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- By Usha Patel


The Beginning


Working in a private hospital, one cannot fail to notice the surplus of unwanted medical supplies that one knows could be put to good use in hospitals in poorer countries. Pondering the problem, I came across the Devdaya Charitable Trust, which provides free eye treatment and surgery to prevent blindness in underprivileged children in India. While donating to this cause, I learnt more about their work and joined them on their yearly hospital camp where doctors and nurses from the UK travel to India to provide free eye surgery to children in poverty.

It was tremendously rewarding to see this truly life-changing work being performed by healthcare professionals from the UK. Since then, for the last seven years, I have joined them annually in support of the healthcare team to change the lives of as many children as possible. During that time I also recruited other nurses and opthalmic physicians to join the yearly trip to India.

Then, around a year ago ~ as I was approaching my 60th birthday ~ along with some friends, I decided on a new India venture: to sign up to climb to Mount Everest Base Camp. I had never done anything like this in my life and haven't really been hiking much, so I knew that this would be a once in a lifetime opportunity, even though it would require significant changes to my lifestyle. I decided to do it as part of my annual fund-raising and challenge myself to raise money for those without healthcare in poor countries.

Accompanying me was a fellow TYA Yoga teacher, Tony Mariano ~ with his own mission to take up the challenge of the mountain (and I'm sure he'll share his experience with us.).


Base Camp Prep

My preparations began with short walks every week that gradually incorporated running into a weekly regime. As a Yoga teacher of some years, I already had a daily Yoga routine. However, in preparation for a hike at high altitude ~ where the oxygen becomes thinner ~ I spent a large proportion of my daily Yoga sadhana on Pranayama. Daily meditation was also an important part of my preparation routine as I guessed this was going to be as mentally challenging as it was physically.

Gradually my hiking and running moved to an outdoor regime to ensure that both uphills and downhills were included. Then I added two-day hiking expeditions, choosing various locations around the UK. These hikes would be in mud, in forests, across bushes and uneven mountain rocks, ranging from 50km to 100km. Added to this I also joined the gym two months prior to my expedition to build that extra bit of muscle I was going to need.

Ah! Let me not forget to mention the prep food! I realised I also needed to change my diet considerably. Being a vegetarian with a traditional Indian diet, I began to incorporate high protein foods such as plant-based proteins, soya, beans, cheese, and to ensure that all my meals had the right balance of carbs, fats, veggies and protein. Added to this was a regime of supplements and drinking protein shakes for breakfast.

There is no way I was going to leave out anything that would help me prepare, and Yoga had prepared me for the adjustment I had to make.


To Base Camp

By the time I reached Nepal to start my expedition, I felt excited to be there and start this amazing experience. I wasn't nervous because I felt ready and prepared.

The first day was a 4.5 - 5 hour walk which ~ after all my preparation ~ wasn't too taxing. It was cold but I managed it without a struggle. Nevertheless, by the second day I had caught a cold which slowed me down. However, after all that preparation there was no way I was going to let the sniffles stop me!

It was on day four that the altitude changes began to have an effect. I didn't feel any physical pain as I had also been continuing with my asanas, pranayama and dhyanam every day, but the increased altitude started to bite. I didn't realise at first that my increasing fatigue was due to altitude sickness.

With the other climbers, we would usually take 30-minute breaks in our uphill walk. I found that if I stopped for more than 5-10 minutess, I couldn't find the energy or courage to continue. This, I discovered, was altitude sickness. My appetite ~ normally healthy ~ deserted me. I began to find it hard to swallow food. I didn't understand why I wasn't able to eat and drink, and kept trying to force myself to eat for energy.

The cold days were turning into colder nights. We wore the same clothes day and night and didn't shower for 11 days as it was too cold to remove any clothing. Luckily, we didn't encounter snow, only rain. And on we trekked ~ my double merino wool socks and four pairs of trousers while carrying 5kg in a backpack of food and clothing supplies with 4L of water, helped.

As we climbed higher, my pace slowed completely due to the altitude sickness and the real challenge. The higher we got, the less facilities were available and clean water for drinking, became more scarce, so we had to work with what we had.


The Summit

I must confess, seasoned Yoga practitioner that I am, just before we reached Everest Base Camp, I lost confidence that I would make it to the top. Every time I took a step forward, I felt like my body was pulling me back. The only way I continued was by pushing through the altitude exhaustion, stopping and starting again continuously. In that way it reminded me of our Yoga sadhana: we push through our resistance by stopping and starting again!

When I finally reached the top, I immediately ~ and simply ~ lay down on the ground! However, we had just thirty minutes to enjoy the magnificent views as we needed to reach our next stop by nightfall, and so I got up again.

I find it hard to put into words what reaching our goal felt like. There was a sense of relief, certainly, but the beauty and sheer joy of it made me forget about the altitude sickness for a while. I had never experienced or seen anything like this before! Snow-capped mountains all around and azure skies above. It was breath-taking and the memory of it enters deeply into the body and mind. Something stunning to hold onto in the challenging moments of life at sea-level.


Back Down

The climb down called on the remaining courage within to keep going. My motivation throughout my expedition was the money donated to my chosen charity. I wanted to ensure all those donations were justified and sent to the people who need it.

Going down this challenging mountain was as difficult as it was going up. However, thankfully, the altitude sickness reduced as we descended. At some point in our descent we had a choice of taking a helicopter down to complete the journey. But, like stubborn Yogins everywhere, I was determined to finish what I had begun, and remained on foot.


Words of Advice

It was an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience. I don't regret a single painful step of the journey. However, for anyone wishing to climb to Everest Base Camp, I would advise that preparing mentally is just as important as physical preparation. My Yoga practise got me through. The strength training was vital ~ all the hiking, walking, gym-bunny stuff was essential, but Yoga gave me another edge entirely.

And of course, as soon as it's over, one starts thinking of doing it again! What would I change in my approach? Nothing. All that I did, got me through, and Yoga was the extra hand up.










©Usha Patel, December 2023

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