Laraine Danielewicz, a Project Engineer in our Kent office, took up the challenge to trek to Everest Base Camp. An adventure unlike anything she’d imagined, it reaffirmed to her that life is better when one says “Yes” to the unexpected.
“Everest Base Camp. That’s Tibet, right?” I asked when I was unexpectedly invited by three friends to join their private trek. They climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in 2016 and this was to be their 2017 challenge.
“No. Nepal, you idiot!” they replied.
Short notice. No exercise for 10+ years. No equipment except boots from trekking once, years ago, in New Zealand (I’d found that dull, preferring extreme sports). But Everest sounded daring, so I enthusiastically said, “Yes!”
I tried preparing, but I had little time and my to-do list was enormous. Turns out, my knees don’t like running anymore, so instead I walked for hours bewilderedly around technical clothing shops and watched the film “Wild” starring Reese Witherspoon in my efforts to prepare.
As the trip drew closer I felt nervous, waking at night in cold sweats. My team mates at work were excited about my pending adventure, with my team leader advising that I was to come back alive to do a slideshow.
Before I knew, I was on my way. At Heathrow security, the soles of my 12-year-old walking boots peeled off leading to some awkwardness. However, with a bit of duct tape, I managed to make it to Kathmandu where I bought new boots. From Kathmandu, I found myself on a 14-passenger prop plane to Lukla (2,860m above sea level). Lukla has one of the world’s most dangerous airstrips due to the steep approach flying close to mountains towards the solid wall at the end of the 527m, 11.7% gradient runway and sheer drop at the other end.
Our 14-day itinerary followed an indirect route to Base Camp (5,364m) via the beautiful turquoise Gokyo Lakes (4,790m) and challenging Cho La Pass (5,420m). Trekking started well: easy paths, 3 to 10 hours days covering 5 to 12 km with maximum height increases of 800m per day, and days to get acclimatised. Our guide performed daily health checks. He measured our blood oxygen saturation, asked us altitude sickness-related questions, and reminded us to think only about “eating, drinking and sleeping.” Coming from a faster-paced world, that simplified life appealed. I embraced the humility of an elementary existence, but never felt remote enough. Unbelievably, there is ample phone reception and Wi-Fi!
We slept in teahouses, plywood and sheet-metal structures serving hot, mostly vegetarian, food. The only heat sources were foul-smelling yak dung- fuelled stoves in the dining rooms. I got my own back by eating yak steak … twice.
During the day we concerned ourselves with strong UV rays, snow blindness, our water freezing, and dodging yak convoys carrying goods along the trail. Generally, it was sunny, but after sundown the temperature plummeted. I like the cold and fortunately can sleep anywhere, but the bedrooms were just like being outside. So, by the end, I slept in my trekking clothes inside my -15oC sleeping bag … plus blankets.
The seventh night was bad. I became delirious with fever. When we arose at 4am for a pre-dawn trek, my three friends seemed worse than me. We had no choice but to descend to Machermo, a village with a medical outpost run by the International Porters Protection Group (IPPG), volunteer doctors working to prevent deaths of porters carrying bags on trekking excursions. Most porters aren’t from the mountains, so, like tourists, can suffer altitude sickness. However, when porters fall sick they’re often abandoned by unscrupulous companies.
The IPPG immediately put one friend on oxygen having diagnosed high-altitude pulmonary oedema (HAPE), a life-threatening fluid accumulation in the lungs. Fortunately, HAPE repairs itself if you descend quickly enough. The next morning, although I felt fine, surprisingly all three friends were helicopter evacuated to Kathmandu for treatment. The hospital diagnosed the other two with pneumonia; they will take 6 months to recover fully.
The trekking company took excellent care of them, so I carried on alone knowing they were safe. Trekking got significantly tougher, but the views became even more spectacular and the trail much quieter — one day I only passed a solitary grazing yak.
The most rewarding day was crossing the Cho La Pass in a gruelling 12-hour test of endurance, scrambling up steep scree and boulders followed by descending across a glacier. When I felt like I couldn’t go on, two people I’d met before came bounding up the trail spurring me on. It reminded me how positivity and levity can bolster your resolve. From then on, I talked to anyone who looked like they were flagging. They’d laugh wholeheartedly at the absurdity of how I, the one remaining member of a group of more experienced trekkers, had made it so far despite poor preparation, unsuitable lifestyle, new non-worn in boots, and an intense dislike of trekking.
Leaving strangers more upbeat and manipulating my health check readings to make my guide smile are my favourite memories. I agree with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama who says the true goal of life is to contribute to other people’s happiness (which, if you think about it, is much like Cougar’s philosophy of Happy Cats and Happy Customers).
Maybe it was lack of sleep, but finally reaching Base Camp was anticlimactic. It’s desolate. You can barely see Everest, and without my friends it was a pyrrhic victory. My guide became unwell, I was ready to leave, and neither of us was keen on three long days downhill back to Lukla, so we took an 11-minute helicopter ride down. It was worth every penny.
Back in Kathmandu, I soaked in the laid-back atmosphere. My friends were either recovering at their hotel or still in hospital. There, a doctor casually told me I probably had suffered pneumonia, but appeared fine.
My journey was extraordinary — as in weird —not profound as people had insisted it would be. Nor was it as physically demanding as I had terrifyingly imagined, nor enjoyable. But it reminded me of things I’d forgotten, lost in the miasma of modern life. It provided an ideal place to think and to not think, where time and space stretched out in front of my eyes, and where every breath made a massive difference.
I’ve been asked frequently since (though no actual invitations yet) if I would climb Everest. Well, I shouldn’t push my luck … but we Engineers love a challenge!
I’d encourage everyone to explore beyond their own known limits because life has none, bar one. It is short and unpredictable, yet more fascinating when you say “yes” to unexpected opportunities, even in our day-to-day life.