Jeng Jopson at Everest Base Camp

Aiming High: What It’s Like Trekking To The Everest Base Camp

Jeng Jopson embarked on a trek to the Everest Base Camp in pursuit of a life-long dream. He returned with unforgettable memories and valuable life lessons.

Nestled in the Himalayas at 5,634 meters above sea level, the Everest Base Camp in Nepal is a major destination for trekking enthusiasts. The camp may not be as high as Mount Everest itself (quite literally, nothing on Earth is), but getting there is considered a major accomplishment. (For proper context, Everest is at 8,849 meters ASL, while the tallest peak in the Philippines, Mount Apo, is at 2,954.)

Each year, around 40,000 people make the trek to the camp; compared to scaling Everest, a rare feat accomplished by less than 7,000 people, the EBC is a more manageable and realistic goal. Yet, it is by no means an easy undertaking, and it occupies a spot high on the bucket list of the most avid trekkers worldwide.

One of these is Jeng Jopson, a 55-year-old Filipino businessman and adventure seeker who finally realized his lifelong dream of reaching the Everest Base Camp last March. In an exclusive interview with The GAME, Jopson shares a fascinating story of ambition, perseverance, and, ultimately, triumph that along the way provided him with valuable life lessons.

‘A long-time dream’

Even early on, Jeng Jopson had always led an active lifestyle. His high school batch voted him Athlete of the Year in their yearbook. He was a varsity swimmer and avid runner. In college, he joined the UP Mountaineers, where his passion for mountain climbing and trekking was first nurtured.

Itong event na ito, it’s always been my long-time dream,” he said. “I’ve always been hearing about high-altitude climbing.” 

In 2015, a friend and fellow UP Mountaineer completed an Everest Base Camp Trek, and upon hearing his friend’s story and seeing photos of the trek, he became inspired to finally pursue it. Jeng set his plan in motion in 2016 and 2017, doing research and inquiring with resource persons with the goal of a trek in either 2019 or 2020.

Then Covid struck, canceling all treks and climbs in the Himalayas. But even in lockdown, Jopson never lost sight of his goal and did his best to stay in shape while waiting for the world to reopen.

“During Covid, I was riding my bike in front of the TV, spinning, and watching all kinds of films on climbing.”

One film he watched on Netflix was 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible, a documentary on legendary Nepali climber Nimsdai Purja’s assault on all 14 of the 8,000-meter peaks in the world. (In a “pinch me” moment, Jeng would serendipitously bump into Nimsdai in Kathmandu. “Nagkataon lang na nandun siya sa Kathmandu, nung pumunta kami sa shop niya,” he gleefully recalled.)

Jeng Jopson with legendary Nepali climber Nimsdai Purja in Kathmandu. (Photo courtesy of Jeng Jopson)

Sometime in 2022, Jeng brought his daughter to Masungi Georeserve in Baras, Rizal, to do some hiking. The father-daughter bonding activity all the more fueled his desire to finally push through with his long-delayed EBC trek.

When restrictions eased even more last year, Jopson knew it was time. But first, he needed to do some “practice” climbs.

“January 2023, I went to Mount Pulag. Then in April, I went to Mount Apo. So, sabi ko, kaya pa nga ng tuhod ko.”

Now that he knew his knee was good to go, Jopson still had to do one more high-altitude climb of over 3,000 meters above sea level to test his endurance.

“Doon mo ma-gauge na yung sarili mo kung kaya mo, kasi iba yung high altitude,” he explains. “Iba. Ang nipis nung hangin, eh.” 

A plan to scale Mount Fuji was scuttled at the last minute due to inclement weather, but Jopson was undeterred. He got in touch with a group called the Trail SignTreks and Expedition, which arranges international climbs, and registered for an October climb on Mount Rinjani, a volcano in Bali, Indonesia.

“It’s one of the highest in Indonesia and most challenging in Southeast Asia. It’s a volcano.  Literally, one step forward, one step backward kasi sand, eh.

“It’s all sand, gravel, and you’re in one step, lumulubog yung paa mo sa sand. Grabe. Pero sabi ko kaya, kaya ito.”

His “practice” climbs done and medical clearance from his cardiologist secured, Jeng was now ready for the real thing. In December, he booked his flight to Kathmandu and reserved his slot in a March trek to the Everest Base Camp.

‘Majestic and humbling’

A trek to the Everest Base Camp has all the elements of an Indiana Jones adventure. In total, it takes eight days up and four days down to complete. And at every turn, there’s something waiting to astonish. 

