Mt Everest: High-altitude contemplation

By Haley McCrystal

Viva explores the globe following three intrepid women taking the path least travelled. First we trek with Haley McCrystal who touched base in the 'Land of Gods'.

Lack of oxygen, unhygienic facilities and freezing weather were all made worthwhile for Haley McCrystal when taking in incredible mountain views. Photo / Thinkstock
Lack of oxygen, unhygienic facilities and freezing weather were all made worthwhile for Haley McCrystal when taking in incredible mountain views. Photo / Thinkstock

After months of planning and dreaming, I found myself, along with 16 of my work colleagues from Air New Zealand and our guide, Captain Mike Allsop, boarding a plane for the crazy, colourful and chaotic Kathmandu capital, Nepal.

It was the first step on our journey to Everest Base Camp, and before embarking on our two-week trek we would spend four days in this Land of Gods, experiencing the sights, sounds and smells of a city steeped in Hindu and Buddhist culture, where disease and poverty are rife.

The days flew by as we acclimatised to the higher altitude of 1400m, and shopped for last items of trekking gear, as well as jackets and sleeping bags that would take us from sweltering in temperatures in the mid-20s to freezing at minus 20C.

After a vigorous pat-down at Kathmandu Airport, we boarded our aircraft bound for Lukla's Tenzing-Hillary Airport in the Khumbu Valley, named by the History Channel as the "most extreme" airport in the world.

While we all recovered our stomachs after the most extreme landing any of us had ever experienced, we watched the flight attendant on our 19-seater aircraft struggle to open the cabin door. Thirty minutes later we had to crawl on hands and knees through the back of the aircraft and out the cargo door. Not the most dignified of exits.

Our next port of call would be a local teahouse, which would mark both the start and finish of the journey to Base Camp.

As we climbed the handful of stairs to its front door we gulped for air, having flown straight to an altitude of 2800m. It was the first lesson of understanding the importance of the need to go slow over the next couple of weeks while our bodies struggled to acclimatise to such a vastly different climate.

It was heartwarming to see the teahouse was covered in Sir Edmund Hillary memorabilia and it wasn't hard to recognise that the man who reached the summit of the world's most famous mountain first is as revered by the people of the Khumbu region as by New Zealanders.

This was also where a number of us also had our first encounter with a squat toilet, accompanied by the nightmarish smell that would have been more than a match for any air freshener on the market.

We learned over the next three weeks that the Lukla teahouse toilet was five-star luxury in comparison to the long drop holes, complete with swarms of flies and massive mountains of poo, which we were forced to use in times of desperation along the 200km route to Base Camp.

While some of the unsanitary conditions tested us, the jaw-droppingly beautiful scenery more than made up for it.

While I thought being on Mt Everest was the main reason for my trip, it turned out to be an almost 7000m high mountain named Ama Dablam that had the biggest impact on me.

When I booked my spot on the trip, I saw it as a great opportunity to get fit and experience a part of the world I'd never been to. What I didn't realise then was what an amazing opportunity I'd have to turn my mobile phone off, reflect on my life and where I was with regard to family, relationships and my career.

I sat there in the shadow of Ama Dablam most days and soaked in the silence and the spirituality of this magical place and promised myself that I would look at life differently when I got home. When I was feeling down I would think of the children as young as 4 being trained as porters, carrying kilos of water up and down hills for hours each day; and the old men, exhausted but steely-eyed, carrying 60kg-80kg loads on their backs day after day.

I'd think of the 80-year-old Sherpa woman I met in the Dengboche monastery, so used to tourists taking her photo without asking and who lit up with joy when I gave her my scarf as a thank you for having her photo with me; and of our amazing Sherpa guides, Nawang, Ang Nuru, Kusang and Pemba, so skilful and knowledgeable, who would have risked life and limb for us - a bunch of tourists from a country they're unlikely to ever have the opportunity to visit.

I grappled with the concept that our Sherpa Ang Nuru served us our dinner but had also climbed Mt Everest three times, twice without the aid of oxygen. These men would have been heroes, celebrities even, in any other country, yet here they were asking if I wanted lemon or ginger tea. It didn't feel right. It still doesn't.

After two weeks of walking several hours a day we made it to Everest Base Camp. That morning we'd risen at 3.30am to summit Kala Patthar, a peak from which you get the best (and sometimes only) view of Everest.

It was worth the wait and the three-hour climb. The peak of Everest is so high that the sun seems to rise from halfway down the mountain and bathes it in the most incredible dawn light imaginable. It was here that most of us had our moment, there were tears of joy and celebrations that we could finally see it and the hard graft had been worthwhile.

When, a few hours later we reached Base Camp, the climax of the morning summit was replaced by a new low. We were exhausted, yet we still had the night ahead of us - sleeping two to a pup tent on the thinnest of bed rolls atop sheets of ice and a temperature that dropped to minus 25C overnight. It was safe to say that there is nothing fun, comfortable nor easy about life at Base Camp.

The next morning we couldn't wait to leave, but when we did it was with a huge respect for the hundreds of climbers who stay there for weeks on end every year, acclimatising and waiting patiently for the right weather conditions to make their summit attempts.

In the next few days of walking back to Lukla, smiles returned, appetites increased and the spring in our steps came back. The oxygen we'd been missing as we'd been climbing steadily higher got richer as we descended.

We also knew we'd achieved what we set out to do. In our own ways we'd "knocked the bastard off" and it made the world of difference as we headed home again.

A week and a half later, back in New Zealand, I felt lighter. Physically, due to the Himalayan menu combined with a gastro infection resulting in the loss of a few kilos, but also emotionally, having had those days out from my everyday life. Over the next few months I would also find time to remember the people and the places that made such an impact on me.

Now I'm back at my desk, it seems like a lifetime ago, but it's a part of the world that gets under your skin. I know I'll be back.

- NZ Herald

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