UNDP Moldova
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UNDP Moldova

In search of own Everest or how six Moldovans reached the heart of the Himalayas

Treat the mountains with respect and they will reward you with unique experiences

In 2021, several Moldovans backpacked their courage and embarked on an adventure to the Everest, but not just for the sake of it, but accompanied by a shooting crew. It happened in the framework of “My Everest” project.

“My Everest” is a documentary series about the expedition of the six Moldovans, from both banks of the Nistru, to the heart of the Himalayas. The team chose the route to Mount Mera Peak, of 6,476 meters above sea level, considered to be the highest hiking trail in the world.

The documentary series “My Everest” was produced with the financial support of the European Union in the Republic of Moldova through the EU “Confidence-Building Measures” Programme, implemented by UNDP Moldova.

Who and under what conditions would return to the Himalayas, what is it like to actually see the peaks of Everest, but also how much the live experience differs from what we see on the screens? We invite you to take a “hike” among the answers of “My Everest” expedition participants. Natalia Cernichevici and Andrei Hohlov are two of the documentary series’ protagonists, while Iulian Bercu and director Lucia Taut were part of the project’s creative team.

A year ago you were preparing for the expedition “My Everest”. Now, how do you feel, what is the feeling of “before” and “after”? What has changed?

Lucia: The “My Everest” project has taught me many lessons. It changed the way I think, the way I live, the way I interact with people. Sometimes I am about to believe that it was a dream, other times that I am a lucky person. I often think about how I lived that experience, what I saw, what I met. Indeed, there is this feeling of “before” and “after”. Before the expedition, I lived with other thoughts, even perceptions of life. I lived through the failures much more tragically, I gave too much importance to non-essential things, situations, (even) people.

Iulian: Every visit to the Himalayas leaves behind an enormous desire to return and a nostalgia. And, paradoxically, the heavier the expedition turns, the deeper is the satisfaction. A year ago, before going to Nepal, we were aware of the difficulties we would go through. I knew of any problems with the frost, the tens and hundreds of miles on foot, and the lack of oxygen. In the Himalayas, these are felt completely different, but when you live them as a team, in the heart of the highest mountains on the planet, it is much easier and simpler.

Natalia: Before the trip, I had lot of fears and doubts — the idea of going as such, confidence in your own forces, it was the period with the toughest restrictions. In addition, some relatives have abundantly fueled these fears. Now that I look back at the trip, I envy myself. Thanks to our wonderful guides, everything went smoothly, and the lock-down brought an element of unpredictability and adventure. I realized that there is a way out of any situation. In addition, I am now close to understanding the limits of my abilities, I understand how not to be afraid, but happy, and I hope that this experience will help me in the future expeditions that I am already planning.

Andrei, you are a professional climber. Where and how did this love/passion for mountains, climbing comes from?

Andrei: The recipe is simple: lots of good books in childhood and adolescence and two or three happy encounters with the right people at the right time. Nepal has an official slogan: “Once is little!” It’s pure truth. The Himalayas are, without exaggeration, a magical place. It calls all those who have been there in clear mind.

How many mountains have you climbed so far and where?

Andrei: Probably about one hundred and fifty — two hundred in the Caucasus, the Alps, the Andes, Tianshan, and many other mountains. Each of the climbs is unique, which is why I don’t keep counting them.

Natalia, how did the desire to climb come in your case?

Natalia: The first attempt to climb a mountain was two and a half years ago and I am really happy that during the pandemic I chose a new passion. Now I really can’t imagine my life without an expedition to the mountains. The first mountain climbed was in Egypt, Mount St. Catherine(2,629), then the highest mountain peak I have ever conquered was Kala Pattar (5,550) in Nepal, at the foot of Everest. Even during “My Everest” expedition, I had the photo made at 5,550 quora as a wallpaper.

Lucia, you were one of the women on “My Everest”. How did you feel in this adventure? Have you ever hiked or climbed before a mountain ?

Lucia: I felt really good. I liked it and I would love to live such experiences again, for sure. I haven’t had any mountain climbing experiences. I did some hiking in the Carpathian and Caucasus mountains. However, they cannot be compared to what we had in the Himalayas. In general, I don’t think it’s good to compare everything you can experience in the Himalayas and other mountains.

How did you cope with the high altitude? To what extent were you surprised by how your body reacted to such conditions?

