On August 26th of this year I became seriously ill after descending from our first ascent of Sasser Kangri II (7518meters) in the Eastern Karakoram north of Leh, India. I awoke at 3AM coughing while sleeping in our tent on the glacier at 5,800 meters. That in itself was not unusual – I had been suffering from a bad cough for over a month now.  What was unusual was my cough produced a thick mucus that I couldn’t get all the way up – it was sticking in my airway and I was choking on it. 

After a couple of episodes of this I woke my partners, Mark and Freddie, to get some help.  They witnessed me gasping for air after each one of my coughing episodes where I could only clear part of my airway.  While they consulted with a doctor in the United States by satellite phone I wrote a note for Mark to ask, “Could I choke to death on this thick mucus that is getting lodged in my airway”?  Mark listened to the doctor’s response and then turned to me and said, “He says that yes you could” which wasn’t what I wanted to hear.  Sometimes the coughing would leave me with a completely obstructed airway and I couldn’t breathe at all until more coughing and hacking created a passageway to let in just enough air to allow some restricted breathing.

Based on their observations and a recommendation from the doctor, Mark and Freddie determined that I should be evacuated immediately to a medical facility.  All three of us had medical evacuation memberships in Global Rescue so we called them to manage this operation and provided them with our exact coordinates. After receiving this request, Global Rescue soon learned that we were located in a restricted area near the border with Pakistan and China that is not open to civilian aircraft.  Also, since we were at an elevation of 5800 meters we were above the maximum altitude that most helicopters could reach.  So it was necessary to use an Indian Air Force helicopter that was allowed to operate in this area and was designed to reach this elevation.

Global Rescue operations staff and several friends in Leh spent hours on the phone to expedite all the approvals that were required by the Indian government before they would issue the orders for the helicopters to take off. In the meantime I had been sipping tea for hours which rehydrated me enough so that I could finally clear my airway by coughing up a less thick mucus onto the snow.  It was a tremendous relief to not be choking any longer and I felt that I was now out of immediate danger – but still quite sick.



Late that afternoon, two Indian Air Force helicopters arrived at our advanced base camp on the South Shukpa Kunchang Glacier.  They made a circle around our camp and then one landed on the helipad that Freddie had marked on the glacier.  Freddie and two of our Sherpas pulled me out of the tent where I was resting and we hurried to the helicopter where I climbed into an empty seat in the back of the small bubble cockpit.  The two pilots sitting in front of me got us off the ground and we immediately headed down-glacier and back to Leh where I was admited to the hospital.

At the hospital they administered an intravenous antibiotic and I began the slow process of feeling stronger each day.  Since returning to the United States I have made a complete recovery and have resumed my usual training routines.

I’d like to thank Global Rescue for all their efforts to deliver a successful rescue operation.  Without Global Rescue, the Indian Air Force, and my friends in Leh, I might not be here today.

Steve Swenson