The most common ailment, "Khumbu Cough," a tickly cough that comes from dry cold air irritating the lungs, can cause coughing so violent that it breaks ribs (and has been the cause of many an abandoned summit attempt).
Early this season, an Italian climber had to be evacuated by helicopter after being hit on the head by a falling block of ice. Everest E.R. doctors coordinated a massive rescue operation, with more than 50 climbers, to haul the injured man over steep glacial ice back to the clinic, strapped into a rescue sled with his neck in a brace in case of spinal injury and maneuvered over a fragile glacier riddled with deep crevasses and huge unstable blocks of ice. The patient was evacuated to a hospital in Katmandu, and then home to Italy, where he made a full recovery. "It's a broad practice of medicine," says Eric Johnson, M.D., of the work done at Everest E.R., and “not just 'Here's a Scooby Doo Band Aid and have a nice day!'"
All too often Everest hits the news for the wrong reasons – climbers left to die high on the mountain, or piles of rubbish littering the slopes – but according to Dr. Freer, such rescues show the spirit of Base Camp.
"Climbers tend to get a bad rap for being a selfish group, wanting to bag a peak and not being team players,” she says. "In fact what we got to see was an extraordinary example of people pulling together for the benefit of someone that nobody even knew.
"Everyone was absolutely committed to getting him down safely and it was really quite inspiring."
The climbers at Base Camp are usually well acclimatized and know how to avoid altitude sickness (generally caused by moving to high altitude too quickly), but many of the trekkers visiting Everest do not.
In a busy year up to 10,000 people walk up to the base of the mountain, just to look at the high mountains and say they have been there.
These trekking groups are often on a tight itinerary and may ignore the early symptoms of altitude sickness - headaches, loss of appetite - or may simply hide them because of peer pressure. In doing so they are risking their lives.
Altitude sickness can be easily treated by descending immediately and allowing your body to acclimatize slowly.
Although daily seminars are available on how to manage it, the clinic regularly treats people feeling extremely ill after going too high, too quickly.
The clinic is run on a voluntary basis, and charges Western clients a fee for consultation and medicine in order to provide a free service for the Nepalis.
Back home in Montana, Freer is director of medicine at Yellowstone National Park; Johnson is an emergency room doctor, also in the U.S., and both are prominent members of the Wilderness Medical Society, an international organization for medical professionals working in extreme environments.
Freer loves her work at the Base Camp. "It's really very satisfying to take a situation – an illness or an injury that would make many doctors throw their hands up and say, 'I don't have my nurses, I don't have my hospital' – and make it work in a really hostile and austere environment,” she says. “There's something really alluring about this mountain and, while I can't imagine taking the risks some people take, I understand why they do it now.”
As May turns to June, climbers begin to summit on Everest – which the Everest E.R. docs consider a triumph, having nursed countless climbers through the last weeks at base camp, keeping them healthy enough to have a chance of reaching the top.
Of the hundreds of climbers who summitted Everest last year, 11 died, the second highest death toll in history, but without Everest E.R., that number would have been much higher.