Jul 6, 2017

Climbing the Blazing Beacon - In the Footsteps of Legends on Mount Rainier: The 'Climb to Contribute' Expedition

Of all the fire-mountains which, like beacons, once blazed along the Pacific Coast, Mount Rainier is the noblest,” wrote American author John Muir.  And thus, this blazing beacon becomes a fitting objective as I prepare for my next expedition – and my first in the continental United States. 

Whilst I am Canadian, (and a proud one at that having just celebrated the country’s 150th birthday!) I must confess that I’ve never actually climbed anything higher than a few flights of stairs in Canada – or the US for that matter! 

Instead, I discovered my love for walking up big hills in the shadow of soaring Himalayan peaks, under the watchful eye of Sherpa guides and a community of Sherpa friends and family. Through these experiences, the renowned Sherpa hospitality and culture has instilled in me a broader, more holistic view of expeditions – moving away from a ‘simple’ physical definition of an expedition to one with strong cultural and spiritual influences. An expedition isn’t just about moving up and down snowy mountain slopes. For me, the term ‘expedition’ conjures vivid memories of humbly receiving blessings from Lama Geshi in the Sherpa village of Pangboche, participating in traditional puja ceremonies in remote Himalayan base camps, drinking bottomless cups of sweet tea, playing endless card games, being mesmerised by melodic murmers of prayer, enjoying the sweet scent of juniper drifting over our camps, and sharing heartfelt laughter and smiles trekking through the villages in the Everest region and onto the slopes of some of the highest mountains in the world. This is what I think of when I hear the term ‘expedition’… and these are the memories that are among the happiest of my life.

It seems rather fitting then that my first expedition in North America is being led by an esteemed group of Sherpas.  More importantly, it’s also fitting that the expedition offers an incredible opportunity to ‘give back’ to a community and a culture that has had such a tremendous influence on me. In late July I’ll participate in an expedition called, ‘Climb to Contribute’. Climb to Contribute is a 3-day and 2 night climb of Mount Rainier and serving as a charity fund-raiser organised by the Northwest Sherpa Association (NWSA) to raise money to build a NWSA Cultural Community Centre.

The NWSA is a non-profit organisation, founded in 2003 with members from the Pacific Northwest including Vancouver, Canada as well as Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana in the US. The mission of NWSA is to preserve and promote Sherpa language, religion, tradition, culture and unite all the Sherpas residing the region.

In the Footsteps of Legends 

Our guides for this landmark expedition are among the worlds most experienced Sherpa mountaineers. Their influence both on the Sherpa community and on the international climbing community more broadly cannot be underestimated. We’ll be led by three legendary Sherpas, Lakpa Rita Sherpa, Lakhpa Gelu Sherpa and Jangbu Sherpa.

I first head about the expedition from my friend, Lakpa Rita Sherpa who I first met in Nepal nearly 8 years ago and have had the wonderful opportunity to work with both in Nepal and in the UK. Raised in Khumbu (Everest region) in the village of Thame, Lakpa Rita Sherpa has been professionally guiding and climbing around the world for nearly two decades. His mountaineering achievements are significant, with in incredible 17 summits of Mt. Everest plus 22 guided summits of Cho-Oyu and numerous other peaks in Nepal. Lakpa Rita was the first Sherpa and first Nepali to climb the Seven Summits (the highest peak on every continent), leading teams on mountains including Aconcagua, Denali and 13 summits of Mount Vinson in Antarctica. He has summited Mount Rainier over 200 times and in 2013 was named one of Outside Magazine’s “Adventurers of The Year”.  He has been a friend and a constant presence for me during my many visits to Nepal with his warmth, grace and good humour.

Another of our Sherpa guides for the expedition will be the legendary Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa who is known to run up hills - literally! Lhakpa Gelu is best known for holding a world speed record on Mount Everest, climbing from base camp to the summit in just 10 hours, 56 minutes, 46 seconds, on May 26, 2003. But his achievements in mountaineering don’t end there. He’s reached the summit of Everest 14 times and has scaled many other high peaks in the Himalaya and abroad. Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa began guiding on Mt. Rainier in 2008 and has led hundreds of clients to its summit. 

