Peter and Joan O’Malley have travelled the world many times over and participated in their own ‘Everest Challenge’ – experiencing the highs and lows of altitude trekking in the Himalayas.
The couple, now residents of Ngaio Marsh village, in New Zealand, met on the dance floor and say in a way they’ve kept ‘dancing’ or at least moving around – following their children’s lives and their explorations of the globe.
However, an intended visit to Everest Base Camp in 1987 saw the couple tested to the limits.
Peter, who had spent a considerable part of his career working for Wrightson NMA, was after 30 years due for a long service award, the couple remember.
They chose the Everest trail in Nepal, although Hawaii was the original travel option offered by Wrightsons. “We wanted something different, we wanted an adventure,” Joan says.
Mt Peel in Canterbury provided an initial training ground for the couple as they readied themselves for South-East Asia, Peter says.
His long service meant they could fly first to Bangkok, then on to Kathmandu, Nepal where they spent an initial two nights in what was then a ramshackle and sometimes muddy city. “We were impressed with the Nepalese people. They were very kind, and very good to us.”
From Kathmanudu the couple boarded a 12-seat aircraft to fly on to Lukla, which had a small sloping landing strip cut into the side of a mountain.
Following the landing in the tiny township, the couple started to trek towards Tengboche Monastery, with sherpas helping to guide as well as carrying packs. Yaks carried tents and other equipment.
It took a total of three days for the couple to reach the small town of Namche Bazaar, a popular stopover for trekkers in the region and bedded down for the snowy night in a tent. Following a night’s sleep Joan felt badly affected by the higher altitude. “We were transferred to the lodge, with Peter instructed to keep giving me water. By the afternoon (I was later told) my lips were blue. I was unconscious,” Joan says.
Fortunately, there was a Canadian trekker with medical experience, who advised the couple to get pure oxygen. Only when Peter produced American travellers’ cheques for a total of US$1500 were three oxygen bottles handed over.
“Our sherpa was sent to Khunde hospital and arrived back at 1am with the doctor who gave me an injection...,” Joan says.
“The next morning Peter hired a mule. With the team leader supporting me one side, the sherpa on the other and the oxygen bottle balance on my lap we set off down the mountain.
“It was hair raising. The track was narrow and the mule refused to take me over rivers. (This was) not surprising, there were no bridges, just a narrow plank so the sherpa piggybacked me with Peter walking backwards over the plank carrying the oxygen bottle.
“Going down the trail we spent two nights with Nepalese families in their primitive homes. They were very kind, as was our sherpa. Being New Zealanders, and with Sir Edmund Hillary held in such high regards, the villagers lined the trail to wish us well as we descended.
“This was a scary, terrifying experience. We both knew I had to get down to a lower altitude as quickly as possible if I had any chance of seeing our family again.”
Rather than fly on to India, as originally planned, the couple decided to go through to Singapore, where they had the chance to relax and recover beside a hotel pool.
Looking back with hindsight, more than 35 years later, Joan and Peter enjoy the memories though Joan says she hasn’t contemplated further mountain-based tramping experiences.
Both their boys, Justin and James, were at Christchurch Boys High School at the time of the 1987 trek, with their youngest (Justin) having just started at the school. The couple then flew home, and it took a further six months for Joan to fully recover.
While trekking the Everest trail was their dream trip, and the pair were both “super fit” they’d also taken the precaution of taking medical tests in advance of the high altitude walk.
Joan had advised medics of a very slow pulse, which gave her an advantage and aptitude for long-distance running, none warned her of the potential problems of altitude sickness.
Just recently, the couple have travelled to the United States to see son James and granddaughter Sarah, and also to climb the ‘lower altitude’ Mt Cardigan in New Hampshire.
“We feel very privileged to have been able to travel overseas, to have enjoyed a level of fitness that has enabled us to pursue the activities we love.” Joan says.
Peter says the couple have been in Ngaio Marsh village for just over a year, having downsized from a huge house in Puriri Street, Riccarton. In 2022 the couple prepared for the first Walking for Wellness event, walking many trails in New Hampshire including part of the Appalachian trail. “We had an amazing experience and found it totally exhilarating,” he says of the 2022 WFW challenge and the overseas ‘warm-up’.