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Mon 15 Jun 2009 04:00 AM

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Sky high

In April, students from the Rashid School for Boys trekked to the foot of Mount Everest for charity. It's a journey they will never forget, they tell Damian Reilly.

Sky high
The Himalayan trip was the first to Base Camp by a group of young UAE nationals.
Sky high
Sheikh Rashid Butti Al Maktoum raising the UAE flag at Kala Patthar.

In April, students from the Rashid School for Boys trekked to the foot of Mount Everest for charity. It's a journey they will never forget, they tell Damian Reilly.Young Sheikh Rashid Butti Al Maktoum's eyes light up as he remembers the trip. "On the plane on the way there, I took the word impossible out of my vocabulary. I was going to do it. My aim was to get to Base Camp and nothing was going to stop me. So I took the word away, I had no use for it, and after that I never looked back."

Sheikh Rashid, who speaks with the engaging, clear-eyed enthusiasm of youth, is describing the trip he made with five of his friends to Mount Everest in April. The trip, organised by the Sheikh Rashid School for Boys, constituted the first to Base Camp by a group of young UAE nationals (16-17 years old), and was no small undertaking.

To talk about it, we're sitting in the plush surrounds of the school campus in Nad Al Sheba, but Sheikh Rashid seems easily to be able to transport himself back up the Himalayas through recollection: "I was the first one to summit at Kala Patthar (the highest point of the trip, just beneath Everest). I sat there for thirty minutes, waiting for my friends. Those thirty minutes were something amazing. I could see everything around me and beneath me. It was very beautiful. Above me, I could see the summit of Mount Everest."

That summit, by the way, is always clear of snow - it's so high, the jet streams into which it juts blast the snow away. From Sheikh Rashid's vantage point, itself 5,545m high, Everest's peak looms two vertical miles straight up.

The air at Kala Patthar, and indeed everywhere above 4,500m high, is astonishingly thin. Trekkers to Kala Patthar often talk of the difficulty of movement at that altitude. Fit they may be, but still they find themselves walking for thirty seconds before having to sit down for two minutes, in order to get their breath back.

And that is not to forget what has gone before: that to reach this point, trekkers have had to walk for seven hours a day, for about ten days, up and downhill over the torturously steep slopes of the Himalayan foothills. They will have wrestled with fatigue, sometimes food poisoning, altitude sickness and sleep deprivation. In the process, not only will they have learned a great deal about themselves, but also about the people with whom they are trekking.

On the trip with Sheikh Rashid were his friends Sheikh Maktoum Mohammed Al Maktoum, Eisa Al Hashimi, Hilal Al Hameeri, Mohammed Abdulla Al Mana and Rashid Al Mansoori, as well as six members of staff from the school.

It's hard to prepare for walking at altitude - in fact, nothing can really prepare you for it. All you can do is make yourself as fit as you can, and hope that your body doesn't react too adversely to being up high. Even guides from Katmandu, who do the trek to Base Camp often, can succumb to severe fatigue and altitude sickness.

Eisa Al Hashemi talks about the training the boys did before setting out: "We had two or three training sessions a week before we left. We walked around Nad Al Sheba with weighted back packs - weighted down with school books. Or we did circuit training. We were pretty fit by the time we left Dubai."

The only way to try to combat altitude sickness - a very debilitating condition the harbinger for which is an extremely nasty headache - is to stop at various points of altitude on the trip and remain there for 24 hours in the hope that your body acclimatises. However, this was not an option available to the students after poor weather meant they had to change the Himalayan airport into which they flew from Katmandu. Instead of Lukla, which is closer to Base Camp. They had to fly to Phaphlu.

Sheikh Rashid explains: "When we got to Nepal, we stayed for one night in Katmandu. Then we had to get up at 4am to get to the airport to get the first plane to Lukla. But we couldn't fly because the weather wasn't right. So we had to fly to Phaphlu, which added three more days walking. We should have got two days rest during the trip, but because of the change of airports, we had to walk them. It wasn't a problem though. We enjoyed the walking. But thank God I am fit!"