Lucia: Unlike other teammates, men, I think I coped even better sometimes, because I prepared for it, maybe not well enough, but that helped me to resist easier. I was very nervous that I could encounter difficulties at high altitude. I had no experience climbing high altitudes mountains. I was very surprised that at high altitude I had no appetite. In quite difficult conditions in which I consumed a lot of energy, I could not eat at all. Speaking about testing the limits, I exceeded my resistance limits, taking into account the nutrition I had.

Is climbing a Himalayan peak a call or a challenge?

Lucia: If I had to choose between a vacation at the seaside or in the mountains, I would definitely choose the mountain. Regardless of the time of year. I love the mountains. They inspire me, charge me with energy. But I did not imagine that I would have the opportunity to see Mount Everest with my own eyes. Really. Therefore, I cannot say that I have a call to climb Mount Everest, for this mountain it would rather be a challenge. But in general, I can say that mountain climbing is a call.

Iulian: Each of those who climb the mountain have their own reasons and each lives his own Everest. A mountain top can be a fad or a dream. Everyone who touches it has a purpose when taking the first step on the mountain. For me, the whole climbing process is a challenge, regardless of the height of the mountain. And the challenge is to climb to the top as a team, giving each team member the satisfaction of their own Everest. For me, the mountain is a fantastic opportunity to analyze and reset myself.

Why they say that this mountain tests your limits? What are those limits? Or maybe it’s about vulnerabilities?

Natalia: Probably these are the limits of physical abilities, because at an altitude the body encounters a series of challenges: acclimatization, rarefied air, cold, lack of comfortable hygienic conditions, and moral endurance is challenged by a lot of thoughts: what I am doing here, why do I need this, when it will be over, etc. One of my friends, after telling him about my experience in “My Everest”, said — no, I couldn’t do that, I like comfort. I like comfort too! But when you face these challenges and can enjoy the moment, you get something you don’t see in everyday life — the sunrise in the mountains from the bird’s eye view, the way the clouds hook up to the mountain tops… It seems that our vulnerability is only in our mind. Although, of course, I am far from being an expert in such things.

Iulian: Limits are tested by any circumstances that take you out of the circle of habits, called personal comfort. For me, the Himalayas is a place where you remain face to face with your own instincts and knowledge of survival. There are no taxis, which you can stop when you’re get tired during climbing, especially when you get to the point from where there is no backtrack. You are on your own and you just have to move on. At the same time, a person’s limitations largely depend on his/her approach to the extreme situation he/she is going through. From my personal experience of participating in mountain climbing ultra-marathons, I know that the greatest obstacles are inside us. Our mind almost always gives up first, not our legs.

Andrei: Almost everyone who climb the mountains for a long time discover what their personal limits are — the limits of physical endurance, patience, the ability to empathize — are much more elastic than they seem. With the right approach, the harsh conditions of the mountains allow us to get rid of what is useless, to develop adaptability. Yes, the considerable physical effort, the harsh climate, the hypoxia hit our weakest points, but, paradoxically, they make us much stronger.

How was the team that ventured into this expedition formed? Who and what role played?

Iulian: The team was formed based on the experiences and desire of each member to climb a mountain higher than six thousand meters. It was a mix of experience and professionalism on the mountain, endurance and knowledge in hiking tens and hundreds of kilometers and the desire of people who practice an active way of life to test their limits.

Andrei: I was in charge of logistics, safety and discipline. Iulian — was responsible for the for the mood (it’s an extremely necessary and very difficult task) and for the delicious food. Lucica — for shooting. I guess Lucica had the hardest time: she, as a director, lived that road for each of us, and for herself she lived it according to the principle “what’s left”. Here’s who the real hero is.

Lucia, in addition to the mission to climb the mountain, you were also part of the production team, which was also responsible for the script/direction/shooting. How much does the live experience differ from what we see on the screens?

Lucia: Of course, the experience lived firsthand is very different from the one seen on TV. In the video you can only imagine how much pain you can feel in your feet after hours of walking, while in reality you feel it, you live it. Often you can see only a part of things on the screen, for various reasons.

Is it necessary to have team spirit or can climbing of a mountain be done on your own?

