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The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir


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Climbing

May 25, 2018

The Psychology of Summiting Everest

Being the first is important for many Everest aspirants, but unless you come from South Sudan, it is very hard to be the first of a nation. So what’s left?

WRITTEN BY

Billi Bierling

For 14 years, Billi Bierling has been working for the Himalayan Database, alongside Elizabeth Hawley, talking to many mountaineers in the process. Billi is a hugely experienced Alpinist herself, and has reached five out of 14 of the highest peaks in the world, including Everest. Billi knows the Himalayas better than anyone, and is considered the authority on mountaineering in this region by The Outdoor Journal.

“A psychologist would have a field day here.”

These were my words when I was at Everest Base Camp, waiting to attempt the summit from the Nepal side in 2009. It was the same year the Japanese climber Nobukazu Kuriki, who sadly died on Everest this spring, embarked on the first of his eight attempts to reach the top of the world. I had just started getting into the world of high altitude climbing myself, but had already been working for Miss Elizabeth Hawley’s Himalayan Database for four years.

It has now been 14 years that I have been in the Himalayan mountaineering business collecting data about the climbs, and I have spoken to many 8,000m-aspirants, who have different reason to scale the high Himalayan peaks. Even though my time here has been relatively short compared to Miss Elizabeth Hawley’s, who had been interviewing teams for 53 years, I have realized that most of the Everest climbers are certainly no alpinists. Their motivation to reach the top of the world is often no longer the challenge to do a technical route but to reach the highest point in the world – no matter what or how.

Billi Beirling

What drives people to expose their bodies to the cold, extreme altitude or the danger of getting frostbite? What makes them want to hit the crowds, wait for hours in a queue to reach 8,848m, leave their families for the best part of two months and even risk their marriages and careers?

Summiting Everest, and mountain climbing is arduous and does not necessarily cause an adrenaline-infused thrill. In fact, previous research has shown that mountaineers have engaged in extreme risks to help reign in their emotions. Studies have found that mountaineers tend to fall short in the relationship department, have difficulties describing their feelings, and often feel a lack of control in their lives.

The mountains seem to provide them with what they seek and give them something else, namely fame and adoration.

According to the Himalayan Database, 4,830 people had reached the summit of Mount Everest by the end of 2017, and it looks very likely that an additional 550 to 650 people will have topped out this spring.

It’s not only Everest people aspire to climb, though. What was reserved for real climbers up to about 10 years ago has become a pastime for punters, namely scaling all 14 8,000m peaks which are scattered around Nepal, Pakistan and Tibet.

“A psychologist would have a field day here.”

The urge to achieve a record has increased significantly over the past decade, and simply climbing the highest mountain in the world no longer seems good enough for some of the aspirants. “Even 80-year-olds can make it,” one climber said to me referring to the Japanese climber Yuichiro Miura, who topped out at the proud age of 80 in 2013. Miura, however, was no novice to Everest as he was one of the first people to ski down its slopes in 1969 when he was a relative youngster of 36 years. His arch rival Min Bahadur Sherchan from Nepal tried to regain his former crown – at 76 he had become the oldest Everest summiteer in 2008 – by beating Mr Miura’s record several times. His last attempt to do so was in 2017, but the former British Gurkha died of a cardiac arrest when he arrived at base camp aged 85.

Being the first is important for many Everest aspirants, but unless you come from a country like South Sudan or the Yemen, it is very hard to be the first of a nation. So, what’s left? Chomolungma, the Tibetan name for Mount Everest, has already seen the first double amputee, the first blind person, the first handless person and the first diabetic. What about the first certified vet, the first vegan or the youngest person doing it in the fastest time? The list of potential firsts is long and it can be mind-boggling what people come up with.

Most expeditions usually descend on Mount Everest in spring, which is also the prime time for the media to scour the activities on its flanks, like hawks looking for their booty. The pressure on the punters rises to perform well and achieve what they said they would do. No matter whether it is to reach the summit without supplemental oxygen, a feat only 208 people have achieved so far, or to do a double whammy bagging Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain situated right next to Everest, within one or two days of reaching the top of the world.

Climbing an 8,000m peak used to be a huge feat back in the days of Edmund Hillary, Reinhold Messner or Chris Bonington. With commercial operators charging an average of about 60,000 to 70,000 USD, clients feel that they have bought the summit expecting 100 per cent success.

They forget, however, that it is still a colossal mountain bearing many dangers and challenges despite the incredible infrastructure and hard work the climbing Sherpas put in preparing the route for them. Having said that, the success rate for summiting Everest rose to about 65 per cent in 2017 compared with a mere 24 per cent in 2000, which is mainly due to the better infrastructure, the better equipment and the fact that there are now around 60 fully qualified international mountain guides among the Sherpas and other ethnic groups, which certainly makes climbing Everest safer.

