Out-of-body experience in the Karakorum
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
September 2013Volume 24, Issue 3, Pages 295–297
Out-of-Body Experience in the Karakorum
Avinash Aujayeb, MBBS, MRCP (Specialist Respiratory Registrar)
Northern Deanery, Newcastle, UK
Hallucinatory experiences and out-of-body experiences have been described in extreme athletes, mountaineers, and climbers. My personal out-of-body experience occurred during a mountaineering expedition and, although shocking and worrisome, was not debilitating.
The mountaineering expedition to Spantik, 7031 m, in the Karakorum, was a success. After 21 days of steady acclimatization, plowing through deep snow, and climbing through some of the most stunning scenery on the planet, 2 of the 3 on our small expedition reached the summit after a 15-hour push.
We spent a few days recuperating at base camp (4100 m), after which we began the walk out along the Chogolungma glacier toward the picturesque village of Arandu in the Arandu valley in Baltistan, Pakistan.
During the early part of the expedition, I had my fair share of altitude-related problems—headaches, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, cough, and an embarrassing urgency of bowel movements. As I acclimatized, all these symptoms subsided.
However, nothing prepared me for what I experienced on the way down. The trek out was very long and required covering more than 20 km a day over undulating, rocky, glaciated terrain made even more difficult by constant route-finding. The walk out thus seemed as taxing as any of the days spent on the mountain. Because of differing abilities among the various members of the expedition, each of us was often alone with our thoughts during the walk.
After only an hour of trekking, I felt very strange. Three weeks of climbing had left me feeling physically strong even though I had lost a fair amount of weight. I refueled well in base camp and had set out with a light pack, as I had unashamedly packed most of my equipment and given it to the hard-working, tough Balti porters to carry out for me.
At this point, the world took on an ethereal appearance. I felt like I was looking at everything from just over my shoulder. My brain felt fuzzy and like there was a band around it. As a physician, I tried rationalizing my situation. I thought my cap was too tight, so I loosened it. I was not dehydrated; my urine was plentiful and clear. The glare of the sun off the glacier was not a problem as the day was quite cloudy. I was not hypoglycemic and was well acclimatized.
Because I did not want to fall into a crevasse in my strange mental state, I concentrated on the task at hand. I doubted that the strange feelings I was having were caused by high altitude cerebral edema (HACE); I had been at high altitude before on Kilimanjaro and had experienced the condition then. Nearing the roof of Africa, I had dysarthria, ataxia, visual hallucinations, and an almost complete amnesia of the summit push except for what was recounted to me or what I had seen in subsequent photos. Furthermore, the International Society for Mountain Medicine describes HACE as either the presence of a change in mental status or ataxia in a person with acute mountain sickness or the presence of a change in mental status and ataxia in a person without acute mountain sickness.1
To be certain, I checked myself with the finger-to-nose test and named some objects around me. I knew I would be fine as long as I put one foot in front of the other, even though I was getting slightly scared that the mountains around me were constantly contracting and expanding. The massive icy giants or the large boulders strewn on the glacier around me seemed very close one moment and desperately far the next. My head sometimes felt massive and I very tall, so that the ground appeared far from my eyes.
At one point I even wondered whether maybe I was dreaming or whether I was experiencing a mirage brought on by my being alone in this massive, barren expanse of glaciated moraine. However, as I lost concentration, I tripped and fell on the frozen moraine, cutting my hand. Feeling the pain and seeing the blood, I knew I was not dreaming.
I struggled to understand what was happening to me.
I was not having any visual or auditory hallucinations, but perhaps I was having some sensory ones? I was somewhat panicked, but quickly decided that I could not afford to be. I was alone and miles away from civilization. I calmed myself down by breathing deeply. I put on some music from my portable music player. It made no difference. I still felt as if I was out of my body and the world was passing me by.
My thought processes were clear though. I knew I needed to keep walking. This was easy enough; the path was not a hard one. I did not feel in danger, but once I was calm and into the rhythm of taking a step at a time, I felt elated and strangely at peace with my surroundings. I felt like there was a certain amount of heat emanating from me. Was this an aura?
My perception of time was definitely altered. I kept giving myself small goals of just reaching the next rocky outcrop or the next ridge, and it seemed that hours had passed between one and the next. My watch, however, was telling me that it had only been a matter of minutes!
I felt strangely emotional then, and, not for the first time in my life, talked to the mountains and thanked them for letting me be among them. I often do this as I wander around the fells of the Lake District or travel to faraway places to climb. I sincerely believe the rock I am climbing is a living organism. I think it creates a tangible link between me and nature, as I believe in Aristotle's teachings that nature is part of all of us and vice versa.
It was at this point the thought entered my mind that maybe I was dead and my spirit was merely wandering about lost. This notion was dispelled a few minutes later as the expedition leader passed me and cracked a joke, the first time I had been within speaking distance of him all day. In such a state, I was not walking fast; I knew then that I wasn't dead, but I still felt depersonalized. I desperately tried to keep pace with him, but I couldn't. Soon, I was alone again.
