Altitude sickness, snow blindness and birthday cake

Virden trekkers experience Everest’s highs and lows

It’s a place where simply breathing can kill you. Where the conditions are so harsh, 40 per cent of adventurers who make the attempt fail. A place you can only reach if you’re brave enough to fly into the most dangerous airport in the world.

Despite all the very good reasons to just go for a nature hike in Riding Mountain National Park, four men from Virden flew halfway around the world in April to trek to Everest Base Camp (EBC), elevation: 5,364 metres (17,600 ft.)

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Warren Polk and his son Zach, Karl De Paepe and Brent Day spent two weeks hiking up to EBC, a spot used by mountain climbers preparing for Mt. Everest (8,848 m.) and also a popular destination for trekkers.

Zach was the only one of the four with any climbing experience going into this trip, says Warren. “Zach did Kilimanjaro three years ago. He’s got a list of high spots he wants to visit and this was next. I wanted to go to give him company and also to step outside my box.

“I called Brent, he’s a single guy in Virden, so he took about five seconds to give me his yes! Then, just three weeks before we left, Karl got wind of it and asked if he could come.

“So he joined us, and that was the four.”

Peak experience

Zach prepared the longest for the expedition. Eight months before go day, he began working out, studying Nepal’s culture and religion, and getting the right gear.

It paid off when the Virden Four made it up and over the highest pass on the trek – Kongma La Pass, elev. 5,535 m. – even higher than their destination at EBC.

“The elevation gain from our starting point to the top of the pass was well over what is recommended by most guides,” said Zach.

“We also got caught in a snowstorm which made visibility extremely difficult. It was a great personal accomplishment to reach the top with the odds stacked against us.”

Warren calls Kongma La Pass, “The hardest thing I’ve done in my life.”

And De Paepe admits his three weeks of lead time were not enough. “I am fairly fit, I run and cycle regularly so I thought that would be enough preparation for the trip. I was very wrong. The trip was exhausting for me.

“The scariest moment was the day we were climbing over a mountain pass. It began snowing, making it slippery. I slipped and fell many times.” 

Kongma La Pass is also where the team’s luck ran out.

Brent Day had taken his sunglasses off during that snowstorm, thinking the overcast skies made it safe to do so. That mistake resulted in snow blindness, a painful condition that impairs the vision.

It ended Day’s trek. He went down the mountain with the help of a porter while the others continued up.

When they reached base camp, it was -25 C. The Virden Three unfurled a Canadian flag, posed for a picture, and headed down to rejoin Day who, fortunately, did not suffer any permanent eye damage. 

A guide named Sherpa

Despite the hardships and dangers (or possibly because of them), the trekkers developed a bond with their Nepalese guide Cxetean Sherpa, which turns out to be a common last name in Nepal and not just another word for porter.

He taught them how to survive the mountain (Tip: when faced with oncoming yaks, stick to the mountain side of the path), and about local culture like the meaning behind the colourful prayer flags and Buddhist monuments that dotted the route. 

Cxetean also did something unforgettable for Warren’s birthday.

The guide went to buy bread in the nearby village and returned with a big box tied with string, which he carried up the mountain until the group stopped for the night.

After dinner, they were sitting around the common room stove with travelers from around the world when suddenly the lights went out. Cxetean entered with a cake complete with lit candles.

“I think I cried…” says Warren. “They all sang happy birthday, and we shared the cake. I got to celebrate a birthday in the Himalayas.”

And the icing on the cake? The bakery actually had no cake so Cxetean had bought an apple pie and put icing on top. “Delicious”, says Warren.

Now home in Virden, he swipes through the images on his smart phone and remembers the spectacular scenery, the people, exhaustion and exhilaration of Everest. And getting to experience it all with Zach. 

“It was awesome. We bunked together every night so we had conversations. It’s a once in a lifetime thing to do Everest Base Camp, and to do it with your son is absolutely awesome.”

Zach is already planning his next adventure. “I don’t think I see myself attempting Everest because the cost keeps climbing, currently at $25,000 USD. My next target is the summit of Aconcagua in Argentina.”

But Everest Base Camp still nags at Brent Day. “It is such a burden to myself that I keep replaying over in my mind that all I had to do was keep my sunglasses on and I would have made it.” 

“But you learned through suffering - the cold nights, can’t sleep, altitude sickness, the soreness of your body, the amount of trekking you are doing - that most of your goals can be reached.”

(Correction: Brent Day's last name was wrong in original, our apologies) 

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