This 59-Year-Old Pinay Trekked To Everest Base Camp—Her Story Will Inspire You To Climb Your Own Everest
“I shifted gears not to slow down but to accelerate at this point in my life,” says 59-year-old Teodora "Doris" Panopio. Many know her as the Vice President for Treasury at The Medical City, but outside the four corners of her office, she is a wife, a mother to three kids and, more notably, a woman who continues to dream even when she’s near retirement age.
Some people think that life gets less exciting when they reach the big 6-0. But Doris thinks otherwise. “60 is not the time to stop. 60 is the time for you to shift gears to do what makes you happy, what makes you fulfilled,” she points out.
Doris Panopio with other members of the UP Mountaineers at the Kathmandu airport on the way to Lukla
Doris, 59, gets ready to trek to the Everest Base Camp. Here she is on the Day 1 of their trek at Lukla
“The active lifestyle has always been a part of me”
Doris was the type of kid who preferred running around and climbing trees in their yard instead of playing with dolls and looking prim and proper in pretty dresses. She found the active lifestyle extremely fascinating and exciting. A sedentary lifestyle, it seemed, was (and still is) simply not part of her vocabulary. In college at the University of the Philippines Diliman, she majored in Economics and also joined the UP Rifle Pistol Team (UP RPT) and the UP Mountaineers (UPM).
It had always been her dream to climb the Mount Everest. At the time, traveling was something not a lot of people get to do as often unlike today when it has become a part of the lifestyle of many. “We couldn’t do it at the time… I did not have the resources to climb Mount Apo, more so Mount Everest,” Doris says.
Things may have gotten in the way, but she never let go of that dream.
"60 is not the time to stop. 60 is the time for you to shift gears to do what makes you happy, what makes you fulfilled”
Close encounter with yaks on one of the many hanging bridges
Day 2 - On the trail to Namche Bazar
Day 3 - Rest day at Namche Bazar
“This is my ‘after’”
Life went on as it should. Doris graduated from college, got a corporate job, got married, and had kids. All these years, being a wife and a mother gave her so much joy and fulfilment. A huge sense of accomplishment also comes from having climbed up the corporate ladder and excelling in her career. Her kids are all grown-ups, and knowing that she and her husband raised them well puts her mind at ease.
“I was your typical working mom who did the grocery and drove the children to soccer and basketball games on weekends,” she shares. Now that she’s done with most of her obligations to her family, she thought, “What’s next?”
“When they’re done raising their kids, parents always think about what they’re going to do after. This is my ‘after’… I wanted to do something for myself naman,” she says, her eyes smiling at the idea of realizing more dreams soon.
At 59, she thought her mountaineering days are over, but it only turned out to be the beginning of more exciting adventures. By sheer chance, Doris reconnected with her friends from UPM last year, and the dream she’s held on for 40 years resurfaced.
Mount Everest is the highest mountain above sea level, with a current official elevation of 8,848m (29,029 ft). Scaling Mount Everest or even trekking to its Base Camp is not easy. In fact, it’s so dangerous that the list of people who died climbing it even has its own Wikipedia page, with the number of fatalities reaching more than 300 since 1922. Climbers can die to due to avalanche, altitude sickness, fall, exposure, exhaustion, cardiac arrest, and other complications or accidents.
It’s difficult enough for the young climbers, what more for a 59-year-old woman?
Doris had to have a heart to heart talk with her husband and their kids about her decision to pursue this long-time dream. She shares, “I asked my husband, ‘Honey, do you think I can do a trek to Everest Base Camp?’ My husband said ‘Huh?’ Well, at least it wasn’t an outright ‘No.’ Next the kids: ‘What would you say if I told you I would go on a 2-week trek to Mount Everest Base Camp?’ I got looks ranging from ‘Really?’ to ‘Mom is crazy!’”
They may not have been convinced initially but she showed them how serious she is with going on this once-in-a-lifetime adventure. “I took matters into my own hands. In the next 10 months, I was up at dawn three days a week to train for a marathon in February 2019. The marathon was key to getting myself in shape. The short brisk walks progressed to 3- to 4-hour runs as February drew closer. After completing my first marathon, it was clear to me that I was really going to do the Everest Base Camp Trek. My family observed silently as I started collecting my gear for the trek: backpack, climbing boots, merino wool tops and socks, and trekking pants. When my husband gave me a Philippine flag to take on my trip, I knew I had his support,” Doris recounts.
Completing a marathon gave her the confidence and courage she needs to pack up and fly from Manila to Nepal to turn her dream into a reality. As for her family, all they could do was support and believe in her—not disappointing them and making them proud ultimately became one of the motivating factors for Doris.
“When they’re done raising their kids, parents always think about what they’re going to do after. This is my ‘after’… I wanted to do something for myself naman”
View in Phakding on Day 2
“If you can dream it, you can do it”
All psyched up and prepped to go, she left Manila on May 10 and arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal on May 12. She was joined by nine others, a 20-year-old lad and four men and four women whose ages range from 42 to 65. “I was the oldest woman,” Doris quips.
