Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Everest Journey by Esther Tan Cheng Yin (The Northface Athlete)

The Everest Journey
Thank you for having me share with you stories of my Everest expedition. This took two years of planning, training and preparations to make this dream a reali
ty. I sought a personal experience with the highest point on the surface of the earth - Everest peak. My motivation was to never stop exploring new territories so I chose to climb Everest the hard way by the North ridge. Captivated by the wonders of climbing Mt Everest by the north from Tibet instead of south from Nepal, I trampled up into the thin air where people were never designed to go. Chomolungma, known also as the ‘Goddess Mother of the World’ became my personal quest.

Understanding the Risks. The northern route from Tibet can be a bureaucratic nightmare, with sudden political intervention and closures from the Chinese authorities causing last-minute changes to plans. The North ridge takes several more days at higher elevations, which can cause acclimatization problems. It is notorious for its long tricky technical sections, and extremely windy conditions. Weather predicting was crucial and the very few days deemed suitable to summit Everest did not fall on our chosen summit date!

High Costs of Success and Expectations

A high cost of $48,000 (SGD) was paid to Project Himalaya expedition company. Essentially, they were expected to have all the right ingredients that will contribute to the success of our mountain experience. Such as a good ratio of qualified crew to climbers. However, this significant cost did not include the cost of personal gears, clothing, and extra training climbs needed in the build-up. Even with the TNF’s generous support for our mountain apparel and bag packs, the overall cost I’ve paid amounted to a whopping price-tag of $65,000 (SGD). I was either buying a car or going for an expedition.

The expensive costs of engaging an expedition company is balanced by the level of good organizational skills required by such a massive undertaking. Our mountain guide,Mr Jamie McGinness, owner and exemplary leader of Project Himalaya expedition company, provided our team of 6 clients, all the infrastructure necessary to climb Mt Everest. It was a huge complex operation of ensuring all the necessary equipment, oxygen, food, water, medications, radios, mobile toilets, permits, tentage, and down to the tiniest detail of having a table cloth in our dining tents! Having the right support made a huge difference. The good operators will run a safe operation, complete with detailed weather fore! casting, devise robust rescue plans and make conservation efforts to keep the environment clean. Whether we go mountaineering with an expedition company or not, we are responsible for an element of our own safety. I learnt in my adventure races that in the end, every member of the team owns the ultimate responsibility to be safe on the mountain.

Truth be told, with all the planning and preparations in the world, things can take a turn from one’s path. No summit destination is guaranteed. To summit Everest is as much at the mercy of the mountain, its environment, the individual and the people. At such extreme altitude, it is a matter of staying alive.

I’ll share three stories. The heart of my stories is about the journey, rather than the destination. It is heartfelt because my stories need not encourage you to take up mountaineering, rather it is in the hope of motivating you to keep striving despite our sometimes growing weariness in facing the mountains of our lives.

My first story is about Conquering. Mt Everest cannot be owned, won, or conquered. Instead we can only conquer ourselves. Chomolungma, Goddess Mother of the World humbled me! It had been tough juggling a full time job with training, racing and massive equipment preparations. My week nights and weekends were spent running, biking, and alot of lonely stair-climbing. So I often signed up for races to keep me motivated with high intensity workouts. Everest mountain taught me that I can never be fit enough at altitude because altitude affects everyone differently especially at the extreme height of Everest. The b! iggest factor to success at altitude is acclimatization. I had the lowest oxygen saturation in my blood as my body took a longer time to acclimatize. Above 6000m, the body starts to break down, wounds cannot heal properly, effective functioning of the body deteriorates and eventually death can occur.

At the North Col climb, I caught a bad cough from breathing in cold dry air that agitated my lungs. It was so sensitive that talking would trigger a coughing eruption and inflamed my ribs with sharp pangs of pain in my breathing muscles. I sustained a crack left rib just from my violent coughing eruptions. Coughing also triggered my vomiting reflux. And at times, I swallowed my vomit to keep the tents clean. Vomiting is not good because it agitates stomach gastric that cause cramping even while sleeping. No matter how careful we were, everyone in the team suffered from the effects of cold cough and diarrhoea at some point of the expedition. Somehow, whenever we looked at the immense landscape before us, we felt better and any altitude headaches and sickness were forgotten.

For the body to heal properly and combat altitude sickness, we trekked from North Base camp to 7000m height elevation, 4 times before we headed for the 8848m summit climb. On the night before our destined summit date, with barely enough sleep and reeling from the brain-altering effects of oxygen deprivation, we plucked ourselves from our warm sleeping bags to make our night-time summit push at 11:30pm in cold windy conditions with temperatures as low as -35 deg Celsius. This is so that we could reach summit in daylight hours.

It was not just fighting physical traumas, but also finding the mental strength to get up whenever you get knocked down. That is when I realized there are things I can control like my own pain management and things I cannot control, like the deteriorating weather conditions. Humility is the very wise virtue that can help prepare anyone of us for all possible changes of life. I must be prepared to choose the right path, even if I was very close to my final destination.

