‘Leadership’ and ‘Adventure’ – Global Citizen Diploma for Adults
This blog post curates an account of an important journey I took in late 1982 detailing my personal experiences and reflections – what I learnt, the importance of my learning and how my experiences made a difference. The blog post covers the elements (competencies) of both Leadership and Adventure in the Global Citizen Diploma. Drawing on connections, extending my thoughts and challenging my creativity, my reflections along this ‘journey’ are attributed to the experiences encountered as a first time ‘leader’ of a group of trekkers to the Himalayas, including for me at that time, the quintessential pinnacle of adventure and personal achievement – reaching around 15,000 feet just below the Annapurna peak without the support of oxygen. This accomplishment was truly an adventure of a lifetime accompanied by three sherpas, together taking in the serenity of the cloud line and surrounding landscape, the spectacular views over into Tibet and the ascent itself, whilst considering all aspects of safety including altitude illnesses as a result of ‘acute exposure to low partial pressure of oxygen at high altitude’. Without doubt, upon reflection, the opportunity to take on a sharing role through leadership during this trip to the Himalayas made a big difference to me both professionally and personally and the experiences gained allowed me to confidently take on similar roles since 1982 as briefly mentioned towards the end of this blog post.
Before arriving in Japan, whilst based in Hong Kong, in the years 1979 and 1980, as a chaperone, I assisted in two school trekking excursions across parts of the Himalayan range. These experiences really did whet my appetite and, to that end, I was determined to organise another trek to Nepal from my new school Yokohama International School (YIS) but this time as the ‘leader’ of the pack (sharing, empowering others and trying to bring a sense of togetherness and cohesiveness to this group). This would be my first time to organise AND lead an expedition and I craved to fulfil this vision through the effective ‘leadership’ of the expedition and management of resources. Once on the trail, the sherpas would make decisions on all routes to take and any alterations to those routes as a result of weather changes. However, throughout the trek, the chief sherpa would be in constant conversation with me, asking for updates on the health and physical condition of each group member, and asking for advice in terms of rest periods based on those conditions. Food would also be another source of decision making for me as would be the times spent in the villages we were to pass through and the times to set up camp and pitch tents. Finalising and confirming details of all aspects of the trek from start to finish once in Kathmandu prior to the start of the trek, would also be my responsibility (in consultation with the other chaperones) as would be the payment of the sherpas once back in Kathmandu at the end of the trek.
The organisation all started in the spring of 1982, when I put together a proposal to be presented to the School Board advocating a trekking expedition to the region of Annapurna at Christmas time 1982. This period was particularly chosen since there would be far less chance of encountering avalanches on route and the depth of snow would not make the paths to be taken impassable. Lots of questions came from the Board but I felt I had done my homework and I believed I had covered every conceivable obstacle I could think of – from safety, insurance coverage, flight delays, lack of medical supplies and first aid, dietary concerns to the important features of changeable weather. To overcome the latter I planned to take the precautionary measure of arranging a ‘ready on call’ helicopter should anything seriously go wrong in the mountains. Suffice it to say, I was given the go ahead to start preparations and before the summer recess, I already had 16 committed students signed up with three keen chaperones to join me on this intrepid adventure. Soon after returning to school after the summer break in August 1982, I arranged several meetings involving the student members, their parents, the chaperones and the administration. We needed to set out a firm plan particularly on the fund raising front and the physical preparedness. Importantly, as leader, I had to work closely with our agency in Kathmandu and ground support staff. I soon became acquainted with a number of sherpas who would be accompanying us and here in Yokohama, I had to start looking for a registered nurse who could be with us throughout the trek. Communication was sometimes slow from the Kathmandu side and I soon learnt that patience was indeed a virtue -especially when there were no luxuries such as the ubiquitous internet.
The other chaperones and I worked closely to bring ideas into reality and it didn’t take too long before things were taking shape. Dr. Yang, a parent of one of our student members going on the trip and a medical doctor himself, pledged a full supply of medical/first aid equipment and bake sales were regularly held throughout the months leading up to departure to raise money for other essential items. On a weekly basis, the chaperones and I organised and led the group of students on hiking trails around Yokohama, pitching and sleeping in tents on overnight excursions and carrying out general fitness workouts. Acclimatisation was something I had to think about in terms of readying the group members and so we tried to choose hikes in the region that would take us as high as possible – nothing on the scale of 13,500 feet though. The important feature to what lay ahead was the chosen route of the ascent to Annapurna Base Camp. A travel guide stated and I quote: ‘Annapurna trekking is one of the most famous trekking trails in the world that many amateur trekkers choose for its well-defined passages and breathtaking panoramic views of snow-capped Himalayan mountain peaks like Annapurna, Fish Tail, Dhaulagiri and many more……giving you a chance to admire amazing landscape, catch a glimpse of wild animals along the way like snow leopard, black sheep and many rare species of birds and smaller animals’. This all sounded incredible and I felt the route described would be the most exciting trail for us to take. In consultation with colleagues and ground support, we took the decision to start the trek from Pokhara (flying to our starting point from Kathmandu in a light aircraft), traverse Langtang Valley part way then head straight for Annapurna Base Camp at 4130m or 13,550 ft, weather permitting. Spending Christmas in the mountains surrounded by snow, sleeping in tents during the night, walking daily on a trail alongside terraced rice paddies, rhododendron forests with panoramic views each direction one looked just seemed the chance and adventure of a life time.
