Great Falls’ Evvie Heilbrunn climbs Himalayas for nine days, can’t quite reach Mount Everest

The Summit 4 Stem Cell group, including Evvie Heilbrunn of Great Falls and two other climbers with Parkinson's disease, stop for lunch in the Himalayas on their climb toward Mount Everest base camp at 17,600 feet. (Evelyn Heilbrunn)

The Summit 4 Stem Cell group, including Evvie Heilbrunn of Great Falls and two other climbers with Parkinson’s disease, stop for lunch in the Himalayas on their climb toward Mount Everest base camp at 17,600 feet. (Evelyn Heilbrunn)

We last spoke with Evvie Heilbrunn shortly before she left for Tibet last month, with the goal of ascending to Mount Everest’s base camp at 17,600 feet, in order to raise money for research into a cure for Parkinson’s disease. Heilbrunn has Parkinson’s, but having defeated breast cancer twice, she has it in mind that she can also defeat this currently incurable disorder. Climbing any mountain, much less Everest, with a degenerative disease is not generally recommended, but Heilbrunn trained hard and was ready.

As one of three Parkinson’s patients on the Summit 4 Stem Cell group journey, Heilbrunn, 58, and her crew reached the Himalayas on Oct. 13 and immediately began climbing. But after nine days of steadily declining health, Heilbrunn made the difficult decision to turn back, and when she reached a medical facility she learned she had high-altitude cerebral edema, or brain swelling. She failed numerous neurological and physical tests and had to be flown out of the mountains. Heilbrunn is now back in Great Falls, with no hearing in one ear and still not feeling that great, but pleased that she accomplished what she did.

“I’m glad I did it because I got to see a part of the world I always wanted to see,” said the former nurse, lawyer and mother of four. “I’m not disappointed I didn’t get to base camp. I got as high as I could and that was good enough for me.”

Heilbrunn began training for the climb last summer, and had hiked four to six hours a day in the Sierra Mountains in late September, reaching a height of 11,600 feet. She felt ready.

Evvie Heilbrunn and fellow climber Rick Whipple in the Himalayas last month, with Mount Everest in the background. (Evelyn Heilbrunn)

Evvie Heilbrunn and fellow climber Rick Whipple in the Himalayas last month, with Mount Everest in the background. (Evelyn Heilbrunn)

And after several days in Bangkok, and then several days in Katmandu, the group flew to Lukla, at 9,000 feet, in the Himalayas and began climbing immediately. The goal was not only the Everest base camp, but then a further hike the next day to Kala Pattar, at an elevation of more than 18,000 feet, with the best views of Everest.

But beginning on Oct. 13, the first day in Lukla, Heilbrunn said she began having headaches, which was normal for her first day of hiking, followed by nausea and exhaustion. Her oxygen levels also were low. “All I wanted to do was sleep,” she said.

Around Oct. 16, the group had reached 12,000 feet, and “that was when I really really felt bad,” Heilbrunn said. She woke up gasping for air, but was advised by the group leader to take more diamox, used to treat altitude or mountain sickness, and fluids. She pressed on.

But she was moving slowly, with difficulty, aided by her high school friend Rick Whipple and a local sherpa. At 14,000 feet, they reached a town called Pheriche, where the group received a lecture on dealing with the altitude from the Himalayan Rescue Association. Heilbrunn said she unintentionally fell asleep during the lecture.

On Oct. 22, the group reached Lobuche, at an altitude of 16,000 feet. “I barely made it in,” Heilbrunn said. “I just felt horrible.” She was 1,600 feet from Everest. But at 3 a.m., unable to sleep, “I decided I couldn’t go any further.” She discussed it with one of the group’s mountain guides, who agreed with her decision. Then she told the group she was leaving.

“I was crying,” Heilbrunn said, “but in a way I was relieved because I was so sick I just wanted to go back down.” Whipple and the sherpa accompanied her but not a guide, which she found troubling. A 2 1/2-hour climb back to Pheriche took five hours, and it was there on Oct. 23 that she was diagnosed with the brain swelling and helicoptered off the mountain.

The rest of the group continued on and did reach Everest base camp and Kala Pattar. They have only posted podcasts so far, which you can hear here.

Heilbrunn is still a supporter of the cause, which hopes to raise funding for non-embryonic stem cell research which has shown great potential for curing Parkinson’s by using a patient’s own cells to replace dopamine-producing neurons in the brain. You can read more about that here, for research being led by the Scripps Center for Regenerative Medicine.

“I’m very proud of myself,” said Heilbrunn. “I kept going when I shouldn’t have, and I raised more than $15,000 for the cause.”

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