THIS GIRL DEFINITELY CAN! THE INSPIRING MOUNTAIN ADVENTURER, HEATHER GELUK
She has inherent balance for skiing and mountaineering, but she has also gained a balance for life. Meet the high achieving, highly inspiring, Heather GelukCaught in the Nepal earthquake while nearly 6000m up a mountain was the second most terrifying moment of her already quite adventurous life. But THE most terrifying was experiencing the second earthquake while she was in the city of Bhaktapur a month later. Heather Geluk helped tackle the 'mountain' of devastation and is now ambassador for Sherpa Adventure Gear as well as being Change Management Communications Consultant for PwC. This girl not only can when it comes to extreme mountain adventures but she is also an inspiration to women AND men embracing the Sherpa sense of balance in life.
Q. You were caught in the most devastating earthquake this decade on 25th April, 2015 while climbing Mount Shishapangma in Nepal. Can you describe what it was like?
A. Experiencing a magnitude 7.8 earthquake at 5,700m, over half-way up the 14th highest mountain in the world can be described in one word: 'surreal'. My Sherpa guide, Lhakpa and I, were heading up the mountain as part of an acclimatisation rotation. The weather was incredibly foggy and we had little to no visibility to help with the route finding. We plodded our way for about five hours up to the cache and then stopped to take a short lunch break when a dull rumbling sound reached our ears.
At first, I thought it was an avalanche. Lhakpa and I looked at each other with confused expressions and furrowed brows. What was that sound and where was it coming from? As the rumble grew louder and louder we suddenly felt the earth under our feet begin to ‘roll’ violently. Lhakpa jumped out of the way of a huge boulder that we were sitting in front of and shouted for me to run.
I could hear huge rocks crashing down around us
As I tried to stand up I watched the glacier begin to roll like a frozen tsunami under my feet. I could hear huge rocks crashing down around us but, because of the fog, we couldn’t see where the immediate danger was coming from. It sounded like we were being avalanched from all sides. I realised it was an earthquake.
It was one of those situations when you feel like you’re in a dream and not quite sure when and how you’ll wake up. Sadly. however, it wasn’t a dream and when the longest minute of my life was over, Lhakpa and I were laying on the frozen ground with our heads buried in each other’s shoulders crying.
‘Survivors euphoria’ then kicked in and we realised that the earthquake was over - and that we’d survived. We started jumping up and down shouting, ‘We’re alive! We’re alive!’ Neither Lhakpa nor I had been in an earthquake before so we had no benchmark as to whether the earthquake had been big or how widespread the damage would have been. We knew if it had been felt on Everest that it would have been fatal.
A beautiful frozen landscape emerged under the shadow of Shishapangma
The surreal part of the entire experience (on hindsight) was that, as Lhakpa and I slowly made our way down to our Advanced Base Camp (ABC), the fog began to lift and a beautiful frozen landscape emerged under the shadow of Shishapangma. Apart from a few subtle signs, you would never have been able to tell that the earth had been rocked by a violent earthquake – small avalanches, some rockfall, cracked ice in the lake and ground that seemed increasingly unstable. The summit of Shishapangma was still in the cloud but we later saw that the entire summit had effectively collapsed on itself.
It wasn’t until we arrived at ABC that we learned that the earthquake had devastated parts of Kathmandu and we heard of the tragedy on Everest where 19 people lost their lives and many more injured.
When the earthquake struck on Everest basecamp
Our thoughts turned to Lhakpas family – he had an 18 month-old daughter and wife in Pangboche, a small mountain village near Everest. We waited three days before trekking 40k across the Tibetan plateau down to Base Camp where we were able to get a phone signal and it was then we got a real sense of the full scale of the tragedy. We learned that an avalanche from a neighbouring peak had destroyed Everest Base Camp and that the death toll from the earthquake was rising to about 8,000 people. After desperate phone calls and communication with friends in the UK, we learned that Lhakpa’s brother had survived the avalanche and that Lhakpa’s home had been badly damage but his wife and daughter were unhurt. It was a tremendous relief and incredibly emotional news to receive.
Q. Instead of going home to recover, though, you stayed in Nepal to help – and you were there when the aftershock struck on 12th May. How bad was the fallout?