These sensations did not subside during the 9 hours I spent walking. Even after arriving at camp, they continued until I went to sleep. Time still passed incredibly slowly. Seconds felt like hours, and every move I made felt strangely calculated and purposeful. When I woke up the next morning, after one of the best sleeps I ever had, everything was back to normal.
Having experienced something very unusual, I am now trying to understand what exactly happened.
I have been unable to find any records of someone having HACE on a descent at the altitude I was at. Dickinson, in 1979, described HACE at an altitude of 2100 m,2 and it is less common in those who are well acclimatized.1
Having read The Third Man Factor by John Geiger3 and Explorers of the Infinite by Maria Coffey,4 former girlfriend of the legendary mountaineer Joe Tasker, who tragically disappeared on an attempt of Everest's west ridge, has made me think that I had an out-of-body experience. Neurological studies have suggested that out-of-body experiences (OBEs) are a consequence of brain dysfunction at the temporoparietal junction.5
But what could have brought this on? And why was I being affected?
Many high altitude climbers have described hallucinatory experiences. Brugger et al6 studied 8 mountaineers who climbed to greater than 8000 m and found that there were 46 hallucinatory experiences among them: 11 visual, 7 auditory, and 28 somesthetic.2 Some of these climbers reported feeling as if they were moving like automatons. There were reports of feeling the presence of an imaginary person close to them. Some felt their surroundings or bodies were “five times as large,” or felt like their bodies were floating.
An altitude of 6000 m seems to be critical for the appearance of the hallucinations in climbers, and the experiences in the study by Brugger et al6 lasted up to 12 hours. The experiences were blamed on harsh emotional responses and transient deregulation of the limbic system.
I, however, was not in a life-threatening situation. I was very far away from civilization at an altitude of approximately 3500 m on a seemingly never-ending glacier. Psychologists have described such a situation as an extreme and unusual environment (EUE),3 and the main characteristic of EUEs is one of monotony.
Could it be that I just felt incredibly alone? Pilots flying solo on long flights have felt another presence around them as they described feelings of intense loneliness, isolation, and being out of reach. Suedfield7 describes social deprivation as a cause for such hallucinations and OBEs, the hypothesis being that monotonous environments cause the left hemisphere to become less dominant, causing a decrease in reality-oriented thinking. Could it be that I was just one with nature and so engrossed into my own being? Or was I in another state of consciousness?
Maria Coffey4 talks of adventurers, mountaineers, and climbers having a sixth sense, completely in tune with the environment they are moving in. It is possible that after so long in the mountains, I had become one with them, and the extreme nature of my situation had opened a portal to a transcendent state. Had I in fact achieved the “Savikalpa Samadhi”? In this state, usually reached by meditation in the Buddhist or Hindu tradition, one can lose all human consciousness; the conception of time and space is altogether different. Mountaineers such as Andy Parkin and endurance athletes such as Marshall Ulrich have experienced sensations of looking down on their bodies and having to force themselves back within. They have described feeling hyperaware.
At the time, I didn't think of my senses being in overdrive, but in hindsight, I had just completed an epic expedition with extreme physical hardships. Coffey describes situations in which the climber is “forced into the Now,”4 a state of extreme focus that is free of time and the mundane problems of everyday life. As such, time feels stretched, and that is exactly how I felt! There is the tale of the ice climber Jim Buckley who, while falling off a wall, felt strangely calm and methodical about what actions he took as though he felt he had hours to do so. The same thing happened to the Burgess brothers when they faced an avalanche on a slope in the Himalayas.
Research suggests that the basal ganglia and dopamine receptor pathways are involved in the human sense of time.4, 8 Dopamine release is associated with pleasurable experiences as well as stressful and painful ones. A “thrill-seeking gene” D4DR has been identified, and it helps encode dopamine receptors in the brain. Could it be that the stressful nature of the environment I was in triggered release of massive amounts of dopamine, which then resulted in all these experiences?
I do not think I will ever know. My quest for answers has brought up many more questions … .
- Hackett, P.H. and Roach, R.C. High altitude cerebral edema. High Alt Med Biol. 2004; 5: 136–146
- Dickinson, J.G. Severe acute mountain sickness. Postgrad Med J. 1979; 55: 454–458
- Geiger, J. The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible. 1st ed. Canongate Books, ; 2009
- Coffey, M. Explorers of the Infinite: The Secret Spiritual Lives of Extreme Athletes-and What They Reveal About Near-Death Experiences, Psychic Communication, and Touching the Beyond. 1st ed. Penguin Group Inc, ; 2008
- Blanke, O., Landis, T., Spinelli, L., and Seeck, M. Out of body experience and autoscopy of neurological origin. Brain. 2004; 127: 243–258
- Brugger, P., Regard, M., Landis, T., and Oelz, O. Hallucinatory experiences in extreme altitude climbers. Neuropsychiatry, Neuropsychol Behav Neurol. 1999; 12: 67–71
- Suedfeld, P. Extreme and unusual environments. in: D. Stokols, I. Altman (Eds.) Handbook of Environmental Psychology. Wiley, New York, NY; 1987: 863–887
- Rao, S.M., Mayer, A.R., and Harrington, D.L. The evolution of brain activation during temporal processing. Nat Neurosci. 2001; 4: 317–323