Last – but certainly not least – we’ll be guided by Jangbu Sherpa. Jangbu has climbing in his blood. He has lived most of his life in Nepal surrounded by the majestic Himalayan peaks and has been guiding for 12 years, leading countless expeditions with clients from around the world. Jangbu was fortunate enough to stand on the summit of Mt. Everest in 2011. He has also led successful expeditions on the iconic Himalayan peak, Ama Dablam in 2009 & 2011. Jangbu came to the US in 2012 as a Wilderness First Responder and in 2013 he finished his certification as an International Mountain Guide. He is also an experienced canyoneer and was part of an expedition that opened the highest canyoneering route in the world in Naar Phu, Nepal. 

The 'blazing beacon'

As for the blazing beacon that John Muir refers to in his infamous quote, it will provide a fitting stage for our adventure. Mt. Rainier rises an icy 4,392m / 14,410 ft above Washington State. Its combination of high altitude, variety of routes, and unpredictable Northwest weather has provided a perfect backdrop to generations of adventurers from around the world. I certainly didn’t hesitate when the opportunity came up to climb Rainier in such esteemed company and for such a wonderful cause.

The mountains have been my training ground for many life lessons – the literal and proverbial highs and lows. From leadership to decision making to risk management to communication and planning - the mountains have often proven to be both humbling and ruthless. There is one thing that has remained constant throughout these hard-earned life lessons  – and that is the warmth, compassion, strength and humility of some of my greatest teachers - the Sherpa people. And it is now both a privilege and an honour to be able to provide my support in the building of NWSA community centre. I couldn't be more excited to be part of this landmark expedition...!

Please do contact the North West Sherpa Association on the NWSA Website,  Facebook page or via email to nwsherpa@gmail.com if you'd like to be kept up to date about future events or to contribute to the building of the community centre.

Many thanks for your support..!

Apr 15, 2017

The People You Meet... Paul Oakenfold, SoundTrek, Everest & "The Worlds Highest Party"

I’ve got a bit of a reputation for singing off-tune. I’m not picky on the genre – I’ll attempt anything from Bieber to Beegees to Beachboys to Blackbox... (the eclectic list goes on). These outbursts of song take place when I’m happy, when I’m celebrating, or when I’m with friends sharing a mutual joy for a moment, event or tune.  I sing most when I’m happy. As such, many of these ‘renditions’ have taken place on expedition in the shadow of Mount Everest – specifically at Everest Base Camp.

I remember one celebration in particular. It took place in late May 2013, following our teams successful summit of Lhotse & Everest. One of our team members revealed on our final evening in camp that he was actually an Icelandic-born Elvis impersonator. That night he broke out into the dulcet tones of ‘Love Me Tender’ and ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ while the entire team (plus our 30-40 party guests) whole-heartedly joined in song and dance. He was brilliant. It was from the heart, a perfect way to unwind after a stressful few weeks and it was outrageously fun. Exhausted, I remember retiring to my tent around 10.30pm. I lay in my sleeping bag with a huge smile on my face as the music continued to waft through the night over Everest Base Camp. An evening celebrated, shoulder to shoulder with our Sherpa team and (vocally!) enjoyed and remembered for the music, smiles, laughter and fun. 

*     *    *   *

This April I was fortunate enough to spend a few days at Everest Base Camp early in the Himalayan climbing season. I joined a Sherpa team and I ‘watched and learned’ (in pure awe) as they set up their team basecamp. Many of the Sherpas had already been at basecamp for 2 – 3 weeks, building platforms out of the ice, setting up tents, organising food, and ensuring that the relative ‘creature comforts’ were ready for the arrival of the wider teams from mid-April. 

