Meet Milnthorpe’s Kirsty Watson - the Everest Base Camp local doctor

PUBLISHED: 09:19 12 June 2013 | UPDATED: 09:19 12 June 2013

LAN June Everest Doc

LAN June Everest Doc

Not Archant

A GP from Lancaster has been working in one of the planet’s most hostile environments. Mike Glover spoke to her

When mountain medical expert Kirsty Watson qualified to practice her specialist skills on the slopes of the world’s highest peak, little did she know what she was letting herself in for.

It was fate that her first stint for Everest Emergency Rescue should coincide with the 60th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reaching the summit in 1953.

That special date means Everest is crowded with climbers and terkkers. If you type in “Everest 60th” into a search engine there are scores of companies advertising treks to the famous base camp. That is quite apart from the 41 climbing teams, each up to 30 people strong. Kirsty was engaged to care for any casulaties and, potentially, there could be thousands for 41-year-old and her sole colleague working for the Himalayan Rescue Association. They work from the medical tent at Everest Base Camp, 5,000 metres above sea level, and on the most ‘popular’ south side half way up the 29,000-foot mountain.

‘I wasn’t due to be there for the anniversary, but the doctor they had earmarked for 2013 got ill, so I was recruited a year earlier than I expected. It’s crazily busy, not only treating the climbers but also all the trekkers who are there for the anniversary. It’s absolutely amazing,’ she said.

The tent is equipped with a mixture of familiar medical equipment like oxygen and electro-cardiograph machines and specialist kit like the Gamow bag - a sort of tube that encases the body of altitude sickness victims. It is pumped up to trick the body into believing they are at a much lower level. The sickness, which kicks in above about 6,000 metres, is one of the more obvious and most dangerous of conditions Kirsty is dealing with. Left untreated, it can lead to water on the brain and the chest, and ultimately death.

Kirsty has internet connection to many of the specialists around the world who can advise her. If anyone gets frostbite, for instance, then the patient is flown home where a specialist, advised in advance through images sent over the internet, can try to save infected toes or fingers.

The most common illnesses, however, are stomach bugs, viral chest infection, blisters and sprained ankles. Around half of her patients are Western climbers and trekkers and the rest are Sherpa porters and guides.

When not in the medical tent, Kirsty is sleeping and living in another tent, one of hundreds at the edge of the Khumbu glacier valley, the most lethal part of the Everest climb. It’s notoriously dangerous ice sheets and hidden crevasses are responsible for most of the 200 deaths on Everest since 1953.

The temperature at night is between minus 20 and minus 30 degrees centigrade. During the day it is a relatively warm minus one or two degrees.

Kirsty is spending eight weeks living in the tent, with no creature comforts, an occasional wash with a bucket of water and a loo in a buried bucket, which has to be taken down the mountain to be emptied.

All this is before the really bad weather arrives with the monsoon, which brings the snows at that altitude. Spring is the only window that allows even these hardy people to attempt to climb mountains.

‘We absolutely have to be gone by the middle of June,’ she said.

Her only regret is that she will not have time for any serious climbing herself.

The road to the Himalayas was quite a long and unusual one for Kirsty, now aged 41, and who lives near Milnthorpe in South Lakeland. Her current day job is as a general practitioner in the accident and emergency department at Royal Lancaster Infirmary, which she chose to be near to the Lake District, having picked up a passion for climbing. Every spare minute she is in the mountains rock and ice-climbing or trekking. She is particularly fond of the ice climbing, armed with crampons and ice-axes. It is the danger that appeals.

Her favourite challenge in the Lakes is Napes Needle, in Great Gable. Kirsty, who is single, also trained for the Himalayas with five days ice-climbing on Ben Nevis, which claimed its own grim toll of victims this year.

The next step was to mix her two lives by obtaining a Diploma in Mountain Medicine, becoming one of around just 100 such specialists in the world.

She works for a couple of adventure companies, both as trek leader and expedition doctor. She has climbed Kilimanjaro, just short of 6,000-metres high, ten times in the last four years. She has similarly led charity climbers up Mont Blanc and the Great Wall of China.

Strangely, before this trip it was not the climbing which worried her but the flight from Kathmandu to Lukla, a tiny airstrip nestled in the mountains, on which airplanes come to grief a couple of times a year.

She spent four months in Nepal last year working as a medical volunteer, essential to qualify for this year’s critical role.

Kirsty discovered that that old cliché, Kendal Mint Cake, really is loved by the Sherpas, so she went well-armed with the bars, which are supposed to have sustained Hillary and Tenzing.

She also discovered that one of the biggest threats to climbers is lack of sleep. Tiredness is a danger, but so are sleeping tablets. With the body’s metabolism altered by the altitude, the wrong dose can be fatal.

Kirsty has carried out her own research and is about to have a paper on the subject published by an American journal.

Later this year she will spend a few months back home in a hospital accident and emergency department in the North West, before setting off for Aconcagua in the Argentine Andes, which at 21,000 feet is not that far of the Himalayas’ height.

And this time the intrepid doctor will be climbing to the top herself.

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