Maria Con­ce­icao, who set up a char­ity to help poor chil­dren in Dhaka, Bangladesh, de­cided to raise funds by climb­ing the mother of all moun­tains. She tells Sangeetha Swa­roop how she very nearly gave up when she was barely a few hun­dred me­tres from the sum

Friday - - Society -

From where she stood – a pre­cip­i­tous, near ver­ti­cal slope – with her cram­pons dug deep into the ice cov­er­ing the rocky moun­tain face, Maria Con­ce­icao could feel the strong winds lash against her body. Hold­ing the guide rope tightly with her left hand, she raised her ice axe with her right and sent it plung­ing into the thick snow above her. Cling­ing on to the axe, lit­er­ally for her life, she then hauled her­self one tiny step up the 8,848-me­tre Mount Ever­est.

She had been climb­ing for 20 days. She had to keep blink­ing be­cause her eye­lashes were in dan­ger of freez­ing and fus­ing to­gether in the -14C tem­per­a­ture. Ex­hausted and cold, she was around 8,600m up the moun­tain in Nepal and the sum­mit, less than 300m above, seemed within easy reach.

“There was this feel­ing of hap­pi­ness swelling within me at the prospect of be­ing only a few min­utes away from stand­ing atop the pin­na­cle of the world,” says Maria, 35.

Glanc­ing up, the Por­tuguese national who lives in Dubai, could see swirling foamy clouds. When­ever they parted they of­fered her tan­ta­lis­ing views of the sum­mit.

But a quick glance be­low at the treach­er­ous cor­nice of sev­eral thou­sand me­tres on ei­ther side jolted her back to re­al­ity. She knew she had to stay fo­cused; Ever­est can be un­for­giv­ing even of the slight­est mar­gin of er­ror. And she was here for a cause, not to die.

“It was not for glory that I had set out on this ex­pe­di­tion,” says Maria. “It was a des­per­ate mea­sure to raise funds for the foun­da­tion I set up to help slum chil­dren in Dhaka. I wanted to let them live with dig­nity and give them the op­por­tu­ni­ties I had when I was young.”

A for­mer Emi­rates Air­line cabin crew mem­ber, Maria was on a stopover in Dhaka in 2005 when she wit­nessed for the first time the im­pact of poverty on chil­dren’s lives. The mem­ory of her own child­hood – her birth mother had Alzheimer’s and had been un­able to look af­ter her, so she was raised by Cristina, an An­golan refugee cleaner who had six chil­dren of her own – in­spired Maria to take ac­tion and she set up the Maria Cristina Foun­da­tion.

“My adop­tive mother, Cristina, died when I was 12, but I re­mem­ber how she fought tooth and nail with the Por­tuguese au­thor­i­ties who wanted to put me up for adop­tion or send me to an or­phan­age,” she says.

“It was a bat­tle she waged all through my child­hood as 33 years ago, the idea of a poor black woman tak­ing care of a white child was vir­tu­ally un­heard of. But I am glad that de­spite all the odds, she did not give up on me.”

Go­ing to great heights

Maria wanted to re­pay that debt and with the help of friends and well-wish­ers she es­tab­lished a school in Dhaka for the slum chil­dren in 2005.

Five ex­cep­tional stu­dents were brought to the UAE for higher ed­u­ca­tion while sev­eral young adults and par­ents also landed jobs in Dubai. “Ev­ery life we help change for the bet­ter is a huge ac­com­plish­ment for us,” she says.

How­ever, the school is now closed ow­ing to lack of funds and it is in or­der to restart it that Maria em­barked on the Ever­est ex­pe­di­tion. Her tar­get is to raise $1 mil­lion (Dh3.67 mil­lion).

All th­ese thoughts flit­ted through her mind as she rested so close to the Ever­est sum­mit. She had pushed her­self to the limit though and was near col­lapse and short of oxy­gen. Just an hour be­fore, her guide Satyabrata Dam had be­rated her. “You’re not walk­ing fast enough. Move quickly or pre­pare to re­turn to camp,’’ he’d shouted, fear­ing Maria wouldn’t reach the top if the win­dow of good weather passed.

