The climb of my life

20:00, May 14 2013
Everest base camp
Preserve us: Prayer flags adorn an alpine shrine on the trek to Everest Base Camp in the high Himalaya.

People travel to Nepal for different reasons.

Many go on spiritual journeys, some to summit the world’s highest peaks and others simply to explore different lands and cultures.

Like me, others have come to trek, not necessarily seeking anything in particular when they start, but nearly all find something by the end of the journey. They say that when you go to Nepal, something unexpected and magical happens and many end up finding what they are looking for.

Everest base camp
Up with the stars: The thrill of living inthe rare air at the foot of Ama Dablam is a rare glimpse into the world Sir Edmund Hillary encountered 60 years ago.

I have to start by saying that I am not a trekker. Never have been. Hiking boots are a foreign term to someone who  lives in high heels.

However, I am an adventure traveller. One who enjoys seeking out new, unique places, cultures, travelling the undiscovered paths and enjoying what is the journey.

To be immersed in a country, culture and adventure so different to anything I have previously experienced thrilled (and scared) me.

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My journey begins in the chaos that is Kathmandu. The streets are dusty, broken, electrical traps.

There is a smell that you can’t quite identify but grow to recognise as Kathmandu. It’s not quite pollution but perhaps a combination of life and death in a city that celebrates both aspects so openly. The aroma of incense lingers as you stroll through the streets.

A 40-minute flight away,  Lukla is a land where time stands still. Where you still see people enjoying life the traditional way. Tending to their lands by hand, washing clothes on the rocks down by the river, children playing outside.

There are no TVs, no radios, no modern transportation. Yes, occasionally there is a mobile ringing, even here life has started to get a little more modern. You watch men, women and children carrying huge loads on their backs, up the mountain earmarked for the furthest villages and you wonder why and how.

They are strong. Strong minded, strong spirited and yet incredibly humble, gentle people and this is their living. You learn that though their lives are hard they are happy. ‘‘Namaste’’ and a smile greets you every step of the way.

Trekking between Lukla and Everest Base Camp, you discover the meaning of the indomitable human spirit. This is where Sir Edmund Hillary started 60 years ago, and where the journey now begins for so many others.

Trekking uphill from village to village, you stop to think: How did they do this so many years ago when even now, when the paths are clearly marked, so many of us are finding it a real challenge. The battle is between heart and mind, wanting at times to give up, but knowing that you are part of a team and, as a team, you carry on.

Our Sherpas are nothing short of remarkable.

They set the pace, encourage us, lend a helping hand and when we arrive at our next stop they keep working, getting our washing water ready, serving us hot drinks and meals and making sure we are comfortable when I am sure they, too, are feeling exhausted.

And the views are  simply stunning. Photos and words cannot even describe what you see surrounding you.

Rhododendron forests at lower altitudes, villages with precise stonemasonry, lunar-looking landscapes above the treeline and, of course, the various peaks of the Himalayas sometimes in full view, other times poking their heads out of the clouds. The first view of Everest is nothing short of amazing and brings a tear to many an eye.

The memorials that mark the way up the path tell their own stories. Western climbers and Sherpa guides who have all lost their lives doing something they love. Some on their way up, many on their way down, from very different lives, yet all with the same goal.

Reading their stories makes you reflect on your own story. Are we doing something we love?

In many ways, the memorials are more emotional than reaching Base Camp. But nothing beats the feeling of sitting on top of the world – or close to it.

Reaching Base Camp you are filled with emotion, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. So, you eat. M&Ms in my case; chocolate in most cases.

Photos are taken, smiles as wide as the landscape in front of us. Many of us are silenced, wandering around, breathing deeply and absorbing the large mountains before us.

This is where it all happens – the start of the summit. Where dreams are made or lost. We see new teams of climbers setting up camp, many that walked the path up with us. The path they take to reach the summit of Everest is  through the Khumbu Glacier. And, yes, you see helicopters  bringing down a trekker or another casualty – while we were there it was a Sherpa from the local village.

On returning to camp you realise the risk, bask in the achievement and cry tears of joy having lived a dream and of  sorrow for those that didn’t make it.

I never understood why people would want to trek to such a place. Why Everest? Why Nepal?

Why not? It turned into an amazing personal journey.

Ten years ago, I survived a brain tumour. I say ‘‘survived’’ as the stats were against me.

Reaching the Everest Base Camp after being told it was a potentially fatal journey was a huge achievement and a relief.

Yes, it was a risk, but the best things in life often involve the greatest risk. I found a new love in trekking, I conquered my fears and once again found the fighting spirit when others had doubt.

I left Nepal not with a story, but merely a chapter in what continues to be an exceptionally exciting journey.

Natalie Tambolash is New Zealand manager for World Expeditions

The Dominion Post