Last year Mike Lowden was looking for a challenge when he crossed paths with three other like-minded people. They met, got on well and established Project Everest Base Camp (EBC).
A date was set for the adventure, 24 March to 15 April, 2018. Project EBC was comprised of Mike (56), Tina Morrell (50), Bette Chen (37) and Fergus Flannery (19).
‘We wanted to make a difference,’ says Mike.
So the decision was made that they would not only trek to Everest Base Camp, but would raise money to help a Sherpa family who had lost their home in Nepal’s Gorkha earthquake of 25 April, 2015.
Nine thousand Nepalese died in the earthquake which also triggered an avalanche on Mount Everest, killing
21, mostly Sherpa. It became Everest’s deadliest day.
The trek was booked with Ann Young of Trekking Adventures. ‘Ann put us in touch with a Sherpa family,’ says Mike. ‘Tangii, the mother of the family of six left homeless in Khumjung, was ill and could not get a proper diagnosis owing to affordability. We wanted to help the family get back into a structurally-sound, warm home and help Tangii with her medical expenses.’
The group was inspired by the legacy of Sir Edmund Hillary and his philosophy to leave more than footprints in the wake of adventure.
They trained as a team, and as individuals throughout 2017. Training included walking on the Port Hills and running marathons and half marathons to build basic fitness. Specialised training was undertaken at Vertex Altitude Training in Christchurch. The team exercised on treadmills and spin bikes in a vacuum room where levels of oxygen and nitrogen are altered to simulate altitude. ‘We worked at 11 per cent oxygen, at a simulated altitude of 5300 metres,’ Mike explains.
Fundraising events began: dinners, presentations, a Givealittle page and rattling buckets in work places. Raising $25,000 (NZD) was the initial goal.
On arrival in Nepal, the group’s first stop was the village of Khumjung to meet their Sherpa family. ‘Our meeting was both emotional and unusual,’ says Mike. ‘Having just met them, we handed over $10,000 (US)to start building their new home.’
Mike describes the Sherpa people as extremely humble. ‘They gladly helped us, portering our necessities 65 km from Lukla to Everest Base Camp with no expectations from us.
The next challenge was the trek itself. ‘The distance of 10 to 16 km each day was not the real challenge. More so was acclimatising to altitude and coping with altitude sickness. We had to climb to more than 5000 metres above sea level. Most days this meant ascending 400 to 800 metres. I summited over 5000 metres twice. It was punching the air stuff. Looking around from that height, the sheer beauty just grabs you.
‘It wasn’t a race. Regular rests assisted altitude adjustment. My only problem was headaches. The local porters got them too and they would say: “you’re alright Mike”.’
Other challenges included food. Meat was not recommended owing to it being old when consumed. Besides, meat would mean yak steaks. Sacrificing friendly animals willing to carry huge loads for Everest adventurers did not appeal. ‘I pretty much became a vegetarian for the trip. It was one of the best things I have ever done.’
He took a liking to garlic soup, also known as mountain medicine. It was raw, strong garlic with a stock base. Another popular dish was a Sherpa vegetable stew with potatoes, which are a substantial part of the Sherpa diet. Both offerings were spicy and ‘very, very good’. While they may have been lacking in protein, they got ample carbohydrates.
Water was an important factor. Mike boiled water at night. At high altitude the water was very cold so needed warming. In the morning, the water left over was added to his three-litre water bladder. He also started the trekking day clutching a boiled egg in each hand. When asked why he didn’t eat them, he replied, ‘They were my hand warmers.’
A guy he met at Vertex Altitude Training gave Mike pounamu to gift to the homeless Sherpa family. ‘He taught me how to present it. The family were in tears saying we had brought them good luck. They were awesome people. The father is away every year helping climbers on Everest. This year he summited Everest for the eighth time.’
Mike, the oldest of the team, was pleased with his performance. He felt strong throughout and managed to avoid dysentery and vomiting. Both are common at high altitude.
‘People with top fitness can fail to reach Everest Base Camp. ‘I saw people peeling off saying, “That’s it.” I don’t know how I would have coped if I was one of them, missing out on the opportunity.’
While the weather was mostly great, even the sunny days were ‘bloody cold’. It was mostly minus 10 degrees Celsius with a wind-chill factor of minus 15.
‘We were rugged up with four or five layers and leggings. We lived in merino. I didn’t shower for 16 days. It was just too cold. At night we were knackered. We drank warm liquid, listened to music and used Wi-Fi to catch up with family. We could get that at each lodge we stayed in. We paid big money for it, but being away for 25 days it was worth it to keep in touch with our families. It was a small sacrifice for a big return.’
One day he spotted Everest from his bedroom window. ‘It was peering out of the cloud. I knew it was Everest. I had remembered its shape from watching documentaries. Besides, it was the highest point around.’
Everest Base Camp at 5380 metres (17,650 feet) has about 40 consultancy businesses. Mike likened it to a self-contained village. Every group had a helicopter pad. ‘It’s not five star. If you’re prepared to rough it, it is comfortable. It is fuelled by gas and solar energy. Anything they can get from natural resources they will. It is orderly.’
Trains of yaks depart every day taking human waste and rubbish.
A memorable moment on the return trek was seeing stupas: memorials to dead climbers. Most bodies are never recovered from Everest.
Mike had his photo taken beside Rob Hall’s stupa. ‘That was emotional. I recalled the phone call from his wife, Jan Arnold, when he was dying on the mountain. He had achieved so much and given me inspiration when I was growing up. I was blown away by how many lives had been lost on Everest. Prayer flags were everywhere. I certainly felt connected – the magnet of Everest.
‘Every day I was gazing up to high ridges and peaks. So much bigger than what we are used to in New Zealand. I can understand why people get the mountain bug. I can appreciate why Hillary spent so much time there. I was in awe of the region and its people.’
So, would he go back? ‘You bet!’
Mike and his team saw the completed Sherpa family’s house they had funded. It was two levels in place of one. As with Christchurch following the earthquakes, Nepal had introduced modified construction methods. The family is living in a much stronger home.
[ WORDS Roy Sinclair, IMAGES Mike Lowden ]