“This was ex­tremely dis­heart­en­ing,” says Maria. “I thought I was at peak per­for­mance and ar­gued with him that no mat­ter what

hap­pened, I would not turn back. I couldn’t – the help­less faces of the 600 chil­dren at the foun­da­tion flashed in my mind. I knew I had to do it for them. I was their only help and sup­port and I could not bear to let them down.”

With the fu­ture of the slum chil­dren in Dhaka still hang­ing in bal­ance, Maria was de­ter­mined to scale Ever­est at any cost. So when she was told to con­sider turn­ing back even though she had the sum­mit in her sights, Maria chose to do ex­actly what she had been trained not to – ig­nore the wis­dom of her guide.

“I thought of my adop­tive mother who in­stilled in me the val­ues of com­pas­sion and per­se­ver­ance that had now taken me to the top of the world. My grat­i­tude went out to my train­ing team; ded­i­cated vol­un­teers and the host fam­i­lies of my chil­dren; friends; spon­sors who cov­ered the cost of the ex­pe­di­tion; and all my Dhaka kids with­out whom I wouldn’t have been the per­son I am to­day.”

It was 8.30am on day 20 and Maria had just clam­bered up the leg­endary Hil­lary Step, a 12-me­tre wall of rock and ice, said to be the last hur­dle be­fore the fi­nal as­cent up the sum­mit. Hav­ing braved shift­ing chunks of ice, deep crevasses, rock­falls and avalanches in the past seven weeks, Maria had also en­dured nau­sea, dizzi­ness, fa­tigue and loss of ap­petite as she ex­pe­ri­enced some of the most ex­treme weather pat­terns on Earth.

Maria and her team of guide, Satyabrata Dam, and two Sher­pas, Sangee and Nima, had taken the South Col Route – the same one used by Sir Ed­mund Hil­lary – that went through the treach­er­ous Khumbu Ice­fall andWestern Cwm up the Lhotse Face and past the South Col and Hil­lary Step to the sum­mit. It had been more than 12 hours now since she’d left Camp 4, the last camp on the moun­tain be­fore the sum­mit.

Soon af­ter, she had en­tered the Death Zone where, at 8,000m above sea level, oxy­gen lev­els are so low that they can play havoc with the hu­man body and mind. “This is where the fa­tal­ity rate goes up ex­po­nen­tially,” Maria ex­plains. “At this level, judge­ment be­comes im­paired, a per­son be­comes con­fused and peo­ple hal­lu­ci­nate as ab­nor­mal changes hap­pen in the brain and body due to lack of oxy­gen.”

Al­though the moun­taineers carry oxy­gen in tanks, they ra­tion it strictly to en­sure they have enough for the trip up and down. “I didn’t have any ex­pe­ri­ence, but had de­cided to take ex­tra oxy­gen on the ad­vice of my guide,” she says.

That’s why she had upped her oxy­gen lev­els from two to three litres per minute as­sum­ing that low oxy­gen lev­els were what was slow­ing her down. The sud­den rush of ex­tra oxy­gen had given her the power to surge ahead and Maria had soon over­taken her guide and the Sher­pas who were bat­tling signs of al­ti­tude sick­ness. “All I thought of were the kids and how much I wanted to en­sure them a bet­ter life,” she says.

It wasn’t un­til Maria was about 10 steps away from the sum­mit that she re­alised her guide and Sher­pas were nowhere in sight. “For a mo­ment I was stricken by panic,’’ she says, real­is­ing it had been a fool­hardy de­ci­sion to over­take them and move up. “The oxy­gen level in my cylin­der was fast de­plet­ing, and I had no com­mu­ni­ca­tion de­vice to tell my guide, who by now was al­most an hour be­hind.

“When I stepped atop the sum­mit of Mount Ever­est, it wasn’t joy that I felt but an eeri­ness in­side that I had com­pro­mised my safety and with it, ru­ined the fu­ture of the chil­dren and their fam­i­lies for whom I set out to un­der­take this per­ilous task.”

She was not sure she would be alive to con­tinue to raise funds for the chil­dren’s up­keep. Maria sat down on the ice wait­ing and watch­ing other climbers come, take pic­tures, en­joy their mo­ments of glory and be­gin their de­scent. She hung around, with just hope for com­pany, think­ing of ev­ery­thing she had done to get there and how she had maybe ru­ined it all.

