Dr Faith Mwende recalls the moment she broke the news about her intentions to climb Mt Everest to her family. There were mixed feelings between her parents and siblings. Her mother, especially, was adamant; there was no way her daughter would attempt to climb the world’s highest peak. “Let me not hear that you are climbing that mountain,” she told Mwende with a note of finality.
Family members lobbied, trying not to betray their apprehensions. Friends wondered why she would “pay money to go and suffer”. Ultimately, all were convinced that Mwende’s determination to climb Everest was much stronger than their inner voices of repudiation.
Between April and May this year, Mwende became the first Kenyan woman to attempt a climb on the 8,848-metre-high Everest, an endeavour normally wrought with unexpected dangers. At her doctor's advice though, she did not make it to the top of the world but conquered Lobuche Peak at 6,119 metres. She hopes to use the experiences gained for another attempt next year.
It might look odd that the financial expert with the Capital Markets Authority would leave the comforts of her job, home, and the mild weather to battle with blizzards, avalanches and steep rock faces in a land far away. It comes down to doing her part in protecting the world we live in.
“The driving force behind my decision to attempt climbing Mt Everest is my commitment to raising awareness about the sustainable development goals. These include climate action, good health and wellbeing given the nexus between climate change, on the one hand, and healthy lives and well-being, on the other, and peace,” she says.
Mwende notes with concern that glaciers are diminishing and ice caps receding with deleterious effects on montane ecology and livelihoods downstream. She wants to become a catalyst for change by mobilising communities to take part in initiatives that promote climate action, mental health, and global peace awareness.
“The link between climate action, mental health and peace is evident as progress in one leads to improvement in the others. By pursuing these goals, I hope to make a difference and to inspire others to join me in creating a more sustainable and harmonious future,” she says.
At a coffee shop along Mombasa Road, Nairobi, Mwende and I reminisce about her exploits over hot water, lemon, honey and ginger, or ‘dawa.’ She is in a business skirt suit, heels and designer glasses, striking no semblance of a hiker, let alone a mountaineer.
“I don’t look like a mountaineer, right?” she had read my mind. “Try me any weekend for a hike up Mt Kenya.”
This is no joke. Mwende is the type that will leave the office on Friday, travel to Nanyuki and up the mountain over the weekend and by Monday morning is back at her desk in Nairobi.
Besides Mt Kenya, her passion for conquering mountains has taken her to summit Kilimanjaro three times, Mt Meru also in Tanzania, Mt Nyiragongo in the DRC, and all the main peaks of the Aberdare ranges in Kenya.
Her love of the outdoors, and hiking in particular was instilled in her by her father who used to take the family on hikes in the hilly Kilungu region in Makueni County.
In 2021 she trekked to Everest Base Camp in preparation for this year’s summit attempt. The initial visit was also to celebrate her completion of a Master’s degree programme. Base Camp sits at 17,593 feet, higher than Mt. Kenya’s Batian peak. It is located around the Khumbu Icefall and was the scene of a deadly avalanche in 2015.
In April of that year, an earthquake in the region set off a series of avalanches on Everest, where close to 300 climbers were on different stages of the ascent. Tonnes of moving sheets of ice obliterated the camp, killing 19 and injuring more than 60 others.
In Camp 2, Steve Obayi, a Kenyan, narrowly escaped death from the deadly avalanches triggered by the 7.8 earthquake, the worst to hit the country since a 1934 quake that killed more than 8,000 people.
But each year, Everest beckons, with people like Mwende all too eager to respond to the call, bracing themselves for a roller coaster of feelings while navigating through extended periods of intense activity followed by fleeting moments of respite.
“It is all about mental preparation,” she says. “The climb offers the opportunity for profound personal transformation, revamping of attitude, and enriching experiences. To reap the benefits of this awe-inspiring journey, mental fortitude is paramount.”
While she was the one doing the actual Everest climb, Mwende says the activity is hardly a solitary endeavour. It requires engaging loved ones and family members during the preparation phase since the climb necessitates being away for approximately two months with inherent risks and considerable time commitments.
Still, preparing for any uncertainties during the ascent including unpredictable weather, altitude sickness, dietary changes, and adapting to new environments and cultures is essential.
Physical fitness is a must since scaling mountains at elevations above 6,000 meters requires the body to adapt to sparse oxygen levels that could otherwise cause life-threatening conditions including high-altitude pulmonary oedema not to mention the physical exertion from a payload of a four-litre oxygen tank, water, snacks, and climbing gear.
“Physical preparation involves rigorous gym workouts for cardio and general fitness, including aerobic and swimming sessions. Climbing increasingly high mountains builds endurance and acclimatizes the body to the challenges of the extreme Everest environment. It starts with small amounts of training such as climbing and descending hills and stairs, cycling, a proper diet, and the right gear. Additionally, rock climbing, crampon usage, abseiling, and jogging contribute to overall fitness,” says Mwende.
Mental preparation. Check. Physical preparation. Check. But climbing Everest is still an expensive affair encompassing various costs like permits, gear, insurance, air tickets, food, accommodation, and trekking fees.
For instance, a return air ticket From Nairobi to Nepal can cost around Sh250,000, taking into consideration the various connections before embarking on the climb. Ground costs, says Mwende, also depend on the expedition company one chooses to handle the itinerary. Overall costs can vary between Sh8 to 15 million.
“There are those who will tell you not to include guides, but the less you budget the riskier it becomes. Going up without a guide is inviting trouble, the last thing you want in Everest,” she says.
Fortunately, Mwende had the support of several firms, including Safaricom and her home county of Makueni. She came close to conquering the highest peak on Earth this year. Next year, she hopes to complete the assignment, the extraordinary quest few earthlings dare to embark on. For Mwende, no summit is too high.