One of my favourite parts of the day would take place around mid-afternoon when the Sherpas would turn on their music and sing and dance together whilst they finished off the last of their days activities. They always looked at me suspiciously when their ‘didi’ ('sister') broke out into an off-beat, hypoxic and coughing-infused rendition of their tune. I won’t begin to describe my dance moves…

  *     *    *   *

Earlier in the season, whilst trekking into Everest Base Camp I heard about a project called, ‘SoundTrek’ – the unique project of world-famous British DJ Paul Oakenfold and his creative team. Through SoundTrek Paul planed to stage performances in unexpected places around the globe, showcasing music from each locale and highlighting critical issues facing local communities. For the past 2 weeks, Paul and his team had been making their way up to Nepal's 17,600ft / 5200m Everest Base Camp under the leadership of professional guide and 12x Everest summiteer Kenton Cool

The ultimate vision for the project was for Paul to gain a deeper understanding of the importance of music and dance to the Nepali people, and especially the Sherpas. He would use this to promote the country in his own unique way – e.g. leveraging his talent as an artist and the power of his global brand. 

I was initially sceptical, and found myself already pre-empting the comments that would no doubt surface from others as quick to jump to conclusions as myself.  Having said that, and knowing some of those involved, I did my best to keep an open mind…

I began to follow along on the SoundTrek social media sites (Instagram, Twitter & Facebook). I interacted online as the team collected their Himalayan artefacts of sound, sight, smell, taste and touch and translated this into a visual narrative of their experiences along the trail. This included visits to the Monasteries where Paul and his team listened to local music in an attempt to try and understand what music means to the people, how they make the music and how they move to the music…. It included a visit to the local Lama, plus families and children in several local schools and even participating in a high-altitude game of football. Paul then took these influences and artefacts and begin his creative process – e.g. a digesting, mulling over, infusing, translating, shaping, personalising and translating into a final art - a performance reflecting his world-famous music style infused with strong local influences. The final product - a reflection of his journey from the initial inception of the project through to his arrival at Basecamp - nearly 2 years later.

And the final result? One of the most unique, memorable, and positive experiences that I have ever had at Everest Base Camp. In a nutshell, what I thought would be a straight musical set ‘the highest party on earth’ soon became so much more… 

The set took place on 11 April -  just as the climbing season ‘formally’ begins. For many Sherpa teams, the work of preparing the camps has nearly reached completion and there is a natural ‘lull’ before the arrival of the client teams.

The set began at 11am and ran for 2 hours. This meant that the trekkers coming to Basecamp could be part of the project as well as those already on Everest preparing the mountain for the climbing season. This is unique in itself as there is little (if any) organised social interaction between the ‘groups’ from early April. The 11am timing was also a natural break in the day for an early lunch break.

People had the option to ‘dip in and out’ according to their tastes and timeframes. Some stayed for the full 2-hour set whilst others popped round to see the unique sight of the breathless, down-clad singers and dancers trying to maintain their balance on the small scree stage. Some people partook in hypoxic dancing whilst others simply pulled up a boulder and sat sipping water from Nalgene bottles along natural perimeter of the site.

The ‘stage’ was shared with a local Nepali DJ, Ranzen Jha, whom Paul had contacted and mentored along the 2-week trek. The local DJ had never been to the Khumbu so the challenge of getting to basecamp also appealed on a personal level. In many respects, DJ Ranzen mentored Paul as much as Paul mentored DJ Ranzen. This story was also shared through the SoundTrek social media pages.

As part of his tour, Paul played gigs in Singapore and in Kathmandu and both times he personally donated his fee to local charities (www.supportingnepalschildren.org.uk). In addition, there is ongoing fundraising for children charities both in Nepal and in the UK.

The sound equipment and speakers were being donated to a School in Kathmandu as well as a Bhuddhist Monastery in Thangbouche – often frequented by both locals and foreigners – and also impacted by the devastating 2015 Nepal earthquake. 

Reflecting on the day itself, it was amazing and inspiring to see equal numbers of Sherpas standing shoulder to shoulder with trekkers from around the world all with big smiles, all dancing or enjoying the beat and the rhythm of the dance in their own unique way. Everyone was on an equal footing having fun and expressing themselves through the power of music and dance. 

During one song we joined arms in a 30-strong traditional Sherpa ‘line dance’ and together sang out, ‘Aint No Mountain High Enough’. During another memorable moment the traditional sound of yak-bells was layered upon the sound of the wind whistling through the mountains and laced with a slow hypnotic beat. The melodic melange left the audience entranced and reflective. 

