Saturday, April 14, 2007

Everest Team Phones Home

Janet Belarmino, Carina Dayondon and Noelle Wenceslao.

The Philippine All Women Everest Team is now at Everest Base Camp in Tibet! According to Erwin "Pastour" Emata, the place is one big tent city dominated by Chinese climbers preparing for the 2008 Beijing Olympics Torch Relay.

The team was able to make a satellite phone call early this evening, which I was able to record. I will post excerpts from the call late tonight...


I first got 2 text messages from the Everest Team at around 4:30 in the afternoon. One was from Noelle Wenceslao and the other was from Dr. Ted Esguerra. Dr. Ted's text said they were already at Chinese Base Camp and also had some bilins (reminders). While Noelle's text went:

"Everest Base Camp na! Sa lahat ng Pinoy na gustong tumulong, pwede bumili ng SMART LINK Satellite Services Prepaid Card from any SMART store and text us the pin number. Pangtawag namin. Please pass."

(We are at Everest Base Camp! To all those Filipinos who want to help us out, please buy us prepaid satellite phone cards and text us the pin numbers. We'll use them to call. Please pass.)

The team is using a SMART ACES Satellite phone but the SIM card is prepaid so they have to reload it after they call. I can't remember exactly how much the prepaid charges are per minute, but I think it's even cheaper than using your cellphone's roaming service -- if you're within the coverage area.

The thing is, Noelle, like Dr. Ted, texted me, from a Globe cellphone number. So I texted back, surprised that they still had a signal at Base Camp. I also asked if I could call them. Noelle texted back:

"Langhiyang mga to, full bars hanggang base camp! Pero may advanced base camp pa! Pwede tumawag actually pero cheaper if we call you NOW. Penge na lang SMART LINK ha? :)"

(Our cellphone signals have full bars in base camp! But we're not sure about advanced base camp. You can call but it will be cheaper if we call you now. Just give us back a prepaid card ok?)

And that's how I ended up recording our phone conversation. The only hitch was my phone could only record audio a minute at a time, and I had to keep asking them to stop so I could resume recording. The team said they would be spending just a few days in the Chinese Base Camp, at 5,200 meters, where 4X4 vehicles (and not with a "car" as I mentioned in the call) can still drive up to.

The actual launchpad of the climb is the Advanced Base Camp (ABC), which at 6,400 meters can already give you a nosebleed just thinking about it. To put it in perspective, this is higher than any mountain on any continent, except of course Asia and South America. Here's a list of the highest mountains around the world.

Highest Mountain in Africa
Kilimanjaro, Tanzania: 5895 meters

Highest Mountain in Antarctica
Vinson Massif: 4897 meters

Highest Mountain in Australia
Kosciusko: 2228 meters

Highest Mountain in Europe
Elbrus, Russia (Caucasus): 5642 meters

Highest Mountain in Western Europe
Mont Blanc, France-Italy: 4807 meters

Highest Mountain in Oceania
Puncak Jaya, New Guinea: 5040 meters

Highest Mountain in North America
McKinley (Denali), Alaska: 6194 meters

Highest Mountain in the 48 Contiguous United States
Whitney, California: 4418 meters

Highest Mountain in South America
Aconcagua, Argentina: 6960 meters

Highest Mountain in the World
Everest, Nepal/Tibet: 8850 meters

Base Camp on the Nepalese side, at 5500 meters, was already debilitating. I can imagine how comfortable it will be at ABC.

In any case, the Philippine Team is in good health and good spirits. According to Dr. Ted, the girls have a blood oxygen saturation level ranging from 90 to 97%, and blood pressure of 90/70 -- which is extremely good.

We should expect another update from the team in a day or two, before they move out of Chinese Base Camp.
In the meantime, here are excerpts from the earlier phone call with Everest Summiter Erwin "Pastour" Emata, Noelle Wenceslao, Carina Dayondon, Janet Belarmino and Dr. Ted Esguerra.

P.S. Everest Summiter Leo Oracion isn't with the Team at the Tibet Base Camp because he will be going to the Nepalese side to make arrangements to meet the girls after they traverse or cross Mt. Everest.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Pinoy Everest Doctor Ted Esguerra

Philippine Coast Guard Doctor Ted Esguerra on the summit of Gokyo Ri.