It all begins in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, where, in Jeng’s narration, time has appeared to stand still.

“It’s just like you’re in the 1960s,” he said. “I was expecting Fernando Poe, Jr. would be popping out anywhere. But the traffic is horrific. Our motorcycle drivers here in Manila are very tame compared to the motorcycle drivers in Kathmandu. Pero malamig, para kang nasa Baguio.”

There were ten people in Jeng’s group — eight trekkers like himself, the organizer, and their Nepalese tour guide. The whole expedition ran from March 15 to 30.

Jeng Jopson and other members of his expedition enjoy a meal in Kathmandu. (Photo courtesy of Jeng Jopson)

“We arrived in Kathmandu at around 10:30 in the evening, and our host picked us up in Kathmandu airport and brought us to our hotel. The following day was a free day, but we did an orientation to check the stuff that we needed. The organizer provided us with a duffle bag and a sleeping bag that could help comfort us at around negative 15 degrees.” 

After a day in Kathmandu, the group flew to Lukla on a 20-seater plane that, according to Jeng, had packaging tape strapped in certain areas.

“Nagulat ako, may mga parang packaging tape, hindi ko alam kung may sira ba siya or what.”

Regardless of what was holding the plane together, it managed to reach their destination, the Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla, known for having the world’s shortest runway.

Iyong dulo nung airport, bangin,” Jeng says. “So, kung hindi ka maka-takeoff, yari ka.” 

The very short runway at Lukla Airport. (Video courtesy of Jeng Jopson)

In Lukla, their ascent towards the base camp began. It would include hikes of six to eight hours a day for eight days, through six towns. At night, they would check in at each town at a designated inn or hotel.

Gradually, the climb became more and more challenging. It was a constant movement upwards, with temperatures dropping and oxygen becoming thinner by the day. The only living things they would encounter on the trail were deer, donkeys, yaks, and porters carrying heavy loads. 

“I saw that I was just a small part of the Great Creation.”

“Trekking the Everest Base Camp, yung trail niya, it’s not that difficult,” Jeng said. “But because of the high altitude you really need to go slow. Kasi, the air is getting thinner and thinner. Good thing that what we brought in our backpacks were just our windbreaker, jackets, water, trail hood. Yung all the heavy stuff, porter na nagdadala.”

Jeng Jopson poses in front of a hanging bridge in the Himalayas. (Photo courtesy of Jeng Jopson)

Popular culture has sold us this concept of the Himalayas as an almost magical, enchanting realm, with centuries-old monasteries up in the clouds and secret entrances to hidden sanctuaries where a wise, old sage resided.

While Jeng and his group didn’t find any hidden sanctuaries or wise men, they did spot the world-famous Tengboche Monastery, a Buddhist enclave situated at 3,867 meters above sea level.

They also passed a cemetery, the final resting place of many climbers who succumbed to the mountain. It served as a grim reminder that not everybody made it down alive.

“It’s a memorial park,” Jeng said. “Karamihan na mga namamatay sa Everest, doon linilibing.”

The rest of the view, though, was much more exhilarating.

Doon puro mga ice caps yung nakikita mo, na talagang yung mga matutulis na bato,” he recalls. “Tapos pag tinatamaan ng araw, very majestic ang dating. Ang ganda ng nakikita mo. Pang-post card. 

“It’s very humbling. It’s very humbling,” Jeng says this twice for emphasis. “Because I saw that I was just a small part of the Great Creation.”

Destination reached

The group finally arrived at the Everest Base Camp on the ninth day of their trek. But now they were down to just nine. While traversing up a hill, one of them developed chest pains, had difficulty breathing and sadly was forced to abandon the hike. He made it back safely; he had been hit with altitude sickness.

For the remaining trekkers, they felt an immeasurable sense of accomplishment.

Iba yung euphoria pag nandoon ka sa taas,” Jeng said. “Yung achieving your goal and you didn’t quit. Yung talagang nandoon ka. You’ve seen the beauty. Yung white caps makikita mo doon.

And as they settled down, someone pointed to a peak in the horizon that towered above all others. It was Everest.

Mount Everest in the background, as seen from the Everest Base Camp. (Photo courtesy of Jeng Jopson)

“Usually, hanggang Netflix lang natin nakikita yan, o picture, o sa Facebook,” Jeng said. “But physically being there, hindi biro yun. Sabi ko nga, very humbling talaga yung dating.”

Yet while the emotional aspect of reaching base camp produced unbridled joy, the physical part was beginning to take its toll on some of them. In fact, four members of the group were totally spent and rode a chopper back down. 

