A version of this article was first published in the Huffington Post on April 22, 2016.
It seems fitting to share this story given the tragedy and destruction brought on by the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal just over a year ago. It is my way of paying tribute to the beautiful people of Nepal and to the Sherpas especially, who suffered heavy casualties that fateful day.
On the afternoon of April 25, 2015, the strong quake triggered an avalanche that crashed onto the Base Camp of Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain (8,848m). At least 22 people were killed in what is, to date, the deadliest disaster in Everest’s history.This tragedy had a personal significance for me, as only a few years before, in October 2012, a group of adventurous girlfriends and I decided to embark on a two-week trek to this very place, in an effort to raise awareness and funds for female survivors of war.
The climb, inspired by my friend and Everest summiteer Valerie Boffy, turned out to be a journey of a lifetime and a truly transformative experience for us all.
Everest Base Camp — from which countless attempts on the summit of the goddess of all mountains have been made and continue to be made every year — commands nothing but respect and humility. At an altitude of 5,364m, the Base Camp is higher than any mountain in Central Europe. Because of the region’s spectacular mountain peaks, the loyalty and friendliness of its inhabitants, and the long days of hard hiking needed to reach the Base Camp, mountain lovers consider this trek one of the most worthwhile on the planet.
The way up
The journey to Base Camp can take anywhere from 10 days to three weeks, depending on how many days of acclimatisation you allow. This trek is classified as moderate to difficult, but it is not the terrain or hours on the trail — between five to seven hours on average per day depending on the itinerary — that are the real difficulty; it is the altitude itself. You start off from the village of Lukla (2,800m above sea level) — a short scenic flight from Kathmandu — landing at Tenzing-Hillary Airport, incidentally considered one of the most dangerous airports in the world. On one side of the single runway, which has a 12 per cent gradient, you have the mountains, and on the other, sheer nothingness — a complete drop. So it was no surprise that when we landed there, we held our collective breaths and hung on tightly to our seats as the pilot came in for the precarious final approach.
While many of the routes through the mountains are arduous, there are ample places to rest and enjoy a meal along the way. Furthermore, it is almost impossible to get lost — all you have to do is ask a local the way to the next village on your route, and he or she will direct you. From Lukla, we made our way to the Sherpa capital of Namche Bazaar, which is 3,440m above sea level. Even the fittest people can be prone to altitude sickness, and warnings about this are plastered all along the way into Namche.
One of the highlights of the journey was an important acclimatisation stop at Ama Dablam Base Camp (4,570m).
Massive glaciers stretch beneath the cliffs that soar up above the camp, adding to the dramatic scenery around this stunning mountain peak.
Meeting the climbers and Sherpas living at the camp for weeks at a time — as they prepared for their assault on the summit of the mountain — gave us a real sense of how a fully active expedition camp operated.
An arduous journey
Our non-stop trekking soon began to take a toll on us. Three members of our all-female team were on antibiotics, fighting flu and hacking coughs. Two other teammates had to be put on oxygen at the last stop, Gorak Shep, which is 5,164m above sea level.
They had been suffering from pounding headaches for three days, even after taking doses of paracetamol. They were weak and very pale and their lips were bluish — clear symptoms of the onset of altitude sickness, an ailment not to be taken lightly.
Eventually, after receiving oxygen, our teammates felt marginally better, and having come this far, we decided to set off and accomplish our mission collectively. The added motivation, of course, was the fact that we had committed to taking on this challenge to support a very worthy cause. Thinking about the destitute women who had lost everything because of war and conflict helped us focus on the task at hand.
Our persistence paid off, and on a windy autumn afternoon, we finally clambered up the last few metres of uneven ground onto the shifting moraine leading to the Base Camp of Everest. A surge of elation filled our racing hearts: We had succeeded in accomplishing our goal as a team. After embracing and congratulating one another with moist eyes and throats tight with emotion, we began taking in the incredible view from this symbolic place.
Relishing the moment
Surrounded by majestic snowy peaks — a little breathless from both the excitement and the 50 per cent oxygen level in the air — it was hard not to imagine the mountain’s legendary climbers standing very close to where we stood.
Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first to conquer Mount Everest in 1953, using the South Col route, forging a path through the treacherous Khumbu icefall, at our very feet. My teammates and I had been dreaming of this moment for many months while we were training hard to be in the best physical and mental shape possible for the demanding trek. Despite the sun shining brightly in the cloudless azure sky, it was a chilly minus 5 deg C at this altitude. Soon the sun would move behind the mountains and the temperatures would plummet to minus 15 to 20 degrees Celsius.
Looking back, the trek to Everest Base Camp was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. It is an adventure I will always treasure and the reason I went on to co-found “Women On A Mission”, a non-profit organisation headquartered in Singapore, with my two teammates, Valerie and Karine. And while planning such a trip may be somewhat of a daunting prospect, especially given the devastation brought on by the recent earthquake, it is one way to support Nepal and its people and help its tourism flourish once again. The breathtaking vistas, the kindness of the local people and the sense of achievement and pride you gain at the end of the journey make it all worthwhile. Nepal leaves an imprint on the heart of those who visit, and never ceases to inspire.