Received this text at 11:50 a.m. Manila time from Dr. Ted Esguerra, the physician accompanying the Philippine All Women Everest Team.

"Sir, we are midway to Tingri (in the Tibetan region of China). We stayed for a while at 16,000 feet and the team is fine. Rescued a French national in Namche a week ago and now just treated a Thailander who got AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) on the way to Lhasa. I have been conducting lectures for International climbers regarding high-altitude medicine. Regards."

From the town of Tingri, it will be just a one day trek to the Tibetan Everest Base Camp. A report on says the main Base Camp has been reserved exclusively for Chinese climbers practicing for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. A team of climbers will bring up the Olympic Torch to the summit of Mt. Everest next year during the Olympic Torch Relay. Other Everest climbers have reportedly set up a new Base Camp 3 kilometers away from the original site.

Wherever the Philippine Team sets up camp, it will surely be one of the most visited in Base Camp. During last year's Philippine Everest Expedition, Dr. Ted treated an estimated 80 patients, composed of International climbers and local Sherpas. Among Dr. Ted's patients were Singaporean Grand Slam Adventurer Khoo Swee Chiow and Malaysian Vincent Loh, Spaniard Jesus Calleja who summitted Lhotse last year, and members of the Mallorcan Everest Team.

But it wasn't just the climbers who benefitted from the Doctor's care. Surprisingly, a number of porters and even a Nepali Base Camp Officer suffered from AMS. Some of the porters had to rush up and down the mountain with heavy loads, and the fatigue may have made them succeptible to the effects of altitude. One Base Camp Officer, who was on his first tour-of-duty in the Everest Area, had to be placed inside a Gamow Bag to try and reverse the effects of his altitude sickness. His symptoms were already near heart-attack levels, but a few hours inside the bag was able to revive him -- though he still had to be carried down the mountain by porters.

The other patients the Doctor treated were suffering from the usual Khumbu cough, diarrhea, blistered feet and sun and wind burns. Dr. Ted would even give the patients medicine without asking for payment. We joked that he could at least ask for a can of spam, a dozen eggs, or even a pot of dudh chia! But the good Doctor would only say, "no, this is my profession and a service I want to do as a Filipino Doctor. What is important is that they remember that a Filipino Doctor treated them, and treated them well.. and the next time a Filipino passes through this area, I hope the locals will remember me and treat that Filipino well too."

Mabuhay ka Dr. Ted! With you around, we are certain the Philippine Everest Team is in excellent hands.

Dr. Ted and the girls with Ama Dablam in the background.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

3 Pinays Ready To Climb Mt. Everest

Filipino climbers Janet Belarmino, Noelle Wenceslao and Carina Dayondon
posing on Gokyo Ri with the summit of Mt. Everest in the background.

They’ve completed their training, packed their gear, said their prayers – and now the three Filipina mountaineers are ready to climb to the top of Mt. Everest.

Janet Belarmino, Carina Dayondon and Noelle Wenceslao are now on their way to Tibet after training on lower peaks in the Himalayan range in Nepal. The three finished their preparation for Mt. Everest by climbing Gokyo Ri, a 5,500 meter peak in the Everest region. They needed to do this so their body could adjust to the lower oxygen level at higher altitudes.

At the altitude the team trained, the oxygen in the atmosphere was only 50% compared to sea level. But according to the team physician, Dr. Ted Esguerra, the women performed extremely well and did not show any signs of altitude sickness. In fact, he even made them go jogging and perform jumping jacks and push-ups, which the women did without any problems.

Dr. Ted Esguarra checks the blood pressure, pulse rate and oxygen
saturation of Noelle to ensure she isn't hit by altitude sickness.

But the women aren’t just ready physically, they’re mentally prepared as well. In an e-mail from Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, climber Noelle Wenceslao said that their successful climb on Gokyo Ri boosted their morale. “We put up our own cairn (marker) on top of Gokyo Ri, which had a full view of Everest. Carina, Janet and I spent over an hour there, praying and crying -- girly cheesiness. The peak was warm and windless, but there were no other trekkers up there. The whole sky got overcast with clouds, but not one cloud touched Everest! The locals say it was lucky enough that Everest showed itself to us -- but to be out there for hours despite the clouds? Galing (Incredible)!”

Prayer flags on top of Gokyo Ri (5350 m.)