And so the time arrived for us to depart from Tokyo flying directly to Kathmandu. As leader, I was conscious of the enormity of responsibility on my shoulders – what if something went wrong, what if someone had a serious accident on the trail, an avalanche ‘gobbling up’ one of our students? These scenarios ran through my mind but I was determined to remain resolute in both physical and mental preparedness to take on this leadership role and to make this once in a life time experience as memorable and exciting as possible for everyone. It seemed during those 6 months leading up to departure, the self-resilience, determination and confidence had taken exponential leaps forward and I felt I was ready for those unforeseen circumstances. I learned what the cliche ‘expect the unexpected’ really did mean. I recall my first trip to the Himalayas as a chaperone and I remember the leader at the time having to make important decisions- the light aircraft due to take all members back to Kathmandu on three separate trips had been cancelled due to immense bad weather for two consecutive days. We were short of food and decisions on who should go on the first trip back to Kathmandu and who should stay and wait for the second trip and finally the third trip, had to be decided. I was on the second trip with eight students. Fortunately, the weather cleared on the third day enough for the plane to make the three trips. It was understand that important decisions like these may have to be made and mentally I felt I had prepared myself for this task.
Light aircraft of the type used in 1982 to fly to Pokhara from Kathmandu
The majestic peaks of Annapurna I (8091 m), Annapurna South (7219 m), Machapuchhre (6993 m) and Hiunchuli (6441 m) poked through the low lying clouds as we approached Annapurna Base Camp after traversing Langtang. What an incredible sight. The sherpas had carried the equipment but I carried the medication at all times to assist our accompanying state registered nurse. It was apparent, and goodness knows how so quickly, that word had spread on the medical supplies and as we approached villages along the way – Ghorepani, Chomrong to name a few, villagers including entire families would swarm round me knowing that I had the medical supplies to pass out if needed. I did indeed give what I could on advice from our nurse and helped her to administer first aid where possible -cuts, bruises, rashes etc. What a personal experience this brought on board for me. I learned how so lucky we were in our own wealthy communities, with easily accessible medication, and yet in these regions there were no provisions for local health centres with doctors, trained nurses and a sufficient supply of medicines. Outreach was certainly needed and we generously donated supplies as much as we could, besides leaving behind spare clothing and blankets.
We had plenty of rest stops, and this is something I had learned from previous trips – to have regular short rest periods. As leader, I was aware of this necessity and I would call the sherpas to hold back and take appropriate intervals of rest, to get second wind, breaks those athletic sherpas didn’t really need but readily obliged.
(Photos – courtesy of Himalayan Glacier Trekking)
(Photos -courtesy of one of my students on the trek)
The sherpas were amazing and followed advice where needed as closely as possible, although, as mentioned earlier, they were entirely in charge of the actual trekking, the trail to take, the pitching of tents and the cooking of the meals. We did however make use of our time once trekking had finished for the day and pitched in to help the sherpas as much as we could. I had in my possession the cash that would be distributed to the sherpas once back in Kathmandu – their pay packets. This money never left my side. Namaste greetings everywhere we went were amazing. These Nepalese/Tibetan people were obviously very poor monetarily but so rich in warmth, kindness and incredibly humble people. It made me realise the true meaning of the saying ‘ the best things in life are free’. You don’t need currency to have friends, families and good memories. Some of life’s best treasures cost nothing and these people shared many of those treasures.
(Photos courtesy of one of the students on the trek)
(Our intrepid sherpas during the two week expedition )
(Photos courtesy of one of my students on the trek)
What about the resilience of our own students on the trek? Most coped extremely well with both the physical and emotional challenges, however, one or two had to be assisted in a variety of ways. I remember one evening’s conversation after supper with a female student member of the group – just the two of us. She felt she could no longer manage the endurance, the strains, the challenges and was ready ‘to give up’. She felt so embarrassed sharing her feelings but at that point I unequivocally assured her she should not feel that way. That conversation I remember so well and together with a female chaperone, we chatted for quite a while. She needed reassurance and support and realising that the support would always be there for her, her strength and emotional resilience seemed to return. From that time on, paradoxically, this student seemed to become a leader in her own right – it was quite a transformation – seeing her comforting some of her friends along the trail, giving them encouragement, keeping a sense of humour and making the trek even more enjoyable despite the enormity of challenges for some.