Lucia: Obviously, the team matters a lot. You can’t do such escalations on your own. I think that would be impossible. On your own you can go trekking, but not climbing. It also matters a lot with which people you form a team. Everyone has to be on the same wavelength, maybe with the same interests, because in difficult situations you become very vulnerable emotionally, respectively you need someone who understands you or with whom you can share your feelings.

Iulian: Climbing the mountain on your own requires years of experience and psychological endurance. The first dozen experiences are recommended to be in group climbing. Both for safety, but also for better psychological comfort.

Andrei: In group climbing, without team spirit, it is simply impossible. You can’t hide there, you can’t run. Like in an orchestra — if someone ditches or “fakes”, everything falls apart in an instant. Our band was a success.

How is team spirit formed in a group of people who practically see each other for the first time?

Lucia: From my experience and from what I experienced in this case, at the beginning the connection between us was made very easy, without much discussion. Then it became tense. It happened because of several reasons: fatigue, difficulties, complicated work situations. Along the way, they were eliminated, and in the end we became like a family. We were no longer strangers to each other.

Andrei: Sincerity in communication, the will to support others, smiles even in the most difficult moments — as in a family. Frankly, before going to the mountains, we participated in a series of common events, during which we managed not only to get to know each other, but also to make friends. This is very important.

Iulian: To do this, you must have a certain number of key people who will support and defuse the team members. There should be a few such “diffusers” in order to have spare resources in settling possible nervous breakdowns or dissatisfaction. There are many situations in which a team member gets to the limit, and tries to express his/her dissatisfaction through explosions of emotions, and after a while he/she is already sorry and apologizes for creating a psychological discomfort. And these people are psychologically resistant, and they are meant to defuse possible “bombs”.

Did you have times when you wanted to give up? How are such situations handled?

Andrei: Fortunately, no. On the contrary, I want to remember every moment. It was great!

Natalia: Yes, I gave up the Himalayan expedition, gave in, and did not follow the route where the ascent to the top of Mera Peak was planned.

Lucia: No. I never wanted to give up anything. Not even when I was told I should stop.

Iulian: The only time I was ready to give up was the day I reached the glaciers and I knew I had to sleep a few days in the tent, and I was left without a sleeping bag due to a mistake by the sherpas who were carrying some of our equipment. The decision to leave was to protect the team from any problems we might have due to the frost. If anything happened to me, I had to be sent from off the mountain with a sherpa. If the team was left without a sherpa, it meant that each member of the team had to take a part of the 30–40 kg equipment. It created additional risk for the success of the expedition.

How important is a sherpa’s help in such an adventure?

Iulian: The sherpa’s help is vital to most expeditions. The sherpas transport the climbing equipment, the tents, install them and disassemble them. In our case, the sherpas also installed the equipment for crossing mountain ridges. Even with sherpas, the key people in our expedition had 20–30 kg backpacks. On the other hand, others had as much as 5–10 kg. Sherpas’ presence allows for significant extra speed and safety.

Lucia: Sherpas’ help is great for all tourists visiting the Himalayas. First of all, they are a very high altitude people. I know very well how you can survive in extreme conditions. In our case, the porters helped us carry all the luggage that was heavier. It was amazing how they, being so small, could carry weights of 25–30 kg, maybe even more, while we could barely handle 7–10 kg.

Is it more complicated to climb, to cope with acclimatization, to reach a certain height, or to descend? Where’s the adrenaline rush? What altitude have you reached?

Lucia: I lived the whole journey as a moment of glory. And I had every reason to do so. And in the more difficult segments, of course, I no longer thought of glory, because the effort I was making was draining me of all my energy. Only when I descended, I remembered what I’ve seen, where I’ve been and what I lived there. I lived many moments only when I got home, in Moldova.

Andrei: However, I was a guide in this ascent and I could not allow myself to burst with emotions: I had to be focused and attentive all the time. It was very difficult for all participants both during climbing (at the altitude higher than 6,000 m we rested every 20–30 steps) and during the descend, when the snow softened from the sun and we sank all the time, sometimes up to the knees and sometimes up to the thigh. On the way down, everyone was already very tired, and in such conditions the probability of injury is high. That’s why, in potentially dangerous places, I went with a rope. On top, I do not triumph, but on the contrary, I try to catch the “moment of peace”, of joy and tranquility, to be silent, to let myself be conquered by the inexplicable spirit of the summit. No adrenaline.