My second story is on the long road to Humility. We come closest to the great when great in humility. Every long hard treks took an average of 6 – 8 hrs long, Panting over the steep endless crests of Everest made me ponder a lot on the mountains life and the daily uphill struggles of work to be done. To get motivation, I looked to great heroes. The unsung heroes were the Sherpas and Tibetans who tirelessly carried our tremendous burden of food and oxygen. They energetically pitched our tent! s while we were certainly feeling half-dead. They enabled the whole team to eat, rest and climb Everest safely. Despite their heroism, they lead a simple lifestyle compared to us Singaporeans! The simplicity and serenity of the Everest region brings peace to any troubled soul and a much needed restoration of the mind. Its also when you may realise, life need not be so complicated. Even in its simplicity, life can be so deeply meaningful.

The 6 weeks long Everest journey, gave me time to do a lot of journal writing and reflecting. One of which, “To be truly great, one has to stand with people, not above them.” This resonates deep in me when I consider how I wanted to be on top of the world, and yet in the end, was 100m, or 1.5hrs shy of my desired destination. I can only imagine my summit picture to be on bended knees with my hands raised to the heavens. Humility becomes so desirable because it creates a capacity for the closest possible intimacy with God. There will certainly be a time in anyone’s journey when one will be in a situation of not having all the answers.

And this brings me to my last story about Life & Death. For all the excitement of climbing Everest, there was also always an inescapable sadness. A place of ghosts and nowadays, by all accounts, a place of visible corpses.

Walking pass three visible dead climbers along my summit route made me realize I could be dead too. That was the most important thought I’ve encountered in this expedition. Realizing what is important in life becomes more significant if we live step by step facing death each day. I hammered through thick snowy 1st steppe, hauled my heavy body up the tricky technical section of rocky 2nd steppe and after 10hrs of climbing, finally reached 3rd steppe. I realized my team mates were no longer with us because we did plan to summit together. We radioed back to Jamie, our mountain guide, to seek his inputs.

Our guide explained on the radio that the strong winds were not going to improve; he had advised the team to turnaround because of bad weather. I have learnt in this journey what I can control and what I cannot. Or can I for that moment play God to risk His inclement weather and climb to my peak? Where there was a jet stream of lenticular clouds hovering above us. Although I had this one chance to summit Everest, I had only one lifetime to live, so for reasons of bad weather conditions, at 8750m high, we turned our backs on Everest peak to make a quick descend back to the safety of our expedition team. “A person who believes in something larger than himself, could almost immediately accept the gravity of the moment”. To shed some light on the gravity of the situation, I was chided for not turning back earli! er than I should! The cold howling SW winds gushing relentlessly at 30kts gave me a frostbite on my cheek, even the water-bottles inside my suit froze my water into ice!

Decision-making. The hardest part of my journey was making the decision to turn our backs from the top of the world, even more so much harder to let it go when I think I felt strong that day. This made me consider some basic questions of life. Have I done right? Have I lived right? Am I ready for what’s next? This means I must keep striving even as I come back to office to face papers, monitors & blinking e-messages that never fails to remind me, success cannot be made overnight.

I might have been tempted to over emphasize climbing Everest mountain where so many people live with their own ongoing mountains of struggles. When someone you love deeply and closest you know, suddenly dies; like my dearest mum who died of cancer, I felt that “life was already tough, why not make it tougher.” And after 12 years of saying that, Mt Everest was indeed a turning point needed to restore my sense of purpose for pushing myself harder for more challenges. Now having climbed Everest, I can say with more certainty that this journey had been a useful intellectual reflection of life:

Mt Everest had claimed the lives of many climbers whom we honor at their graveyards. No one wants to die. No one has ever escaped death. And yet death is the destination we all share. That is as it is. This is the most powerful thought revealed or a revelation to me. As much as I love the summit chance, it does not matter when you know the joy of the journey; the gift of being with great people, and fully understanding that ultimately the success of this expedition hinges upon our safe return to embrace our dear lives and loved ones.

Finally let me conclude, as a competitive person, the hardest part was to turn my back on Everest peak. As a saying goes, “Judge not a person by how well he wins, judge him by how well he loses”. The fact that I did not summit makes it far more important and tougher to accept our losses with humility than to seek gl! ory in our wins.

In this lifetime I am grateful to have climbed Mt Everest in my capacity. My intrinsic motivation was really to get closer to the great God, and the mountain was a platform for me to do that, but, I discovered through the hard way that it was not about climbing the highest mountain to get what you want. Instead, my quest for a personal experience with God on the mountain came truly from my amazingly driven expedition team-mates, tireless support crew, generous gears support of TNF people, wonderful friends & family who also selflessly inspired me on my BB live facebook & emails updates. In their special ways, the p! eople I came to know, made the extremely cold, harsh and tough Everest Mountain very much alive, meaningful and heartfelt – lasting forever. That's the mystery of life. It is not about conquering the top of the world, instead, it is a reality to be experienced.

Now that you have read my stories, I wish for you that whatever journey of quests you choose to embark on, will be fulfilling!

Please click on the you tube website on the song “I Can Only Imagine” by Mercy me, of what my true summit would have been like.

The song and the pictures really help me speak alot on the journey that I've experienced at Mt Everest.

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