A dietitian talks about language barriers, courage, and climbing Mt. Everest.
French women of a certain age have this ability to carry the shades of their youthful glamor behind sagging eyelids and marionette lines. It strikes me as a deeply dignified protest against the rest of the world’s desperation for youth. It bespeaks pride in a long and possibly sorrowful history. One of the most beautiful women I ever saw was Cécile, the curator who led our college scholarship group through the Richelieu wing of the Louvre, whose smooth, sallow skin was haunted with dark shadows and the melancholic mystery of Rimbaud or Racine.
Québécoise women are equally haunted, but much more cheery about it. That’s the case with Lina, who is somewhere in her 60s and wears a smile as bright as her bottle-blonde hair. Her features are impeccably Gallic–dark eyes that snap, a pronounced profile, an amicable sneer. What’s decidedly un-French about her is tanned skin and crinkly eyes, that speak to her love of sport. (Not le sport, which I’ve been told is different.)
It seems more common for quebecoise to be athletic than their cousins across the Atlantic. But Lina is more sporty than most. She says that she divides the year among biking, running, and skiing. Every summer, she has un projet–some intensive enterprise, usually athletic in nature, that she spends the summer working toward.
When you consider that she’s somewhere in her 60s, this gets more impressive still.
Now consider she is just returned from climbing Mt. Everest.
Three years ago, Lina heard an ad on the radio for Fondation Gilles Kègle, a nonprofit nursing home for the homeless. The ad announced that they were organizing a fundraising expedition to Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Fondation Gilles Kègle is, in fact, headquartered in the same complex where Lina works as a dietitian with the CLSC. She had often admired the companion work that Gilles Kègle does with the homeless and poor. She had also dreamed of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. She scavenged $2,000 in sponsorship, and joined the group.
That trip, she says, had a lot of participants. A year later, she retired from CLSC. But last summer, she heard that Gilles Kègle was organizing another expedition–this time, to the base camp of Mt. Everest.
There were only 16 members in the Everest group–nine men, and seven women. They came from all over the province, and ranged in age from 45 to 72. Lina began training with the other quebecois climbers in November, six months before the expedition was to take place.
“Every week, we were three to four people. We start at the 6.30 in the morning, to go up on the top of Mont Sainte Anne one time. And we did the steps of the boardwalk from the chateau to Belvedere St. Abraham.”
The steps she’s talking about are a flight of stairs (one of Quebec’s infamous many escaliers) that lead from the promenade overlooking the St. Lawrence river to a plain where one of Quebec’s establishing battles was fought. There are 400 steps; Lina’s training group went up and down them seven times.
The training, she says, was easy compared to raising money–“It’s difficult to solicit people.”
On April 14, they traveled from Ville de Quebec to Montreal by bus, then flew to Saudi Arabia and finally to Katmandu. They stayed there three days, before beginning the twelve-day climb.
This is where our interview starts to break down. Never mind that we’re communicating in a no-man’s-land between French and English–where do you even begin, in talking about Mt. Everest, to ask what it’s like? It seems ridiculous to ask about the scenery.
But I get the feeling that reflective analysis may be reaching a little–and again, it’s not just because we’re doing this in our respective second languages. Lina seems much less of an analytical type than the active. If I want to know how an experience affects her, I’d probably have to go and do it with her.
So I start in the only place I can think of…
“I think the Himalaya mountains are the most beautiful mountains in the world.”
“The people, the family tradition, are very attachant. This population, it’s very hard-working. Most carry things on their back for us, because we had to carry about 30 kilos, during twelve days. We had nine porters, and we had five guides during the trek.”
It was funny, she remembers, to attempt communicating in her broken English with the guides, whose English wasn’t very good either.
After eight hours of climbing, they would arrive at a lodge in the mountain, usually around four o’clock in the afternoon. They slept, two to a room, in small humid chambers with no furniture. At five, they had tea and yak cheese; at seven-thirty, they ate pasta, rice, potatoes, and sometimes meat, then went straight to bed.
“Some people had crazy dreams,” she says. “For me, the most difficult thing was nausea from the altitude. The altitude is 5400 meters. I had no appetite, I lost 12 pounds.”
They got up at 6 in the morning to prepare their packs again, ate bread and pancakes for breakfast, and started again at 8am to climb for another eight hours.
