Last Wednesday, around noon, I was lying on an operating table in the centre of Copenhagen, my right eye covered and my left kept mechanically open, Clockwork Orange style. I was instructed to look at the green light, which became blurry then promptly turned red and started dancing around. A strong smell of ozone soon permeated the room as the red light kept flashing. It wasn’t painful at all but quite uncomfortable. I kept wanting to blink and was very afraid my eye would start relaxing too much and drift away from the light, resulting in botched vision forever. The nurse was still holding my hand, saying “you’re gonna be all right” better than any words could have.
After thirty seconds of this peculiar torture, the light suddenly switched off. All done for the left eye, the doctor announced. Then, while releasing the contraption and reinstalling it on the other eye, he tried to make some awkward small talk.
– So, you’re from France?
– How do you like Denmark?
– The girls are very blond around here, aren’t they?
– I’m from Norway, have you been to Norway?
More stressed than I wanted to admit, I gave minimalist answers, just wishing him to get on with it. Yes, I’m from France, Denmark is fine, girls sure are very blond and Norway is beautiful, now can I get laser in my other eye, please?
A few minutes later, all was finished. Still no pain, and I could see fairly well already, definitely better than I had ever been able to without glasses. I was led to a dark room for a few minutes of rest, then another doctor came and gave me a rundown of the many drugs and eyedrops I was to need in the next few days.
And with that, barely an hour after entering the clinic, I was out of the door. With a new pair of eyes.
I have worn glasses since a very young age. It was first hinted that it might be a good idea when I tried to take archery classes in elementary school. For some reason, people seem to want you to see what you are shooting at when armed with a bow and arrows.
I turned out to be short sighted in both eyes, with additional astigmatism on the left. Nothing really heavy, but definitely enough that living without correction would be problematic. To be honest, I never really minded having glasses, it was just part of me, something I put on in the morning and forget about until bedtime. Until I started climbing, when suddenly glasses became a constant worry. I dropped them a few times while leading, though thankfully never from a multipitch climb. They got covered in snow and drizzle as soon as the weather turned. Most importantly, however, I couldn’t wear them along with glacier glasses, on days where glare made snow blindness a very real issue.
The solution should have been simple: put on contacts whenever glaciers will be involved. However, even though I had contact lenses prescribed years ago, putting them on has always been a big challenge. For some reason, they never wanted to stick to my eyes, and it could take anything from 10 to 45 minutes to manage to put them on. It usually also was a very painful process. Adding to the equation that it’s not always possible to wash hands on mountain days and that few partners are keen on ruining an alpine start because I keep struggling with my contacts, there should be little wonder why I gave those up. Nepal last October was the last straw. After trying desperately for an hour in island Peak high camp, I finally had to climb with very inadequate city sunglasses, risking snow blindness.
Prescription glacier glasses, which would have been another solution, seemed incredibly hard to get a hold of. After much research, I ordered some a few months before leaving for Nepal, but they kept being delayed until the order finally got cancelled without warning. My guess being that they realized they had no clue how to manufacture those, despite assuring us of the contrary…
At any rate, the stage was set and laser eye surgery seemed to be the perfect solution to all my troubles (including the ones with aforementioned blonde girls). I started doing some research, during which I asked my friend and badass climber Kristoffer Szilas who had had the surgery a few months prior. As it turned out, there is some (disputed) data on issues with very high altitude and the most popular procedure, LASIK. The idea of LASIK is that the outer surface of the eye is cut open and set to the side, after which the laser operates and the initial flap is put back on. The advantage is that there is almost no recovery time and, for most people, immediately perfect vision. However, the flap can trap tiny bubbles of air which, when going to extremely low pressures (8000m and above) can burst and cause temporary loss of vision. Additionally, being hit repeatedly in the face can also lead to problems, which is why police and air force pilots are not allowed to get the procedure. Since falling ice on frozen waterfalls often has the nasty habit of aiming for my face, it seemed to be wise to avoid this.
The main alternative is a somewhat older and less popular procedure called LASEK (or PRK, which is almost the same). The idea there is to remove entirely the top layer of the eye, or at least to scrape it away temporarily, forcing instead the eye to regenerate it over the following few weeks. No issues with punches or altitude, but the big downside is a much lengthier and more painful recovery.
I chose LASEK, then, and found a clinic in the centre of Copenhagen which seemed to have good reputation over the internet, at least as far as my limited Danish skills allowed me to understand. A first visit to get my vision checked in late January led to an appointment on March 9th.
“Well, that wasn’t too bad after all” was my first thought when walking out of the clinic. I had been warned that sometimes, vision could get dramatically worse an hour or two after the operation so promptly hopped on my bus and got home. I could see fairly well, definitely better than I had ever been able to without glasses. Bright lights weren’t too unbearable, though I quickly found out that working on a computer was very tiring. Unable to read or do any work, I lied down and tried to listen to an audiobook for the first time.
The pain came later in the afternoon. It sneaked in without me really noticing, feeling like slow burns behind my eyelids. It kept growing until it became really uncomfortable and forced me to open the painkillers box. It took some time to start working, but whatever was in those pills was certainly good stuff (as later proven by the instructions, forbidding alcohol intake 24 hours after ingestion).
The following two days, up until now, were a roller coaster of pain and relief, alternating between torment which no chemicals could help get rid of (Thursday evening, Friday morning) and unbridled enthusiasm, convinced the worst was behind me (Thursday morning, right now). I haven’t really cared about the vision itself so far, especially since it is not supposed to be in its final state for another couple of months, but it has also alternated between pretty good and just as bad as before the operation, with the added fun that my near vision is also affected.
Overall, the best part of all this is that I am allowed to wear my glacier glasses (the only non-prescription sunglasses I own) indoor, making me look like a total dick in late Danish winter…