The boys were lucky, no one succumbed to altitude sickness on the trip except for one of the members of staff, who had consequently to retreat down the mountain and recover. Sheikh Mohammed also became quite ill, although fortunately he found a way to carry on.

"There came a point towards the top when I couldn't eat anything without vomiting, and so I became very tired and sleepy. I really felt like I couldn't walk anymore, but I didn't want to give up. I was holding up the people with me and we were a long way from the leaders of the group. I was sitting down and resting and I just didn't think I was going to get there. But I am so glad I did. Being at Base Camp of the world's highest mountain was the most incredible experience ever."But on the way down, Sheikh Maktoum's tiredness finally caught up with him. He explains: "I was so tired after about twelve days of walking, and I had this huge hill to climb. And then I saw a man who had a horse. So I said to him: ‘Come on, let me have your horse for the day,' and I gave him $100 for it. The group was amazed when I caught them up."

At this story, there is much laughter and gentle teasing in the classroom. "We were there for walking, not riding horses!" Sheikh Rashid says with smile.

Andrew Hatcher, the teacher who organised the trip, interjects: "Maktoum knew he probably shouldn't be on the horse, and so when he came round the corner to where we all were, he tried to hide it behind his back."

The trip managed to raise over AED350,000 ($95,270) for UAE and Nepalese charities and was helped by generous donations from the Al Maktoum Foundation, Albwardy Investments and ANC Holdings. The charity work they were involved in impressed upon the boys the quality of life they enjoy in Dubai, and how comparatively poor to UAE residents many people in Nepal are.

Mohammed Abdulla Al Mana says: "What you learn as you go up higher into the hills is that our life here is basically a blessing. Life up there is very tough. Almost everything they eat and drink has to be carried for days up the steep slopes - you see people doing it, carrying these incredibly heavy loads. We felt so far away from our home comforts. But it was a wonderful experience."

Sheikh Mohammed adds: "The trip made us feel very lucky about the place we live in. Because there it is very hard to find clean water, and their food is always vegetables. Their life is much harder than ours."

Asked what impressions they formed of the Nepalese people they encountered, the boys are unanimous in praise.

Eisa Al Hashimi says: "They were all very kind. The people we met were lovely people. They would invite us into their houses and give us water or help us. The guesthouses and lodges we stayed in were mostly very basic up in the hills, but they were clean and comfortable enough. We all really liked the people we met in Nepal."

The toughest part of the trek for the group was their day at the highest point of their journey. Above 5,000m, trekking is enormously hard, but the boys' determination to see both Kala Patthar and Base Camp, two points separated by a ravine, meant they had to trek for over six hours. That night they slept at Base Camp.

Arabian Insight asks if they struggled to sleep - it is notoriously hard to sleep when the air is so thin. Funnily enough, the boys had no trouble that night.

As they talk, several of the boys are wearing school shirts covered in the signatures of their friends - the tradition on the last day of school. They're excited about the future; Hilal Al Hameeri says he will train to become a pilot if accepted, Mohammed Abdulla Al Mana adds that he will study electrical engineering in the US. Eisa Al Hashimi wants to go to Canada to study international relations. Sheikh Rashid wants to go to university in Sharjah or Dubai before taking over the family business (his father's interests include Arabtec). And Sheikh Mohammed explains he wants a career in law and order.

"I want to join the police. First I will go to the Police College, and see if they will take me. Because if I joined the police now they would just give me little jobs. But if I study for four years at the police academy, then I will get a better job when I graduate."

Wherever the class of 2009 end up, they are all adamant they will never forget their adventure in the Himalayas, be it the view of the tallest mountain on the planet, or the memories of the struggles endured with friends along the way, or the people of Nepal who helped to make their trek so memorable. Sheikh Rashid says: "It was an unbelievable trip, and it will be impossible to forget. We were so lucky to have such a brilliant experience. I'm definitely going back. I can't wait."

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