Iulian: Of course, from a physical point of view, the ascent is harder than the descent, although, in the last kilometers of climbing Mera Peak, it was just as difficult to descend. If on the way up you are exhausted by the difficulty of climbing, lack of oxygen, by testing the routes so as not to fall into a crack in the glaciers, then at descending, even if it is easier, everyone is with zero batteries and the descend is mostly automatic.

Natalia: From my point of view, the descent is more difficult, because at climbing you are motivated by the thought of reaching the top, that everything the most interesting is ahead. But probably the biggest adrenaline rush is in the end of the road, when you realize everything you’ve experienced.

Was the experience of climbing Everest during the pandemic any different? What thoughts/emotions did you experience when cases of COVID-19 were detected at the Base Camp?

Andrei: Oh, yes, it’s a fantastic time now! Previously, the trekking route from Lukla to Everest Base Camp was the most popular high-altitude trekking route in the world. In normal years, incessant flows of people move there in both directions. And this spring, during the lockdown, there were days when I did not meet anyone on the route! When I was halfway there, I found out that the scheduled flights had been canceled in Nepal. This, of course, was a serious stress for the group, but we consulted and decided to continue the route as planned. We decided to avoid crowds, but in fact, they weren’t in our way. Everything went well, no one in our group got sick, and after descending from the mountains, we managed to evacuate relatively quickly with charter flights (in three shifts). It wasn’t really cheap, but it was worth it.

Lucia: From the talks with the locals and those who have been at the Base Camp Everest route, the pandemic has more affected the shopping villages or the lodges that hosted the tourists. This is a very commercial route and because there were fewer tourists, many accommodation units closed. We were not panicked by the COVID-19 cases found at the Base Camp. We were in the mountains and the chances of contacting infected people were quite low. Especially since we were told that those people were transported by helicopter to Khatmandu. In addition, we only stayed at Everest Base Camp for two hours and only communicated with three or four people there. It was more likely to get infected in Khatmandu.

Iulian: A record number of permits issued for climbing Everest was beaten last year. There were over 550 permits, compared to 300–400 in previous years. This is because in 2020 Everest was closed to climbing. An unpleasant aspect was that dozens of those who came to climb Everest got sick with COVID-19 and did not reach the top of the mountain. In addition, the taxes paid by them, from 60–70 thousand euros to over one hundred thousand dollars, have been wasted.

Did the experience of “My Everest” make you stronger or more vulnerable?

Lucia: Definitely stronger emotionally, more physically resilient. This expedition helped me to better control my emotions, my thoughts.

Iulian: This expedition made us much stronger, physically and psychologically. Possibly psychologically to a greater extent. In addition to the fact that any expedition to Nepal changes your attitude towards the values of this life, highlighting the small real joys of life, climbing teaches you to work hard to reach the top. In other words, it teaches you to persevere and that that any finish will eventually come.

Natalia: I think that this experience broadened my horizons of perception, made me stronger physically and mentally, enriched me with new impressions. It is invaluable.

Andrei: It seems to me that I have become more sensitive, more empathetic. It is not power or vulnerability, it is something much more important. I thank the people who were by my side, I thank the mountains.

There are people who, after conquering Everest (I do not mean exactly the peak at of 8,860), do not return to it, while others do it year after year. Who belongs to what camp?

Andrei: Ha-ha, take a guess!

Iulian: Most people fall in love with the mountains and realize that they really only live when in the mountains. As I said above, it’s only in the mountains when they truly live their lives. They have all the conditions to focus on themselves. No internet, TV, job, other problems that dilute the pleasure received from life.

Lucia: Much depends on the experience you live in those days. I would go back to Mera Peak. Although at some point I thought I wouldn’t want to come back, even though it was impressively beautiful. The hardships you go through, live it there, make you not want to come back neither in the short, nor in the longer term. After almost a year, I realize that I would like to return to those places.

Natalia: There are many hiking trails in the Himalayas in the most beautiful places, I would really like to go back there, and probably with a slightly different mood, to know exactly what awaits me, to go to different places. I also want to visit and climb other peaks in different countries — the list of these places is impressive and inspiring.

What if you had to pack your bags again, what would you take with you?

Iulian: Definitely I would throw away half of my clothes and I would have taken twice as many books.

