By Vivienne Scott
It is difficult to prepare for two weeks on the world’s tallest mountain while living in a country with a maximum altitude of 541 feet and a tropical rainforest climate. I know from my, albeit limited, previous trekking experience that good footwear is essential and so I begin the transition from flip-flops to hiking boots by breaking them in up the 46 stories of my condo fire escape. Despite being told that I look “like a pair of golf clubs” in my utterly incongruous footwear, I am enthused to literally be taking first steps towards a lifetime achievement and ultimate bucket list experience.
The following months of sweating up steps, long walks and treadmills lead me to ask myself why it is that we set ourselves such challenges and find meaning in pushing our limits in pursuit of some notable achievement. As a psychologist, I often emphasize the importance of resilience in preparing ourselves for life’s inevitable struggles, but why do we test our physical and mental endurance and abstain from comfort and indulgence voluntarily? Furthermore, why do we attach emotion and meaning to our goals and enlist others through sponsorship and fundraising appeals? “While we are doing it, we may as well support a good cause,” my brother tells me, who set up a donation link to Cancer Research UK in memory of our dad. The old adage of, “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey,” is on the brink of being put to the test. Other than some credibility on social media, what will be gained from the challenge I have set myself?
DAY 1: Arrival in Kathmandu (4,593ft)
As soon as I arrive in Thamel, the tourist heart of Kathmandu, I am instantly overwhelmed by color and chaos. Above the trekkers, tourists and crowded streets, lung ta (prayer flags) are strung almost everywhere; their five colors depicting the five elements of sky, air, fire, water and earth, and the wind blowing their blessing of health and harmony to the surroundings. Little do I know that three of these elements will be in such short supply in days to come. As my friends, brother and I arrive at our hotel we are greeted with a salute and “Namaste” from the guard. In Hinduism, namaste literally means “I bow to the divine in you” and the reception certainly encourages pride in the venture on which we are about to embark. The welcome doesn’t last long, however, as we are informed that we have only four hours to sleep before a 2:30am departure for Manthali airstrip, some four hours’ drive away.
DAY 2: To Lukla (9,383ft)
My resilience is immediately put to the test as our minibus, which seems to lack any form of suspension whatsoever, careers along cliff edges and uneven roads in the dark and through a torrential storm until we eventually arrive at a very water-logged “airport” where safety precautions involve chasing goats from the runway. Having departed Changi the day before, I wonder if any of the criteria for the seven-time awarded best airport would have relevance here, where it’s more of a ‘wait and see’ scenario as to whether any flights will operate.
When aircraft finally do get clearance, our pilots do little to reassure us as we fly to the world’s most dangerous airport, Lukla. In knock-off Nike sneakers and flaunting a chunky gold necklace, our pilot looks confident even if none of his passengers does. As our tiny plane skims mountain ridges to reach Lukla, I realize that sometimes ignorance really is bliss. My brother, a commercial airline pilot, is enduring significant stress while the automated alarm, “terrain – terrain – pull up”, sounds repeatedly from the cockpit. For the rest of us, the scenery from the window is spectacular!
DAY 3: To Tok Tok (9,186ft)
As we begin our hike in our high-tech outdoor apparel, alongside porters wearing sandals, jeans and sweaters, and carrying up to 66lbs on a strap across their foreheads, we soon realize that we may have “all the gear but no idea”. Yaks and donkeys replace any motorized form of transport and the only wheels to be found are the cylindrical prayer wheels, spun clockwise on passing to purify bad karma. The simplicity of life in the Himalayas values what is fundamentally important: good intentions and good deeds. Things are done when needed, in their own time and with the resources available.
After a fairly pleasant day of trekking we negotiate spending the night in a teahouse instead of the three tents and four sleeping bags planned to accommodate our group of five people and insist on a hot shower, albeit in some rocky cavern dubbed ‘The Cave’. Home comforts are now far behind us, but when I wake up at night and brace myself to lose warm layers in order to squat over the outdoor ‘facilities’ in the dark, I notice the sky full of stars and moonlit snowcapped mountains extending above me. Is this a metaphor for having a goal to draw you upwards from your low points, I wonder?
