Editor's Note: The Everest 2012 season is shaping up to be one of the deadliest on record. So far, 10 people have died either on Everest or by injuries sustained on Everest. (For comparison, 15 people perished in 1996, the deadliest year to date. (The tragedies of that season having been famously chronicled by Jon Krakaeur in Into Thin Air.) More recently, 11 climbers died in 2006.
Not surprisingly, this has been one of the busiest seasons on record at the Everest Emergency Room, the clinic at Base Camp that Dr. Luanne Freer founded 10 years ago. In late April, when Schaffer first spoke with Freer and her staff, they had already seen over 200 people. Since then, the number of patients has risen to roughly 500, many of whom were seriously injured or sick—there have been so many helicopter evacuations this year that they've lost track. There are multiple flights each day, both medical and non-medical, that Freer's staff doesn't necessarily hear about. In the aftermath of this latest disaster, there were seven evacuations from Camp II (and up to 6,700-meters) alone.
Below, Schaffer speaks with Freer about the difficulties of operating the world’s highest clinic and the top five reasons people come in for a visit.
It's been 10 climbing seasons since an idealistic emergency room doc from Bozeman, Montana, first set up a clinic at Everest Base Camp. Since then, Luanne Freer, now 54, has grown her non-profit to include three doctors and a two-cot platform tent that is, if not quite space-age, a lot more comfy than everything else in camp.
When she began, Freer spent the off-season raising money to support her operation—the main focus of which is to offer health care for the Sherpas and other local staff who might not otherwise receive quality care in camp. While she still spends the off-season fundraising, Freer now (with the help of some local contacts) cajoles and coerces roughly 75 percent of the commercial Everest operators to pay $100 per climber for her services. If an entire expedition signs up for coverage, all of the local staff are covered for free.
"We're happy to see climbers," says Freer, "but in the end, the thing that makes our hearts warm is seeing the little cooks and the Sherpas."
This year has been especially busy for the ER staff, which also includes Dr. Rachel Anderson, 33, of Manchester, England, and the organization's first Nepalese doc, Ashish Lohani, 27. Within the first three weeks of the season—when we spoke—the ER had already seen 220 patients and overseen roughly a dozen helicopter rescues, more evacuations than in all of 2011. They've also seen some rare maladies, including two cases of deep vein thrombosis, an ischemic foot (no oxygen supply, though not frostbite related), a 33-year-old who had a stroke in the ER, and a trekker who'd suppressed her altitude headaches with narcotics and ended up with cerebral edema by the time she reached Base Camp.
In the 10 years that the clinic has been in operation, the biggest change is probably the new ubiquity of helicopters. Freer explained that climbers have always had rescue insurance, but it used to be that helicopters were incredibly scarce in Nepal. In some years, the only option for rescue was a military-owned, Russian-built Mi-8.