Everest: Mission complete!
It was two years in the making, hampered by various rounds of Covid and other health challenges, but our #basecampforfertility challenge is now complete!
On 4th March 2022, myself, Aaron Sutton, Ciaran Hannington and Tony Suckling set off to Nepal for what would be the challenge of a lifetime – a 140km trek to Everest Base Camp.
Why? Two reasons:
- To raise awareness of male infertility and how poorly men are supported when it comes to their fertility, and
- To raise money for Fertility Network UK, the UK’s leading fertility charity.
We did both in spades! But don’t get me wrong…none of it was easy!
Vertigo: the Heightened Challenge
Trekking to Base Camp, at 5000m altitude, is a challenge many wouldn’t even consider. After all, there are sheer drops, thin air and relentless ascents to contend with. But for me, the challenge was particularly testing, because for years I’ve battled with Ménière’s disease and vestibular migraines. This combination of conditions causes dizziness, deafness and severe vertigo attacks that are difficult to manage even in the comfort of your own home. Over the period of two years in planning the trek, delayed by Covid lockdowns and restrictions, it had gotten progressively worse. But by that time, I had committed. I had no idea how on earth this challenge would affect me, or whether I’d even be able to complete it! But I knew I had to do it.
I work with men who in many cases have gone through years of strain as they attempt to decipher what’s going on with their fertility. Some have been misdiagnosed, some have been undiagnosed, some have been ignored all together. So raising awareness of how much improvement is needed in the support for men facing fertility issues kept me focused on achieving the mission.
Beauty and the Bridges 300m High
So many people had told me how incredibly beautiful the Himalayas were and that I would have a wonderful time, yet until you see it with your own eyes, you’ll never truly believe it.
We had one night in Nepal before an early sunrise flight to Lukla where we began our journey. Here we convened as a group 19 strong. With a small army of Sherpas, yaks and support staff, we were certainly well cared for! And we were met with incredible weather; blue skies and sunshine and a slight chill in the air. All boded well.
Our first two days saw us following the picturesque glacier-fed river along the valley floor. We passed through tiny villages with women tending the vegetable fields, children playing and wild dogs and puppies joining us for the journey.
Regular stops allowed us to sup on lemon tea and water and take in the beautiful sites. We had started at a good steady pace and although there were some climbs, all seemed comfortable and manageable.
That is until we reached the Hilary bridge.
Set 300m above the river we faced a steep set of steps before taking on a river crossing like no other. Despite my balance and vertigo issues the bridges really didn’t bother me – I’ve never actually had an issue with heights. However, a few of our fellow trekkers needed hand-holding, and quite understandably. Those bridges aren’t for the faint-hearted!
The Real Challenge Begins
Now it was time to really begin our ascent. Two to three hours of steady climbing rounded off day two and it was now that my legs and body realised what was going on! We were beginning to reach serious altitude and cover some proper distance.
After two nights in Namche an early start up out of the village treated us to our first ever view of Everest with a sunrise treat like no other. Already I’d had a few moments where the emotion hit me of what it was I was doing, but this was a magical moment never to be forgotten.
An acclimatisation day saw us head up to the Everest View Hotel for more breath-taking views, contrasted with challenging walking. Although spectacular, I felt particularly bad this day. This was where I questioned my physical ability and how my Meniere’s was going to respond. I had to just focus on getting through each moment and rely on the camaraderie of the group to pull through. A tough day for sure, but a rest in the afternoon made all the difference.
The next day there were some steep descents. One of our toughest climbs followed, yet we had a long steep descent all the way down to the valley floor before a 3-hour climb in the heat to Tengboche monastery (3867m). A chance for us to pause and reflect on the journey so far before another comfortable night’s stop in a small tea house.
Hospitality at 4,000m high
By now the food choices were somewhat limited. Daily omelettes and fried rice were beginning to lose their appeal, just as I was beginning to lose my appetite. It’s hard to imagine working so physically hard and not wanting to eat but it really does happen. Waking cold, tired and groggy and being faced with the smell of fried food and burning wood from the stove is not a great way to start the day. However, getting out into beautiful scenery and cold fresh air is the tonic that’s needed.
The days now were getting longer and harder. Altitude was playing its levelling hand, sapping us of oxygen and energy as we chipped away at the distance and altitude. We walked through Dingboche (4410m) to the very last tea house, before collapsing in a heap. By now the accommodation was becoming more basic: simple rooms with communal toilets, frozen water and not a great deal of heat. This was the first time that we woke with ice on the inside of the windows.
Another acclimatisation day took us up to 4730m with the most stunning scenery around us and the next day we headed to Lobuche, our penultimate stop before our final ascent. We took a turn up a new valley with outstanding views of new mountains and glacier river beds. We crossed an ancient river bed with boulders and rock falls, before a steep climb to the Everest memorial site.
We pushed on in the cold and sun to our stop at Lobuche – the highest village in the world (4910m). Strangely enough there’s no Costa Coffee in this village but we were pleased that the wifi worked and we could connect with friends and family. This was our last connection to the outside world before we headed to Base Camp.
The Big Day
This is it. This is what we came here for, our final ascent to Everest Base Camp. An early start before a long day ahead meant setting off in freezing temperatures. This was the only time that I was uncomfortably cold. For the first hour or so I couldn’t feel my hands, despite thick snowboarding gloves. Yet once the sun hit us we were stripping off and soaking up the heat from its rays.
A lunch stop at Gorak Shep before the final push. It’s just 3.5km from Gorak Shep to Base Camp. but at 5000m and with treacherous rocky terrain to cover it takes a good two hours to get there.
We arrived at around 2:30pm, the sun was shining and the view was incredible. Interestingly you can’t see the peak of Everest from Base Camp, but you’re surrounded by beautiful mountains and the stunning Kumbu glacier twisting and cracking as it slowly creeps down the valley. Of course, being mid-March it’s out of the climbing season for Everest so as much as you expect to see orange tents dotted all over the place, there was nothing other than the giant Base Camp rock, prayer flags and of course a few passing Yaks.
This was it. And the emotion poured out of me. For years I’d worried about my ability to complete this challenge. I’d worried that I wasn’t fit enough, that my Ménière’s would stop me making it, yet here I was: fit, well and standing at the foot of the world’s highest mountain. Our mission was to raise awareness of male fertility and raise money for FNUK. The level of support we received was incredible and between the four of us, we raised over £10,000! This was a huge moment, I felt great pride for what we’d achieved as a team, but also great pride in what I’d achieved personally and by bringing the team together.
Reaching that point will be something that I cherish and remember for the rest of my life, knowing that I am not defined by my illness and that there is so much out there to enjoy and achieve.
If you would like to donate to FNUK then please do so here as I’ll keep my fundraising page open.