Looking at the recent success rate, the likelihood of reaching the summit is high, but what happens if you don’t make it on your first shot? Austrian climber Wilfried Studer for example thinks that he spent an accumulated full year at Everest base camp since he started attempting the mountain from the North side in Tibet in 1997.

For a whole decade, Wilfried and his wife Sylvia came every single spring to attempt the climb without the use of supplemental oxygen and Sherpa support, and every single spring they had to turn back due to the cold, strong winds, bad cough, exhaustion or the loss of equipment. They took a break in 2008 and 2009 but were back with a vengeance in 2010. Equipped with bottled oxygen, three Sherpas, a few friends and their daughter they reached the summit on 23 May 2010. Finally, they could put their minds to rest.

Only this spring season, Nobukazu Kuriki from Japan, who was on his eighth attempt to scale Everest without supplemental oxygen and Sherpa support, lost his life after taking a fall from the West face at around 7,500m. In 2012, he had already lost all but one finger trying to reach the summit via the technically difficult West Ridge. Kuriki was not one looking for the easy way.

He usually chose a different and more interesting route, organised his expeditions in the autumn as opposed to spring, and chose to climb without supplemental oxygen and Sherpa support. Had he joined a commercial expedition and followed the fixed ropes using bottled oxygen, he would have probably summited eight times, still in the possession of his fingers and – in the end – his life. But Kuriki was a loner, he was quiet and he liked doing his own thing. Sadly, this time the aspiration to do something amazing got the better of him.

For further information about Billi, please refer to her website at www.billibierling.com

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Travel

Dec 07, 2018

The Lilayi Elephant Nursery: The Story of One Orphan, and 11 Years of Conservation.

The Orphanage provides a sanctuary for defenceless calves, who are the victims of poaching, human conflict or, occasionally, natural abandonment. The catalyst was a single elephant called Chamilandu.

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WRITTEN BY

Sarah Kingdom

2007, South Luangwa National Park, Zambia.

A one and a half-year-old elephant is left alone and helpless when her mother is shot dead by poachers. The orphan calf is taken to what is now the Game Rangers International, Kafue National Park Release Facility to be raised. Healthy, but understandably traumatised, Chamilandu, as she was named, struggled to come to terms with the loss of both her mother and extended family. Suffering nightmares that had her screaming aloud in her sleep, it took a great deal of love and attention from dedicated keepers to give her the reassurance she needed to adjust to her new life.

In the intervening years, Chamilandu has grown into the matriarch of the orphan herd. Mothering and comforting the younger orphan calves as one tragedy or another has brought them to the orphanage. She has recently started to demonstrate her desire to live independently in the bush; going on longer and longer forays alone, away from the release centre. Seen interacting and mating with a wild bull in the park, a positive sign that she is ready to create new ‘family/friendship’ bonds and is preparing herself for a life in the wild… the ultimate goal of her rescuers all those years ago.

Learning new skills

We first saw Chamilandu on a game drive in Kafue National Park, Zambia’s oldest and largest national park and one of Africa’s wildest. We were on our way to the Release Centre to see the orphan herd coming in for their lunch break after a morning in the bush. The group were close to the road and the keepers were tucked out of sight, allowing the small herd to graze freely, but still be under their protective surveillance. Chamilandu, wearing radio collar in preparation for her anticipated ‘move’, was in a playful mood. Getting closer and closer to us, shaking her head from side to side in a slightly comical fashion, as we slowly reversed the car. Eventually slipping past the herd we went ahead to await the groups’ arrival.

one elephant killed every 15 minutes!

Met at the Release Centre, we were first shown the ‘kitchen’ where bottles are filled with the correct ‘recipe’ for each youngster and then escorted to the main Elephant Boma from where we could see the orphans ambling ‘home’. ‘Home’, an enclosure of about 10 hectares, is located on the bend of a river and fenced to make it predator proof. Once the elephants got close to the boma, they picked up speed and were soon clamouring at the gate, to be let in for their bottles and piles of pellets that form their lunchtime feed.

Elephants in Africa are under serious threat, primarily due to large-scale poaching for ivory and also as a result of conflicts arising from elephant/human interactions. It is estimated that 25,000 elephants are being killed in Africa every year… this works out at approximately one elephant killed every 15 minutes!

Bonding time… forming new relationships

Having visited the older orphans in Kafue, I was keen to visit The Elephant Orphanage Project’s Lilayi Elephant Nursery, which is situated on a 650-hectare game farm on the outskirts of Lusaka. When under the age of three, young elephants are extremely vulnerable and dependent. Most will not survive without both their mother’s care and her nutrient-rich milk. The first port of call for any orphan rescued anywhere within Zambia, is the Lilayi Elephant Nursery, and it is here that these fragile babies are looked after twenty-four hours a day – a milk dependent orphan requires a bottle of its special formula every three hours! Trained keepers care for and watch over their charges constantly; taking them on daily ‘bush walks’, feeding them and staying close at hand to provide reassurance when the babies are in the stables at night. These keepers play a vital role in the emotional and social recovery of the young elephants, and become the ‘mother figures’ the babies desperately need. Elephants are tactile and highly sociable and the keepers become the orphans’ ‘new family’, maintaining physical contact with the babies, talking to them and showing them the same affection their wild elephant family would. As the orphans gain more confidence, human contact is gradually reduced and they are encouraged to turn to the other elephants for comfort, rather than the keepers. This is an important part of their rehabilitation.

