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 and Western 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, 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.”