Following my mother’s footsteps to Mount Everest, 29 years later

Looking into the Khumbu Icefall (one of the deadliest places in the world).
Credit: 
Supplied by Cayla Wolever

As I stood on the upper flanks of Kala Patthar, a mountain in the Nepalese Himalayas, at nearly 18,500 ft above sea level, gasping for air, I thought of my mother who traced her way up my exact path 29 years before me.

I felt warmth on my neck and turned around in time to see a brilliant sun break the horizon over Mount Everest. I stood in awe as I gazed across the valley, clouds nearly obscuring Everest Base Camp below. A lifetime of dreaming led to this moment.

That morning I read her journal entry from April 25, 1987: “Today was the most dreamed of, most thrilling, and most difficult day in my life. Today I stood on Kala Patthar, at 18,000 ft, across from Mount Everest on a perfectly cloudless morning.” 

I could feel her with me every step of the way. How sweet it was to be repeating history on this glorious day!

All my life I’ve dreamed of the Himalayas. I’ve always been drawn to the snowy peaks and Sherpa culture, to the idea of risk and adventure, and to the idea of a place so completely foreign to my home.

After my mother Wendy died of cancer in 2008, her travel journals from in the Himalayan regions of Nepal and India became an inspiration to me. Both of my parents spent a lot of time trekking that region together and this was a way for me to get to know my mother’s younger self. I poured through her meticulously written entries that carefully described the people, places, smells, and experiences in her travels. 

In February, I was invited to join in a physiology research expedition to Everest Base Camp with Dr. Trevor Day’s lab from Mount Royal University in Calgary. 

As a biology student, this was a dream come true and I knew I had to seize the opportunity. There were researchers and trip participants from all around the world.

I knew I wanted to honour my mother in some way through my trek, so I launched a fundraiser called ‘Walking for Wendy’ to raise money for On the Tip of the Toes Foundation, a Canadian organization to “help young people living with cancer regain their well-being by facing the challenge of an exceptional therapeutic adventure expedition”. 

My goal was to raise $2700, one dollar for every metre of elevation gained throughout our trek. Through tremendous support from friends and family, I was able to greatly exceed my goal and raise $3,200 during my fundraising period.

After our preparatory days in Kathmandu, we boarded a tiny, rattling plane to Lukla. As we wove in between snowy peaks, there was a palpable excitement in the air.

I felt my mother’s presence so strongly as we set off to begin the adventure of a lifetime. On May 5, 1987, she had written: “Today I sadly left the high country - I shall miss this place... I simply must return.”

Now, May 5, 2016, I came full circle. We were finally on our way to the Himalayas. Wendy once wrote about her same experience, entering ‘the steepest, grandest mountains I’ve seen....I’ve dreamed of this day for years, perhaps...”

Our group quickly came together, united with a common goal: to discover through our research how altitude affects the human body, and to explore and experience the magic of the Himalayas. Every day started with our “daily measures”, doing respiratory measures, weight, blood pressure, oxygen saturation, and resting heart rate. On our rest days we had more extensive testing, including exercise physiology tests, cognitive function tests using a MUSE (a headband that measures your brainwaves).

As we climbed higher, breathing and even thinking became more challenging. As we ascended into thin air, the mood began to change and as we reached higher altitudes the gravity of our surroundings began to set in. 

As we crested a ridge to descend to the village of Pheriche at 14,400 ft, a vicious wind forced us all into our warmer jackets and pierced our lungs, plaguing most of us with what is colloquially known as the ‘Khumbu Cough’. It began to snow as we made our way down the main street to our lodge.

That afternoon we attended a presentation on altitude sickness organized by the Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA), and it gave me chills to hear the doctors speak of such deadly altitude-induced diseases. The HRA is the first major medical centre (and it’s tiny) on the way down from Base Camp, so it is often an emergency stop for climbers.

That night we decided to watch the new ‘Everest’ movie about the 1996 Everest disaster. As we watched the film, we came to a chilling realization. That day, May 10, was precisely the 20th anniversary. It was a humbling experience and a serious wake up call to exactly how inhospitable this land was. 

Beyond Pheriche, our trek led us through the field of stone monuments built for fallen Sherpas and international climbers. We were surrounded by the names I had grown up hearing: Scott Fischer, Rob Hall, and countless Sherpas who had risked their lives on the mountain. It was a very sombre place. sary. 

The next few days led us higher and higher, as we closed in on our destination. On May 13, we were greeted with our first view of Everest Base Camp, the Khumbu glacier and icefall, and of course, Mount Everest! 

We made our way to the smattering of yellow and orange tents scattered across the gravelly edge of the glacier. Every member of our team was ecstatic – years of planning and dreaming had come to fruition. The sheer majesty of the peaks in every direction was awe-inspiring. We made our way to the base of the Khumbu Icefall, one of the deadliest places in the world. It felt like we were standing on the edge of an endless icy maze.

The real pinnacle of our expedition was the next day, when we summited Kala Patthar, which sits across a valley from Everest at around 18,500 ft above sea level.

The altitude alone was enough to make the climb arduous and nearly debilitating. Nothing will compare to the summit, watching the sunrise above Mount Everest, with my lungs on fire, surrounded by new best friends.

I had my mom’s old backpack, and on it was sewn her ‘Canadian Himalayan Expeditions’ patch, which she received on her 1987 trek. That pack had seen many miles both on her back and my own, and it had finally made it back to the most amazing spot, looking across at Mount Everest.

Throughout this journey our guides were a huge factor in making our trip unforgettable.  I had shown Nima, our head guide, a photo of my mother and her guide on the summit of Kala Patthar in 1987, and he made sure that we recreated it as we repeated history. They were incredibly kind, helpful, and made our trip nearly perfect. Their devout religion and reverence for our surroundings was inspiring and encouraged us to respect the mountains and sacred space.

This trip made me realize how important it is to go after your dreams full force, because when you do, exceptional and unexpected opportunities will land in your path.                       Wendy in Nepal. 

Following my mother’s footsteps was an incredibly unique opportunity that I am grateful to have had and by connecting to my past I am able to move forward with a fresh perspective and insight into my mom’s personality and character, as well as my own identity.

We weave complex lives for ourselves, and watching our stories intertwine with the lives of others is a powerful experience, and will open up doors into even greater adventures.  

On Mother’s Day, I watched the sun rise over Mt. Everest from a ridge above the town of Tengboche. On my mother’s trek, on Mother’s Day of 1987 she wrote: “Mom – I send my love across the miles.”

I did the same as I sat in the early morning light with a friend who had also lost their mother. We thought about our guardian angels, watching over us. Before she passed,my mother gave me a tiny token with an angel on it, and on the back it read “toujours avec toi” – always with you. Those words spoke true every second of my trek, and always will, no matter where my adventures lead me.

                                                                                                

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