Hingal na hingal ako,” Jeng recalls. “It’s totally, physically challenging. It’s very different when you are breathing half of what you’re required to do. Because there, at Everest Base Camp, you are only breathing less than 40% of the air. Ganoon kanipis na siya. Kaya talagang you’re gasping for air. So, that’s why you really need to slow down. 

Then there was the weather.

Ang lamig. I really needed to wear a layering. And the gloves that I had to wear needed to be windproof. I had to wear neck gaiters. Nakakatuyo ng lalamunan.”

‘Huwag mayabang, respect the mountain’

When Jeng descended from the Everest Base Camp, he brought with him not only a lifetime’s worth of memories, but valuable life lessons and key takeaways. Here they are, in his words.

Preparation is key.

“Well, first and foremost, the key in finishing Everest Base Camp, set your goal. Begin with the end in mind. Meaning to say, you know how hard it is going up, and if you plan to go down walking, you have to prepare for that. 

“When you set your goal, it’s all about preparation. You cannot just plan now and do it after a month. 

“You really need to pace yourself. Know yourself. Know your capability. Hindi ka pwede yung pabasta-basta na lang. So preparation is the key. Mentally, physically, material, and of course, financially.

Kailangan prepared ka kasi, there are a lot of blindsides that could happen. Like the four members that flew (down via helicopter), they paid $700 per person going to Kathmandu. You have to bring cash. So, yung sa helicopter, they only accept US dollars. Hindi yung Nepalese money.

“Going up, kasi, you really need water. Rather than taking a risk na mag-puritabs ka lang, bumibili lang ako ng mineral water.

Pero, preparation is the key. The day before flying, I’d been talking to my friends, sabi ko nga, ‘I’m having this anxiety. Am I prepared already? Am I prepared? Do I have the proper equipment, gears?’ Pero, sabi nung friend ko, ‘Jeng, you did everything you can. One thing good about you is you are not overconfident.’

“But, physical preparation is iba talaga yan, hindi pwedeng yabang lang, you really need to prepare.”

“You have to really plan everything. And you have to have a good organizer just to do it, if you want to do it. I’m the oldest in the group. I’m turning 55 this May. And iyong youngest namin nasa 30s. Karamihan nasa 40s, e. I believe age is not a hindrance. But, you have to prepare.” 

Soak it in.

“Enjoy the view. And, during the trek, I recommend, go slow. Stop if you must. Pero, never quit. Yun yung importante lang. Go slow. You will reach your destination sooner or later. But, enjoy the view. 

“Actually, yun yung maganda sa Everest, you don’t really need to be a fast trekker. The slower you are, the better because your body would be able to acclimatize when you are slow.” 

“A lot of fast climbers, mas nahihirapan sila kasi akala nila macho sila. Machismo lang naman yun.

“Chillax ka lang dapat. Chillax ka lang. Yun yung kagandahan.”

The views awaiting Jeng Jopson and his group at the Everest Base Camp were worth the trek. (Photo courtesy of Jeng Jopson)

Show some respect.

“Respect the mountain. That’s why sabi ko nga, you really need to respect yung pacing mo. Hindi ka pwede magyabang.

Ang sabi nga sa’kin ng mga mountaineers na nakausap ko, ‘Do not be too overconfident.’” 

Fighting spirit.

“Never, never give up. Make a choice. But I tell you, during those climbs, there are times that I wanted to stop.

Iyong sobrang lamig, tapos pagod na yung gasping for air, parang you just want to stop. Well, sabi ko nga, failure is not an option. I invested in this.

“I have to push through. Kasi I know, I physically trained…labanan ng utak na lang ito. Tapos pangalawa, when I set a goal, hindi dahil hirap ako, titigil ako.

“As long as you move forward slowly, matatapos eh. Aabutin ko yung dulo eh. Yan yung iniisip ko.

“I always tell my team, ‘What is your Everest?’ It could be, something like, a goal. Kasi sabi ko, wala namang madali. Dadaan ka sa challenging and breaking point. Yung tipo parang, gagawin ko pa ba ito? O hindi ko gagawin ito? Now, labanang utak na lang talaga yan. Mental toughness is also one of the keys for finishing the Everest Base Camp.

“But, if you’re gonna ask me, go for it. Go for it. Kasi hindi mo naman gagawin ito taon-taon. Baka wala pang 2,000 na Pilipino ang nakakapunta ng Everest Base Camp.”

Banner images courtesy of Jeng Jopson.

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