Other Side Of Everest

Mt. Everest sits on the border of two countries, Nepal and the Tibetan region of China. Last year, Filipinos Leo Oracion, Pastour Emata and Romy Garduce successfully climbed from Nepal on the so-caled South-East route. This is arguably the more dangerous route, because landslides are more frequent on the Khumbu Icefall, a part of the glacier that climbers must cross to reach the summit.

The climbers encountered heavy snow during their training in the Everest region.

This year, the women will instead climb from the Tibetan side or the North route up the mountain. Aside from being relatively safer, the climbing permit in Tibet is cheaper compared to Nepal. The permit for climbing Everest from Tibet is about $4,000 per person compared to $10,000 per person on the Nepalese side.

Because the All Women’s Team is on a tight budget, the climbers have been trying to save money, not just on fees, but even on their daily expenses. According to Noel, “the local homes and teahouses in the Everest area don’t have running water, so you have to pay if you want to take a shower. Because we wanted to save money, we decided to wash-up in one of the rivers. It was very cold! While we were washing our underwear, the Indonesian climbing team passed by. They had a TV crew with them which began filming us –- they probably thought we were locals, but not even the locals wash-up in the river!”

The climbers with a Sherpani lodge owner in the Solo Khumbu region.

Aiming For More Firsts

What the TV crew probably didn’t know was that these women doing the laundry would soon be racing against the Indonesian female climber they were with, to become the first ASEAN woman to reach the top of Mt. Everest. Indonesia’s Everest Women’s Team will reportedly have one female attempting to climb Everest accompanied by six male Indonesian climbers. Singapore has also organized an all women team that hopes to climb Everest in 2008. An Indonesian woman, Clara Sumarwati, had been reported as the first Indonesian, and first ASEAN woman to summit Mt. Everest in 1996. But Indonesian mountaineers have disputed her climb for lack of evidence.

Aside from being the first ASEAN women to reach the summit, the Filipina climbers hope to bag a much more rare achievement – to become the first women in the world to traverse or cross Mt. Everest. After reaching the summit from Tibet, the women hope to climb down the other side of the mountain, landing them in Nepal. This has only been done by a handful of mountaineers – all of them men. The traverse will pose a bigger challenge for the women as they will be passing an unfamiliar route to get down the mountain. They will also have to hire additional Sherpas to prepare tents, equipment and food that should be ready for them when they go down the Nepal side of Everest. Filipino Everest Summiter Leo Oracion will be stationed at the Base Camp in Nepal to welcome the women and accompany them back to Kathmandu.

The girls spin the prayer wheels for good luck.

High Spirits

Despite the difficulties they face, the women are glad they’re finally on their way to Tibet. “It was hard to stay focused in Manila as we had to deal with so many other things such as meeting with sponsors, attending events and buying and borrowing gear. Now that we are here, we’re doing what we’ve set out to do –- just climb,” says Noelle.

For the team, it is also a time to reconnect with friends they made on previous climbing trips to the Himalayas. The Filipino’s warmth and friendliness has endeared them to the locals who have once again welcomed them with open arms. According to Noelle, the locals still remember Everest Summiter Pastour Emata, who is accompanying the women to Tibet. “Pastour is such a funny guy and the shop owners love him. He’s so popular, it’s just like he’s in Davao. He could probably run as a Baranggay official here and win! Carina on the other hand is the “crush ng bayan” (neighborhood crush). An internet shop owner is offering us free internet access if Carina marries him.”

Everest Summiter Erwin "Pastour" Emata calling home.

Now that they’re about to begin what could be the toughest adventure of their lives, the women say they’ve as prepared as they can be physically and mentally. Their chance for success will now be up to the mountain, the weather and God. The women say they’ve asked for prayers from their families, loved ones and supporters for a successful and safe climb. According to Noelle, knowing that their loved ones are rooting for them at home will help boost not just their morale, but also their chances of reaching the top of Everest to once again plant the Philippine flag on the highest point in the world. “We are nervous but we are also very excited. We know that our success won’t be for ourselves, but for all Filipinas wherever they may be. We want to show the world that what the men can do, we can also achieve –- to prove that Kaya ng Pinay (The Filipina Can)!”

View from Shyangboche with the Everest summit (center, 8848 m.) peeking
above the Himalayan range and Lhotse (right, 8516 m.) with it's cloud plume.