(Photos – courtesy of Himalayan Glacier Trekking)
(Before departure -training and organising
(During the expedition- getting to know the locals and helping the needy)
Once reaching Annapurna Base Camp, we were able to take a day of respite and chill out, exploring nearby terrain and taking in the amazing views of Hiunchuli, Gangapurna, Khangsar Kang, Tent Peak and Machapuchare, the famous Fishtail Mountain. The trekkers had reached their destination led by expert sherpas and everyone was in joyous mood especially during the festive season. Spending time together during the Christmas period surrounded by lofty mountains was a once in a life time experience and we made the most of it with the singing of carols, use of trimmings and the exchange of very simple presents. We sang songs for the sherpas, and they reciprocated with some Nepalese singing and the sharing of some cultural dance as well. Our home economics teacher had also brought along a Christmas cake which was generously shared out amongst the sherpas. It was a relaxing time during this extended rest period and everyone was happy to take in this welcomed and well-earned relaxation period, taking in the splendour of the mountains and drinking lots of Nepalese tea. However, I had the yearning to step out of this comfort zone – to climb a little bit higher in altitude to capture even more impressive sites. After consultation with the chaperones, I was given the go ahead to go on this personal adventure (with three sherpas). Even though given the opportunity, no one else requested to come which was fine since I would only be away about five hours. Everybody was in good hands and there was no sense of danger based on the location of the basecamp, so I felt reassured this one off trip would be ok to do. Our small party set off and soon, the ascent became quite steep. Step by step, I took regular breaths and the higher I went, I sensed the oxygen levels slowly diminishing. The three sherpas kept close by and I had no real concerns about altitude illness or the steep inclines carpeted with fairly thick snow. Still, every precaution was taken; pace of ascent, frequent rest stops and so on. What an incredible adventure I was experiencing as I stepped outside my comfort zone. As we gained height, the views became even more spectacular and the snow more deep. Even though I was aware of the short time for acclimatisation and the fact I wasn’t wearing crampons, I was still determined to reach my goal (with permission form the sherpas) – to see across into Tibet from the viewing level chosen by my ‘leaders’. After some three hours of ascent, we made it. It required endurance, physical resilience and determination to achieve this goal, one that I have looked back on with great pride and achievement. During this final ascent, exposing myself to wilderness never before encountered and taking on calculated risks, I learnt a great deal about myself – where there’s a will there’s a way and if I set my mind to doing something, I could do it. These thoughts I have shared with many since and my advice has been warmly welcomed. At around 15,000 feet, I felt on top of the world even though Sagamartha (Nepalese for Everest) was overshadowing in the background, it’s peak another 15,000 feet higher. The views were breathtaking, the skies had cleared once at the level reached and as I hugged all three sherpas, I reflected on my own personal adventure and contributions. How was able to achieve such a feat was a question I kept asking myself – climbing to that height without help or without any supply of oxygen. Could I attribute it to courage, skill, strength, resilience or even athleticism. At 30 years old, I still considered myself a youngster and so I put it down to a bit of all.
(Looking over into Tibet at around 15,000 feet- photos -courtesy of a trekking company)
Those moments are so indelibly etched memories, ones that will never be forgotten. With the considerable lower temperatures being felt, we all gathered our thoughts and started our descent back to base camp in time for supper. One can imagine the thoughts running through my head as I crawled into my sleeping bag to end one of the most exciting days of my life.
The following few days were spent meandering back to Pokhara along a different trail, going through different villages with the namaste greetings just as warm and frequent. Everyone in the group was on such a ‘high’ enraptured by all the memories surrounding this trek. Once back in Kathmandu, we set up camp just outside the city, bedded down for our last night in Nepal but before doing so, my last duty was to remunerate our deserving sherpas. They lined up that evening in front of the camp fire and each one was met with rapturous applause of gratitude from our group members as he collected his payment- an amount that was so well deserved. Each of us also gave generously as much as we could out of our own spending money.
As a result of those earlier years of leadership experience (in 1982) which were never to be forgotten, I led future trips. Notably, in the Fall of years 1998, 1999 and 2000, with the assistance of additional chaperones, I led successive groups of senior students to Dumagete in Negros Island (Philippines) to participate in the outreach programme associated with Habitat for Humanity, building homes for the less privileged. These adventures evolved as part of the Field Studies programme at YIS for these grade 12 students. During the course of these visits, we were able to construct a complete village made up of breeze block prefabricated type housing, with running water, adequate sanitation and some type of pavement to walk on. This mammoth task was supported by Jimmy Carter and his entourage of workers who helped at other times during those three consecutive years. It was a huge undertaking but one that brought so much satisfaction and accomplishment. That initial experience of ‘leadership’ (in the planning and execution), leading the trekking party to the Himalayas, gave me much to learn from and that learning was vastly utilised out in Dumagete. I considered it a personal accomplishment which certainly broadened my knowledge and understanding. The myriad of thoughts, notions and impressions from this first experience of ‘leadership’ helped me to create new ideas, connect with the learning and extend my thinking, particularly in the areas of sharing, collaboration, self-management, improvement in people skills, initiating action and motivating and influencing others. I believe these shone through on those trips to the Philippines. But, without doubt, the catalyst was certainly that trip to Annapurna Base Camp. That encounter certainly made a difference not only for myself but I believe for others as well. My confidence grew and with it, my desire to lead more trips. And on top of all this, I will never forget that lightbulb moment at 15000 feet. At that level, the adventurous light certainly shone through.