It was indeed the hardest physical challenge I have ever endured. My heart is full with gratitude for being able to experience beauty and wonder in such a pure form. The top of the world was even more spectacular than I could have ever imagined! A cause gave me inspiration and fueled my determination to go for a second attempt of this formidable peak. I am incredibly grateful for the love and support I have received for my journey and efforts for women in Congo that have endured gender-based violence. Since 2008 they have been the driving force behind this goal of reaching the Seven Summits as part of my Climb Take Action Campaign. Now after completing my 6th of the Seven, it still feels surreal for what seemed impossible two years ago, was now so very real. On May 21st at 10:15 a.m., I had the privilege of standing on top of the world, Mt. Everest.
Everest is a place where life meets death, where personal limits are defied, where the human spirit is put to the ultimate test, and where one can experience the true wonder of creation. In the journey to reach the much coveted summit over the course of two months, one can see climbers uplifted to their highest and some of the strongest brought to their knees. The mountain will cure most of egos and remind us that we can only go as high as she will let us go. My summit push began on May 16th when I left Everest Base Camp at 17,500 feet in the wee hours of the morning at 4 a.m. and ended when I returned safe and sound on May 22nd about 8 p.m. Those seven days were by far the most intense of the entire 2 months I was on the mountain and tested every bit of willpower I had within me. As I left Base Camp, I knew it would be my last time up the treacherous ice fall, climbing to Camp 2, scaling the Lhotse Face, and so on. I just had to hold it all together for one more of everything on that mountain and keep strong for 7 more days to get up and down safely. To give some perspective the last 4 of those 7 days required 49 hours of climbing total.
As much of my internal message was "choosing love over fear," as I hit camp 2, I was faced with the reality that weather reports had been epically wrong over the past few days making it impossible for some of the climbers to summit, helped with the rescue of one of my friends, and finally had some time alone with my own thoughts and feelings. As a result, it was a rush of emotions over the next two days at Camp 2, as I watched the weather and had to make a call as to what day I would push for the top. The floodgates of fear and self-doubt opened my second night at Camp 2 as the time was here once again and I had one shot at this; would the weather cooperate, would I be strong enough, would I get hypoxic again like 2 years ago and have to turn around, would I make it back down safely? As I mentioned in my previous post, I had to let go of the outcome of what was about to happen over the next few days and go into this ultimate arduous challenge knowing that all I could do was give it my best, believe in myself, and pray that the elements out of my control would cooperate and help get me to my destination. It was an important process for me to deal and let go of the fear before taking a further step higher on the mountain, as I needed to be my strongest.
The days that followed got me up to Camp 3, then up to the South Col, and then with just a few hours rest it was time for my 20 hour summit push to begin! The wind had picked up and most definitely sounded worse in the tent than outside. That little glimmer of fear came back once again and so I asked Ang Kami, our sirdar, if he felt it might be too windy. He merely chuckled and said, "Not too windy, normal." So I put my boots on and stepped into the cold night and took a deep breath and looked up at the trail of lights already going up to the Balcony (8400m), this was it! Jang Bu, my Sherpa, and I set off at 9 PM and within one hour from leaving camp he was struck by a falling rock going up the Triangular Face. I saw him hunched over and asked if he was ok, and as I looked down, my head torch revealed blood in the snow and rock. Jang Bu, simply squeezed his noise to stop the bleeding and then assured me it was fine to keep going. As we ascended the snowy white peaks seemed to be an iridescent white below the light of the moon, which now appeared to almost be eye level to us. My first encounter with death on the mountain then came half way up the Balcony, as we encountered a climber that was noticeably slow and now starting to take long rests on the rocks. As my torch shined on his face, I saw the face of a man that was beyond exhaustion and appeared to have death taking over his body. I encouraged Jang Bu to please urge the man to turn around, and eventually he did, but later we discovered that upon arriving to his tent at the South Col, he had perished.
The climb up to the Balcony became the hardest part of the climb for me. It was my nemesis I had to conquer! The same hypoxic symptoms from two years ago presented themselves again and I was moving or crawling at a snail's pace. There was added pressure to move faster and I was being warned that I was moving too slowly. Among the many little miracles that led me to the top of the world, the most impactful one happened as I was about to reassess my condition and determine whether I would continue the climb. I will never understand how this man recognized me through my down suit, oxygen mask, and at 2 a.m. in the dead of the night, but in my state of fatigue and worry, I prayed and asked God for a sign as to whether I should turn around or not, and no more than 10 minutes later as I sat and cried in the snow, my friend's guide managed to see me and asked, "Georgina from San Francisco, what's the matter?" After I told him what was all going on he said, "You already turned around once 2 years ago, you are not turning around again." He then talked to my Sherpa, they adjusted my oxygen and he asked me to follow them for an hour and see if I felt better and that I was only 5-6 hours away from the summit. I looked to Jang Bu to make sure he was happy for us to keep going, at which point he said, "We try." Trying was not an option for me, and I wanted his confidence in me to keep going as well, so I said, "no, we DO, we do not TRY!" From that point forward everything was different.
