Everest poses toughest test yet

Zsuzsanna Sarpatki resting up Everest Zsuzsanna Sarpatki resting at 3600m: 'You hit the wall every few steps'

Some holiday makers think exertion means a swim over to the pool bar or the turn of a magazine page in the midday sun. Zsuzsanna Sarpatki sets her benchmarks somewhat higher.

'Every year, I like to set myself a big challenge,' says the woman who has run the London and New York marathons and walked from London to Brighton (in 27 hours and 59 minutes). 'I like to push my body to extremes so I can experience what others feel.'

The BBC facilities co-ordinator has just returned from her latest adventure - a trek to Everest base camp in the depths of winter.

It was a journey that tested her resolve like no other, as she suffered severe altitude sickness, bone-chilling temperatures and rock showers on her way. But the hardest part was reaching the start of the trail.

Plane crash

Sarpatki arrived at Kathmandu airport in Nepal expecting to meet up with four fellow trekkers who had also signed up for the expedition, only to discover that all the others had pulled out.

They'd had second thoughts when, two weeks before, a plane taking off from Kathmandu en route to Lukla and the start of the Everest trail had come down shortly after take-off. All 19 people on board were killed, including seven British tourists.

View from the helicopter Helicopter ride through the gloom

'It meant I'd have to take the terrifying flight alone in a small plane on an extreme airstrip,' says Sarpatki. But the weather had other ideas.

On the first day, the flight was cancelled due to bad weather. On the second, 'after a sleepless night thinking that I might die', the flight was delayed further.

'My agency told me that I would be making the journey by helicopter. If you take the helicopter that's when you know the weather is bad,' she says.

A heated argument over whether or not the craft was over the weight limit did little to assuage her anxiety, nor did the fact that the seatbelts didn't work.

'I'm praying'

'I started talking nervously to a Nepalese man sitting next to me,' Sarpatki recalls. 'He didn't respond at first - he just stared straight ahead, and then he put his hand on my knee as if to say, 'Don't talk, I'm praying'.'

They flew through the gloom, a metre or two above the mountain tops, with the pilot's naked eye their only guide. Sarpaki's relief was palpable when she landed safely in Lukla. 'We were lucky,' she says, 'the helicopter before us couldn't find the airstrip as there was so much cloud. When I located my guide, I gave him the biggest hug on the planet. I was so happy to have survived.'

The first two days of the trek were a breeze. The pair walked in five to ten degrees, revelling in 'absolutely breathtaking' scenery and staying in stunning tea houses - it was the wrong time of year for camping - where Sarpatki enjoyed rice and lentils and a comfortable bed for the night.

On day three, as they reached 3800m, everything changed. 'The temperature plunged to -20 degrees. The high altitude meant I was constantly out of breath,' she says. 'If you run a marathon you hit the wall once; here, you hit the wall every few steps. I felt nauseous, exhausted and a bit dizzy - like being drunk.'

Zsuzsanna Sarpatki at Base Camp Bliss on reaching Everest base camp

At one point the symptoms became so severe that she collapsed and her guide wanted to carry her 600 metres down the mountain to recover. 'But I wanted to carry on - we had to keep to a schedule; I did start taking the medicine, though.'

Raining rocks

Even with base camp in sight, the trials continued. 'It was so windy, and there was a lot of loose gravel, rocks and ice on the final stretch which started to come down. The guide told me to keep looking at his back, not to look up. He asked if I could run, but at that height I just couldn't.'

Base camp was deserted - it was the wrong time of year for the serious climbers who begin their ascents from this point. 'We stayed for about 15 minutes; the wind was so strong I could hardly stand up.'

Back in Britain, it took a week or so before Sarpatki was able to appreciate the experience. 'It was absolutely my toughest challenge - I spent so long suffering,' she admits. 'But the kindness of the Nepalese people is what sticks in my mind. Their villages were like going back in time 50 or 60 years. They had nothing, but they were happy. The people, culture and food are beautiful.'

She hasn't decided on her next challenge yet - she says they are often dreamt up and booked on a whim - especially after a knee injury curtailed her ambition to run a marathon on every continent. 'I can't run again,' she says. 'But as one door closes another one opens.'


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