Karen O'Connor's first trip to the Everest region of Nepal, almost 30 years ago, didn't go smoothly. Despite being accompanied by the legendary mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary, she hiked too far on her first day and promptly got altitude sickness.
"I had pulmonary edema and my face started to swell," recalls Ms. O'Connor, who was 22 and working on Wall Street at the time. "I could hardly see out my eyes. And then it started to snow, so they closed the airport and we couldn't get out. It was quite an experience."
Ms. O'Connor will be heading back to Nepal in May, leading a group of nine Canadians on an 18-day trekking trip to raise money for the hospital, schools and reforestation projects supported by the Toronto-based Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation. Her father, Zeke, a former Toronto Argos football player, started the foundation with Sir Hillary in 1974. Its goal: to help the Sherpa people of the Everest region. Ms. O'Connor is now the president – and the lessons from her first trip have stuck with her.
"It was a reality check about how careful you have to be," she says. "It's serious stuff." For busy Canadian tourists who try to cram a trip to the base of Mount Everest into a relatively short vacation, "that's when your training beforehand becomes so important, because you don't have the luxury of slowly acclimatizing." (The first time, Ms. O'Connor says, she trained every night by walking home from Wall Street up to 86th Street.)
While climbing to the top of Mount Everest remains a rare feat, "teahouse trekking" from lodge to lodge in the foothills around Mount Everest has become accessible and increasingly popular. Some 30,000 trekkers a year now visit the region, more than twice as many as a decade ago. But the thin air, mountainous terrain and lack of medical care mean that good preparation is essential.
Ms. O'Connor enlisted the aid of retired NHL star Gary Roberts, who offers a specially tailored executive training program through the Fitness Institute in North York. Working with Mr. Roberts and personal trainer Stephanie Way, she has been preparing for the hike since November. That involves one or two in-person sessions each week, plus spinning and yoga classes and treadmill sessions when she can fit them. While a busy schedule as president of a risk-management company has limited Ms. O'Connor's gym time to two to three hours per week, she is now ramping up her regimen in anticipation of the final weeks before the trek.
One of the priorities, Ms. Way says, is to develop strong core muscles so that Ms. O'Connor will maintain stability while carrying a pack over rocky and hilly terrain. To achieve that, she's performing some exercises on a balance ball, and others using a TRX "suspension trainer" – a pair of straps suspended from a bar that force you to maintain your balance even during upper-body exercises.
Sustained activities like spinning and stair-climbing develop leg strength and cardiovascular fitness, and also help prepare Ms. O'Connor for the mental challenge of hiking for hours at a time. "That mental endurance is important," Ms. Way says. "If you're strong in the mind, your body finds a way to follow."
When it comes to altitude sickness, fitness alone doesn't grant you immunity, warns Dr. Michael Koehle of the University of British Columbia's Altitude Medicine Clinic. In fact, very fit hikers often go too fast and overexert themselves, leaving them even more vulnerable to problems, he says.
Poor fitness can be a particular problem for hikers travelling in large groups, who may feel pressure to keep up with the rest of the group and be hesitant to complain if they notice symptoms like headache, nausea and dizziness. One study found that people trekking in groups have twice the rate of helicopter evacuation as those trekking independently, Dr. Koehle notes.
"Whenever counselling groups, I always recommend that communication among members is just about the most important factor," he says.
For Ms. O'Connor's group, the goal is to make it to Everest Base Camp, where expeditions gather to prepare for their assaults on the summit. At 5,364 metres, it's almost 1,500 metres higher than the highest point she has reached in her previous trips to Nepal. That's a big challenge, but she has a good reason to be motivated.
Last year, working with the Rotary Club of West Calgary and a local group, the Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation helped build a new high school in Phaplu, along the route to Mount Everest. Every person on the trek, in addition to paying their own expenses (totalling $2,500, plus airfare to Kathmandu), has committed to raising $2,500 for the school. It will be the first school in the region to offer grades 11 and 12 science in the remote region – and it will be named for Ms. O'Connor's father.
More information about the foundation can be found at TheSirEdmundHillaryFoundation.ca
HOW TO AVOID ALTITUDE SICKNESS
Take it easy
Ascend slowly: Don't increase your sleeping altitude by more than 400 metres a day once you're above 3,000 metres.
Take a full rest day after every 1,000 metres of ascent – and be prepared for unscheduled rest days if needed.
Stay hydrated with alcohol-free and caffeine-free drinks.
Maintain a slow, steady hiking pace.
Watch for these warning signs: mild headache, nausea, sleeplessness, dizziness.
SOURCE: UBC Altitude Medicine Clinic, www.environmentalphysiology.ca
Special to The Globe and Mail