Friend of FINDRA Kate Mackay's Ascent on Everest

Friend of FINDRA Kate Mackay's Ascent on Everest

Where am I?

Laying in my tent, a 15-minute flight away from Lukla and my entry to the Himalayas and Everest Base Camp (EBC). Even after 6 years of waiting, there was still the possibility that I might not make it. Hearing the dogs start up their night-time barking, Ramechhap was alive, not just with the domestic animals but with hundreds of people waiting, just like me. Lukla was also rammed with tired trekkers needing to escape, the monsoon had hung on and the low cloud meant it was unsafe for planes to fly between the two towns. Lukla, home to one of the world’s scariest airports, is surrounded by mountains with a short runway and only visual landings. Stranded in the lowlands for my fourth night, I had visions of having to return to Kathmandu.


Our trip had already been shortened and the task of climbing altitudes of 5000+ metres meant it would be hard to remove any further days from our itinerary; acclimatisation is important to avoid altitude sickness which has the potential to be deadly. We were following an unconventional route to EBC, via the remote Gokyo Valley which necessitated crossing a high pass (Cho La). Gokyo Village is overlooked by Cho Oyu, the world’s 6th highest mountain, from which Nepal’s largest glacier flows. We would have to navigate the glacier before ascending Cho La Pass. It would have been a challenge without losing days and I was already suffering nervous anticipation.

How did I get here?

I love the mountains; although my usual habitat revolves around the snow-covered variety with a snowboard attached to my feet. I hate climbing, but I am an ‘armchair mountaineer’ and adore a good book. In my mid-forties, I read Savage Summit by Jennifer Jordan, about the first five women who summited K2, the world’s second highest mountain. Although I had no desire to climb, I realised that I could trek to the base camp. This book lit the touch paper, firing my imagination and desire to see and experience what the mountaineers had. However, at the time, Pakistan was off-limits. Not to be deterred; if I couldn’t go to the second highest mountain in the world, then I would go to the first!


I timed this to coincide with my 50th birthday and I was to leave in May 2020. We all know what happened that year. This was the first of several rescheduled dates, each time I wasn’t convinced it would go ahead but I had to be ready mentally and physically so I used the enforced delay to participate in other challenges such as cycling coast-to-coast to keep me focused rather than being consumed by disappointment. In the summer of 2022, I was sure the autumn trip would go ahead, so I employed a PT twice a week to add to my weekly bootcamp and weightlifting sessions. I also started stair climbing, gradually increasing the weights in my backpack. By the end of September, I was ready.

Best and worst of days

Fortunately, at crunch-time, a helicopter arrived and whisked us away. We’d already spent a sleepless night in Gokyo and crossed the glacier before arriving in Thangnak, ready to tackle Cho La.


Getting out of my sleeping bag wasn’t proving any easier. At 4am, the inside of our teahouse window was covered in ice, and my breath misted as I prepared for the hardest day. After a quick breakfast, we started moving upwards through the Cho La valley. My headtorch provided a small pool of light illuminating the back of Mandy’s walking boots. I didn’t look up. I knew from cycling that it was best to concentrate on the immediate path; looking too far ahead can prove overwhelming. For 2 hours, I followed Mandy’s footsteps. Gradually, the darkness lifted and with it the promise of warmth as the sun rose. We’d reached the top of the valley, and I looked up to see a saddle between two peaks - Cho La Pass.


At its base we climbed over boulders using our trekking poles for stability but before long the pitch steepened, necessitating hands on rock. To my right a sheer, vertical cragged wall and to my left a vast expanse; I chose to concentrate on the metre-wide path of jumbled rubble in front of me. The last thing I needed now was a wobble, either physically or psychologically. It was 5 hours since we’d left Thangnak, and suddenly the brightly coloured prayer flags came into view. We had reached the top of the Pass. Everywhere I looked there were snow-capped mountains, so prolific that some didn’t have names, all framed against a cerulean sky. At 5420m, there is only half the oxygen found at sea level, but my heart was full of joy and gratitude. I made it.

Arriving at EBC

Breathing hard, attempting to ignore my high-altitude cough, as I trekked along the lateral moraine of the mighty Khumbu glacier. To my right I could see the distinctive outline of Nuptse and just beyond Everest’s summit triangle. The mountains were colossal; think the Alps on steroids. Helicopters buzzed along the valley, appearing like specks on the flanks of these ancient giants. So many people all heading in one direction, all hell-bent on reaching one destination. All summiting happens in late spring so EBC has no tents in the autumn. Base camp is instead signified by one large rock which is marked with red spray-paint, announcing, you have arrived at 5360m.


As we reached this milestone I could hear excited chatter but also swearing. Everyone wants their photo taken in this iconic spot and although altitude may have gotten to some, people shouting ‘eff off’ to claim their solo shots were not what I expected to hear, reverberating around this hallowed ground. Some people are overwhelmed by their achievement, tears and back slapping for all but I mostly felt relief. I had made it after six years of waiting. It had been a rollercoaster of emotion, filled with uncertainty for much of the time, but I was now here.


Before long I wanted to leave, to get away from all these rude people and descend to warmer climes with thicker, oxygenated air. Everest has a raw beauty, mother nature at her most powerful, but at this height there is no life - just snow, rock, and ice. I wanted to see the blue gentian flowers, smell the juniper trees, and feel the warmth of the sun. I wanted to trek in peace and quiet with just my crew, my people. I thought the highlight would be arriving at EBC, but it was too brash for me. I preferred Cho La with its solitude and remoteness. Any good adventure should provide a challenge, but it doesn’t always deliver what you expect. For us, on our descent, there was still more to come including that plane flight out of Lukla.

A few of Kate's favourite things

Favourite Song

Les Nuits by Nightmares on Wax reminds me of good times when I first met my husband.

Favourite Podcast

The Everyday Adventure Podcast by Nicki Bass from Resilience at Work. It’s 30-40 minutes long, perfect to listen to whilst ironing.

Favourite Recipe

Kim’s Cake which came via my mother but was originally by Rosemary Conley. It’s very easy and the sugar can be substituted with a sweetener such as Canderel, (4 tablespoons rather than a mug) to make it less calorific. I also add the juice and zest of an orange. Delicious for a packed lunch out in the hills.

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