From Kathmandu, they took a helicopter ride to Lukla (2,860 meters above sea level) where their trek started.
The first three days involved hikes that Doris describes as “manageable.” She shares, “The trail was generally easy with lovely views of the green mountainside, pine trees, colorful stupas, and hanging bridges.” By this time, they had ascended to 3,440 meters above sea level.
Day 4 was defined by slow and steady climbs to Debouche (3,800 meters above sea level), to avoid Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) and allow their bodies to acclimatize.
Day 4 - To Debouche
Day 5 view: Snow capped mountains
Come Day 6, as they reached Dingbouche at 4,410 meters above sea level, the terrain was already rocky and dry and the air was thinner. “We started experiencing shortness of breath with every step we took,” Doris says. “Despite the increasing difficulty, all the members of the team remained strong.”
Day 7 trek to Dingbouche
On their 8th day, things took a turn for the worse as one of their team members struggled with AMS and had to be airlifted to a hospital in Kathmandu, while others experienced diarrhea, headaches, dry cough, and loss of appetite. They reached Lobouche (4,910 meters above sea level) by that day.
Day 8 - To Lobouche
Day 8 - Acclimatization climb in Dingbouche
Day 9 proved to be even harder with the terrain becoming “treeless, dry, dusty, and rocky” and the temperature dropping to below zero. Doris shares, “I was alarmed every time I woke up with a headache due to the lack of oxygen. During the trek, I was gasping for breath with every slow step I took.” It was the idea that she was only a couple of days away from realizing her 40-year dream which kept Doris’ spirits high.
Day 9 - View of Gorakshep, a frozen lakebed covered with sand
They reached the Everest Base Camp (which is at an altitude of 5,364 meters or 17,598 ft.)on the tenth day of their trek. Doris narrates, “The camp was made up of tents against a backdrop of rocks and ice next to the magnificent Khumbu Glacier. Adrenaline surged as I took pictures to send home. Did I jump and shout with joy? Not really. I lacked the oxygen to whoop it up. But the sense of accomplishment was something I cannot even begin to describe.”
Doris couldn’t update her family right away because there was no signal. They thought she didn’t make it, only to be amazed to later see a picture of her proudly holding the Philippine flag at the Base Camp. “My kids are duly impressed,” she declares.
Day 10 - Arrival in Base Camp
Base Camp - rocks, tents and the glacier
At Khumbu Glacier, known as the world's highest glacier
With the Sherpas
Team picture in Base Camp
“Why stop now?”
Looking back, Doris can think of three reasons and sources of motivation for why she decided to go on a trek to the Everest Base Camp.
The main reason is that she wanted to put herself first again. It’s not about being selfish, it’s simply about not having regrets or “what-ifs” lingering in her mind later on in life. For years, she gladly and willingly put her wants and needs on the backburner in order to take care of her family. Reaching this phase in her life made her realize that she has got enough time and resources on her hands to rediscover herself and her passions. “I kept saying ‘I’ll do this after.’ ‘I’ll do this after I graduate.’ ‘I’ll do this after the kids have grown up.’ Now is my ‘after.’ I had to do it kasi kelan pa ‘di ba?”
In a way, by having that dedication to reach a certain goal, she’s also showing her kids how to have grit and discipline when it comes to achieving their own dreams. She tells Metro.Style, “I had to do something that would connect to them, to show them that if you really work hard for something, you can do it. You can’t let anything stop you. For me, running that marathon and climbing Everest, connect sa kanila. They see me waking up at 4 a.m. every day. For an entire year, they would see me giving up late nights.”
This accomplishment of Doris not only sets a good example for her kids, it’s also bound to be a source of inspiration for women her age who may think that there’s nothing else they can do once they become senior citizens and reach retirement age. “There are so many people my age, for them, they’re old na. Hindi eh. Why will you stop? You have to keep going. You have to keep doing what you want to do. You should keep learning. We still have so much to give. Sayang ang oras. Ang dami n‘yo pang p’wedeng gawin at ibigay sa sarili n’yo at sa mundo.”
Doris mentioned that her father learned how to play the piano when he retired. She’s also close to retiring, so she makes wise use of her weekends by going on day hikes (her go-to is Mt. Talamitam in Nasugbu, Batangas) and beach trips, bonding with her kids in the gym, playing golf, and recently, signing up for a soap-making workshop. This August, she’s also running a half marathon, and considering trying out a mini triathlon and trekking to Kilimanjaro in Tanzania (it’s the highest mountain in Africa at 5,895 meters above sea level).
There are so many ways to overcome boredom in retirement. Doris says, “Now that you’re done with your responsibilities, ask yourself, ‘What makes you happy?’ Do it!”
She believes it’s not too late for people her age to reach the pinnacle of their dreams. “Your Everest doesn’t have to be a mountain,” she concludes.
Doris' favorite picture during the climb
Photos courtesy of Doris Panopio