For the whole of the pre­vi­ous year she had trained for this mo­ment. She had started at 5.30am ev­ery day with a four-hour climb up the stairs of Dubai Ma­rina’s The Torch, with a 25 to 29kg back­pack, to sim­u­late the climb. Shortly be­fore leav­ing for Nepal, she had pro­gressed to do­ing a to­tal of 250 floors each day. She had also un­der­taken reg­u­lar ses­sions of spin­ning, swim­ming and run­ning for car­dio fit­ness, and yoga for flex­i­bil­ity and bal­ance.

And to make sure she was com­pletely ready she had at­tended an in­ten­sive 28-day course at the Nehru In­sti­tute of Moun­taineer­ing in In­dia, grad­u­at­ing with an A grade. In ad­di­tion,

‘I was striken by panic. The oxy­gen level in my cylin­der was fast de­plet­ing, and I had no com­mu­ni­ca­tion de­vice’

she climbed sev­eral peaks such as Kil­i­man­jaro (Africa), El­brus (Europe), Aconcagua (South Amer­ica), and made an at­tempt on De­nali (North Amer­ica) as part of her tech­ni­cal train­ing. Now all she could do was try to use as lit­tle oxy­gen as pos­si­ble while she prayed for the oth­ers to ar­rive.

An over­whelm­ing sense of grat­i­tude

Forty-five min­utes later her guide ar­rived, and her spir­its soared. An­other 30 min­utes later, the Sher­pas as­cended. She was over­joyed to see her team and it was only then that the im­por­tance of her achieve­ment sank in.

“It had all seemed very sur­real un­til then,” she says. “More than a sense of achieve­ment, what I felt was an over­whelm­ing sense of grat­i­tude, es­pe­cially to my team.”

But why climb Ever­est, why put one­self in mor­tal dan­ger to raise funds? “This is a ques­tion I am of­ten asked,” says Maria, “es­pe­cially be­cause of the in­her­ent risks to life in scal­ing this be­he­moth of a moun­tain. My ex­pe­ri­ence dur­ing the global eco­nomic down­turn – when there was a sud­den halt to cor­po­rate flow of funds for char­i­ta­ble ac­tiv­i­ties – was that un­der­tak­ing a phys­i­cally chal­leng­ing en­deav­our was the best way to not only raise money, but also to hone one’s skills of sur­vival.

“Three years ago, fol­low­ing my trip to the North Pole to raise funds, five chil­dren from the slums of Dhaka were of­fered free ed­u­ca­tion up to the age of 18 at top schools in Dubai. We raised Dh2.7 mil­lion in spon­sor­ships. Two years ago, af­ter Rosa Are­osa and I un­der­took the 777 chal­lenge – seven marathons across seven emi­rates in seven days – Eti­had of­fered free an­nual flights for life for the chil­dren here on schol­ar­ships and to the young adults com­ing to work in the UAE as well as the par­ents of the younger chil­dren still stuck in the slums of Dhaka. Sum­mit­ing Mount Ever­est there­fore seemed the next most log­i­cal step for me.”

Maria says that while on her way down, she was re­lieved she had made it. “I saw one of the most in­cred­i­ble views on Earth with swathes of pris­tine snow­fields glis­ten­ing un­der the morn­ing sun; I felt truly hum­bled.”

It was dur­ing the de­scent, how­ever, that Maria fully ap­pre­ci­ated the tire­less hours of her in­tense train­ing over the past year.

“My legs of­ten gave way com­pletely while go­ing down; they felt numb and it was only due to the strength of my up­per arms that I man­aged the de­scent safely.”

Now back in Dubai, Maria is on the look­out for other ways to raise money for her foun­da­tion and the chil­dren.

“De­spite my sin­cere ef­forts, I am nowhere close to rais­ing my goal of $1 mil­lion,” she says.

“Lit­tle acts of kind­ness such as two young boys in Dubai who re­cently sold their toys to raise Dh2,000 for the foun­da­tion keeps alive my faith and trust in hu­mankind. I had vowed to take care of my 600 kids and what­ever hap­pens, I will not re­nege on that.”

Maria had trained hard for the as­cent, and she wor­ried she had risked it all by push­ing ahead, leav­ing her guide be­hind her

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