A. Deciding to stay in Nepal to help was one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever had to make. This was my opportunity to use my ‘voice’ to give something back to a country that had been so good to me. Through my connections with the outdoor clothing brand, Sherpa Adventure Gear, I threw myself into raising money to buy the materials required to provide immediate relief to those most in need. This included tents, tarps, blankets, water sanitation kits, and food.
I walked for four days to bring money to local people
I also spent several days moving bricks from destroyed temples and helping to create order out of chaos – it was incredibly therapeutic work. One of the more emotional days was spent in a temporary hospital where I played with groups of children while their parents received medical attention. Finally, I travelled up into the Khumbu Region (also known as the ‘Everest region’) where I walked for four days to bring money to local people so that they could buy food and materials required to help get back on their feet. Many of the villages that I passed through had been completely destroyed and many people were living under flimsy tents, tarps or out in the open for fear of more earthquakes.
Nepal was rocked by a second earthquake, measuring a 7.3 on 12th May.
It was the day after my birthday and I was on the second floor of the Sherpa Adventure Gear offices. As soon as I heard the all too familiar rumbling sound I began to run. It was terrifying running down the stairs and seeing concrete steps ‘rolling’ to absorb the waves, hearing the noise of shelves crashing down. We ran out to a safe area that was not surrounded by buildings.
It was only a few seconds before the sound of helicopters began to fill the air. People were crying, phones began to ring and a sense of controlled chaos emerged. For me personally, being in the city for the second earthquake was far more terrifying than the first one we’d experienced on Shishapangma.
Bhaktapur after the devastation
Q. The devastation in Nepal with 9,000 killed, 25,000 injured and 2.5m homeless or displaced was immense. Facing what must have been a proverbial mountain of aid needed, where did you start? And how is it now?
A. I started by moving bricks. The day after I arrived back in Kathmandu having being evacuated from Shishapangma, I knew that I wanted to help. Aid and relief were pouring in and the country and aid agencies were in the midst of mobilising. The most helpful thing to do so that I could mentally wrap my head around what had taken place was to go to Bhaktapur, a world heritage site just outside of Kathmandu.
There, in the midst of the dust and stifling sun, I helped the local people and small grass-roots groups begin to create order out of chaos. I helped a local woman look for a kettle – perhaps her most prized possession – in the midst of the rubble. I then took my place in a long ‘conga line’ and we began to organise the bricks from where a famous temple once stood. Even though I don’t speak much Nepalese and many Nepali’s don’t speak English, we all managed to communicate with each other through gestures and smiles.
This gratitude has transformed common days into days of thanksgiving
Today, a year and a half since the earthquake, I am amazed by the resilience shown by the Nepali people in rebuilding their lives. Many have moved out from under the tents and tarps and back into their homes. Some have commenced rebuilding while others have simply plastered over the cracks in the walls.
I learn something new with every adventure to Nepal. On my most recent trip, and over the past year, I’ve learned about gratitude. While it’s clear that there is still much to do in Nepal and that the challenges facing its people are significant, there is a deep-rooted sense of gratitude. For the local people, this gratitude has transformed common days into days of thanksgiving, routine jobs into joy, and ordinary opportunities into blessings.
Q. You are Global Brand Ambassador for Sherpa Adventure Gear. How did this come about?
A. In 2012 I was about to set out on a two month expedition to be the first Canadian to summit Makalu, the fifth highest mountain in the world at 8485m / 27,838ft followed by a climb of an iconic Himalayan peak called Ama Dablam. Just before I left I got a call from my friend Kenton Cool, a leading British climber and high altitude mountaineer (12 summits of Everest), who I had previously crossed paths with in Nepal. He had been following my blog, ‘The People You Meet Along the Way’ and asked whether I’d be interested in becoming a brand ambassador for Sherpa Adventure Gear. Headquartered in Nepal, the brand was about to launch in the European market. Without hesitation I said, ‘yes!’
