughters permeate his body and he is grateful and ready to pass into the world of shadows for having known this intense brilliance of love. Strange, he thinks. How beautiful, he muses.
He spends 20 long hours in the portable hyperbaric chamber. His coughing abates. His expedition mates unzip the bag and tell him in no uncertain terms, that he damn well better start walking to a lower altitude…that the rest of the expedition will split up his pack and he can walk unencumbered. As he begins what will be a four day walk down to a much lower altitude, he turns and looks at the glacier where he had, for a brief moment in time, understood what the most important things in life are about. He would never forget this place. Family…Family.
Jeffrey Post-Holmberg is contributing writer for River Notes Blog. When he is not trying to figure out what he learned from 30 years of carrying a pack on glaciers, he is busy making oatmeal for his two year old falcon boy. Family…Family…