Andrei: More useful gifts for children in the area: pencils, notebooks, pencils.

Lucia: I would take more supply of seeds, as they are the easiest to eat:))) And I would take less clothes.

What message did you try to convey to those who did not watch the documentary?

Iulian: The main message was to make people aware that the biggest obstacles are in their mind. We wanted to show them how a group of people, only one of whom is an experienced climber, with a little perseverance and a lot of desire, overcame all the obstacles on the way to their own Everest. We wanted to show that we should not be afraid to set goals that, at first glance, seem unattainable.

What makes the serial documentary you made different from other documentaries about Everest?

Lucia: Primarily it differs because it is about the experience of Moldovans. We covered the experience of the first Moldovans who climbed Mera Peak.

Iulian: More fiction films than documentaries have been produced about climbing Everest. It is both expensive and difficult to form a team of documentaries production professionals who are also resilient to climb thousands meters altitudes. This series is distinguished by the people who participated in the expedition and by the feelings lived by them. We proposed ourselves to show not only the nature of Nepal, but also the internal struggle of the participants in the expedition.

Andrei and Natalia, you are the heroes of the serial documentary “My Everest”. Did you watch it?

Andrei: When the movie started to be broadcast on TV8, I was in the Caucasus, then on the rocks of Spain, then back in the Himalayas, and therefore I watched it in fragments, in pieces. I haven’t seen all the episodes so far. I’m waiting for the moment when it will be able to sit comfortably at home with a tea and watch the whole film in a calm atmosphere. I will never be able to compare this film “cold minded” with other films about the mountains, at least because it is the only work of great professionalism in which I am not only present, but also “play” one of the main roles. To me, this film is, of course, unique. Thanks to the entire film crew and, first of all, to the director Lucia Tăut for this colossal work.

Natalia: I enjoyed watching the documentary and I remembered all the moments I lived there again. It seems to me that the director managed to convey the atmosphere — the sound of the wind in the mountains, the squeak of snow and stones underfoot, the murmur of water in the rivers. Unlike the many films about Nepal, which try to satisfy the public’s need to watch the usual life of the locals, the dangers in the mountains, even the flight to Lukla — “the most dangerous airport in the world”. After watching the documentary “My Everest”, I would like you to visit Nepal.

Where can people watch the documentary?

Julian: All episodes are on the Facebook page — @MyEverest. There are also a lot of materials that didn’t make it into the movie.

Himalayan mountains seen from screens or in reality, which one would you choose?

Lucia: Me — the real ones. Every time.

Andrei: Movies about mountains are not a substitute for mountains, but a way of telling, attracting, captivating. On the other hand, if someone, for various reasons, cannot touch the mountains live, well-made films allow this happiness to be shared. I think this “radiation” is present in our film.

Iulian: Of course, the ones seen in reality. With all the risks and discomfort.

Natalia: It’s better to see them once than to hear about them a hundred times, but it’s even better to see them a hundred times!

What is the lesson/feeling that marked you after the “My Everest” expedition?

Lucia: This expedition marked me very much. It made me change my priorities in life, to enjoy life. I learned to look at people differently, to know them differently. To know my mistakes and to appreciate nature even more. There are many other things that we have not yet assimilated and lessons to learn.

Andrei: Everyone has their own Everest. We don’t have to compare anything.

Natalia: I have experienced the feeling that the world is immense, great, and that life is not limited by the borders of your hometown, and you are not limited to the “work and home” route. I wish I could go back to the mountains and have the same free people around!

One day, it could happen that one of your children may want to repeat the experience you had in the Himalayas. Would you encourage them to do it or what would you tell them?

Iulian: I would go with him, and I wouldn’t stop him. It’s a very good school. I would be against unreasonable risks, or if I felt that it was due to the desire to accumulate some likes, and not to learn a useful lesson for the entire life.

Lucia: I would encourage him/her to listen to his/her soul, his/her heart and if he/she is able to make it, to go. Such experiences deserve to be lived by us, humans.

Natalia: I would say: take me with you! I really want to take my kids to the mountains. I wonder how I have lived without mountain experiences in my life so far ?! Unfortunately, I can’t plan trips, hiking as often as I would like, but I’ve included the mountains in my life schedule once and forever.

Andrei: Why would I say? Treat the mountains with respect and they will answer you with the same coin.

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