Charity Trek to Everest

April 15, 2014 at 2:54 pm

By KQF managing director, Faruk Vali.

As regular visitors to this blog will know, I recently set out on a charity fund-raising trek to Everest Base Camp in Nepal in order to raise money for East Lancashire Hospice. I made the journey with three friends: Rafiq Ahmed, Ilyas Karbhari and Sufyan Dadabhai. We had previously travelled to Mecca in 2012 and felt that the time was right to travel somewhere that presented a new challenge.

Rafiq and Sufyan had previously climbed Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and we quickly warmed to the idea of tackling a big mountain challenge.  Mountains obviously don’t come any bigger than Everest, so that was the unanimous choice. We began training in the autumn of 2013 and set out in March.

Our start was delayed due to bad weather, first around the airport in Kathmandu, then around our destination, Lukla Airport in Khumbu, eastern Nepal. Twice we were almost ready to go but bad weather around the airports (or in the valleys in between) set us back. On the third attempt, we were on the runway but then the aircraft developed a fault and we had to abort yet again. This surprised even the  Sherpas, who had agreed to accompany us for the full duration of the trip. They made this trip regularly and had not known anything like it. Finally, on 4th March, after days of waiting around the airport, we were given the all clear and we set off for Lukla, said to be the most dangerous airport in the world.

The party comprised the four of us, plus two porters and three Sherpa guides – a mountain leader and two others who were there partly as a kind of insurance policy. If one of us was to fall ill or become injured, one of them would accompany the casualty back down the mountain, leaving the others free to continue.

The trekking was hard almost from the start but by the 6th March we had reached the village of Namche, which lies at just under 3,500m. Just getting ourselves and our rucksacks there was tiring enough but the Sherpas were carrying 50 kilos and seemed completely unfazed.

As the weather was good, we made the decision to go north and then approach Everest Base Camp from the west, taking food and overnight shelter in the little ‘tea houses’ that stood at intervals along the route. This meant a longer route but we’d get to see the frozen lakes, which we’d been told were very impressive. However, it was a decision that we’d come to regret.

By 9th March, as we approached Gokyo Lake on the west side of the Ngozumpa glacier, the temperatures were dropping to around -15 degrees Celsius at night and we were feeling the effects of the altitude. We were each affected differently and at different times, but we all suffered from nearly constant headaches and a pronounced loss of appetite. Worse, on 10th March, a snowfall blocked the Cho La pass ahead and we were left with no choice but to retrace our steps and approach Everest from a completely different direction, coming up the east side of the same ridge that we could see now.  It was a long and frustrating detour that would cost us an extra two and a half days of strenuous effort.

This was very dispiriting because, for the first time, we seriously began to question whether we would actually make it to our goal. Plenty of people failed at this and every day we saw helicopters airlifting out trekkers who had succumbed to altitude sickness. The delay at the airport, combined with the lost time here, meant that we were more than half way through our allotted time and we were still far from our objective. However, getting to Everest Base Camp was the key element of our fundraising efforts for East Lancashire Hospice so we carried on, albeit very slowly.

Interestingly, our slow but steady progress proved to be important. At several points in the trek I was having difficulty focusing my eyes and we were all suffering from powerful headaches and a constant sense of breathlessness, which made even pulling on a rucksack exhausting. We passed one large group of Japanese trekkers, one of whom had succumbed to the altitude and was being treated with oxygen whilst awaiting the arrival of a helicopter. A day later, a Korean man was airlifted off as well.

I think it is fair to say that it was proving to be the most physically testing challenge that any of us had ever encountered, and the constant effort and all the effects of altitude sickness meant that it was mentally taxing, too. Rafiq noted at one point that it was many times harder than anything he had experienced whilst climbing Kilimanjaro.

In short, we were clearly in no shape to go haring up the track, and we were overtaken by several groups on the way. However, this experience showed us that ‘gym-fitness’ is not necessarily a guarantee of coping well with the thin air.

We were overtaken at one point by a pair of extremely strong-looking German climbers who’d come from Munich and who were making very impressive progress up the track. Later on, we were passed by two supremely fit British guys – both seasoned marathon runners. One of them had run a marathon every day for 30 days and the other was an accomplished 100-mile marathon runner. However, the following day, both the British and German groups had to abandon their attempts due to altitude sickness. It can strike at any time and the effects can literally be deadly, so once it has begun to get a grip quitting is usually the very best decision anyone can make. That was a very sobering moment for us. We thought “if these guys can’t make it, what chance do we have?”

Still, there was nothing else to do but to press on. None of us was so badly affected that we felt we’d have to abort and, now, Everest Base Camp was beginning to feel like it was just around the corner. Of course, the terrain is very deceptive; it’s really hard to appreciate the scale of the landscape and things that look quite close are actually miles away; regardless of how many hours you walk, they never seem to get any closer. Nevertheless, we were getting closer and, finally, on 14th March, with the clock approaching three in the afternoon, we arrived at Everest Base Camp.

Everest Base Camp with porters and guides.

Everest Base Camp with porters and guides.

The camp is marked by Nepalese flags and a large cairn of stones, many bearing messages from previous expeditions. Around the cairn were groups of yaks that had brought supplies for the hardy groups of mountaineers who were now advancing towards higher camps. As it turned out, apart from a BBC film team camped about a mile away at the foot of a glacier, we had the place entirely to ourselves.

Faruk unveils the KQF poster

Unveiling the world’s highest ever KQF poster at Everest Base Camp

However, it’s always important to be very aware of the time and the changing conditions, and we know how cold and difficult things became as darkness approached. That meant that we couldn’t stay long. We took a few pictures and, since it was Friday, we held our Jumma Friday Mass by the cairn, performing our ablutions using ice and snow. After prayers, we shook hands, shouldered our packs again and began the journey home.

It was 4.50pm and with darkness falling at 6pm, we had to make a speedy descent to the simple tea house where we had planned to stay.

Descending from the camp actually involves a surprising amount of climbing; there are valleys and ridges to negotiate every day so although each evening saw us losing some more altitude, the going was still very hard. Nevertheless, the air grew thicker and the paths got wider every day and, on 19th March, we finally completed our trek.

It had been much tougher and more challenging than any of us had expected but we’re all extremely pleased to have done it. We made some great friends, we developed a huge admiration for the Sherpas and we all came through the experience unscathed.

We spent the next few days travelling to India and then driving from Delhi to Mumbai – but that’s another story altogether…

It was a great and rewarding experience but please remember that there was an important fund-raising element to the trek. We have been raising money for East Lancashire Hospice – a very worthy cause – so please consider visiting the Just Giving website and making a donation.

Faruk Vali

Managing Director, KQF Foods