A tonic evening breeze swishes through a balcony door exposing a peek of Sydney’s shimmery skyline. I’m in a Pyrmont studio apartment waiting for the owner to return from work. It’s January. Summer in Australia. This woman would’ve only returned from wintry Nepal. The doorknob twists followed by the click-clack of heels, she curls into her mulberry lounge before me, tugging the ends of her pencil skirt, pushing back her soft, bouncy black hair.
Fixated on her ready for a chat I’ve been dying to have, I thought two things. One: I can’t believe you’re 50 years old. She carried with her this confident, graceful radiance. And two: Mum, please show me your ways.
For my mother’s half-century birthday gift to herself awakening, she recently embarked on a two-week guided solo trek to Mount Everest Base Camp (EBC) with World Sight Journey. Yup, my mother Julie Tran. Just casually. Or not so casually, as I find at the heart of her intentions in reaching 5,400 metres on Nepal’s Holy Mother, there was a soul deprived of true independence from the very first moment she set foot in Australia after the Vietnam War in the 1980s.
I was meant to trek to EBC in 2015 but because of the earthquakes and avalanches that year, I had to postpone my trip to 2016.
Apparently Base Camp looked like it was flattened by a bomb. Doesn’t the idea of another catastrophe erupting frighten you?!
Just because there was an earthquake that time, it doesn’t mean it’ll happen again when I’m there. I thought ‘oh well, if my time’s up, my time’s up!’ [laughs].
You were prepared for your life to be taken away on the Holy Mother?
I would prefer not to die! But at 50, I feel fulfilled with what I needed to do as a wife and a mother. After a 30-years marriage separation and seeing you and your brother grown up living your own lives, I started to think about what I really wanted for myself. I wanted to challenge myself on Mount Everest. Without the old responsibilities, I didn’t have to feel so guilty if something did happen to me.
Where did your adventurous spark come from?
Actually, I didn’t know I was adventurous until I became single and independent. I started my life at a very young age. I was nine years old when the Vietnam War ended in 1975. I fled to Thailand in 1980 and stayed in a refugee camp where I met your dad. Not long after, I became a mother at 16 and we settled into Australia. I didn’t have the opportunity to be a teenager and do teenager things. I had to build a life for myself here. Survival, responsibilities, finding our way in Western society. I am so grateful for the life we created. However, in some traditional cultures as a woman you have certain rules. All your responsibilities are to be for your family but then you’re unable to do what you want to do for your own life. After moving away from traditions, I just felt the urge to explore.
That culture still very much exists?
In my generation, of course. I used to surround myself with people who only think a certain way. They would tell me I’m crazy for trekking Mount Everest. They say ‘this is for young people, not for you!’ or ‘you are a woman, you should be feminine, this is not very classy’. They think I’m a tomboy. People who like nature adventures don’t have to be tomboys! That’s when I knew I needed to change my environment.
You mean finding your people?
Yes, people who will be adventurous with me.
A gang of adventurous oldies. I love it!
Yes, we do it better!
[laughs] Excuse me?
When old people do young things, we do it with more maturity. Young people might climb a mountain for fun but we do it with more inspiration and appreciation.
Hmmm. Maybe not all of us! What makes you feel more ‘inspired’ and ‘appreciative’?
You know, when I look at a tree, it might be simple to somebody else but when I look at it, I’m like wow.
[laughs] You’ve gotta be kidding me.
Why are you laughing?
Because I feel the same way about trees.
Look around us. We don’t have trees like this in Saigon. We also didn’t have parks and children’s playgrounds. I’ve always wanted to have playtime in Australia but when you’re a mother, you’re an adult. People would judge me. You can’t play on swings and slides, it is for children! So now when I see a really big playground with really big rides, I get so much joy. I realised it’s the same feeling I get when I explore nature. Nature makes me feel freedom.
So, tell me – the burning question – what’s trekking to EBC really like?
The majority of it is walking on the edge of a mountain. We had to give way to yaks in case they push us off. Steep climbing, continually. Going up’s tough. Going down’s tough. It’s mountain after mountain. There’s beautiful scenery. It’s minus 10 degrees in the evening and minus one degree during the day. You have a guide and porter who will help carry all your belongings the more tired you become. There are 10 pit stops over 10 days where you have basic amenities and food. In that time, I only showered three times in the first four days. Taking your clothes off for a shower is a big deal – it’s too cold. I brought lots of wet wipes so I didn’t feel dirty except for my oily hair. Then the rest of the experience is up to you because everyone reacts to high altitudes differently.