Seeing and experiencing firsthand the shared joy of both local people and its visitors as we danced and celebrated this wonderful country and its culture in such a unique way is something I’ll never forget.

As is the basic premise of this 'climbing blog', I continue to be inspired through my travels by those people I meet who encourage me to keep an open mind.  Some of these people dazzle with their genius and art. Others share insights about how to live. Others devote their lives to helping others. Some conquer mountains while others build business empires. Some are great artists while others entertain with their brilliant musical talents. One thing that they all have in common is that they are passionate, talented people who add color to life and help to gently shape the moments (& mountains) that make up up the journey. Without the tremendous support of these people life would not be nearly as fascinating and mountains would be significantly higher....

Well done and thank you to everyone involved.

Mar 9, 2017

A Life In Transit...

"I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions." –Stephen Covey (educator, author, businessman)

A backpacking trip that started 17 years ago now brings me full-circle... Today I find myself in the organised chaos of Kathmandu as all of my worldly belongings (now filling a more than a few backpacks) make their way over the Atlantic ocean and to my new home in Toronto. 

Smells, sounds & sights - Kathmandu, Nepal
I start my journey in Kathmandu – my ‘home away from home,’ enjoying the unparalleled hospitality of the Sherpa family at their cosy bed & breakfast, ‘The Terrace’. The Terrace is an oasis of tranquillity moments away from the hustle and bustle of the touristy-hub of Thamel. With its beautifully decorated rooms, delicious breakfasts and steaming coffee, it’s  an idyllic place to unwind, regroup, and reenergise before and after a trek or to use as a strategic outpost before venturing into the endlessly fascinating (but sometimes infuriating!) back streets of Kathmandu. Plus The Terrace is strategically located above the flagship Sherpa Adventure Gear shop so a great place to stock up on any kit that may have been forgotten...! 

I can’t help but be fascinated by the crazy city. I’m not sure what it is... Perhaps it’s because everyone and everything seems to ‘blend’ into the fabric of the streets, 'bonded' by the pollution and dust; a city where ‘everything goes’ (or doesn’t go at all). Haphazardly hung electrical wires, cracked buildings, bumper-to-bumper traffic, ramshackled rickshaws and pot-holed sidewalks serve as the backdrop for local merchants selling their wares – gurkha knives, Buddha statues, DVDs and rows and rows of outdoor gear and pashmina shops. And between these are the money changers, the booksellers, the trekking agents, rickshaw drivers, and the artists. And of course, the tourists.  The background noise is relentless and overwhelming to the point where the noise becomes indiscernible. Honking horns blend with music echoing from the shops, friendly ‘Namaste’s, and the hypnotic chant of ‘Om mani padme hum’. An urban orchestra.

Chaotic clouds of colour - Holi Festival, Kathmandu
Whilst in Kathmandu, I’ll celebrate the Holi Festival on 12 March. Holi is better known as the ‘festival of colour’  and based on what I've read about the celebrations in Kathmandu, it's a day of raucous celebration where the dusty brown streets of Kathmandu are brought to life through chaotic clouds of colour and singing and dancing. The festival marks the start of spring and the triumph of good over evil.  

The celebration consists of ‘playing’ Holi when revellers paint each other’s faces with brightly coloured red, yellow, purple, blue, orange or pink powder or by throwing colored water at each other from buckets and water balloons. It’s all in good fun – organised anarchy - and almost everyone walking along the street in Kathmandu on the day of the Holi Festival should consider themselves a moving target and run the risk of being a mobile colour chart for days or weeks after. Yikes..!

