In November 2014, nine brave women swapped the first-world comforts of Singapore for a gruelling eight-day trek across the Sacred Tsum Valley of Nepal. Two of them – Women on a Mission co-founder Christine Amour-Levar and first-timer Selina McCole – told Verne Maree all about it.
This was the third such adventure organised by Women on a Mission, a Singapore-based group that raises funds for women survivors of war, victims of human trafficking and rape. In 2013, we told the inspirational story of Valerie Boffy’s summiting Mount Everest, then co-founding Women on a Mission and leading a group to the Everest Base Camp. Last year, we published Christine’s account of their second expedition, to the Wadi Rum in Jordan.
Selina McCole, from Northern Ireland, is employed by Goldman Sachs. Holder of a black belt in judo, she has also run seven full marathons and numerous half-marathons. Every other Sunday, you’ll find her teaching classes in entrepreneurship skills at Aidha, the NGO that empowers domestic workers.
Christine Amour-Levar, of French, Swiss and Filipino descent, is a marketing entrepreneur and writer. She is a consultant with Temasek Trust, the philanthropic arm of Temasek Holdings; she also works in leadership development with Temasek Management Services.
The other seven members of the team were: Valerie Boffy, Marjolein van Paridon (Maia), Vittoria Zipoli Caiani, Corinna Lim, Patricia Rodrigues-Jones, Catherine Zaccaria and Alexandra Pijuan-Tinker.
What made you sign up for this expedition, Selina?
After reading your interview with Valerie in Expat Living a couple of years ago, I invited her in my role as co-chair of Goldman Sachs’ Southeast Asian Women’s Network to address one of our conferences. And when I heard the plans for an expedition to the Sacred Valley of the Tsum, I knew I had to take part in it.
What did the physical preparation involve?
Selina: I stepped up my running to six times a week, doing a weekly average of 60km. But the real question was: how do you prepare in relatively flat Singapore for climbing mountains? Stair-climbing was the answer: repeatedly pounding up the stairwell of my 22-storey office building – in my hiking boots!
Christine: Valerie and I were fairly well prepared for climbing, having spent nine days rock-climbing in Jordan on our previous expedition. To get ready for that, we’d done two months of training at the amazing SAFRA Adventure Sports Centre climbing wall, the highest in Southeast Asia.
What was the most memorable moment for you?
Selina: Reaching the 5,093-metre summit of the Ngula Dhojang Pass on the Nepalese-Tibetan border was the real highlight for me. That final climb on the last day was optional, and it was certainly tough, but I relished the physical challenge.
Christine: We’d left at 4.30am, armed with head-torches and with the water still frozen in our CamelBaks. After traversing windy plains, icy rivers, landslides and small glaciers, we reached the top of the pass around midday. Once there, we unfurled a banner to reaffirm our commitment to our cause. After 20 minutes, though, we had to head straight back down to get to Mu Gompa Monastery before nightfall, 13 hours after we had set out. Though overwhelmed with fatigue, our sense of achievement was indescribable.
Just how physically challenging was the expedition as a whole?
Christine: Overall, it was the toughest of our three trips so far. The Everest Base Camp climb involved an ascent from 2,800 to 5,400 metres, and I thought that the altitude adjustment would be easier this time round because we started in the lowlands at just 730 metres. Well, it wasn’t! Also, the lodges were farther apart on this trek and there were fewer tea-houses and other places to rest, so we trekked for longer each day: up to 10 hours, sometimes, instead of five or six. Following a river meant traversing a lot of hilly terrain, and it was often necessary to cross rivers, too.
What was the lodge accommodation like?
Selina: Fairly basic, to be honest – squat toilets, rudimentary or non-existent ablution facilities, thin mattresses on hard floors; and, one sleepless night, the rustle and squeak of rats! Corinna even felt a furry body running over her hand.
Christine: For the first few days, it was possible to take cold showers. But as we climbed higher, the temperature plummeted below freezing as soon as the sun went down over the mountains. We stopped washing our hair on Day 5. The lodge with the rats that Selina mentioned had just one squat toilet for everyone staying there, and it was also the only place to wash. I’ll never forget trying to get clean with just a basin of lukewarm water while squatting over a smelly pit. It makes you really appreciate your nice marble shower when you get home!
What did you eat?
Christine: They gave us plenty of carbohydrates: noodles, rice, chapatis and dahl; but very little fat or protein, so our nourishment wasn’t as good as it could have been. So, by the time we got to climbing the pass on the last day, some of us were fairly weak – our tummies were literally concave!
Selina: It was hard to force down porridge at 4am before tackling the pass, though we knew we had to. We had our trail mix, but by that stage we could hardly stomach it any more.
How did the group dynamics work?
Selina: Though there were times when you’d have to engage and concentrate, at other times you could just go at your own pace for two or three hours at a time, just thinking your own thoughts and drinking in the beauty of the Himalayas. Or you could fall in with one of the other women for a chat. It was a powerful bonding experience; I felt I’d made friends for life.
Christine: Not only did the team gel incredibly well, but we’ve come back even more full of passion to make a difference to the lives of other women. It’s not just the charity, either; it’s about raising awareness, it’s even about being role models for our own daughters, when they see that Mummy can go off and do good and adventurous things on her own.
Did you engage much with the local people?
Selina: Yes, and everyone was most kind and hospitable. For example, even while we were climbing Ngula Dhojang Pass, a group of traders on their way from Nepal to Tibet, with horses laden to capacity, stopped to have lunch with us – and tea, too, on our way back down. Meeting with the mothers’ group in Philim village simply reinforced everything we know about the power of women in groups. Like similar groups in other villages in the area, they come together to organise their village, keep it clean, generate income for it and ensure their children’s education.
Christine: Another highlight was spending two nights in Kathmandu, at the start of our trip, and interacting with a group of young women from Women Lead Nepal. Selina presented a module on how to create a business plan; and team member Corinna Lim, who is also the executive director of AWARE (Singapore’s leading gender equality advocacy group), did a module on the dangers of bullying, stereotyping and so on.
In retrospect, was it fun?
Christine: It was “Type II fun” – meaning that it was not always enjoyable while doing it, but the memory of it is fun and it was completely worth the minor hardships.
Selina: In the end, we feel it’s our duty to help other women who have not had the same advantages as we’ve had. Every little bit helps. Both Christine and I feel lucky to be working for corporations that recognise the benefit of involving themselves in philanthropy. It makes our day jobs seem so much more worthwhile.
How do your expeditions raise funds?
Christine: There are several ways. Each new teammate who joins us sets up a Just Giving page on an enabling website that is directly connected to the charity Women for Women International, based in London. It’s user-friendly, it tracks your progress and can be shared with friends and family. When we organise fundraising events such as auctions here in Singapore, the money goes straight to local charities such as AWARE and the Singapore Committee for UN Women. And when people want to write us a cheque, they can make it out either to us at Women on a Mission, or address it directly to one of the charities we support. Head here for our current Just Giving page. To find out more about our work and upcoming expeditions, go to womenmission.com.
Have you decided on your next destination?
We’re tossing up between the Iranian desert and climbing an active volcano in Siberia. Any volunteers keen on joining us?
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