Kai - ‘What’s the temperature?’
Martin - ‘Let me check. It’s -25 degrees!’
Kai - ‘Well take the bloody picture and let’s get out of here!’
It was 6:30am. The Nepalese sun was just beginning to crest the peaks of Lhotse and Nuptse, two giant mountains adjacent to Everest. We stumbled into base camp after about 2 hours of trekking in the dark.
It was all over in 15 minutes. We couldn’t stay longer than that; it was just too cold. Four months of training and planning had culminated in just a moment at Everest Base Camp. My two mates Marty and Jugal, our guide Hari and I walked through the boulder-strewn landscape. The iconic ‘tented city’ of base camp was gone and would only reappear in March next year at the start of the climbing season. It was winter, 11th December 2018. There wasn’t a soul in sight and the desolate land seemed rather eerie. It was as if we were the only people in the world.
It was a surreal moment. There I was, wrapped up head to toe, sitting on a pile of frozen rocks, looking up at the tiniest tip of the tallest peak in the world. It had been a dream of mine for so long and now here I was, living that dream. I was like a little kid who had just got his first ever bicycle for Christmas. Ecstatic, but with no idea what to do with it. As we departed BC for the long walk home, I looked back up at the summit and for a moment, felt a deep pang of sadness. But why? I had just ticked off my dream adventure from the bucket list. I should’ve been ecstatic and overwhelmed with happiness. And I was, but only for a brief moment and then it was gone. As I looked up at that summit, I couldn’t help but wonder, what would the view be like at the top?
Flashback four months earlier. I was in a rut and was looking for excuses to convince myself otherwise. It was raining outside. It had been raining for a week. It was cold. It was miserable. I was miserable. I was depressed.
Something had to give. As I sat watching something mindless on Netflix (this had become a bit of a habit), I noticed an email notification in my inbox. A link to an article by the New Yorker, titled ‘The White Darkness’; a stunning tale of one man's solitary journey, across Antarctica. It was a profound read. There was a quote in the article that hit me square in the jaw - some lines from Shackleton on his fateful 1907 Nimrod expedition.
“Men go out into the void spaces of the world for various reasons. Some are actuated simply by a love of adventure, some have the keen thirst for scientific knowledge, and others again are drawn away from the trodden paths by the ‘lure of little voices,’ the mysterious fascination of the unknown.”
Something about those words resonated deeply with me. In that moment, I resolved to make a change. I stepped outside into the rain and cold and started walking. I walked for hours and hours until all sense of time and place diminished. Until finally it came to me with the truest clarity. I needed to find my ‘unknown’. That unknown for me was that one dream that had always been a little bit too far away to grasp. I had always wanted to see Mount Everest.
All the gear, no idea
Without a doubt, the best part of going on an adventure is the preparation. The maps, the logistics, the gear. I felt like a kid again, off on some grand adventure of my own imaginings. Our trekking team would be covering 150 kilometers over 12 days and would reach a max altitude of 5,420 meters above sea level, upon crossing Cho La Pass. We would each be carrying about 15 kilograms of gear on our backs (clothes, cameras, medical kits, camel packs, protein bars etc). Our two stalwart Sherpas would shoulder the rest. We would average around 7 hours of trekking a day, gaining an elevation of roughly 500 meters per day. Then there was the small detail of training. I was by all accounts, horrendously out of shape. With our flights booked, I had no excuses left. During the course of the two-week trek we would lose about 4 kilograms in weight and so that weight had to be put on before we departed for the trek. Which meant I had to re-acquaint myself with something called a ‘gym’. No pain, no gain.
This isn’t so bad
It was day four of the trek and I had never felt more alive. To my left, towering peaks over 7000 meters above sea level. To my right, an eye watering 1000 meter drop into a gorge. Ahead, a tiny dusty footpath all of half a meter in width. And not a sound except for a gentle breeze on the wind. I was walking with the biggest grin on my face. At that moment, I was truly happy. I thought to myself, this was living. Nothing but the open trail and the promise of a vista even more beautiful around the corner. I was awestruck by the sheer scale of my surroundings. These titanic mountains had been here for millennia and would continue to be here long after my time.
Men have long spoken of ‘conquering’ mountains, though I suspect the mountains don’t pay much attention to our insignificant personal odysseys. As the hours set in, I was grateful for the training. It was making the trek a lot easier. 4 months of hiking in the rain, wind and sun and 4 days a week in the gym had paid off. Despite the thin air, I felt strong. I felt confident. Trekking to base camp was going to be a breeze. I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Famous last words…
‘We might have to call a chopper!’
