My Expedition to the Himalayas: As our fixed-wing aircraft approached the town of Lukla, a popular gateway to the Himalayas, I was struck by the awesome scenery beneath me. Gaps in the clouds revealed white peaks surrounded by dense forestry, a stunningly beautiful and tranquil scene. The airport’s elevation and extremely short, upward runway made for a bracing landing. Lukla was extremely busy as all take-offs and landings must be conducted within one hour when conditions and clarity are at their best. We had arrived to begin our expedition, one I had been long anticipating. As I looked at the mighty mountains towering over me, I felt a rush of adrenaline and realized the enormity of the challenge. I wanted to be pushed to my limits, and it was encouraging to see other people who were there to challenge themselves in a similar way.
Taking on the mountain
Our first day involved a twelve-hour hike ascending towards Namche at 3,400 meters elevation. The temperature was an acceptable 10-15 degrees centigrade. As we progressed, I began to realize that the high-intensity endurance training I had undergone ahead of my expedition, although ensuring top fitness levels, would be inadequate to properly prepare me for what was ahead. By the second day I was feeling muscles I never knew existed and was plagued by constant cramping. I quickly picked up the technique used by the experienced hikers and climbers from my guide Amrit: you must keep it slow and steady always. Whether ascending or descending, rhythm is vital to maintaining a steady heart rate. Sometimes it is tempting to pick up your speed, but this can prove fatal. We ascended on a 60-degree angle over rocky terrain and carefully picked our steps as there was no path to guide us. We negotiated jagged rocks with each step straining our legs and the angle straining our backs that supported 5kg backpacks. At this stage, I was checking my oxygen levels 3-4 times a day and had no problems with the altitude.
It was grueling, slow work by day, but it was the nights I found the most challenging. The accommodation is extremely basic and freezing, despite wearing multiple layers of thermals, gloves, and socks, I was too cold to fall asleep. The nights were long and tedious, and noises from other guests seeped through the walls. These strangers were experiencing the same mental and physical strain as I was, some of them were laughing uncontrollably while others were crying. It was an extremely surreal and unnerving situation and it was then I really began to miss the emotional support of my family and friends. My lack of sleep caused me to completely lose my appetite and not getting proper sustenance made me incredibly vulnerable and I developed an infection in my throat and chest.
Battling my psyche
As we ascended towards Dingboche (4,410 meters) and Lobuche (4,910 meters), the air became extremely cold and dry- an effect of the lack of greenery at that elevation. The wind was cutting, and I found myself inhaling freezing air – air that didn’t contain much oxygen. This in addition to my lack of energy from not eating and not sleeping meant I had all but reached my physical threshold. My team said due to my infection and the altitude, it was a potentially life-threatening situation for me. However, I remained determined to reach Base Camp. We resumed our ascent, splitting the remaining 12-hour trek into two days of six-hour climbs. Despite suffering fever with a 40-degree temperature, I realized that this was now a mental game. This was the most challenging part of the journey: every step felt like an eternity and the effort it took to take one step was like taking a thousand. Altitude has a devastating effect on the human body. I was in pain everywhere and physically exhausted, but although my body was in agony, my mind was fixed on my goal and determined to continue.
Reaching Base Camp
I cannot express my feelings when we reached Everest Base Camp, an altitude of 5,364 meters. I was elated and inspired by overcoming the most physically and psychologically challenging experience of my life. Raising my national flag to mark the first Syrian to reach that milestone also made me extremely proud. It would have taken a further 5 days climbing to reach Island Peak and my condition wouldn’t allow me to continue. We got a helicopter to Lukla and flew to Kathmandu where an ambulance was waiting for me as a safety precaution.
Over the course of the expedition, I had crossed 16 mountains from South Nepal to North Nepal, but the most significant journey was the one into my own psyche. This was a life-changing experience for me, and I’ve learned a lot about myself because of it. I believe all of our limits are self-imposed and the result of our thinking, habits, and lifestyles. It has also proven to me that once you are entirely focused on your purpose, you achieve anything. Since my return I find myself thinking about the mountains, the realism, the simple life. I will certainly be returning to take on even more challenging expeditions in the near future.
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