Trekking through an arid desert of ice, feeling your lungs squeeze with an ever-thinning oxygen supply, yet pushing on in the face of sub-zero temperatures, fatigue and exhaustion subside and are replaced with the excitement of seeing an accomplishment that is an hour-and-a-half away in walking distance – on the horizon is Base Camp Mount Everest 5,364 meters above sea level – these were the moments Desiree Winkel waited a lifetime to experience.
“My backpacking was feeling like it weighed double the weight I started with, a slight tingling headache, exhausted yet invigorated, I put my hand on the rock that marks Base Camp. I started to cry. I did it. It was not easy. I did it. Nothing is impossible,”
This life dream was planted by Desiree’s late father Dick Winkel, and was the catalyst for accomplishing a feat most others would think about several times before attempting – climbing the world’s highest mountain Mount Everest.
“I was 15 when he died and he passed away doing what he loved – climbing,” Desiree said, 45 years later while sitting in Mark’s Place on St. Maarten, reflecting on the route her life has taken. An undulating path that includes traveling the world, climbing and achieving what many still think is impossible, and making her presence felt in the here and now.
“My dad and I were really close. In Dutch, we would say we were like two hands on one stomach. He was a great climber; he had climbed with many famous climbers, so it is still a struggle to believe that he died in a climbing accident in Acosta, Italy. When my mother (Leontien Baan) called us into a family meeting, I knew right away what she was about to say. Don’t tell me Daddy is dead…I knew it. That was how close my Dad and I were,” she said.
His death created a sudden emptiness, Desiree said, adding that he promised to take her climbing on Mount Everest for her 16th birthday. That promise he was unable to keep and the thought of climbing into the clouds shadowed Desiree for years. She knew she had to someday accomplish her father’s dream, and it would offer healing qualities in terms of putting her father to rest.
As she approached her 50th birthday, Desiree toyed with typical birthday celebration ideas. But as memory would have it, she realised her dad died when he was 50.
When she announced her idea to honour her father’s memory by achieving a Mount Everest climb, her loved ones, with genuine concern pointed out that many people die trying to climb that mountain. Some ventured to dissuade her by suggesting she was a bit too old for such a climb, that it was impossible for her, and that she had a daughter, Dawn. The latter was the one that tugged on her heart strings the most. “They kept saying: ‘You have a daughter,’” she said remembering.
Those statements, however, more than ever cemented her decision, “In life, nothing is impossible” became her mantra.
It is true that many people lose their lives on Mount Everest, also known in Nepal as Sagarmāthā and in Tibetic languages China’s Tibet as Chomolungma. It is Earth's highest mountain and shares a border with Nepal and China. Its peak is 8,848 metres above sea level.
Mount Everest attracts many climbers; some of them highly-experienced mountaineers. There are two main climbing routes, one approaching the summit from the southeast in Nepal (known as the standard route) and the other from the north in Tibet, China.
While not posing substantial technical climbing challenges on the standard route, Everest presents dangers such as altitude sickness, weather and wind, as well as significant hazards from avalanches and Khumbu Icefall. As of 2016, there are more than 200 corpses on the mountain, some of which are said to serve as landmarks.
“My decision was made. I was going to climb Mount Everest in my 50th year. I had tried to climb the mountain about 20 years ago, but weather conditions did not permit it. So the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like the perfect time,” she said while mulling over the comforts of a cushioned chair and a café latte, luxuries not readily available trying to climb Mount Everest.
Desiree’s life journeys started with a move to Curaçao from the Netherlands 24 years ago. The Dutch national opened an events planning company, then 10 years later saw her setting up shop in St. Maarten. She was propelled to prominence in health and fitness circles after winning a body building competition.
Her body building title brought with it a flood of people asking to be trained. The fitness guru, who has a degree in personal training, opened Fitness Coaching, a well-oiled business that owed her vacation time.
Desiree’s first hurdle was carving out time from her business. “I started by thinking I can get this done in three weeks, it became four weeks and then five weeks.” The avid traveller did some more juggling and eventually made it seven-and-a-half weeks of available time. Her best birthday gift to herself.
“My travels would take me to Nepal, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia,” she said, quickly adding that high on her agenda was ensuring that all the government permits were in place for her to climb Mount Everest.
She contacted Earth Bound Expeditions, a company that specialises in taking climbers up the mountain. “My climbing period was set for May 19 to June 03. They made sure that all my government permits were in place to allow me to climb the mountain. I was provided with a guide, who was surprisingly a 20 year old. His name is Chattan “Jetty” Kulung … He could have been my son.”
The journey started with us flying to Lukla Airport, also known as the gateway to Mount Everest, and one of the world’s most dangerous airports. This flight demands precision of the pilot and of the passengers courage, thanks to its tiny, treacherous runway, perched on a steep cliff. Deadly crashes are common. “A few days before I left, a cargo plane crashed trying to land.”
The physical climb began, surrounded by lush nature, a forest, green and obviously richly fed, cool clean breeze, and excited hikers hurrying passed each other. The chatter of the excitement to come, as climbers ascend mostly to fulfil a life’s dream, to mark a milestone in life, the thrill of doing what few dare to accomplish.
“I was there with my dream, my father’s dream, and to prove that nothing is impossible,” Desiree said. Jetty hardly spoke; his English was very limited and that created the perfect setting for her to reflect, contemplate life, put her father to rest and just survive the experience.
With the ascent, nature suddenly changed the temperature and landscape. “First thing you notice, apart from the vibrant nature and excited climbers, is that there were no cars, no bikes, nothing with an engine, only people using their feet, and then the occasional Yaks – a big cow that is used as transport for goods and material.”
From Lukla (2,800 metres up) climbers would go down the mountain to Phakding (2,625 metres). In an effort to acclimatise to the higher altitude, climbers do a series of up-and-down climbs to reduce to possibility of getting Altitude sickness, which at times can be deadly.
During her trip, three persons died of Altitude sickness. Altitude sickness occurs when you cannot get enough oxygen from the air at high altitudes. This causes symptoms such as a headache, loss of appetite, and trouble sleeping. It happens most often when people, who are not used to high altitudes, go quickly from lower to higher altitudes.
The higher it gets, climbers see starker changes, bright and flourishing nature and vestiges of human existence are replaced by drier earth, big boulders, little streams, ice and thinner and thinner air. “This is where the climb becomes harder and harder. I opted to carry my own backpack as my personal challenge. But the higher you go, the heavier it seems the backpack was getting,” she sighed with what seems like a tinge of regret about that decision. “As we continued our climb, you come to the stark realization of how dangerous the climb is. There were several moments while walking on the edge of a pathway, I looked down, and if I had fallen, there was no way anyone would find me.”
Desiree, guided by Jetty, hiked between four to nine hours a day. There are a series of markers that climbers of Mount Everest try to achieve. Climbing to the summit (8,848 meters high) is not typical; it can cost up to US $80,000 and take an immense physical toll on the climber.
Desiree climbed just passed Base Camp (5,364 metres) to Kala Patthar (5,600 metres) “The views were incredible. You keep thinking it can’t get any better, but it does…breath-taking in more than one way,” she smiled. The St. Maarten flag and a photo of her dad are now planted on Mount Everest. The climb up and down took 13 days.
“There were a million reasons not to do it. But my position is that if you don’t follow your dream, you can only look back and regret. Just remember, nothing is impossible,” Desiree reminded.
By Rajesh Chintaman