Day 9 of the trek. A day that would prove to be the most challenging. We were due to summit and cross Cho La pass, a hefty climb to 5,420 meters in 3 hours, followed by a glacier crossing. There was only one way to Base Camp, and that was through Cho La pass. It was now winter and the ice and snow build-up would make the crossing rather precarious. We learned that we would need to strap on crampons (shoes with spikes on them) in order to make the crossing safely (we would be walking downhill on the glacier, as opposed to the conventional uphill route). Suddenly things got a bit more serious.
We heard the upsetting news of a hiker falling to her death only a few days prior to our arrival at the pass. We had also become acutely aware of the sound of rescue choppers flying sorties above our heads in 20-minute intervals. It became clear that this wasn’t just a simple walk in the hills. I turned to our guide Hari and asked ‘why so many rescues, are people falling?’ He gestured upward to the sky with his index finger. ‘Altitude’ he replied. The thing about altitude is that it doesn’t discriminate. You can be a 50 year old chain smoker and not be affected by it in the slightest. Or, you could be a 25 year old high performance athlete and be hit by it like a ton of bricks. If left untreated, it can be a serious problem. As luck would have it, I fell into the latter category (minus the high performance athlete part).
We summited Cho La pass in 2 hours (as opposed to the usual 3). Being very chuffed with ourselves, we patted each other on the backs, snapped an obligatory ‘summit selfie’ and took in the majestic view. Then came the glacier. I must confess, I was terribly excited. I’d never seen, let alone crossed a glacier before. This was all part of the big adventure and I was loving every second of it. We strapped on our crampons and began the precarious shuffle downhill. The glacier slope was at a 65 degree downhill angle, which meant we had to crab walk down, VERY slowly. This was hands down the most memorable and exciting part of the Trek. We were all ecstatic. An hour later we reached the end of the glacier and were greeted by the most incredible rolling valley. At the end of the valley, rising like a cathedral of rock was Ama Dablam, itself an impressive peak. I couldn’t have been happier.
And then, out of nowhere, it hit me. Altitude sickness is a most horrendous feeling. Imagine the worst hangover of your life (except you’re still drunk) and now times it by 3. As my symptoms started to worsen, I realised that we had better descend into the valley quickly. There isn’t much to do except get to a lower altitude as quickly as possible. To make matters worse, our water pipes had frozen on the glacier and we were all rather dehydrated (which I suppose compounded the altitude sickness). As we climbed further down I started to feel really rotten. I had never experienced such an uncomfortable feeling and the pain was beginning to make me delirious. I turned to my mate Marty and said ‘we might have to call that rescue chopper’. As soon as the words were said I heard by father’s booming baritone voice ringing in my years ‘brace up Shelagh!’ Meaning, suck it up. There was only one way to Base Camp and that was forward. We were only one day away and I wasn’t about to let my dream slip away from me. Onwards and upwards!
Big things have small beginnings
We all looked at each other in disbelief. We made it. Shivering and knackered, we had made it to Base Camp. With numb fingers I held up the Manx and Capital flags with more of a grimace than a grin on my face as Marty took the classic base camp pic.
Reading that quote by Shackleton four months earlier was a small, seemingly insignificant moment. But it sparked something big within me. A longing for something more. I realized then with a profound clarity, that this journey wasn’t about getting to base camp. It was never about base camp. It was about chasing that ‘unknown’. It was about pushing myself harder and further than I had before. It was the four months of training and the two weeks of trekking. It was about visualizing a dream and achieving it. And now that I had found it, I wanted to find more, more unknowns, more mysteries. More adventure. I was, in that moment, reminded by those immortal words spoken by Edmund Hillary - ‘It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves’. I suppose the trick to a meaningful life is to keep conquering oneself.
As we set off on our journey home I looked back and up at Everest one last time. I couldn’t help but wonder, what would the view be like at the top…
Something worth fighting for
Today, as I reflect on the adventure of a lifetime, I feel a profound sense of gratitude. Gratitude that I was fortunate enough to witness such immense and beautiful landscapes in Nepal. Indeed, I also feel privileged to have explored the wondrous landscapes of the Isle of Man, itself a natural wonder, during the many months of training before the trek. I suppose this was the impetus for me wanting to raise awareness and funding for the Manx Wildlife Trust during my Trek to Base Camp. I felt a great desire to, in some small way, contribute to the protection of the Islands natural heritage. There is no greater calling, nor indeed one more urgent, than the mission to protect our earth's natural wonders. I believe that we each of us have a responsibility to protect and preserve this Islands nature reserves, so that future generations can walk these beautiful hills and be inspired as I was to chase a dream. That is something worth fighting for.