Portfolios, projects & progress - The Chaudhary Foundation
After the Nepal earthquake in April 2015, I was introduced to the Chaudhary Foundation. The Foundation is the corporate social responsibility arm of the Chaudhary Group, Nepal's largest conglomerate. I’ve greatly enjoyed keeping in touch with the CF team over the past 1.5 years and have been inspired by their commitment to improving the health and wellbeing of Nepali people through initiatives in the social (education, health and sports); the economic (social business and enterprise initiatives); and finally the environmental sectors. In October 2015 and in March 2016, I had the opportunity to see firsthand the Foundations successful 'temporary shelter' programme which provided thousands of shelters and hundreds of schools to those communities hardest hit by the earthquake. I look forward to spending a few days with the team learning more about their portfolio of initiatives being rolled out across the country.

Mountains, Monasteries & Magic - Bhutan
On 20 March I’ll travel to the Kingdom of Bhutan. There are images of places you see in books and magazines that capture your imagination, invoke curiosity and prompt wanderlust of epic proportions. Bhutan has always been one of these places for me since I first saw pictures of it in an old geography text book (pre-internet!). Closed to foreigners until the 1960s this little Kingdom has managed to preserve its rich cultural traditions and protect the diversity of its flora and fauna whilst carefully embracing global developments… I look forward in particular to seeing the mandatory national dress and, of course, the iconic Tigers Nest monastery perched precariously in a cliff face high above the small city of Paro.

Resourcefulness, resilience & respect - The Khumbu
The next chapter of the journey will take me back to Nepal into the Khumbu of the Himalaya. From a personal perspective, the journey is a poignant one as it’s my first time back since visiting the ‘Everest region’ immediately following the 2015 earthquake.  I look forward to revisiting the many families the people met along the way on that emotional 2015 journey – particularly the villages toward Namche and in Thame. 

When I left in 2015, I remember seeing the resilience and resourcefulness of the local people as they started rebuilding their homes mere days after the quake.  I can’t wait to see how this resilience has manifested itself in the new homes, guesthouses, shops and schools which again line the well-trodden trail. 

Change, climbs, & (new) challenges - Lobuche Peak
I’ll continue my trek deeper into the Khumbu retracing steps towards Ama Dablam, Cholatse and Everest – stopping at the base of Lobuche Peak to step into my crampons, big boots and don my helmet to climb the 6100m peak. I must admit, I’m absolutely itching with excitement at climbing in the Himalayas again after a 2-year ‘pause’ to focus on my job and also regain some of the confidence and focus lost when the earth moved in 2015. Regaining confidence and focus has been a journey in itself and I’ve learned more then I ever imagined possible – about resilience, resourcefulness, and respect for our living planet. I’ll be literally ‘soaking up’ the Himalayan panorama with newfound joy and excitement. I’ve earned this!

Everest expeditions & experiences - Everest Base Camp
From Loboche I’ll continue on to Everest Base Camp. Here I’ll meet with a team of colleagues and friends from PwC who have made the long trek to raise both money and awareness for the health charity, Wellbeing of Women.  I’ve worked with the team from Wellbeing of Women for the past 3.5 years, organising charity challenge trips to Kilimanjaro. This will be our first Wellbeing of Women charity challenge trip to Everest Base Camp and I’m thrilled that the timing has worked out to allow me to join the team and celebrate their success..! Thus far we’ve raised over £140,000 / $175,000 to enable the funding of research into the health and wellbeing of women and babies. This includes IVF, premature birth, stillbirth, cervical and ovarian cancer… among many other lifesaving projects.  You can find out more about this amazing charity via, http://www.wellbeingofwomen.org.uk

To New Beginnings... - Toronto
And finally, what will no doubt be the biggest adventure of all – my new home in Toronto…! I can’t wait to join PwC and their Consulting arm in Toronto, picking up where I left off in London.

It’s been a long time since I called Canada ‘home.’ As this new chapter begins I am filled with gratitude for the many people who have been part of the journey thus far... Some of these people have inspired me with their genius and art. Others have shared with me insights about how I can live. Others have devoted their life to helping others. Some have conquered mountains while others have built business empires. Some are great artists while others have entertained with their brilliant musical talents. One thing that they all have in common is that they are passionate, talented, and amazing people who have added colour to my life and have helped to gently shape the moments that make up the journey – both at work and at play.

Without the tremendous support of these people life would not be nearly as fascinating and mountains would be significantly higher.

Onward and upward!