The Sherpa appreciation for balance - be it in work, life, play‐ has transcended to my own life
To this day, the more that I learn about Sherpa Adventure Gear, the more I have come to embrace and learn from everything that the brand represents. I think that this is best summed up in the brand logo – the endless knot which represents, ‘What goes around. Comes around.’ Every piece of Sherpa clothing is finished with this auspicious symbol which represents the unity of thought and action, words and deeds, wisdom and compassion. For me, this was really brought to life in the aftermath of the earthquake when the company, even though it and its employees had been directly impacted by the earthquake, set aside their own challenges to help others.
The Sherpa appreciation for balance - be it in work, life, play‐ has transcended to my own life in the way that I approach work, my adventures, and a deep respect for the many cultures and people that I meet along the way. In my role as an ambassador, I hope to continue to inspire others to find this balance and encourage others to explore the world and its people.
Q. You’ve climbed on some of the highest mountains in the Himalayas, Andes and Alps, including Everest, cycled over 7,500K across Canada and Tanzania and white water rafted throughout Nepal. What makes you want to continually go higher, further, faster?
A. I love journeys and love adventure. I also enjoy meeting new people and connecting with old friends. For me it’s not about going ‘higher, further and faster’, it’s about taking each day and making the most of it – learning from the ups and downs that life throws at us and sharing these lessons learned.
For me, the ‘drive’ behind my adventures is simple and the premise of my blog, ‘The People You Meet Along The Way’. If I hadn’t started to live life outside of my comfort zone I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet so many amazing, inspiring people. I love learning about how these people go about living their daily lives, battling with the ups and the downs that life throws at them – the good, the bad and the ugly. As a result, I learn about human dynamics, emotions, connections, and the people that form the mosaic of countries, cultures and history. And I see some of the most beautiful places in the world in the process.
Q. Where and when did your love for the mountains start?
A. One of my earliest memories is dragging my red plastic sled up the hill, breaking trail through knee-deep snow and taking the final few staggered steps to the summit of Mount Ridgetown in rural Canada. My legs were burning with exhaustion and I could feel my heart pounding through my snowsuit. I remember how much it hurt and how much focus it took. But I also remember the exhilaration of reaching a goal that my little eight-year-old self had persevered to attain. And so began my passion for the mountains and mountaineering.
Almost 30 years later, perched on a ledge at 8000m / 26,000 feet on the sheer icy face of Mount Everest in the Nepal Himalaya, I couldn’t help but reflect on the journey that had taken me from my rural roots to the slopes of some of the highest mountains in the world.
Q. We hear you actually love extreme cold and skiing ice? How come?
A. Embracing the cold is something that Canadians pride themselves on – you could almost say that experiencing -20 degrees and/or an epic snowstorm is a rite of passage. I grew up on a farm and my brothers and I spent most of the year looking forward to our cold, white Canadian winters. We spent our days playing outside bundled up against the cold, building snow huts, sledding down hill, playing on frozen ditches and going on all sorts of winter adventures.
It was night skiing on ice and the temperatures would regularly plummet
I went to university in Montreal at McGill University and skied with the university ski team. I was more of a ‘ski bunny’ than a racer but those years on the slopes definitely formed some of the most solid friendships and epic adventures. We trained on a hill about 1.5 hours outside of Montreal every Tuesday and Thursday evening from January to March. It was night skiing on ice and the temperatures would regularly plummet well below -15 degrees. I remember shedding many tears in the van on our way back to Montreal as my fingers and toes began to thaw – the ‘screaming pukies’.
On the weekends we’d ski on nearby resorts in the US and Canada including Mont St. Anne, Mont Tremblant, Sutton, Sugar Bush and Sugar Loaf. Between studying hard, skiing hard and playing hard, my four years at McGill University were definitely the best of my life. They pretty much engrained my passion for mountains, the lessons they teach you about yourself, and the people you meet along the way.
At home in icy - and glacier - conditions
Q. Your first job outside of Canada post university was at the Cheonmanson Ski Resort, just outside of Seoul, South Korea where you worked for two winter seasons as a ski instructor and English teacher. What did you learn most from this experience?
A. After University I spent two winter seasons in Korea teaching English and teaching skiing at Cheonmanson, a ski resort just outside of Seoul. In the mornings we’d teach the students (aged 6 – 14) English lessons and in the afternoon we’d teach them skiing – from basic to intermediate. There were 10 Canadian ski instructors and we were matched with 10 Korean ski instructors.