The orphans need to be watched over at all times; they need to be covered, with blankets when cold, rainwear when wet and natural sunscreen (like a mud bath) when out the sun, for the first few months of a baby’s life. Baby elephants are difficult feeders and their minders need endless patience to encourage them to drink sufficient milk for growth. Like humans, baby elephants also need toys and stimulation, and so distractions and entertainment have to be built into their daily routine. An elephant will only thrive if happy.

A muddy orphan waits for rescue.

As soon as calves can be weaned from milk (approx 3 years old) they are moved from Lusaka to the Release Facility in Kafue National Park, where they join older orphaned elephants. Here they learn to live more independently and spend much of their time wandering freely through the bush. The Kafue Release Facility is adjacent to the ancient Ngoma Teak Forest where there is a 1,000 strong local elephant population, maximising chances for the orphans to integrate with other elephants and gradually move back into the wild.

12th June 2018 and the latest rescue baby joins the Elephant Orphanage Project, with one of their most rapid response rescues to date. In the early hours of the morning, an alert was raised that a six-month-old calf had been found abandoned in Livingstone. The baby was quickly rescued and transferred to the nearby ‘Elephant Café’, where it was stabilized, fed, watered and calmed by the presence of the other elephants (who are resident at the ‘Café’). Meanwhile, the team in Lusaka worked rapidly to fly a purpose-built crate down to Livingstone. The baby was then mildly sedated and crated, ready for her upcoming journey; a two-hour flight to Lusaka followed by an hour-long drive to the Elephant Nursery, where she was safely tucked up in bed by eight-thirty that night.

The little calf initially known as #43, in honour of being the forty-third elephant assisted by EOP, has now been renamed Lufutuko (Tuko for short), which means ‘survivor’ in Tonga, the local language. She is still very vulnerable and traumatised. Safely in the orphanage, she is getting to know her keepers and being regularly fed specialized milk formula. Like all the young elephants at the orphanage, she has a long and difficult road ahead to overcome the loss of her family, learn how to integrate and socialize with other elephants and ultimately grow into a healthy adult who will hopefully ultimately walk free.

Spending some time getting familiar with the bush.

It costs a lot to raise an orphan and give them a second chance at life… a lot more than you might think… from a rescue, to release and beyond, including post-release monitoring and research. Rescues alone can vary widely in cost depending on the area the calf is found. In some instances special vehicles, boats or even planes need to be hired, add to that scout and tracker fees, then vet fees, which can include quarantine, sedatives, blood tests and various medications and don’t forget the cost of ‘manpower’. An ‘average’ rescue can be in the region of US$2,500. And once an orphan is rescued costs continue to mount. With a staff of 27 at the Kafue Release Facility and another 17 at the Lilayi Elephant Nursery, wages are not an insignificant cost to be factored in. Feeding, veterinary, maintenance, communications… the list goes on. There are 18 orphans currently being cared for between the two facilities, each costing approximately $35,000 a year… the Elephant Orphanage Project has an operating budget in the region of $600,000 a year, which is an enormous struggle to secure.

 

The Elephant Orphanage Project was established in 2007, with critical and on-going funding from the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the Olsen Animal Trust, with the mission of rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing orphaned elephants back into the wild. The Elephant Orphanage Project is part of a conservation initiative developed and operated by Game Rangers International, a Zambian, non-profit NGO.

You can visit the Lilayi Elephant Nursery, which is just a 35min drive from the centre of Lusaka any day of the year between 11.30 and 13.00. At 11.30 a staff member gives a short talk about the orphanage and you can visit the viewing deck which is an ideal vantage point for watching the elephants feed and play. Note that given the ultimate goal of releasing the elephants back to the wild, visitors are not permitted to touch the elephants. Cost: Adults K50, Children ages 12-18 K20, Children under 12 free. Every Monday entry is free.

If you want to venture a little further off the beaten track, then you can visit the Elephant Orphanage’s Kafue Release Facility in the southern part of Kafue National Park, 12km along the South Nkala Loop from Ngoma (location of the National Parks and Wildlife Headquarters). The closest places to stay when visiting the release centre is Konkamoya Lodge or HippoBay Campsite and Bushcamp [email protected]

For further information about Game Rangers International and the Elephant Orphanage, in particular, visit the Game Rangers International Website.

As with all conservation projects funds are always in short supply, any donations can be directed here.

Finally, you can also follow the project on the Facebook page.

 

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