The base camp climb is very popular, she said; they encountered a lot of other climbing groups, though theirs was by far the oldest.
“It was interesting to speak with the other people–some people it was the first experience, they had never climbed another mountain. We spoke with them with our experience. Some people was discouraged, and we discuss with them–remonter le morale.”
Until she retired, Lina worked mainly with pregnant immigrant women in the clinic on Rue St. Joseph in le Bas-Ville, near the old port. It’s a community that collects a melange of Quebec’s poorest immigrants–Lina’s patients included people from Bangladesh, Mexico, Colombia, Vietnam, China…even Nepal.
“It’s a good challenge,” she asserts, in a classic Gallic understatement.
She says the same when I ask her whether there were moments when she thought she wouldn’t make it up the mountain. The important thing, she says, is having the ability to adapt.
“If some people like to be comfortable, to have douillere, it’s difficult for these people, this kind of experience. But I’m ready to leave this…”
She motions to my aunt’s comfortable living room.
“…for different experience. It was difficult sometimes, but it was really…grandios.”
She pinches the ropy muscle of her forearm.
“I told myself, ‘Who would have thought that someday I’d be at the base camp of Everest?'”
Gilles Kègle is known as “l’infirmier de la rue.” In Quebec, he’s known as the Mother Theresa of St. Roch. In fact, Gilles Kègle met Mother Theresa at the age of 42. After years of working for the Red Cross, rendering nearly all his salary back to the poor, and being disowned by his family, who disapproved of his radical altruism, he was apparently thinking about suicide.
He asked Mother Theresa if he could follow her. The story goes that one intense look from her brought a realization to M. Kègle that he had to stay and continue his work in Quebec.
Lina shows me a book of photographs produced by Éric Côté, that documents M. Kègle’s work with the homeless. The pictures, as macabre and beautiful as anything by Diane Arbus, have the still more unsettling vulnerability that these are not proud freaks–they are, as the Fondation’s website describes them,
“…first and foremost people who are alone, people that life has forgotten. Among them, there are marginal youth, people living with drug problems, AIDS, hepatitis, alcohol, the prostitute (e), ex-psychiatric patients. Despite all these plagues, they have one thing in common: an insidious disease called ‘loneliness.'”
Today, the Fondation Gilles Kègle serves more than 1500 people all over Quebec. While Canada’s government clinics (the CLSC that Lina worked for) offer a certain level of medical care for the poor and homeless, Gilles Kègle goes a few steps beyond, by offering individualized, in-home care, as well as a nursing home, for the elderly poor.
After 35 years, the Fondation has built a prestigious reputation around the province. Just this week, Canadian coffee conglomerate Tim Horton’s announced that all proceeds from their smiley cookie would benefit Fondation Gilles Kègle.
This, only days after Lina recoiled in mock horror from my question about where is Ville de Quebec’s best poutinerie.
“I don’t eat poutine!”
She shakes her thumb toward her muscly breastbone.
The base camp trek, Lina says, is a very popular enterprise among adventurous travelers of all ages. You see a lot of groups, of all ages, though the youngest travelers seem to prefer doing it alone. That, she thinks, is a little crazy.
“They like the feat, the challenge,” she says. “Like you–your trip, alone, around the world.”
I tell her she’s one to talk, climbing Mt. Everest in her 60s. People must have thought she was crazy.
She gives a shrug.
“Sometimes, it’s dangerous. Sometimes we don’t see the whole scope. We close our eyes. We go step by step, and it’s too late. If you’re afraid…”
She throws up her hands and laughs.
“It’s too bad. Sometimes, I’ve said to myself, ‘que’est ce que je fais ici?‘ But a few minutes after, it’s finished.”
I ask Lina if everything else she does now seems easy to her, by comparison with climbing Mt. Everest.
“Oh, yeah. Sure.”
There’s no giggle, not even a nervous one, when she says this. Her face is pure sincerity.
My aunt asks what her project will be, next summer.
“I don’t have a project for this year,” she laughs. “I take a rest.”
Learn more about the work of Gilles Kègle.
See more of the photography of Eric Coté.
Those who are less sportif than Lina, but still would like to travel around Mt. Everest, should consult Steve Webster and his family, who run a guest house and custom-design tours off the beaten path in Nepal.