The experience can best be described in two words: character building. It was one of the most culturally challenging experiences I’d ever had but at the same time, also the most fun. I made life-long friends who taught me to enjoy the moment and laugh about some of the more random situations we’d find ourselves in. This has included karaoke buses, eating unrecognisable foods and racing snow-cats…
Q. And how did South Korea compare to Canada for skiing?
A. The skiing in South Korea wasn’t dissimilar to what I’d experienced around Montreal (icy!) but not nearly as cold. Much of the snow was man-made and the hill had 6 chairs. The downside was the crowds – Koreans love the outdoors and throw themselves into winter sports and flock to the hills en-masse during the weekends. In the evenings we’d go night skiing which was brilliant as that’s when the crowds would clear and we could bomb down the icy piste without worrying about the crowds.
Night skiing in South Korea
Q. What are the main lessons from your global skiing and mountaineering experiences that you use when working as Change Management Communications Consultant for PwC?
A. The greatest lessons learned from my skiing and mountaineering experiences all relate to balance – the ‘holy-grail’ of a career in the city combined with my passion and ambitions in the mountains.
I love my job and wouldn’t trade it for the world. I enjoy helping organisations respond to regulatory change through delivering business change projects. My role on these change projects is to ensure that whatever changes that the organisation makes in their response to the change – be they changes to people, processes, or technology – that the right people know about the changes at the right time and that they have the appropriate skills, tools, policies and procedures to deliver the change and do their jobs. Sounds straightforward right?
The challenge is that I also love big mountains BUT the time and resources required to venture into these remote places is significant. The way that I feel and the lessons that I learn in both environments are strikingly similar. Teamwork, risk management, project management, decision making, problem solving. Working to manage the ‘moving parts’ – the stakeholders, the priorities, time-commitments – within the two worlds, to ensure that they stay ‘in sync’ is not an easy task and builds on those early lessons learned when I was skiing in university and the climbing later in my career.
Q. You say it’s more about the journey than about reaching the summit? What’s been the best part of the journey so far for you?
The best part of my mountaineering journey has been the perspective that it’s given me in life. Perhaps it’s the meditative ‘plodding’ - the repetitive, drawn-out act of putting one foot in front of the other, counting my steps between lung-fulls of air while I move over rock, snow and ice. In the midst of the hustle and bustle of everyday life this form of high altitude meditation has given me the time to reflect.
Ascent of Ama Dablam, the Matterhorn of the Himalaya,,'6,856m/22,494ft situated in the heart of Everest's Khumbu Region.
Climbing has allowed me to realise that at the end of the day, at the end of my life, what truly matters is not going to be the summits I’ve stood on or where I placed in the race, but rather, what matters are the insights shared, life-lessons learned and the inspiration drawn from the people I’ve met along the way. These lessons will last longer and be more impactful than any summit that I’ve stood on, read or dreamed about.
I’ve met some incredible people through this journey - people who have added colour to my life and helped shape the journey - some closer to home and others in remote regions on the other side of the globe. Some of these people have devoted their life to helping others; others have built business empires; some entertain with their incredible musical genius, while others have conquered mountains or explored unchartered territories.
One thing that all of these people have in common is that they are passionate, talented, and amazing people who have gently shaped the moments that have made up my journey - the ups and the downs - both at work and at play.
Q. And is there a summit, real or metaphorical, that you would still like to reach?
A. Mountains will always be part of my life – it’s in my blood. There will always be a real summit. I’d love to go back to Nepal and climb Cho Oyu, an 8,000m peak that I was meant to climb after Shishapangma. I’d also like to climb Denali in Alaska and also Vinson in Antarctica.
In terms of metaphorical summits, I’d also like to continue using my passion for high altitude mountaineering to raise as much money as possible for charity. A charity that’s close to my heart is ‘Wellbeing of Women’, that funds research into the health and wellbeing of women and babies.
I regularly organise expeditions to both Nepal (Everest Base Camp) and Tanzania (Kilimanjaro) so that other men and women can experience these beautiful mountain environments. The money that they raise to undertake these challenges goes toward funding this lifesaving research. We’ve already raised over 100,000 GBP in three years through the Kilimanjaro climbs I organise and are on track to raise much, much more.
