Saturday, 12 April 2008

Interview: Kaya ng Pinay Mt. Everest Team

The author with 3 gutsy ladies
Janet Belarmino
During a visit to Club Balai Isabel (Talisay, Batangas) I met, in person, 3 women who exemplify the Pinay spirit at its best: the Kaya ng Pinay Mt. Everest Team composed of Janet Belarmino-Serdenia, Carina Dayondon and Noelle Wenceslao.  
These 3 Filipinas, all members of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), made history by becoming the first Southeast Asian women to reach the summit of 8,848-m. (29,028-ft.) high Mt. Everest (also called Mt. Qomolangma), the world’s tallest mountain (literally the top of the world) and the ultimate challenge to human endurance (it has now been summitted 3,067 times). 
Carina Dayondon
Everest sits on the border of Nepal and the Tibetan region of China. In 2006, Filipinos Leo Oracion, Erwin “Pastour” Emata and Romy Garduce successfully climbed from Nepal on the shorter but arguably the more dangerous, so-called South-East route. 
The 3 women are the first women in the world to traverse or cross Everest from the less treacherous North side (with its earlier summit window) to the South side, crossing the mountain from Tibet to Nepal, a feat done by a handful of mountaineers – all of them men. The traverse poses a bigger challenge for the women as they will be passing an unfamiliar route to come down the mountain.
Janet, from Nueva Vizcaya, is a member of the University of the Philippines Mountaineers, a fitness instructor for the Moro Lorenzo Fitness Gym in Ateneo and an excellent sport climber, lawn tennis coach and champion triathlete.  Noelle, a prized member of the Dragonboat team, is also an expert biker, extreme adventure athlete and mountaineer.  
Both women were consistent winners in the Philippine and Hong Kong legs of the AXN adventure races. Carina, a formidable sport climber and the youngest member of the team, has been scaling mountains in her native Bukidnon since she was 17 when she was studying at Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro City.  She climbed 7,548-m. (24,758-ft.) high Muztagh Ata in China-Pakistan, the highest peak ever reached by any Filipino, man or woman, before Everest.  
Noelle Wenceslao
Carina and Noelle, plus team doctor Ted Esguerra, documenter Fred B. Jamili, Emata and team leader Arturo Valdez, were to leave on May 19 to participate at the 42-km. 6th Hillary-Tenzing Mt. Everest Marathon, the highest marathon in the world (commemorates the 55th anniversary of the Edmund Hillary-Tenzing Norgay climb), from the 17-149-ft. level Mt. Everest Base Camp at Nepal (South side) to the town of Namche Bazar in Nepal (11,300 ft.), over rough and treacherous trails with two steep uphill sections. Ten days later, on May 29, Carina finished first, among foreign female climbers and behind 7 Nepali women, in the aforementioned marathon, with a time of 6 hours and 45 minutes. 
At a presscon held at the resort’s function room, all 3 recounted their hardships and sacrifices in the face of what appeared to be insurmountable obstacles. Janet had to battle personal problems prior to the climb, giving birth, in December 2006, to a healthy baby boy named Himalaya, just one month before their training for the Everest climb started (she was thus, the first woman to summit Everest just months after giving birth). She said it was emotionally a very difficult thing to leave her small son at home with her husband Ricky and join the expedition, putting her life at great risk at the mercy of the mountain. 
Noelle, on the other hand, lost her mom to a stroke as she was on her way to the airport to pick up Noelle who successfully climbed 20,320-ft. Mt. McKinley (also called Mt. Denali) in Alaska, the highest in North America.  Carina, on the other hand, was the family’s breadwinner.  During the climb, they also missed their families in the Philippines – something that proved to be an additional burden for them. At the Himalayas, Noelle also suffered from acute mountain sickness (AMS) and pulmonary edema while climbing (she had to descend to 5,000 m. to recover).
Their skin, especially on the face, was damaged due to the extreme cold and heat. All came down with blotches and sunburn on their faces. Theoretically, the 3 women’s route was longer and the journey much more difficult. During their climb, the weather was not too cooperative. They carried backpacks weighing 50 lbs, an ice axe that is at least 2 lbs. and wore high altitude boots and down suit that acted like thermal blankets. 
The Filipinas also had to negotiate the dreaded Khumbu Icefall (where 3 Sherpas recently lost their lives), a large slab of ice that covers the lower part of the mountain's south face. Ice seracs (pointed masses of ice), deep crevasses and ever-shifting masses of ice make for a dangerous trek. Climbers usually use metal ladders to cross crevasses, making sure that the anchors on their ropes are secure.  Down the mountain, at Camp 2 (which has a reputation as the "Death Zone" where extreme cold can sap a climber's strength), the Filipinas will encounter the Lhotse Face, a steep and narrow ice-laden ledge. 
Janet and her Mt. Everest outfit
Combining hard work, dogged determination and a positive attitude, they all conquered these obstacles by training to be tough mentally as well as physically. They went to New Zealand to train for alpine climbing.  On the Himalayan range in Nepal, they climbed the lower, 5,500-m. high Gokyo Ri (which had a full view of Everest) so that their body could adjust to the lower oxygen level (50% compared to sea level) at higher altitudes.   
In spite of strong support from sponsors and a solid team behind their backs, they still worked on a tight budget.  Their route, aside from being relatively safer, was also cheaper as the permit for climbing, per person, from Tibet is about $4,000 compared to $10,000 on the Nepalese side. They did their laundry in very cold rivers and, to save on shower expenses, they did not take a bath for more than 60 days.   
A small window of good weather (very clear with winds in between 20-30 kms./hr.), a little good luck, prayers back home and a lot of determination, they reached the top of Everest to once again plant the Philippine flag on the highest point in the world. Noelle (with Sherpa Lakpa Gyalzen) was the first to reach the summit at 6:10 am Nepal time (8:10 am in Manila) followed by Carina (with Pemba Choti) 10 minutes later.  They stayed on the summit for 20 minutes.   Janet, who reportedly initially lost radio contact with the Philippine team at the Everest’s base camp, was delayed because she had to wait her turn among the climbers wanting to reach the summit. She arrived at around 7:45 am, Nepal time, with Pasang Norbu. 

All three Sherpas guided Leo Oracion and Pastor Emata in their historic climb to Everest.  This was no small feat for three tough-as-nails ladies whose childhood exposure to ice, until three years before (in India), was limited to ice cubes, sorbetes and halo-halo.  Again, they proved that if we set our minds to it and unite in a common cause, we can climb whatever heights and reach whatever distance we imagine. They didn’t just do it for themselves, but for all the Filipinas around the world struggling to conquer their own mountains.  In doing so, they have again made the country proud and left a legacy of hope, faith and triumph of the human spirit.  The real victory is conquering, not Mt. Everest, but ourselves, our fears, our insecurities and our differences. 


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