In March of this year, the big news in Nepal was that 85-year-old former Gurkha Min Bahadur Sherchan was attempting to regain his title of oldest man to summit Mount Everest. He had set the record in 2008 at the age of 76, but in 2013, his record was beaten by 80-year-old Japanese climber Yuichiro Miura.
And, as he was preparing for the long trek upwards, Longford couple Laura and Pat Thompson - who had read about him in one of Nepal’s newspapers - were on their way downwards.
“Trekking to Everest Base Camp was really a new year’s resolution to get fit and also to challenge myself,” said Laura, who is a Nutritional Therapist in Longford town and a well known voice in Longford’s health scene for over 20 years.
“Holidays in the past had become very similar and I wanted to do something different. I felt that I was growing slightly old in my holiday choice and wanted to shake things up a bit.”
So she and her husband decided that they would travel further, experience a different culture and challenge themselves to climb to Base Camp - crossing a lifelong dream off their bucket list in the process.
The decision was made in January of this year and within weeks, flights were booked, the necessary clothing and hiking equipment was purchased and a guided trek with Himalayan Wonders was planned.
All that was left to do was train for what would be, physically and mentally, the most challenging trek of their lives.
“I have always been reasonably fit and walk every day. I upped the mileage to around eight to ten miles daily and climbed Croagh Patrick a few times,” Laura told the Longford Leader last week.
“But nothing really prepares you for the altitude and the midlands in particular are very flat.
“I started taking Revive Active to help my energy levels and also their Joint Complex as I was getting the odd ache in my right knee,” she added, referring to a product she often talks about on Shannonside's Joe Finnegan Show.
“I have to say, my joints were perfect on the trip, so it certainly helped.”
The trek itself began with a bang. The pair were due to fly from Kathmandu in Nepal to Lukla Airport so they could trek downhill towards their first stop-off point in Phakding.
“Lukla Airport is one of the most dangerous airports in the world and is affected by the mountain weather,” said Laura.
‘The world’s most dangerous airport is an official nickname for Lukla after a deadly crash in 2008 killed all 18 passengers, and left only the pilot alive.
Pilots flying to Lukla need to know what they’re doing. After navigating snow-capped peaks and enduring erratic weather conditions, they must land on a runway that is only 500 metres long, slopes upwards, is built into a mountain ridge and situated beside a perilous three-kilometre drop.
“Having arrived at Kathmandu Airport at 5am, we were stuck there for eight hours awaiting weather clearance,” said Laura.
“As there was poor visibility, the tour guide decided to helicopter us to Lukla instead. The helicopter ride was quite thrilling, but nerve-wracking.
“We finally landed but were four hours away from our destination, so we ended up having to do a four hour trek in the dark. Trekking in the Himalayas is challenging - but even more so in the dark.”
Once they had reached their destination, the real fun could begin, with the 11 day hike taking them downwards and then upwards and then downwards and then upwards - “like climbing Croagh Patrick ten times a day” - testing their stamina and resolve with every step.
“The trek was a real endurance test. We trekked for 11 days, covering over 100 miles, including acclimatisation hikes. You are on the go the whole time, stopping only for a short lunch break,” said Laura of the trek, adding that those lunch breaks were extremely important if you wanted to keep going.
“I made sure to consume as many calories as I could because we were burning so much energy. Everyone on the trek lost weight.
“Before I went, I took extra B12, along with Revive Active and Active Joint Complex. These helped to give me energy, protected my joints and the B12 helps to prevent altitude sickness.”
As you trek further up the mountain, the density of the atmosphere decreases so that there is less oxygen available. This can cause altitude sickness, which can range from mild to severe and can be dangerous at the latter end of the spectrum.
Normal symptoms include hyperventilation, restless sleep, increased urination and periodic breathing (where you wake up feeling you’ve missed a breath).
More severe symptoms include headaches along with loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, fatigue or weakness, dizziness or insomnia.
If left untreated, high altitude sickness can advance to High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) or High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), which, if the trekker is not immediately evacuated to lower ground, can lead to death within a matter of hours.
Sadly, the conditions proved too much for 85-year-old Min Bahadur Sherchan who died at Base Camp of a suspected heart attack just under two weeks ago. He was the second casualty on the mountain in the space of a week, so the trek itself is no mean feat.
