No neck-breaking training regime, dose of dedication or commitment to achieving his goal could have prepared Sarel Nong for what awaited between the bends and folds of monstrous Mount Everest.
Nong recently sat down for a wrap-up interview to share a handful of life lessons he brought back from the Khumbu Region in Nepal. His story about his latest risky venture is one of physical hardship that takes one back to two days after touchdown in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu in the beginning of April, when they landed at Lukla airport after a 45-minute flight to start the climb to Mount Everest Base Camp.
He described it as a hair-raising experience as the air strip is precariously positioned high up in the mountains at 2 860 metres above sea level and in 2010 was rated the most dangerous airport in the world for over 20 years.
Once they had breakfast they set out for the climb that would eventually take them to about 6 000 metres above sea level. At that moment he realised that finally the party was over and “it’s happening”, Nong stressed. Nothing could have prepared him for the magnitude of the landscape. Beforehand he imagined Everest to be similar to Kilimanjaro, which he summited as a member of the Trek4Mandela expedition last July, but the peaks protruding when the clouds cleared along the route through the Himalayas at times were monstrous, he emphasised. According to Nong there came a point where he feared dying in those mountains.
Pizza on a mountain top
He estimated the team having touched down in eight villages along the route. Nong added that the return journey trailed past the same villages. Due to the icy conditions in the Himalayas, no mountaineer can sleep outdoors, the villagers offer home stays and in that way generate income from tourism. A constant stream of visitors passes through the villages every night as they disperse into different directions towards the end where the route splits.
Taking the outsider along on a desolate path he remembered Namche, the biggest village and the second to be visited along the route after walking and climbing for 11 hours that day, as an eye-opener that contained anything a traveller could ask for. There he visited a barber and even had a pizza, Nong quipped. Beyond Namche he hadn’t noticed any crop farming and the only animals they came across were mules and yaks, used for transportation and their meat. He referred to crossings where man and beast had to pass on a hanging bridge, a precarious situation when needing to steer clear from an unpredictable yak.
He explained that en route to Lobuche, where they stopped at a temple for blessings, they had passed the rain line that signified the point beyond which the only precipitation would be snow falling from the sky.
Exposure to elements
After trailing a treacherous estimated 400 km, most of Nong’s memories of the trip revolve around exposure to the elements as he and six other South Africans proceeded to Everest Base Camp which they reached two Saturdays prior to the interview in Polokwane. From there six of them continued with the descent while expedition leader Sibusiso Vilane stayed behind. Upon departing from the base camp Vilane still accompanied the team across rocky terrain half the way to the next village, a walk constituting some 9 km, as part of his fitness programme as he prepared for rotations before continuing to summit Everest.
Nong spoke of hazardous ice boulders of several square metres tumbling down the peaks around the base camp the previous night, apparently keeping them from falling asleep as it sounded like bombs dropping in the dead of night. On the other hand it was a blessing in disguise, he reckoned, as he tried to stay awake to guard against succumbing to the cold as temperatures plummeted to -35°C, which he tried to fight off by wearing four layers of clothing and keeping hot water bottles in his sleeping bag. He mentioned previous instances where mountaineers had reportedly been discovered in a frozen state after a night’s rest.
Lessons from Everest
The first lesson from Everest that Nong underscored was that a person could achieve anything when putting their mind to it. “Your mind can delay and hold you back on a big achievement.” Other than that he had learnt that there were a lot of good-hearted people in the world. Turning to the Nepalese nation he said no one embarking on a serious expedition like climbing Everest could make it without them. “They understand those mountains. The way they took care of us, guided us, prepared food for us was amazing.”
He continued saying that when motivating and taking care of one another team members could achieve a lot. “I went with the best team. We looked after each other. The reason why we all succeeded in the expedition was because we all worked together.”
Nong smilingly remarked that he had learnt that altitude was “the king of the mountain”. He never suffered an attack of altitude sickness until Everest. Altitude determined whether a climber succeeded or not, he added.
During the climb he had ample time to reconnect with life, he indicated. “You get to a point where you feel very close to God.” Up there and that close to the skies he prayed for some of his wishes to materialise.
He concludes the journey of arduous memory gathering back at home with the announcement of the next adventure that is bound to take him to the top of an active volcano in Uganda in November.
Story: YOLANDE NEL