Scaling greater heights


Passing by an avalanche site.

IT is always inspiring to hear stories of people who have overcome challenges or scaled greater heights in life.

Such stories are usually made more fascinating when they come with detailed accounts of the endeavour itself.

For some, it’s the physical journey to climb an actual mountain that enriches their lives, as thesundaypost found out from two young women — Kate Chong Mei Fern and Helen Tan Sok Ee.

The longtime friends, both 26, had just come back from a 16-day trip to Annapurna Base Camp (ABC), situated at an altitude of 4,130 metres in the heart of the Annapurna mountain range of the Himalayas in Nepal.

It’s one of the most popular treks in the region. Beginning and ending at the town of Nayapul, the trail goes along breathtaking Himalayan landscape and passes through culturally rich villages.

It was the girls’ first time trekking in the awe-inspiring Himalayas, joining a 28-member expedition, comprising mostly seasoned hikers from Kuching, under 52-year-old group leader Goh Seng Kee.

The group heading out of Tirkhedhunga, crossing over one of many suspension bridges along the way. — Photos courtesy of Calvin Chong and Goh Seng Kee.

For Kate, it was a life-changing experience, taking her much courage to pursue as she had never trekked for such a long period before.

“The most I did was a simple two-day one-night trip to Kampung Semban.

“The 10 days we spent trekking made me appreciative of all the things I have. The locals may seem very poor but they are very rich in culture. They are very helpful and happy people. We should learn more from them.

“Also, as we did not have cellular line most of the times while we were there, I learned to stay connected to the people and the environment around me. The time was well spent,” she said.

For her, the sense of achievement on reaching the snowy white ABC with the group was almost indescribable.

“My first reaction was I’ve made it — and I was very proud of myself. Half a year ago, we bought our plane tickets and now, we’re here. That’s why I believe nothing is impossible when we have the courage to pursue our dreams. Don’t just think — take action and do it,” she enthused.

Kate admitted during the entire journey, the most challenging part was at ABC itself.

“The oxygen was thinning and we couldn’t take big steps. We had to walk slowly — at our own pace. Drinking a lot of water is a must here to avoid getting acute mountain sickness (AMS).

“At one point of time, the mist became very thick and visibility was very low, I couldn’t even see the person in front and at the back. However, there was no room for fear or negativity. I just followed my own clear vision – that’s to reach ABC,” she recalled.

There were many memorable moments and Kate was grateful to have experienced them all.

There was a hail storm on the second-day trek to Ghorepani (2,850m). The snow that fell were about the size of pingpong balls and getting hit was no joke.

“We were lucky to find shelter,” Kate said.

Kate (standing right), Helen and Calvin, who are active Saberkas Pending branch members, display the youth organisation’s flag at Annapurna Base Camp.

At Poon Hill (3,210m), the group witnessed the most magnificent view — the sun rising behind the snowy mountains.

“Dovan (2,505m) was the last place for us to eat meat and we even had to surrender all non-vegetarian things we brought along. We couldn’t bring meat with us after Dovan. From there, we headed to Deurali (3,100m) where we built our very own snowmen.

“I saw real snow for the first time. Not those on the ground but real falling snow. Also, the local pizza was the best. Although their kitchen was very basic, they were able to prepare such nice food. We appreciated the efforts and felt very blessed,” Kate added.

According to Helen, nothing is impossible if one has the determination to do something.

“With strong determination and God’s will, I finally completed the trek to ABC. I’ve always been interested in this kind of adventure. This is my first time to the Himalayas and once is never going to be enough. I really like the peaceful environment and hope to return,” she said.

Thinking back, Helen was really amazed at being able to leave her footprints at ABC. The moment she reached there, everything she saw and felt was priceless. All the hardships she experienced along the trek were worthwhile.

It was certainly no easy journey as on the seventh day, Helen suffered severe headache that could have made her discontinue if not for her determination.

“The toughest time for me was on Day 7. I got severe headache when we arrived at Machhapurchre Base Camp (3,700m), probably due to dehydration. At some point, I thought I had mountain sickness and was afraid I may not be able to complete the trek.

“However, it was unbelievable I made it to the end. I couldn’t find words to describe my feelings when I first saw the ABC signboard where my friends and  our group leader were waiting and waving,” she recalled.

Helen remembers the local food with fondness.

“We ate food prepared and served by our porters and guides. We ate staple food such as dhal bhat (rice with lentils) and also some western-style food like pizzas.”

Along the trek, they met many locals carrying livestock, food and gas tanks to and from the mountains.

“We bought some stationery items before the trip and distributed them to the local children we passed by on the route,” she said.

Both Kate and Helen believed they were well-prepared for the expedition — both physically and mentally.

Kate attributed their success in scaling Annapurna to their group leader Goh who provided them with comprehensive information to prepare them for things they should expect during the trip.

“He helped us a lot, before and during the trip. He took care of the group well.

“As for fitness training, both Helen and I joined hash runs during weekends as well as some gym sessions. I attended dancing classes too to keep my stamina up,” she explained.

Mission accomplished — the group gathered for a photo call at Annapurna Base Camp in the Himalayas.

Helen encouraged those planning such an expedition to go ahead and do it.

“If you have the chance to go, just go because you definitely will not regret after going through all the obstacles you may encounter along the way.

“It is a great experience you will never find elsewhere. Just be prepared physically and psychologically because you have to expect five to six hours of continuous trek daily on average. Don’t stop leading a healthy lifestyle — even after the trip — to keep yourself fit for future trips,” she said.

Meanwhile, Kate’s older brother Calvin, who was also in the same expedition, said it was important to get away for a while by going on such a trip.

“The Himalayas is a good getaway from work — no phone network and everything is back to basic. To make this kind of trip, one must be physically and mentally prepared. Most importantly, one must be happy to do it.

“My sister and Helen did quite well for first-timers. We were always with the group and waited for each other.

“In unfamiliar situations, it’s important to listen to advice from the locals,” the 28-year-old told thesundaypost.

Group leader Goh has been on a few trips to the Himalayas and each time, he found immense pleasure from the beautiful surroundings and hospitable people.

“We can find culture, adventure and Nature all in the Himalayas. It’s a trip that must be planned long beforehand even if one is a return trekker as there are many factors to consider, including the weather.

“Kate and Helen were — like many first-timers — curious and observant. Sometimes, they were far behind the group because they took time to take photos but we also did not go too fast, pacing our steps according to most people in our group.

“Coming back from such a trip, we tend to be happier and appreciate what we already have as the life over there is very simple,” he observed.

Given the chance, all of them would love to go back again, possibly exploring different regions of the world’s loftiest mountain range.

Not only have they gained invaluable experience from their expedition to ABC, they have also brought back a wealth of inspiring stories to share with others.