Continuing the Climb

March 13, 2020
Categories: Member Testimonials

David Thoenen has been backpacking since 1960. Climbing since 1964. Serious climbing since 2001.  

“In 2001, at age 55, I decided I’d rather be a rock climber and a mountaineer,” said the North Carolina resident. “So that’s what I do now: climb. Rock, ice, snow. North America, The Caucasus, Iran, Western Europe.”

He retired in 2005 after 35 years at IBM and, with his wife Maria and climbing friends, lives out his dream of international travel to climbing and hiking destinations.

But a 2019 trek to Annapurna Sanctuary — a high glacial basin surrounded by mountains on all sides — in Ghandruk, Nepal was the first time Thoenen had to use his Global Rescue membership.

Final Day of the Trek

Thoenen was on the tail end of a 28-day tour in Nepal and Bhutan, with 10 days allocated to Annapurna Base Camp Trek.

“On final half day of the trek, at lower altitudes, headed up steep hill between Chomrong and Ghandruk, I sat down to rest and immediately lost consciousness,” said Thoenen. “Maria and Lhakpa, our personal Sherpa, tried to wake me up. After about a minute I regained consciousness — but passed out again as soon as I tried to sit up. After another minute or so I regained consciousness and did not pass out again.”

The incident occurred in front of a small tea house. Thoenen was quickly brought inside to rest, and a Sherpa raced up the trail to locate the guide. In a matter of minutes, the guide and lead Sherpa returned, took Thoenen’s vitals and medical history, noted current medications, grabbed his Global Rescue card, and dialed in the call using a satellite phone.

“Global Rescue listened carefully, asked the right questions, and promised a fast call back,” says Thoenen.

Twenty minutes later, a helicopter was on its way to provide a field rescue.

Medical Field Rescue

Coordinating a landing zone turned out to be more difficult than expected.

Thoenen, with the help of the Sherpas, was moved a half mile down the trail to a small farm. There was a pasture available for the helicopter to land and several phone calls helped coordinate position.

A landing wasn’t possible with the debris blowing up into the helicopter’s path.

There was more conversation by phone, and a second landing option was chosen. Thoenen was moved another quarter mile to a clear area. The helicopter landed, and the villagers gathered around it for a photo opp.

“I’m not sure of the overall timing but I estimate about 90 minutes between the first call and our lift off,” said Thoenen. “While I was very, very weak, I was quite confident that Global Rescue was on the way and all would be fine.”

Care When You Need It Most

Thoenen, Maria and the guide landed 15 minutes later at Pokhara airport where an ambulance and EMS crew was waiting. In another 15 minutes, Thoenen was receiving care at CIWEC Hospital Pokhara.

“The hospital proved to be an excellent facility,” said Thoenen. “After an initial evaluation by the nursing staff, I was seen by a terrific doctor. He ordered a number of tests which were turned around in a flash. His diagnosis was fainting due to low blood pressure due to electrolyte imbalance due to dehydration. After one night in the hospital I was able to check out, go to my hotel, and flew back to Kathmandu the following day. Excellent hospital, excellent doctor, excellent food!”

Thoenen — a longtime American Alpine Club member, former chair of the Triangle Chapter and 2020 Angelo Heilprin Citation Award Winner — wasn’t surprised by Global Rescue’s speedy response.

“What did surprise — and please — me was the continuing monitoring of my status and needs until I hit the driveway in front of my house in Raleigh,” he said. “Global Rescue called frequently and made arrangements for wheel chairs at all of the airports on my way home. It was a real confidence builder that they remained essentially close at hand to help as needed.”

Thoenen has an annual family membership, so “we’re covered wherever we go,” he said. Plans for 2020 are underway, and an Everest Base Camp trek is planned for 2021.

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