Q. Is it a man’s world out there on the mountain peaks? Do you ever feel at a disadvantage or sidelined as a woman on the mountains? If so how do you react?
A. To be honest, mountaineering might seem like it’s a ‘mans world’ but actually, I feel like it’s much more a fair and even playing ground than I’ve experienced in many corporate environments. I work in financial services which is more male dominated than mountains are.
Mountains – and altitude in particular - are great levellers. Performance isn’t based on sex or fitness. Rather, it comes down to genetics and physiologically, how quickly and easily your body responds to altitude and mentally, how strong you can be. Being physically fit obviously does make the journey more ‘comfortable’ though and recovery is faster after a long day.
Teamwork at Camp 2 on Makalu, the fifth highest mountain in the world at 8,485 metres
I carry the same loads as my teammates, and we divide tasks based on strengths and the best interest of the team. There will be days when I shovel snow to melt into boiling water for our morning coffees while my tent mate does the melting and boiling.
Q. Currently sport is being promoted as empowering to women. But we’re talking running, gym and yoga rather than climbing mountains. Are the extreme sports you do even more empowering? Or too scary – and actually dangerous - for most women?
A. In my view, women’s participation in sport, specifically extreme sports, isn’t about women being ‘empowered’. What sport does is provide an individual – irrespective of gender – with a goal and a set of tools and options and decisions to achieve that goal. Whether it’s an extreme goal like climbing Everest or a more straight forward goal such as improved flexibility through yoga or fitness through running, it is down to the individual to decide on the goal, their level of commitment, and how to best go about achieving it – how much time, money, and how much risk they are willing to take.
Many of these decisions are gender agnostic. I don’t think that the sense of ‘empowerment’ or ‘satisfaction’ correlates to how ‘extreme’ the goal is perceived to be. What matters is how the individual feels in the process of achieving it, why they have set the goal in the first place (what motivated them to do this) and the personal satisfaction achieved.
Q. One tip for women when it comes to skiing?
A. Never dance on tables with your ski boots on; a recipe for disaster!! In all seriousness, my top tip is actually related to boots – make sure that they fit properly and get them fitted by a boot specialist in a local sports shop. This will help to improve performance, comfort and ensure that you have a fantastic day out on the slopes!
One last tip: Just be confident and have fun and trust yourself.
Q. Guessing that mountain clothing is as much about function as style for you? What are currently your favourites for the mountains that you’ll be wearing this winter?
A. Over the past few years I’ve become a layering queen – an essential skill when going into the mountains. For my base layer, my go-to is the Sherpa Adventure Gear Dikila Zip Tee. It’s a versatile quarter zip tee that is both warm and cooling – eg. when starting out on a long trek or when I’ve worked up a sweat and need the moisture wicked away from my body. The double-weave fabric blocks wind chill while the quarter zip allows for extra ventilation. Plus it comes in a variety of beautiful bright colours.
Base layers from Sherpa Adventure Gear
I’m a massive fan of soft-shell. When trekking or climbing I always reach for a soft-shell both for my legs and for my jacket. Softshell keeps me warm, dry and comfortable. All Sherpa Adventure Gear softshell is made with a soft fleece lining and is 3-layer softshell providing breathable, durable warmth and protection against the elements.
My favourite piece of kit is a down jacket like the Sherpa Adventure Gear Nangpala jacket. I love this jacket as it’s super cosy thanks to the combination of goose down and PrimaLoft® fibres. Even if it gets wet, the jacket retains nearly all of its warmth and dries four times faster than down. The highlight for me is the hood, which adds crucial warmth at neck and head. After a long day of climbing there’s nothing better than diving into my tent or into a lodge and putting on my Nangpala jacket – it’s like a warm hug.
Finally – headwear! Even when climbing in the Alps, I feel inspired by Nepal thanks to my beautiful warm knitted hat. Hand-knitted in Nepal, the cosy lambswool Sherpa Adventure Gear Rimjhim hat is naturally warm but also durable. Soft, moisture-wicking Polarfleece® provides breathability while ensuring optimum insulation for my head. Plus it looks great!