In May 2017, Janet Belarmino-Forney marked the 10th anniversary of her epic China-to-Nepal crossing to reach the summit of Mt Everest. She made this extraordinarily arduous traverse with teammates Noelle Wenceslao and Carina Dayondon — all three women are the first Filipinas to reach the summit of Mt Everest. They are also the first women from South-East Asia to accomplish the feat.
“It feels like it was only yesterday,” confesses Janet. Having grown up climbing trees and playing tennis, it was in college that she trained in mountaineering and became involved in extreme sports. “Ten years on and I’ve not yet fully internalized the fact that we stood on the top of the world. I daydream about it every day.”
Many moments stand out in her memory: the sight of the landscape, the trail, realizing the condition of her gear and the determination that possessed her. The experience is something she can distinctly call her own, and save for that elite club of climbers who made it up the summit, it’s one that no one else can even begin to fathom.
“We were blessed with a clear and amazing view on top and most of the way. Even with the heavy snowfall that night on our long 12-hour push, the stars were bright and almost within our reach,” Janet recalls almost wistfully. “When I stood on top, clouds were below my feet and the high peaks that towered over us in low altitude were like white dots underneath. The sky was curved at one point, and I really felt it was just right above my head; it was that near.”
The memory makes her forget about the struggles of the climb. Well, almost. She had to go over “rocks, steep drops and ravines” on the north or Tibet side, and “more gradual yet longer slopes and terrains” on the south or Nepal side. “There is even a river of ice boulders and if they move, they can bury you alive,” she recalls. “At one point, I just saw everything as the same. It was just one step after the other, trying to catch my breath in between as I made my way to the top then back down.”
Janet did all this on a borrowed, secondhand down suit. “The original owner sold it after she reached the summit. I was the third person to do so in that suit! My mask had icicles and I could hardly breathe. Our boots, crampons and axe were heavy, but served their purpose. Not state-of-the-art, but they helped us make it.”
What does it take to conquer nature and the outdoors? For her, the answers are incredible focus, sacrifice and a dose of humor. “A minor detail that absorbed us was how we were going to get a good shower during the three months we were out in the wild,” she says with a laugh.
The dangers of the situation were not lost on her. She had just given birth to son Himalaya a few months before, leaving her in doubt about whether she should go through with the trip and whether she could make it to the summit. “I knew that if I climbed, there was a chance I might not be able to make it back and see my son again,” she admits. “On the other hand, if I didn’t do it, I knew I would regret it for the rest of my life.”
She also knew that reaching the top was not the end goal: the descent is just as tricky, if not more so. “I expected to cry and feel complete once I was at the summit — it was smaller and narrower than I thought it would be — but actually, most accidents and deaths happen on the way down due to the mistaken feeling that ‘the climb is over’. Climbers tend to be hasty and unfocused in descent.”
When she finally stepped onto the peak, she says she had to take a moment. “It took me a while to actually stand on top; there was a queue of climbers waiting for their turn. When I finally did, I was struck by the strangest mix of emotions — I was elated, speechless, tired, inspired. I wanted to cry but I couldn’t. It was special,” she concedes. “I thought to myself, This is it. After the long, hard miles, I’m finally here. I savored it, took the important photo, then headed back down on the Nepal side.”
She recalls the feeling and acknowledges a life lesson. “After the climb, I realized how little I knew; that there’s more to explore, discover and share in this life. Suddenly, there was a huge, vast space ready to empower me. It was humbling.”Now that she’s on solid, level ground — at least for most of the time — she continues to enjoy nature and the outdoors in a new and different way. Her impressive Everest stint has won her a range of awards and honors; but it’s also given her a chance to become an inspirational speaker. She loves meeting people and holding talks for companies, schools and groups. And yes, wherever she goes, she still gets asked about her Everest exploits.
Her love for adventure has also infected the rest of her family, who she says, lives “an expedition lifestyle”. With her husband Todd, children Himalaya, age 10, and Amihan, age 3, the girl from Nueva Vizcaya, who is also a certified EMT, now lives in on a boat in Coron.
“Todd and I believe that the best education for our kids is actual experience; every day in the boat and in our travels, they get to go to the best school of life”
“We’re pretty much off the grid; these things are next to normal and regular for me,” she says. Next up is prepping their boat for ocean voyages. “Todd and I believe that the best education for our kids is actual experience; every day in the boat and in our travels, they get to go to the best school of life,” she says. Soon both kids will be joining their parents as they embark on the Great Himalayan Trail Low Route.
Janet also has Belarmino Ventures, a tour company she runs with her husband Todd. The outfit organizes mountaineering expeditions to Mt Everest, around Nepal, and in other parts of the world. It also operates boat expeditions in El Nido and Coron, Palawan.
“Everest has become a symbol of something impossible; we all have our own Everests to climb every day. But Everest was a beginning for me, a new door that opened to bigger endeavors,” Janet says. “Life is more than just the four corners of your room, your TV, phones and the long hours of work. We hope to share the experience of being one with nature and with people — to reconnect and interact with what we take for granted every day. The simplest gesture of breathing in the fresh air, staring at a zillion stars, and swimming in a big natural aquarium makes us realize how great life is.”
All her calculated risk-taking has made her wise. “If we believe in ourselves and work as one, we can achieve greater heights — greater than Everest. Fear will always be there; it goes hand in hand with courage. It’s just a matter of how we use it to better a situation and give enlightenment to a challenge. What differentiates an ordeal from an adventure is one’s attitude.”
This article first appeared in the April 2017 issue of Smile.