Trailblazing Dr Faith Mwende soldiers on despite hiccups on way to Mt Everest summit

Faith Mwende

Faith Mwende with the Kenyan flag at the Mt Everest Base.

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • Nepal has already issued 466 permits to foreign climbers, and since most will need a guide, more than 900 people will try and summit this season, which runs until early June.
  • This could once again result in heavy traffic and bottlenecks en route to the summit, especially if there is a shorter climbing window because of unfavourable weather.

Scaling the top of Mt Everest isn’t for the faint-hearted.

And no, Dr Faith Mwende isn’t about to surrender her quest to get to the summit and
become the first Kenyan woman to reach the world’s highest peak, despite insurmountable challenges that have seen her retreat to hospital at the base of the mountain with flu.

The Mt Everest peak stands at 8,849 metres high and Mwende, a scholar and financial
expert, had landed and spent several days at the iconic Base Camp (5,364 metres high,
much higher than Mt Kenya’s 5,199m peak).

Here, she and her team were going through rotations - meaning trekking to higher altitude and back several times to allow the body to acclimatize.

Before being advised to take a seven-day medical break at the Nepali capital Kathmandu, Mwende had done four rotations, trekking from Lobuche Village (5,030m) to Lobuche High Camp (5,600m), spending the nights there before continuing to Lobuche Peak (6,000m) and back to Lobuche Village.

Faith Mwende

Dr Faith Mwende during training on the ice wall during rotation some metres beyond the Base Camp on April 29, 2023.

Photo credit: Pool

Then the virus struck.

“There has been an outbreak of cough virus at the Base Camp. Everyone is sick and coughing at the camp,” Njoki Maina, a member of Mwende’s “No Summit Too High” Secretariat in Nairobi announced to anxious team members last week.

“Dr Faith got the cough as well, but at the time she sought medical assistance from the
doctor at the Base Camp, medicine such as cough syrup, Strepsils and the likes had been depleted since everyone was sick.

“However, the doctor advised that her cough would clear, and all she needed was to get
some rest. Dr Faith rested for a few days but the cough was not clearing. Instead, it felt like it got into the chest. She went back to the doctor at the Base Camp and was given some tablets for three days,” Maina explained.

Faith Mwende

Faith Mwende armed with 8,000-litre summit warm summit boots, water proof jacket and pants, sun/snow shield and her home county of Makueni flag at the Mt Everest Lobuche peak (6,000 metres).

Photo credit: Pool

“The doctor, however, advised that she could just do a total rest at the Base Camp for three days so that the cough could clear, or lose elevation for it to clear faster which meant going to low elevation… as low as Kathmandu.

“Dr Faith chose to go to lower elevation for faster recovery before getting back to the Base Camp. The doctor advised that the cough symptoms need to clear completely before proceeding with the climb as it would worsen in the event she went up with the cough having not totally cleared.”

Subsequently, Seven Summit Trek, the company the organising Mwende’s climb, arranged to fly her to Kathmandu, where she went to a hospital for a second opinion and later got a clean bill of health.

“The doctor reported that her lungs were okay and recommended complete rest for two to three days before flying back to Base Camp for the summit push,” Maina added.

And on Sunday, Mwende told Nation Sport exclusively that she is back on track and hopes that the window for the weather to allow a final push to the summit extends, so as to allow her achieve her goal.

Faith Mwende

Faith Mwende at the Mt Everest Base Camp on May 17, 2023.

Photo credit: Pool

“There was an outbreak of the Khumbu cough at the Base Camp. Almost everyone at the Base Camp was coughing and I also got the cough after coming back from Lobuche peak which was my biggest challenge as it affected my lungs and I had to go down to a lower elevation for faster healing,” she narrated.

“Losing elevation has an implication of faster healing, but you also lose time and if you stay for long, you also slowly lose the acclimatization to the high altitude the body had gained. I am quite determined to summit and I have not given up.”

Mwende says mountains do not respect persons “and they change like a chameleon and even the most prepared and experienced person can be affected.”

“It is the nature of the mountains to be unpredictable as they can throw in any challenge your way and the outcome might be out of your control. So, one has to prepare to be ready and acclimatize well but at the same time have an open mind, listen to your body and know when to turn around because your safety and life matters.

“Bearing that in mind, I was prepared psychologically knowing that success is not
summitting, and not summitting is not failure but a learning process.”

Mwende was discharged from the Kathmandu hospital last Friday after seven days’ rest to ensure the cough clears completely.

The weather window is projected to close on Monday (May 29) and her expedition company will then advise if there will be an extension.

“I am determined to continue with the climb (if there’s an extension),” she assures with a sense of resilience.

Mwende is among almost 1,000 climbers, including the Nepali guides who form the
backbone of the industry, expected to attempt the 8,849-metre ascent in the coming weeks.

Everest, known as Sagarmatha in Nepali and Chomolungma in Tibetan, has captured the imagination of climbers ever since it was identified as the world's tallest mountain above sea level. 

The first expedition was launched in 1921 by the British, but it would take another 32 years and several more expeditions before Nepali Tenzing Norgay and New Zealander Edmund Hillary would finally reach its summit.

Seventy years on, commercialisation has drawn crowds of climbers to the slopes of the mountain, and more than 6,000 people have reached its summit. A majority of them have been in the last two decades. 

Costs range from $45,000 (Sh6.2 million) to $200,000 (Sh27.6 million), depending on the services included and the level of luxury. This includes an $11,000 (Sh1.5 million) permit for foreign climbers, plus travel, insurance, kit and, most importantly, guides.

Mwende’s budget is about Sh10 million and her sponsors include the County Government of Makueni, Old Mutual, Next Level Fitness and Spa, Mavericks Restaurants, Next Level Properties Ltd and the Mavericks Group.

She arrived in Nepal on April 16 and started her climb on April 19 from Lukla, a small town in the Everest region at the base or the foot of the mountain where the climb traditionally starts, getting to the Base Camp on April 24.

At the Base Camp, climbers can enjoy a hearty breakfast, wifi to keep in touch with loved ones - and to post photos on social media - brewed coffee and other creature comforts unthinkable for the early climbers.

Everest has always been dangerous, with more than 300 people killed since climbing began, according to the Himalayan Database. In 2014, an immense, tumbling wall of snow, ice and rock killed 16 Nepali guides on the Khumbu Icefall in one of the deadliest accidents on the Himalayas.

This season began on a tragic note, with the death of three Nepali guides on the same
treacherous formation after a chunk of falling glacial ice swept them into a deep crevasse. 

Earlier this month, US climber Jonathan Sugarman, 69, became the fourth person to die
after feeling unwell at Camp 2.

Although no extensive research has been done into climate change and mountaineering risks in the Himalayas, climbers have reported widening crevasses, running water on previously snowy slopes and increasing formation of glacial lakes.

A 2019 study warned that Himalayan glaciers were melting twice as fast as in the last

"I would say the variability of the dangerousness is increasing. In the long term warmer temperatures make mountains unstable and that increases risk for gravity-related processes like rock fall, ice fall, avalanches," said Lukas Furtenbach of Everest operator Furtenbach Adventures.

In 2019, a massive traffic jam on Everest forced teams to wait hours in freezing temperatures, lowering depleted oxygen levels that can lead to sickness and exhaustion.

At least four of the 11 deaths that year were blamed on overcrowding.

Nepal has already issued 466 permits to foreign climbers, and since most will need a guide, more than 900 people will try and summit this season, which runs until early June.

This could once again result in heavy traffic and bottlenecks en route to the summit, especially if there is a shorter climbing window because of unfavourable weather.

Additional reporting by AFP