And altitude sickness can hit anyone of any age: “Two people in our group of eight failed to make it to base camp due to altitude sickness. Ironically, these were the youngest!
“It is very important to eat, even though the food is not very appetising, and also to go slowly. Younger, fitter people often climb too fast and then are more likely to develop altitude sickness. Slowly does it,” said Laura.
Aside from being physically exhausting, the trek meant washing was out of the question for about a week - and when you come from a country that has plenty of hot water readily available, that can be taxing.
“Along the trek, you stay in tea houses, which are quite basic. The toilets are little more than holes in the ground. And the further you go up the mountain, the less facilities you have,” Laura explained.
“At one stage, we didn’t even have water to wash our hands as it had frozen overnight. It was also quite cold at night, with no form of heating in the bedrooms. So you went to bed fully-clothed with as many layers as you could.
“Waking up in the morning and not being able to wash was difficult, but everyone is in the same boat. I don’t think I’ve ever been as dirty in my life!”
But it wasn’t all bad, she said. In fact, once you got over not being able to wash every day, the trek was full of incredible experiences.
“My favourite thing about it was the amazing scenery. Standing in the middle of the Hillary Bridge was an experience I will never forget. The view from there was breathtaking,” she said, referring to a bridge named after Sir Edmund Hillary, the first person to summit Mount Everest, with his Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, in 1953.
He also led the Himalayan Trust until his death in 2008.
The aim of the Himalayan Trust is to provide long-term solutions to the problems that confront the Sherpas, and other Nepalese people living in the Everest district of Nepal.
“I also loved the camaraderie with fellow trekkers - we had a great group of people. You become very close to your fellow trekkers as you spend so much time together.”
The group Laura trekked with was made up of people from various cultures and corners of the world, but for those 11 days, they were all experiencing the same lifestyle and culture - that of the people of Nepal and the Himalayas.
And one thing’s for sure: their lives are nothing like the lives we live in Longford!
“The Nepalese are very pleasant, resilient and hardworking people. Since the 2015 earthquake, many of them are still rebuilding their lives,” said Laura.
“Poverty is very apparent. Watching the porters carrying huge loads on their backs up and down the mountain is heartbreaking. Some of them couldn’t have been more than 11 or 12 years old.
“We saw children hiking for two hours at altitudes of almost 4,000 metres just to go to school. Education is very basic and many children leave school at a young age.
“These children have very few opportunities and it really made me appreciate the life I have. However, while these people may be poor in the pocket, they are rich in life. Most people are trying to make a living from the land. There was a huge range of poultry and goats. It reminded me a lot of rural Ireland in the 60s.
“It was great to see the yaks, who are so vital to life in the mountains. These amazing animals transport all the goods needed up and down the mountain.
“Their wool provides clothing and blankets and their milk and meat is eaten. Even their dung is used to fuel the fires! Nothing goes to waste.
“But coming home to running water and central heating was such a luxury,” she said.
When embarking on an adventure such as this one, it’s important to have a good level of fitness, according to Laura. Plenty of walking will go a long way towards preparing you, as will steps and squats.
“Bring plenty of baby wipes and hand sanitiser, as these are like gold dust the higher up you climb,” said Laura.
“The weather changes dramatically. We were hiking in t-shirts in the high 20s, but as we went higher, the temperatures dropped to -17 degrees celsius. So you need lots of layers.”
And it seems that, despite the difficulties Laura experienced along the way, this trip has inspired her to seek more adventure in the future.
“This was my first experience backpacking and I have to say, even though it was very tough, I really enjoyed it. I definitely want to trek again and have a few more destinations in mind. I like the idea of Kilimanjaro and maybe the Camino.”
In fact, she’s already working on her next challenge: releasing her series of children’s books, which will teach children about healthy living through fun, educational stories. For updates on this, keep an eye on Laura’s Facebook page at @LauraThompsonHealthyOptions.
“This was definitely a trip of a lifetime. There were times when I didn’t think I could physically do it, but I dug deep and pushed myself,” Laura concluded.
“I feel very proud of myself and it has made me a stronger person. I would highly recommend it, but be warned: it is not for the faint-hearted!”