SINGAPORE — She goes on treks every two years, including to high-altitude peaks in Nepal and Pakistan, and usually does hiking on her yearly travels.
But during a trek in Bhutan earlier this week, Ms Sheryl Chen fell so ill with altitude sickness that the 63-year-old had to be carried down a mountain in a six-hour rescue operation involving 16 Bhutanese.
They include her tour guide, staff members of the camp she was at, police officers and national volunteers from the Desuung, an initiative started by the King of Bhutan which translates to “guardians of peace”.
Heavy rains had made it impossible for an evacuation via helicopter, which would have taken 10 to 15 minutes, so her rescuers had to take turns carrying her on their backs from a camp some 4,000m above sea level, in cold, muddy and slippery terrain.
Speaking to TODAY, Ms Chen said she is thankful for the kindness she has received.
“I am truly grateful. I could tell they were giving their all to help me in that terrain and with the wet weather,” said Ms Chen, who works as an admin operator in the social services sector.
BAD WEATHER, LACK OF OXYGEN
Ms Chen was one of 11 Singaporeans on a trip to Bhutan from Sept 28 to Oct 7.
After three days of sightseeing, Ms Chen and three other Singaporeans separated from the rest of the tour group to conquer the Druk Path Trek.
The five-day trek is a popular walking route spanning 54km and peaks at around 4,700m above sea level.
Alongside them was a trekking guide, kitchen staff and Mr Ganesh Rai, a 40-year-old tour guide and founder of Bhutan Olive Tours and Treks.
The group started the climb on Oct 2 from a district called Motithang which is about 2,400m above sea level, and headed to their first camp in Labana, about 4,130m above sea level.
While the trek had started well, the weather took a turn for the worse and heavy rain pelted the group for two hours.
Drenched, cold and short of oxygen due to the high altitude, the typically five-hour walk took the group eight hours.
“Everyone was freezing cold and I was holding Sheryl’s hand so that she won’t slip due to the rain,” recalled Mr Rai.
“We were all exhausted so we went to rest early, and the kitchen staff made some ginger honey tea for us to warm up.”
As the group met for dinner, Ms Chen started showing signs of altitude sickness.
“Sheryl couldn’t even have a sip of soup and was vomiting,” Mr Rai said.
“The trek was quite tough, so we made more tea for her and asked her to rest for the night.”
But the next day, Ms Chen’s condition did not improve. She struggled to walk and could not stomach anything aside from a cup of ginger honey tea — which is a local remedy for altitude sickness.
Ms Chen said that this was the first time she had experienced altitude sickness this badly. The nature lover has been to higher peaks but only had signs of altitude sickness once in Ladakh, India, which she managed to sleep off.
However, she admitted that she was less prepared for this trek as compared to her other adventures — a fall three weeks before the trip meant that she could not train as rigorously as she normally would.