June 29, 2010
OXFORD, Ohio – Imagine traveling to a foreign country halfway around the world and for two and a half weeks, living in small cabins and even mud huts in sub-freezing temperatures without heat, seemingly halfway to space. There is no plumbing either and for the 17 days in this winter wonderland, showering will be allowed just three times due to the possibility of getting sick in the frigid weather. And to make matters worse, no fruits and vegetables will be available to eat and meat will be very limited.
For most people, this might seem like a nightmare vacation, but for Miami women’s soccer seniors Jessica Byron, her twin sister Rachel, and Brooke Livingston, it was the opportunity of a lifetime – and the opportunity to complete their senior capstone while living in the wilderness.
On May 13, the RedHawk trio departed the United States along with 11 other Miami students as part of their senior capstone course, called Health and Culture, USA & Asia, offered through Miami University by Dr. Mark Walsh, who had previously taught Rachel and Brooke in a biomechanics class. The group stopped in Hong Kong for a visit before flying into Kathmandu, Nepal, where the class would have to switch aircraft. To get onto the mountainside where they would spend the majority of their trip, the students had to ride in an open-cabin (not enclosed) airplane and land on a short landing strip of about 150 yards, meaning if the plane did not stop in time, into the side of the mountain it went.
“When we took off I thought for sure we were going to plummet into the ground,” said Rachel, who was more concerned about the aircraft itself than landing on the mountainside.
The idea to take this trip did not just fall from the sky however.
“The trip was a couple years in the making,” Livingston explained. “Rachel knew about this option since our freshman year and Miami’s been offering the trip for the past 14 years.” Dr. John Subedi, a professor native to Nepal, first started the trip at Miami and continues to stay involved, as he gave the students a speech at their final dinner on the mountain, which was also his final time on the trip, doing so with his son.
“Dr. Subedi said ‘These mountains have changed you in some way, and you may not know how yet, but someday down the road you will’,” Jessica said, recalling his words as one of the things she’ll take away from the experience –along with the chance to take in something this beautiful and breathtaking (what little they could gasp) with her sister and teammates.
Once the group safely landed on the rugged terrain, the class would begin its daunting and exasperating hike up Kala Patthar Mountain, which soars over 18,600 feet into thin air (literally) as part of the Himalaya Mountain Range. During the ascent up the mountain, the soccer triumvirate’s lives consisted of waking up to hot tea at 6:30 a.m. nearly every morning, hiking up the mountain for six to eight hours a day, before calling it a night at about 8 p.m. due to exhaustion.
After nearly two weeks of strenuous climbing and impoverished living conditions, the Byrons, Livingston and the rest of the students reached the peak of Kala Patthar, which allowed for the greatest view of Mount Everest because it was their highest destination altitude-wise. The class could not stay at the peak however and ultimately made their way to their final destination the next day – Everest Base Camp, which was located on the highest glacier in the world and a mere 17,100 feet above sea level.
"Arriving at Mount Everest Base Camp was the most incredible feeling in the world. The weeks of trekking and hard work had finally paid off and together we had accomplished something extraordinary," Livingston described. "There are no words to explain what it was like to see the peak of Mount Everest for the first time. You couldn't help but stand there in complete awe. Our group actually pleaded with our guide to allow us to trek half way up Kala Patthar the morning of our descent to get one last look at it. That’s how breathtakingly beautiful it was."
There was some work to be done too along the way – after all it was their capstone – as the group had to check their blood oxygen level and heart rates each morning to see if it decreased in higher elevations while also monitoring for possible symptoms of acute mountain sickness (nausea, ataxia, ability to sleep, etc.) and keeping a daily journal on what they’d learned as part of their research. To read one of Rachel’s journal entries, click here.
Doing the work was easy; it was adjusting to the conditions that were difficult. Although the Byrons and Livingston did not get sick because of the high altitude, two students did and had to return to Kathmandu, including one who had to be lifted off the mountain via helicopter. Their food was another obstacle, having to eat a bland diet of mostly rice, noodles and potatoes, as only foods that could be grown on the mountain were available, limiting their fruit and vegetable intake. In addition, the Sherpas who guided them (most of whom were Buddhist) did not kill animals for food because of their religion, leading to a scarcity of meat to eat (the only available meat had to be imported onto the mountainside). All water had to be boiled because of disease, as well.
The simplest bodily function may have been the most difficult thing about the whole trip however – breathing. “It was a totally different kind of fitness level,” Livingston said, comparing hiking in high altitude to playing a 90-minute soccer game.
“We saw a marathon start from our base camp and go down the mountain, which was mind-blowing because we would be out of breath just going to the bathroom,” Rachel said. “You’d be panting on your way back from walking down the hall.”
Once the three RedHawks adjusted to the altitude, the sights and scenes while hiking up the mountain were well worth the pain and strife. The higher they climbed, the lush greens disappeared and the landscape became snowier and icier while the Sherpa villages and homes became more and more sparse.
“They (the Sherpas) must be the strongest people in the world because they would carry walls of their house up the mountain on their back,” Livingston said. “At times you couldn’t even see the person because they were carrying so much.”
The group also saw yaks, as well as farm animals such as cows and chickens along their hikes. The students were mainly led by Sherpas but wild mountain dogs would also join the group occasionally to help lead the pack to its final resting point. The Sherpas believed the wild dogs were reincarnated people, allowing them to guide their way up the mountain with ease, Livingston explained.
Buddha statues were abundant on the mountainside and the group even had the chance to visit multiple monasteries while hiking. One of the most emotional aspects of the trip was when the students visited a cemetery for people who had died while trying to climb up or down the mountain.
All three soccer players agreed that the Sherpa culture, which was vastly different than American culture, was one of the most fascinating and memorable parts of the trip.
“At the end of the trip we collected tips for our guides (the Sherpas) and they were so thankful because the money will help them and their families survive,” Rachel said.
After the farewell dinner on the final night, the class descended the mountain, which took just three days to get down after taking two weeks to ascend, and eventually flew back to the United States, stopping in Thailand, before arriving home on June 7.
"I never thought of myself as being adventurous, but I think it’s fair to say that we have all earned that title now," Livingston said, noting that her most adventurous trip previously was a white-water rafting trip with Miami’s soccer team earlier in her career. "It was by far the hardest, yet most rewarding thing I have ever done and is something that I will reminisce about for the rest of my life,” she said of hiking and living on the Himalayas.
With the girls now turning their attention back to soccer and summer training, the trio hopes their unique experience will benefit them in their senior campaign. The mental aspect of overcoming challenges was the biggest thing the world travelers felt they could bring back to Oxford from their trip.
“I would think about our fitness test (for the team) when we were climbing and realize that the fitness test lasted no longer than a game but we were doing the hiking for hours,” said Jessica, while her sister added that since games are just 90 minutes they should be able to keep going and push through their fatigue after having an experience such as this and hiking for hours on end.
The Byrons and Livingston, along with the rest of the Miami soccer team, report to fall practice in early August and look to put their experiences to good use when the RedHawks open their 2010 campaign August 20 against Alabama A&M.