Everest and me

The long journey to Mt. Everest was a massive challenge for me. It forced me to find an inner strength that I didn’t know I had inside.

Shooting at  Mt. Everest, Tibet side in September 2007- Photo by Nam Nguyen

I accompanied the expedition to Africa as a host and editor for the show, and became the first Vietnamese woman  to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro.  We experienced piercingly cold nights at Island Peak base camp  on the Himalayan mountain chain as well as miserable days at Everest camp in Tibet .However, nothing compares to the 40 remarkable days at Everest base camp in Nepal.

At an altitude of over 5,000m, activities are limited in the sunny but piercingly cold weather because we were faced with limited oxygen levels to breathe, reducing our strength.

A girl’s face, sunburnt skin, puffy eyes and cracking lips; this was my image, the first Vietnamese reporter, a program leader who accompanied the Everest expedition.

Discovering myself on the mountain

Before agreeing to and entering into this itinerary, I was always attracted to and charmed by the idea of this mountain, which has been compared to the earth’s third pole.  I suddenly received an invitation card that asked, “Want to go to Everest?” The tone of the invitation quickly changed, “The condition of activities will be very difficult, especially for a woman.  You will be exclusively living in the more extreme and severe weather on the planet.” However, this would be a piece of history because a television program would provide the first Vietnamese citizens the opportunity to climb the world’s tallest peak.

I remember coming to Everest Base Camp for a survey trip in 2007 from Tibet and drove all day on zigzagging roads on the steep mountainsides. The road has a specific name to the local Tibetans:  “hell road.”  On one side is an abyss where you could plunge to your doom, and on the other side looking up the mountain a landslide could come at any time. There is only one lane and and have been instances of a car running over a big stone, losing control, and sliding down the hill into the abyss.

Video clip of our survey trip to Everest from Tibet side in September 2007

I was in Tanzania in November of 2007 climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and shooting the program.  After more than one week of trekking over 100km, the night we summitted I thought I would faint at the altitude of 5,700m. Actually, I wasn’t planning on summiting- my job was just to follow the team and host the reality show.  But when four of the contestants (all men) gave up before the summit, something in my head clicked.  I decided to borrow one of their jackets and another’s too-large hiking boots and go in their stead.

I was exhausted after climbing more than 8 hours from 11:00 p.m. until the sun rose.  I had to keep going, not for my job but for myself.  When my legs gave out with only 200m more to go I thought, “What could I do?” A teammate’s words of advice came back to me, “Listen to the mountain sing!”

 Nam Nguyen reached the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro (5,895m), the highest mountain in Africa, December 2007.  Photo by Nam Nguyen

The mountain’s voice is the wind whistling beside my ears; cold winds averaging -16oC flying into my face. But in that undisturbed moment, my breath gradually became steady and unlabored and my energy came back.  I remembered another friend’s words, “To conquer  the mountain, hard legs don’t make soft rock- it’s all in your mind.” Step by step, literally inch by inch, after 2 hours more my legs stood on the highest peak on the African continent.

The long journey to Island Peak or Everest base camp from the direction of Nepal was most challenging for me.

The Island Peak challenge

Thoughts about successfully summiting the mighty Mt. Everest started to become a nervous expectation that got bigger and bigger with each passing day on the way to go to Island Peak for training.  Every step was becoming a supreme effort, unable to catch one’s breath and near-constant migraine headaches. We were all fearful of the altitude and the medical problems that arise.

After walking for three days straight on the way to Tengboche ( 3,875m), Hoang Trong, a cameraman for Lasta production company, gave the expedition a startle.  He came down with high-altitude sickness and shook uncontrollably. Trong couldn’t eat and could hardly talk, sputtering his words.

High-altitude sickness is serious.  According to the experience of professional Sherpa mountain-climbers, common symptoms include dizziness, severe headaches, and trouble breathing. If the disease is serious, the sick person becomes delirious. In the next stage, the brain swells and then the person could die. The only thing that can possibly save you is to go down the mountain to a lower altitude.

The weather was changing for the worse and a decision was made to bring Trong down to Kathmandu immediately that afternoon!  The remainder of the team had to carry on.

Mr. Huynh Van Van, director of production of Lasta Company called for an immediate emergency helicopter evacuation from Nepal to bring Trong down to a lower altitude. The price for this urgent first aid trip would be approximately $4,500 US and, while price was not a concern and the helicopter was ordered, after waiting for hours, the pilot called to inform us that the helicopter would be unable to make it due to the heavy sleet and dense clouds.

With the helicopter having canceled its rescue operation, Trong’s situation was becoming even more urgent.  We had to find a way to get him to a lower altitude and do so quickly before any permanent damage.  Getting him down was the only thing that could save him.  But how could we get him back to Namche Bazzar (3,450m)?  Other than a helicopter, the only option was walking.  We briefly considered using a Yak, the mountain buffalo used to carry goods or supplies.  But that idea was quickly dismissed because Trong is rather large man, and the road to Namche Bazzar has many steep rocky ascents. The only option left was to hire the local inhabitants to carry him on their backs down the mountainside.   It took the locals nearly ten hours to carry the ailing Trong back to Namche Bazzar.  But they did so in time and Trong’s health gradually recovered; the expedition continued onward.

