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Leadership Network member walks in the footsteps of a giant

Leadership Network member Shannon Goldsmith recounts his recent trek to Mount Everest's Base Camp.

To the Tibetans she is revered as Chomolungma – Goddess Mother of Mountains; to the Nepalese she is Sagarmatha – Forehead in the Sky; to the British, and the wider western world, she is known as Mount Everest (named after British Surveyor General of India, Colonel Sir George Everest); but to Sir Edmund Percival Hillary, the first person to 'conquor' the world’s highest mountain, she was simply ‘the bastard’. 

Shannon Goldsmith standing next to a cairn covered in prayer flags

Some 65 years following Hillary’s legendary accomplishments, Sagarmartha continues to attract and entice adventurers, with some 40,000 trekkers making the hike to Base Camp every year. Less than 1,000 make an attempt at the summit. Even fewer succeed. And so it was I found myself as one of the many answering the call to trek to the height of 5,364 metres above sea level to Base Camp.

The trek saw us clambering up some 3,000 metres vertical and covering around 75 kilometres over the course of eight days. The return trip saw us drop those same 3,000 metres and those same 75 kilometres over five days.

I was a part of a 13-man guided group which, even after day two, witnessed first-hand the effects of acute mountain sickness (AMS). AMS, aka altitude sickness, can manifest itself in the form of a dry cough, a lack of appetite, or a cerebral oedema – all of which were experienced by various members of our group. 

Above 4000 metres every step was laborious and taxing; breathing necessitated a full abdominal workout. The addition of -10 to -15 degree mornings added to the struggle. 

When you consider that every turn also offered views that took your breath away, I would consider this as one of the most physically and mentally challenging undertakings I have had the pleasure to endure. 

Shannon Goldsmith sitting beside a holy man in front of a gnarled tree

Colourful prayer flags and Mani stones serve as constant companions along the trek and the vegetable soup dressed as curry – Dal baht (Nepal’s national dish), is readily available for much needed energy. 

Yaks take the place of freight trucks as no wheeled, motorised vehicles are to be found en route. Some locals eke out a living by lugging products and goods to destinations along the trek, and being comparatively more acclimatised and fitter than us visitors, we found ourselves giving way to man and beast alike. The narrow tracks meant that these times served as unplanned but very welcome opportunities to rest. 

As physically demanding as following the Dudh Kosi (Milk River) to Base Camp is, it is almost impossible not to keep your head aloft and marvel at the views. It felt familiar – akin to our own Souhern Alps, but on  a much grander scale. 

Reaching our destination offered some time to stop and reflect. We achieved Base Camp as the climbing season was just commencing. 

An advanced group had set up a handful of tents on the top of the Khumbu Glacier and this was to be their home for the next few weeks while they planned their assault on the summit.

The peak of Sagarmatha is separated by four further camps and her peak cannot be seen from Base Camp. It was surreal to think that while Base Camp was the end of our journey, for the foolhardy few it represented only the start of their adventure – Sagarmatha’s summit still loomed some 3,300 metres above us! 

The peaks of the surrounding landscape – Tabuche, Nuptse, Aba Dablam, Tamserku, Lhotse – serve to dominate the skyline and I couldn’t help but feel small and insignificant. Such is the imposing nature of these mountainst, it was easy to imagine how man came to conjure up notions of gods and superior beings. My spiritual experience in the Himalayas was equal to the physical and mental.

Shannon Goldsmith sitting on a couch giving the thumbs up to a lareg reproduction of the New Zealand $5 bill with Sir Edmond Hillary's likeness on it

Sir Ed’s fingerprints are all over the Khumbu Valley. Printed paraphernalia featuring his likeness aside, he helped establish schools, hospitals, monasteries and even developed the Lukla Airport. 

Hillarys enduring legacy meant that I (as a New Zealander) was ushered through airport security with little more than an affectionate handshake, while my international cohort were subjected to bag searches and body pat-downs; such is the mana that continues to follow Sir Edmund Hillary. 

While I was a long way shy from emulating Sir Ed’s legendary achievements, it was good to be able to at least retrace some of his steps and experience this pocket of Godzone away from home. 

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21 June 2018