In March 2017, Emily was offered a chance to join a 16-day trek, covering 62 miles and reaching a height of 5,350 m, to Everest Base Camp. Emily has been a lifelong member of the School and has always enjoyed the outdoors and connecting with nature. But this year was to take her outdoors in a way never experienced before.
TREKKING TO BASE CAMP
Emily Johnston, London
It was too intriguing an adventure, and too beautiful a location to turn down and I signed up. I have always been interested in challenges that will test me and stretch my perceived limits and this certainly ticked the boxes and proved to be the hardest thing I have ever done.
11 of us signed up and we began to get to know each other through a Facebook group. Kit lists, stories, excitements and trepidations were shared over the next months. Symptoms of altitude sickness, 15kg limits on luggage, benefits of trekking poles, numbers of toilet rolls to take, all became conversations of interest.
Autumn and winter 2016/17 was a particularly difficult time for me personally and I was also overwhelmed with work so training for the trek took a back seat and I began to question whether I should go at all. A few sustaining conversations with friends convinced me that this was too important to turn down and could be just what I needed. Thank goodness for friends!
So, on the 13th March, having sorted out care for the children, put the dog in kennels, and closed and the business for 16 days, I met with two of our group at the airport and set off for Kathmandu. We spent a day there with the rest of the group and then flew in a tiny plane to Lukla where we were suddenly surrounded by mountains, and the most beautiful and majestic views. The weather was cool but not icy and the sun shone for almost the entire trip.
From Lukla onwards there were no cars, bikes, lorries or any vehicle except helicopters flying down the valleys daily collecting injured or sick people. Everything we saw in the towns and villages was either transported by yak or porter. We passed an average of six yak trains a day taking heavy packs up the Himalaya and coming down empty, some were bound for villages and towns, some for Everest itself to the mountaineers. Porters too, frequently passed us, many carrying huge loads, like fridge freezers, or sheets of plywood, and wearing not much more than jeans, jacket and trainers. We stopped frequently at lodges and tea houses having ginger teas and taking in the views.
The trekking itself was hard going and on the first day I picked up a knee injury which stayed with me for the rest of the trip. The paths varied hugely from dusty tracks to steep inclines and descents, either roughly man-made from local rock or naturally created by the fall of water in the rainy season. The tendency with trekking is to watch your step, to keep your eyes down and look for the best path through. We had to keep reminding ourselves to stop and look up to see the stunning views around us, always changing and frequently awe-inspiring.
On the third day, because of the altitude, lack of moisture in the air and constant dust I developed a chest infection, and, combined with the knee injury, for the rest of the trip I was top of the list for being taken off the trek. It began to get serious. On the fourth day one of our group became seriously ill with ‘mountain fever’ apparently from the water and was swiftly airlifted out with his wife and spent the next four days in hospital. It was a wake up call for us all.
At 3,800m we arrived at Namche Bazaar. We were all beginning to feel the effects of altitude, particularly the lack of oxygen. Breathlessness and headaches became common, but as we trekked higher the scenery also ‘took our breath away’. As we walked from Namche to Tengboche we caught our first glimpse of Everest, or Sagarmaatha as the Nepalese call it, hidden behind Lhotse and Nuptse Peaks.
A while later as we walked we became aware that we were at eye level with a group of golden eagles rising on the thermals of the valley below us. We stopped, transfixed, and watched them flying and circling around us. After a steep descent into the valley and lunch by the glacial river we crossed one of the many narrow bridges to begin our steep long climb up to Dingboche where there was a monastery and a lodge for our nights rest.
It was a particularly hard climb but the monastery was beautiful and we had arrived in time to go to the afternoon prayer ceremony. We took off our boots and lined the inside walls of the prayer room. The monks chanted their prayers in soothing deep voices and I sat and meditated enjoying the womb-like experience of being enclosed with the beautiful sounds washing over me. The stillness was palpable and deeply restful.
So we continued trekking. Villages became more scarce and the vegetation turned from magnolia trees and rhododendrons to pine forests and then scrubland. Eventually we reached a height where not even bushes and grass grew and the scenery became vast and barren, the light harsh and clear. The mountains loomed high and eternal, made more stark by the wide valleys of rock, river and ice between. It was unlike anything I have ever seen or experienced. Huge in scale, awesome, and breathtaking in its beauty and majesty.
Eventually we arrived at Everest Base Camp on the Khumbu ice fall and we cried and hugged, smiles of exhaustion and achievement overwhelming us. However, by that time it didn’t feel like that was the end point or the reason for the trip. The point was the journey and how we got there, our mental and emotional struggles and the companionship of coming through.
In my own struggle what struck me most was being on the cutting edge of attention. During most of the trip there was a question in my head many times, would I, could I make it all the way? My cough and knee injury were both reasons enough not to see it through and every day got harder: coughing, breathless, sleeplessness, nausea and headaches.
But I became aware that if I focussed my attention on something other than the doubts and pain, then all I had to do was take the next step. Sometimes I sang or recited poetry when I had the breath to, sometimes statements in Sanskrit or the meditation mantra came to mind, sometimes it was just about feeling my feet on the ground or connecting with sight or hearing. Wherever I focussed my attention grew in my awareness, and if that focus was pain and doubt, it became harder to move forward, so I had to make frequent intentions to move the focus of my attention and just let my feet take one more step, just one more, again and again.
So looking back on the trip I would never do it again but I am hugely grateful for it. I discovered an inner strength and determination not seen before. In light of everything I saw and experienced there, the daily challenges of life are really quite light and easy in comparison!