It was the opportunity of a lifetime and one that I am very glad to have returned from unscathed!
My friend, Dr Sarah Jane Pell invited me to accompany her for part of her journey. Sarah had planned an expedition to Mount Everest Summit http://bendinghorizons.com/mission.html in her mission to travel from Sea to Summit to Space, exploring and communicating extreme performance exploration.
I left my three children in the care of their father (over school holidays), wrapped up my projects at Visual Playground, and packed my bags with trekking gear, loads of technology (Camera, Go Pro, laptop, solar battery pack) and set off on my adventure to Base Camp.
At the time, I didn’t foresee that I would be shooting part of Sarah’s documentary (first time as a Camera Operator), get lost along on the trails and understand what altitude sickness can do to my body.
We arrived in Kathmandu and it was a shock to the system! I was not used to seeing so much traffic, honking horns, air thick with pollution, dirt and dust everywhere and old buildings. Most of the locals spent their days in markets around the city, making a living from selling their wares- craft, jewellery, food and clothes.
A couple of hectic days of unpacking, checking gear, shopping for last minute items and we were ready to depart for Lukla, a small village at the base of Mount Everest.
The runway in Lukla is one of the tiniest most dangerous in the world. Boarding the small twin-engine plane was an experience I was not looking forward to and didn’t enjoy once in the air either. However I was very grateful when we landed on the runway and all the passengers applauded and cheered the pilot on a successful landing.
Our trek started here in Lukla and I sighed a sigh of relief. I could finally unwind and take in the beautiful countryside, fresh air and start to enjoy myself as we began our hike.
The days were long and fulfilling. Sarah and I spent the first few days getting to know the other people in our group (various ages and parts of the world) while working out how to use the various settings and accessories on the Go Pros. We stopped for cups of ginger and green tea at the many teas houses along the way, enjoying the local Nepalese cuisine (predominantly variations of Dal Baht- rice, lentils, vegetables and other simple rice and noodle based dishes) and settled into a routine.
Our trek took us from Lukla to Phakding to Namche Bazaar (we spent two days here to assist with aclimatisation) to Deboche to Dingboche and Lobouche.
The scenery was ever changing and spectacular. In the lower hills there was blossom and rhodedendrom flowers starting to bloom and the fields were green with abundant crops. Fields of potatoes were everywhere. The first views of the snow-capped mountains were breathtaking.
As there are no roads in the mountains, everything has to be carried by animal or man. Mules, cattle and Yaks are everywhere on the tracks and even a special breed called a dzo, which is a cross between a cow and a yak.
I was fascinated by the local people and awestruck at the porters. They rely on the tourist season for income and work tirelessly to assist trekkers with their baggage, food and building materials. Many of them carried loads of up to 90kgs up the steep terrain, which is more than a mule is allowed to carry.
On the third day of the trek, Easter Sunday and our “rest day” in Namche Bazzar, I stopped to take some time-lapse photos and to call my family. Once I was ready to move on, I discovered I had been separated from most of my group.
I found myself walking with a few of the slower members, who insisted that I should go ahead and take a different path. The guide said I would meet up with the rest of the group at the lookout.
I enjoyed walking by myself, although I was a little anxious. I continued to the lookout at the Everest View Hotel at 3880 meters. It offered 360 degree views of the awe inspiring mountains as well as my first sighting of Mt Everest. Although shrouded in clouds, it was great to finally see this magnificent mountain.
I found another member of my group at the lookout, however, to my disappointment he was also by himself. We waited 45 minutes for everyone else to turn up. No one came.
After a brief discussion with a Sherpa we thought we recognised, we decided to walk to the nearest town of Kumjung to see if they were there. It was another 3 km descent along the steep track.
Our group was not there either! We had officially lost our guide and our group in the mountains.
With no other option, we walked back up to the Everest View hotel and then back to Namche Bazzar at 3440 metres. It had been a full day of trekking, hardly the rest day we had in mind! Exhausted after our adventure, we found the rest of the group relaxing at the hotel. They had gone to another lookout that we didn’t know about, right next to where we were! I was relieved we had found the group and returned safely from our surprise trek, but the extra few hours of walking was a little disheartening.
The evenings were times of sharing stories over food and getting to know our fellow travellers. Those who had previously summited Everest re-told their experiences. I heard inspirational stories of hope, determination and survival along with other stories with tragic outcomes. Our group consisted of international travellers from Canada, India, Nepal, Peru, Serbia, America and a family from Belgium and us!
