Our Queenstown store Manager, James, won the 2016 Executive Leadership Award and decided to use the prize to trek to Everest Base Camp. He has just returned and has shared his experience with us.

At the Barkers Conference in 2016 I won the Executive Leadership Award, after eight months working for Barkers. After a night of merriment and probably a little too much wine, I had to decide what to do with my award fund. This task itself was very tough, as there are so many different ways to utilise said fund. I contemplated going down the path of doing something educational, however I felt that I really wanted to challenge myself with something completely outside my comfort zone.

Later that year, I completed my first marathon. Having never ran more than 10km in my life, two months before marathon day, I signed up and set myself a challenge to complete the 42.4 KM run in one piece. Even though I knew this was going to be near impossible, I managed to complete it and looked to further challenge myself. Afterwards I thought, what else could I do on this earth that would physically and mentally test my limits? Cue Everest Base Camp....

Mount Everest Base Camp sits at 17,600ft above Sea level in the Khumbu region of the Himalayas. The highest peak in New Zealand is Mount Cook at 12,218ft. After doing a lot of research I found a treks & expedition company offering a 12-day EBC trek and took the plunge and booked the trip & flights in.

In late May 2017 I flew alone to Kathmandu, Nepal where I had an expedition briefing before resting up for the start of the trek at 4am the following morning. I had put months of exercise in during the lead up to the trip and was focusing solely on getting to Base Camp and back safely. I had never been to Nepal before so this in itself was a big culture shock.

The first day of the trek brought the first big challenge. This for me was the flight from Kathmandu to Tenzing-Hillary airport, Lukla (9,863ft). I do not fly easily and through my research before the trip, I unfortunately stumbled across a few articles naming Lukla airport as the most dangerous/deadly in the world. This was not ideal but unfortunately could not be avoided. Luckily the 24 minute flight was over pretty quickly with only a few screams here and there. It was on the flight that I caught the first glimpses of the Himalayas and realised in that moment what I had signed myself up for.

When you first step off the plane, you feel the chill in the air, and are surrounded by mountains. There is no rest and you are marched straight on to your first day of hiking. I had bought a bag of potato chips in Kathmandu airport (breakfast of champions) and the bag had almost exploded by the time we touched down in Lukla. Call me ignorant however I had never realised the mountain villages were home to many Nepali natives. They had working schools, restaurants and many other facilities I wasn’t expecting. While it was all very basic, it worked for the people.

Of the 12 days on the hike, 8 days are ascending, and four days are descending. You are required to have three acclimatisation days for your body to adjust to the pressures and lower oxygen levels on the ascent. The higher up we traveled the more difficult everything became. By the end, a simple task like putting on your boots was difficult and at times would leave me out of breath. Imagine rolling around in bed too quickly, and being out of breath for thirty seconds.

We arrived in Namche Bazaar (11,286ft) on Day two after 7-8 hours of hiking uphill. This village is one of the bigger villages in the Khumbu region and consists of many tourist stores, bakeries and one token Irish pub claiming to be the highest in the world. Unfortunately for me, it is highly recommended you do not consume alcohol on the way up, so I had to wait a full week before being able to have my victory pint of Guinness.

While you are in the first few days of hiking, we were still surrounded by trees & shrubbery making breathing semi-easy at this stage. I thought it was tough to begin with, until we ascended above 15000ft and I could barely walk fifteen minutes without needing a break.

The tea houses where we stayed each night were very basic. The Nepali mountain people build everything themselves and are very self-sustainable. They don’t have fancy houses, none of them own cars and they are very humble people. By the time dinner was served at 6pm, everyone was exhausted and ready for bed shortly after 7pm. I don’t know if it was the oxygen levels, but I was asleep every night for 7.30pm, and always woke up the next day with a very bad headache, dry mouth and blocked airways; All part of the experience.

The final four days of ascending was when things got very tough. The facilities got scarcer and I had to bid farewell to showers, hot water, and private bathrooms. There was an eeriness in the air as the sun disappeared and we were in the clouds, unable to see twenty feet ahead of us. Everything was now uphill, rocky and it also got quieter on the track, with many people moving at different paces now. I was pretty tired at this stage. This is where I thought to myself, this is it, the heat is on.

I got to Day seven, Everest Base Camp Day. Where I had initially thought this day was going to be a glorious day where I would be full of energy and ready to take on the trek, it was exactly the polar opposite. I had two blue toenails and swollen ankles and a dull pain in the back of my head which wouldn’t go away. I had several blisters on my feet and all my socks were damp from the freezing cold temperatures. I was exhausted, freezing and it began to snow. I was beginning to realise that the trek wasn’t a simple hike up Queenstown Hill but an actual mental and physical endurance test where I had to push past my limits. Getting to the top seemed near impossible.

We arrived at Everest Base Camp around 2pm. The sun split the sky and it was a very surreal moment. I had to pinch myself and amidst my exhaustion I experienced an emotional moment, realising where I was standing and all the sweat, blood and tears that came alongside it. Everest Base Camp is the starting point for all mountain climbers, and the end point for all Base Camp trekkers. You cross many people on the paths. Native people & yaks crowd the trails carrying supplies, cargo and every day items up and down to all the villages in the region. These people carry up to 110kgs on their backs each day, and I thought we had it bad with carrying stock boxes.

One of the main reasons I did this trek was to challenge myself. We all work some way in retail. Working in retail brings its own challenges every day. It can be so tough working in sales, and at times our jobs require us all to bite the bullet, leave our comfort zone and do something that requires courage, a sense of audacity and charisma. It is when we leave our comfort zone that we get the results we are all striving to achieve. Since starting my employment with Barkers, I’ve always heard the phrases “Go hard or go home” or “We don’t do average” being thrown around. I massively left my comfort zone going on this trek. It was not all fun and games, and it brought many tears and moments where I had lost hope and didn’t think I could hike any more. I persevered, trekked on and came out on top (literally) and completed a life-goal of mine that was something I never in a million years thought I could do.