Several years ago, in a tent high in the Himalayas, I woke to the sound of running water.
In itself, this wasn’t strange, as my party of trekkers had camped next to a fast-flowing river. But this wasn’t the gentle white-noise background of the river; it was something else.
I lay there in my sleeping bag, not moving, trying to figure out what it was… and realised what it reminded me of: the sound of a milk bottle being filled from a tap. You know that noise ? It’s a kind of flat, glassy note, and as the bottle fills higher, so the note goes up the scale..
I opened my eyes and saw a vague, hunched form to my left, and guessed what it must be.
The man I was sharing a tent with was urinating into a bottle.
In the mountains, altitude sickness is a very real danger, and can make you do strange things.
As you get higher up and the oxygen level in the air around you decreases, so your lungs have to work harder to compensate, and red blood cell levels drop, and all sorts of other unpleasantness can hit you; sleepless nights due to a tightness in the chest or nightmares, headaches like a band of metal shrinking round your temples, constipation or diarrhoea, and of course the fatigue born of the fact that you’re trekking for six or seven hours per day.
And this, in theory, is a holiday. Yes, yes, I know, why would a person do this when they could be a on a beach somewhere, sunning themself and reading chunky novels like everyone else ? Well, if you know me, you’ll know that the idea of being like everyone else invariably makes me leap the other way. It’s a kind of predictable rebellion, and I’m sure it’s this belief that I’m so very different which makes me exactly the same as anyone else.
But I digress; we’d flown from Kathmandu to the small mountain town of Lukla late that morning. The small plane looked like the one from the start of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (though to be fair, the nice folks from Yeti Airlines [no, I’m not kidding] did lay on barley sugars to help us keep our ears from popping as we flew into the mountains), but I have to say the landing was better than in the film. We touched down into the small Himalayan town of Lukla, essentially several dozen shops and lodges gathered around the landing strip which literally brings in most of the town’s trade and tourism, and after receiving a warning about the dangers of altitude sickness (the importance of taking things at our own pace, not overdoing it and drinking at least four litres of water a day), we set off trekking.
We stopped and camped about four hours later, around teatime, and I was allocated a tent with a chap in his sixties. He was a nice chap, decent and friendly, and I admired the fact that he’d chosen to do this as a holiday – trekking for over a week in the mountains, to be rewarded with a fairly long-distance view of the peak of Everest, isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, after all.
Speaking of cups of tea, they were plentiful at the nearby lodge where we ate our evening meal before retiring to our tents; weak and milky and sugary, but the tea was always available, and the Sherpas would grin as they said the word ‘tea’ to us, perhaps knowing of my feelings towards it.
So we’d drunk several litres of water that day, and several cups of tea. I guess I can see why my tentmate decided to pee into a bottle instead of going out into the cold at 2am or so to the toilet tent. But it wasn’t the way I would have chosen to be woken, and thinking about it now, the sound that woke me was more like a glass or metal bottle being filled than a plastic one, though I can only hope he wasn’t caught so short that he decided to pee into his Sigg water bottle or similar… no, as I say, he was a decent chap, and I’m sure he wouldn’t have lowered himself to do that… would he ?
As I say, altitude can make you do strange things.