The accommodation through the trek was basic and very cold at night. We were lucky on occasion to have our own toilet and sometimes a hot shower was available for 400 Nepalese Rupies (approx. $4). This was a luxury that we only utlised a couple of times in the two week trek. Walls were very thin and there was no heating in the rooms. We got used to sleeping in our clothes and even occasionally our down jackets and beanies. Batteries go flat quickly in cold weather. Charging equipment was an ongoing ordeal at every lodge. You would pay more for wifi and charging a camera, computer and mobile phone than you would for food. And the higher you traveled, the more expensive and unreliable it became.
Several people in our group suffered from headaches and altitude related symptoms including vomiting, lack of appetite and lethargy. The climbers were racing ahead each day and most of the trekkers were keeping pace. This was exactly the wrong thing to do when you are adjusting to higher altitudes. The key is to climb slowly and let your body adjust. I was one of those people suffering and my headaches got progressively worse each day.
By the time we reached Dingbuche I could not sleep and my head was throbbing. But I did not want to be left behind as a few others had, so I ignored the advice of my guide and continued slowly up from 4500 metres to 5000 metres. The landscape was incredible and inspiring and I probably took the best photos of my trip on this day despite feeling unwell.
Reaching Lobouche was an achievement. Base Camp was close! I had reached 5000 metres above sea level where there is only half as much oxygen as sea level. You could really notice it too. To walk up to this height I trudged through snow and even though I was taking it slowly, every few steps I felt like I was out of breath, panting as if I had been exercising heavily and had to stop to catch my breath.
That night I became very ill. I tried to sleep but my head was pounding and it became worse when I lay down. I woke up Sarah who woke a few others including a doctor who was travelling with us. My condition was serious…I needed oxygen and there was none available until after first light when it would be brought down from Base Camp.
I was given Diamox, a drug that assists with acclimatization, and spent the night vomiting and eventually fell sleep. By morning it was decided that I would walk down to a town called Pheriche, which is 1000 metres lower, where I would rest and recover. My goal to walk to Base Camp, was over.
I began the journey back without my group, upset and discouraged, especially since I had been so close. However, I felt immediately better on the descent.
In Pheriche, I met with several of the other trekkers from our group who were not feeling well and we spent the next couple of days recuperating. Our lead Sherpa made a suggestion that we all jumped at. He suggested we fly over Base Camp in a helicopter!
It was incredible and inspiring! A perfect clear day with beautiful, majestic snow capped mountains surrounding us.
Over the next few days, we trekked back down through the villages, including visiting the monastery in Tenbouche, enjoying the changing landscape and each other’s company.
We arrived back in Kathmandu and had the luxury of staying in a beautiful 5 star hotel, which was fabulous after 2 weeks of trekking and not washing my hair!
I had a day of sightseeing in Kathmandu and visited many of the world heritage areas including Swombhunath (the Monkey temple), Patan Darbar square, Bhaktapur Darbar and Pashupatinath temple. It was a great day and fascinating to see the historic temples and learn about the Nepalese way of life.
I arrived safely back in Melbourne several days later and was so incredibly happy to see my family and children. I had missed them so much!
I had been back a week when I heard news of the earthquake in Nepal and the avalanche at Base Camp. It was devastating. Sarah was in Kathmandu and many people from our group were at Base Camp. Fortunately they were amongst the lucky ones who had survived.
Having spent such a wonderful time in Nepal with the kind Nepalese people and experiencing what life is like for them, I really feel for them now. They had so little to begin with and now they will have to rebuild and start over.
Trekking to Base Camp was a truly memorable experience and one I will remember forever.
When I reflect on my trip to Everest Base Camp there are so many things I have learned about others and myself. I know I have what it takes to climb Everest but it is not my dream. My passions lie elsewhere. I have tremendous respect for those who do want to climb but the time is not right for me.
I have seen poverty and have seen how happy and content people are as they live a simple life without all our technology and material items. I have also seen children no more than 12 years old carrying huge loads when they should be at school getting an education or playing with their friends. Instead they are born into a life where the cycle of poverty continues.
I have seen beauty in the ever-changing landscape; from flowers blooming to the coldness of the ice and snow. Surrounded by mountains one cannot help feel small but yet empowered.
I have confronted fears of travelling alone without my family, flying in helicopters and small twin engine planes. However, the biggest thing I have learned about myself is to have the courage to turn around when you are so close to your goal.
My thoughts go out to those who were in Nepal at the time of the earthquake and avalanche who were confronted with so much devastation.
I encourage you to donate to the relief efforts. It will make a difference to many peoples lives.