As I looked across the night sky to the other peaks on our ascent, I saw a trail of little lights on Lhotse and there was a comfort there in seeing fellow climbers pushing towards their goals and dreams just like me. With my oxygen adjusted and going at my slow steady pace behind my friend's guide, up the mountain we went, behind long endless queues of climbers in the still of the night until the light of the sun broke through and exposed the beauty that was hidden in the night. A piercing line of bright orange hit the horizon and slowly grew to shine over the whole world below us and instantly brought me to tears. I was filled with warmth and knew that my sign had been clear as day and there was no turning around. The wonder and magic of creation had never been more evident, nor had I ever felt so connected to the universe and our creator; it was a truly spiritual moment and I felt so small and blessed at the same time.
That serenity was quickly disrupted as the harsh realities of this mountain hit when I passed a climber that had just died hours prior. At first I thought it was someone resting at an anchor point, but as I got closer and had to clip around him, my heart sank when I realized he was dead. The environment of the mountain is not only extreme because of its weather conditions, but also because of what you see around you; people achieving their lifelong dreams and reaching a point of euphoria, while others die trying or are damaged for life. To leave the mountain safe and sound is truly a blessing.
The hours that passed once the sun rose seem like a blur, but it was at least 5 more hours of climbing and waiting before I reached the summit. The zipper to my down suit was frozen shut and there was no access to my water or snacks or camera. As I approached the Hillary Step, I saw a rainbow of colors of down suits waiting to have their chance for its ascent. I was extremely fortunate that there was little to no wind and that I could wait 40 minutes for my turn without becoming a human popsicle. I knew this was my last major obstacle to overcome before reaching my goal. It took whatever little energy I had left to get up the Hillary Step, holding and pulling myself up on as many ropes that were there! Jang Bu looked back to me once that was through and said we were now only 20 minutes away. I was in disbelief and relieved.
On the summit ridge I could finally see where I was meant to go, and my heart just felt so full. I stepped on to the summit and I wept and wept and could not believe I was actually there. Jang Bu and I gave each other a hug, and I gave out a little "woohoo!" After not eating or drinking for 13 hours, I sat and rested and drank half a liter of half frozen water and ate half a frozen Snickers bar and some frozen Shot Bloks. At the time, all of the above were heaven. I saw the man that had recognized me as I was about to turn around and gave him a big hug and told him I would not be up there if it wasn't for him. I was so happy to share the summit with him and be able to thank him for what he had done. I got to spend an hour up there and once I had rested a bit, I walked around and took photos, and my soul absorbed the beauty and wonder that was around us and below us. I had found a series of little heart shaped rocks throughout my two months on Everest and to me they were symbolic of my internal message to choose love over fear. I had decided to take one rock up and down with me to always remind me of this special message and I chose to take one up, which I had written "Everest for Congo 2013,"and leave it there in honor of the women that had inspired me up the peak in the first place. I often reference the strength of the Congolese women I support because through their pain of what they have endured they are still able to share a smile and a dance and their hope with a fellow woman that wants to know and share their story in hope that one day change will come. I thought of these incredibly strong women on the summit and the amazing people from International Medical Corps and V-DAY, as they had been my inspiration, to not only make my attempt in 2011, but fueled my determination to return and try again. Reaching the summit I always hoped would serve a greater purpose and have a deeper meaning than just accomplishing a goal.
It was a series of little slow steps that helped me reach the top of the world, not only in the literal sense on the mountain, but also the process of attempting back in 2011 and the 2 years it took me to be able to go back and try again. It was being able to overcome fear of failing once again, of not giving up even when I thought my body could not go further, about the love and support of friends that helped make it possible for me to return, and the incredible effort of the community on the mountain that helped get me to the top. It was beyond uplifting to see other's reactions as they reached the summit, to see people making calls to their loved ones from their sat phones, and to see the gift of watching people's dreams come true. Those moments of utter joy and thanks by all that were there will live as inspiration within me. It was all possible now.
The work and support that is needed for survivors of gender-based violence in Democratic Republic of Congo may seem like an "Everest" of its own, but I see organizations like International Medical Corps and V-DAY continue to take steps and climb up the mountain of bringing sustainable aid and change to these women. When you hear the stories of how these organizations have directly impacted the life of a woman or child and given her true hope for a better future, well to me, that is like they have reached another little summit together. Help us keep climbing and taking little steps to not only bring support to these women, but also to raise awareness as to why violence against women should not be tolerated under any circumstance or in any part of the world.
Thank you for letting me share my journey and cause with you. Life can be full of our own "Everests" and we can all conquer them with strong willpower, by facing and overcoming our fears, by believing in ourselves and in the fact that the impossible can always be possible if we put our full hearts and mind to it. We set our own limits and sometimes the only thing between us and our dreams is ourselves.
I am grateful for the women that inspired me up mountains back in 2008 and the amazing work of International Medical Corps and V-DAY, which like many of the people I saw on the mountain remind that the impossible is possible by the work that they do.
"The extraordinary is always possible...Never limit yourself or life's potential."- Georgina Miranda