What were the symptoms of high altitude like for you?
On Day 4 (4,300m), it was like someone was constantly grabbing my head and pulling my hair. I felt it from the neck up. I thought I had migraines so I took a strong tablet that’s supposed to last three to six months. I still felt pain so I took another one. The next day (4,700m), I lost my appetite. Hot stir-fry noodles and fried rice didn’t entice me. One spoon, then nope. I tried so hard but it tasted like nothing. I was surviving on chocolate bars, toffee lollies and muesli bars – even that was hard, I didn’t have energy to chew! My body was swollen and my face was bloated. I had a bleeding runny nose and teary eyes. Every morning, I had to splash freezing water onto my face because I couldn’t open my eyes for an hour. On Day 6, I wasn’t interested to get my phone out to take photos anymore. The scenery didn’t matter. I just wanted to get to Base Camp and return.
Was there a time when you wanted to give up and turn around?
When high altitude takes away all your physical energy, your mind drags down too. Every day I questioned myself, “Why the hell am I doing this? Why do I put myself through this shit and burden myself? There is no reason for me to do this!”. I had to listen to my inside voice. I reached a point where every two seconds I had to repeat out loud, “I have to complete this task, I have to complete this task…”. My guide thought I was going crazy. I needed to conquer myself.
And when you finally reached the top…
Relieved. Just relieved. Satisfied. We spent 20 minutes putting up my flag and pictures.
20 whole minutes?
It was extremely windy. It was hard for me to even stand up again after tying my shoelace let alone tying a flag.
Why can’t I see any photos of us together?
I didn’t bring any.
Because I know you’ll make it up there yourself one day.
Anyway, all that excitement quickly went away because I thought, “How in the world am I going to get back down?”. I lost all my energy. I couldn’t hold my walking pole anymore, I wanted to throw it away. That was the scariest moment. It was 5 pm and it was getting dark. The sun was going to set at 5:30 pm. It was us three left on the trail. My guide suggested for the porter to carry me down. I said, “No. If I can walk up, then I will walk down. I know I’m walking slow, but I’m walking.” Every two steps, I needed to stop and breathe because of low oxygen levels. The guide asked me another three times but I didn’t give in. At 6 pm, I couldn’t see anything more than five metres from me. The guide then said, “Julie, now I’m not asking you. I’m demanding you. The porter is carrying you down. Give me your headlamp and solar light. You get onto his back. The weather is going to change at any moment. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the next five minutes. You step on one uneven rock, you will fall off the cliff. I won’t be able to reach you.” He didn’t wait for me to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, I was thrown onto the porter’s back. Then guess what? He literally ran down. I remember thinking in my head well, that was a piece of cake.
What’s the biggest thing you learned about yourself from this experience?
I’m proud of my resilience and how I was able to cope with all the unexpected.
Was there anything you brought with you that saved your life?
Surprisingly, my light Kathmandu shoes. My legs and brain weren’t working together anymore. I want to lift my leg to the height of a rock but my foot would miss it so I’d always kick the rock. If it weren’t for these shoes, my toenails would be gone by now. Plus, no blisters.
What’s your #1 advice for people wanting to tackle EBC?
Don’t underestimate the track. At the beginning, I met one boy who never trekked a mountain in his life. I never saw him again. I hope he did okay. But I saw so many people of all ages being carried down unconscious. This isn’t some easy adventure holiday. You must train. Trekking Poon Hill in the Annapurna region is a good start.
You trekked Poon Hill in a group. Why did you decide to do EBC alone instead?
Groups can slow you down. It costs more to do it solo but you can work to your own abilities.
Where to next, Mum?
Cruising through Antarctica before it’s all gone.
Ah yeah, climate change. That ol’ thing. One last question. What would you tell your 25-year-old self?
Be who you are regardless of what others think. And never lose excitement for life.
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Mount Everest Base Camp Trekking with World Sight Journey. A two-week guided solo expedition costs $1650* and would include a tour guide, porter, basic accommodation and amenities, three meals per day and a domestic flight from Kathmandu to Lukla where you begin your trek.
*Price at time of booking in 2016.