When we were on the way to Chukhung (4,730m), two more members decided not to go on to Base Camp because they couldn’t handle the coldness and altitude.  They decided to stay behind and wait for the team to return. Another two cameramen began complaining of dizzy spells and headaches.  It seemed to be becoming contagious, as I was about to find myself.

After 5 hours walking from Chukhung to Island Peak base camp (5,050m) I was by myself an hour behind the rest of the team, developing high-altitude sickness.  I felt chilly and couldn’t stop shivering. I was trying to call for help but no one was there. I couldn’t breath and I was very scared. I told to myself: “Nam, give it a try. If you stay here, you will die.”

I was dragging my feet, step by step, following the path slowly, by instinct more than anything.  Finally I saw the tents of Base Camp in the distance.  Although my hands and legs were exhausted, I tried to force my legs to take me to my tent. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, like someone had a plastic bag over my head. I felt too tired to live. At the tent door, I lost consciousness.  I woke with a crowd around me, rubbing medical oil into my skin, and massaging my head.

Everest challenges

After 10 days at Everest Base Camp, another member of the Vietnamese team got high-altitude sickness. He was delirious and talking to himself. We had to send him back to the hospital at Katmandu.

The remainder of the Vietnamese expedition came down with “Khumbu cough” within a few days.

The Khumbu cough, also known as “high altitude hack,” can be serious enough to cause a person break a rib. It is caused by the low humidity and sub zero temperatures experienced at altitude, and is thought to be triggered by over exertion.

I got a bad case of Khumbu cough and, unluckily, we quickly were out of medicine because so many people were sick.

I could hardly sleep and coughed through most of the night for 10 days. Every morning, I found I had a bloody nose. The worst part was I lost my voice!  I had to use body language to communicate. It was not good  because I was a host and editor for the show. The team leader Huynh Van Van suggested that I should go back to Gorakshep (5,164m) for a week because it was the only way to cure Khumbu cough in the mean time, but who would write the script? Who would record the audio? Who would do the interviews?

If I went back to Gorakshep for a week, I would miss breaking  news and the chance to report for television and  my daily newspaper. I tried to bolster my mind and spirit,  and I stayed even though the cough didn’t improve. Luckily, Dr. Dayal Singh Burfal of India helped me out. He said he was walking by the Vietnamese base camp and heard someone cough so bad so he stopped by and asked to help.

Here is a video clip that Nam Nguyen was reporting  at Everest Base Camp(Nepal side) and her “office” at Mt. Everest. Source from YouTube

Everyone has a life to live

In the Everest base camp there is no running water or electricity.  We cooked on top of large rocks the Sherpa cook dug up. The “room,” where the expedition worked on the television program “Vietnam conquers Mt. Everest in 2008,” was a large canvas tent 10m x 10m constructed on top of a huge ice block. At times, while sitting in your chair, you could feel the chair moving or slipping as a result of the ice melting. It made you a little nervous but there was no other place move your chair to; the entire room was on ice.  The temperature was often under 0oC and you had to take off your gloves in order to work, so my fingers would quickly become cold and numb.

For over 40 days at base camp we were virtually cut off from our personal lives.  During that time, each member in the delegation was allotted four minutes of airtime on the satellite telephone.  Four minutes in 60 days sounds like nothing at all; but they were precious minutes that afforded each member to hear the voice of their loved ones.

There was no Internet because the board of organizers used BGAN equipment Inrmasat satellite system to send the images back for broadcasting television. In order to allow me to send my reports back to the station, team leader Huynh Van Van conceded one of two toughbooks (a specialized computer built inside a very “tough” hard case designed to be able to survive this altitude and cold temperatures below 0oC). Normal laptops that are brought to Everest fail to operate.  Van’s toughbooks were charged by small diesel engines that also were used to light the tents and power the Inrmasat satellite equipment to transfer images and reports back for broadcasting.

Nam Nguyen and the first Vietnamese people who conquered Mt. Everest. Photo by Nam Nguyen

Many people say that when coming to Everest, girls had to forget that they are girls.  There was no special treatment or conditions, no running water or hot showers, no fancy bathrooms or spas.  Taking a bath at this place was defined taking a wet hankerchief or towel to wash your body. At Everest, we had to walk over eight long days, across over 60km of steep mountain paths, rough stones, and deep snow drifts in -25 oC temperatures.

I felt bad when looking at Tansi Yan Linda of Singapore, a 28 year old girl like me, who wanted to summit Everest. Although my cheeks and eyes were wrinkled due to the dry, sunny, cold weather, I felt very lucky in comparison to Linda, whose face and skin had many black, convex-concave scars due to “freezer burn.” Day and nighttime temperatures in base camp differed from 40-50oC. The nights were freezing cold averaging -35oC.

But all of that had little meaning to those who came from all over the world to summit Mt. Everest.  As Linda said “Everyone has a life to live. More importantly, you have to live your life without regrets.”

Nam was only the woman in the Vietnamese expedition. Photo by Nam Nguyen.

After looking at my sunburnt skin and the long days ahead of us, I no longer cared or worried but studied the Sherpa “snow tiger’s mountain-climbing way”; slow, gentle.

The Sherpa  didn’t call me by my name “Nam” after they got to know me.  They affectionately named me “Nam Sherpa.”

Writer Nam Nguyen


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