DAYS 4-5: To Namche Bazaar (11,286ft)
Our hike quickly begins to steepen and the scenery takes my breath away, or perhaps it is the lack of oxygen. Dwarfed amid looming peaks, my first-world worries seem to lose perspective and, as the pace slows to compensate our breathing, our group’s shared focus is solely on appreciation for our surroundings. So much time in my daily routine involves worrying about decisions and options that do not exist in this environment, yet I cannot recall the last time I simply stopped what I was doing, looked around and felt appreciation. With the constant pace and desire for newer, bigger and better things, we lose sight of gratitude for the present, where there is opportunity for calm, contentment and satisfaction.
DAYS 6-8: To Deboche (12,532ft), Dingboche (14,468ft) and Lobuche (16,207ft)
As we progress to increasingly higher altitudes our environment becomes ever more basic. The landscape contains little vegetation and is mostly rock and sand. Accommodation offers little more than a roof and cold, damp, dirty blankets. Our diet is restricted to carbohydrates: porridge, dal bhat and noodle soup. Headaches persist and are a sign that oxygen deprivation is taking effect. Evidence of heli-evacuations and descending altitude-sick travelers are common. As we continue to ascend, showers and clean clothes are no longer a concern and would only involve losing valuable body heat. The dilemma of whether to spend US$6 on a hot drink or patchy Wi-Fi connection reminds me that so much of what we take for granted is still a luxury in many parts of the world. We make way for porters overtaking us with timber doors and solar panels strapped to their foreheads; evidence of how the simple Nepali way of life is changing for the benefit of privileged travelers who come to find their perfect Instagramable moment.
DAY 9: Gorak Shep (16,945ft) and Everest Base Camp (17,650ft)
I wake up early in the morning of the final leg of our journey, cold, nauseous, a tearing pain across my chest and a pounding headache. Every movement reverberates inside my head and leaves me out of breath but the potential heartache of coming this far and not reaching my goal is worse. Humor, encouragement and empathy from my group gets me putting one foot in front of the other and before long I am wheezing my way up the Khumbu glacier to Gorak Shep and, a few hours later, Mount Everest Base Camp.
Finally, I can breathe a painful sigh of relief and relax, reassured that I have made it. The atmosphere is one of celebration as travelers from all parts of the world pull out their countries’ flags and hug members of their team. The bitter wind and developing blizzard doesn’t allow much time for reflection and, between tiredness and lack of oxygen, there is little opportunity for much thought about the situation or surroundings.
The culmination of a week of hiking is a pile of rocks covered in prayer flags and a hand-written sign marking 5,380m (17,650ft). Joining the queue for photographic evidence of our achievement I realize that, despite the months of training, planning, physical and mental endurance and tolerance of challenging conditions, this remains a very privileged tourist destination and, ultimately, an adventure holiday. It is humbling to consider that, for some, where I am standing marks only the beginning of some climbers’ goals; ones from which they may not return. The shrines we passed in the last few days honor the lives of individuals for whom personal challenge was ultimate. In life, everyone’s challenge is personal and relative to their own circumstances. For my brother and me, a stone etched with our dad’s name now sits at the highest point of the world that we could reach and symbolizes what remains most important in the most challenging of situations and circumstances: loved ones.
As we make our descent over the next few days and as oxygen returns to my brain and I start thinking again, I reflect on why challenge is so important and go back to the saying, “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey” that entered my head before leaving for Nepal. Without challenge, we take things for granted. We lose perspective on what is really important and valuable. We fail to discover what our potential and capabilities might be. In terms of a goal or destination, success in every challenge is less important since attempting the journey itself humbles our egos and brings new found respect for ourselves and others. Life shouldn’t be easy; if it were, we would have no opportunity to learn.
Five-hour flights direct to Kathmandu Tribhuvan International depart from Singapore Changi daily.