Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Love in the Mountains - Lily Mulholland

I Do Countdown: 59 days
You think you have a great "how we met story?"
You ought to hear Lily Muholland's.
Lily is a regular and important fixture on the #fridayflash circuit, with a way with words that matches her striking beauty. The grand prize winner of Laurita Miller's recent Seaside Fiction Contest, Lily is also a contributor to Chinese Whisperings, a luxe anthology of some of the finest fiction writers on the planet. And if you need more Lily (who doesn't, really), be sure to check out her website.
But we're not here to talk about Lily's writing today.
We're here to talk about her love life. 
It's an amazing love life, by the way.
Who else can say their romance developed while climbing Mount Everest?
Lily penned this story herself back in 2006 and I am positively thrilled to reprint it here.
For background music, listen to the first song Lily and Carl danced to at their wedding:

Love in the Mountains
by Lily Muholland

I first laid eyes on my future husband in very early 2001. It was a pleasant day in Australia's capital city of Canberra, where I had travelled to attend a pre-expedition meeting for Exercise Everest 2001. I was the newly appointed expedition public relations officer of the Army Alpine Association's second Mt Everest expedition. We had been called together to go through the details required to finalise planning.

I was a little nervous, as I had met only one of the other 20 expedition members before this meeting and I didn't really know what to expect from a bunch of hardened army mountaineers. Well, of course, my fears evaporated once I met my fellow expeditioners. They were a lovely group and very interested in me and what I'd bring to the expedition. They'd never had an army PR officer along on a trip before, but they'd all done their fair share of public relations, so were pleased I'd be there to do it all for them. It'd make life on the mountain a lot less stressful, knowing their promotional engagements would be managed by someone else – namely me.
Half way through the meeting, an angry looking man strode in, sat down, and, when it was his turn to speak, issued a series of statements that sounded more like orders than requests. There went the convivial nature of the meeting - this guy was serious! I soon worked out he was the major in charge of communications. He was so annoyed as no one had put in their orders for batteries. Big deal, I thought. How big a deal could that possibly be? Having given everyone an ultimatum (put in your orders by next week or else), he left as abruptly as he'd arrived. I planned to give him a wide berth on the expedition!!

Fast forward a couple of months and we all gathered at Sydney Airport. We had oodles of gear - hundreds of items that all had to be accounted for when we arrived into Kathmandu in Nepal, via Bangkok. On the plane I was warned about the mayhem that is Kathmandu international airport - everyone was prepared to sit on our luggage to prevent it being pilfered by the many crooks waiting at the other end to 'assist' us with our gear. I was ready to poke someone's eye out if necessary! Of course it wasn't as bad as I was led to expect and I actually thought our disembarkation and departure from the airport went quite smoothly...

All this time I had managed to avoid speaking to the angry ant major. The others were all very convivial and I enjoyed getting to know them. We spent a few days in Kathmandu getting acquainted and finalising last-minute logistics for our pre-expedition trek into the Annapurna Sanctuary. I teed up some media interviews and started preparing background information on my fellow travellers. All was going according to plan.

We headed off on the long bus trip through Pokhara to the head of the track that takes you into the sanctuary. Our large group included several of the sherpas who would accompany us into Tibet in a month's time to start the expedition proper, as well as a couple of trekkers and family members of several of the climbers. I was surprised to see one of the guys had brought his eight-year-old step-daughter along, but she was bright as a button and turned out to be more adventurous at eight than I had been my entire life.

The aim of the pre-expedition trek was to take the group into high altitudes so that we'd begin the process of acclimatising to an environment that provides much less oxygen in the air than you find at sea level. The Annapurna Sanctuary trek takes you through some spectacularly beautiful mountainous country up to an altitude of just over 4000 metres (over 13,000 feet). We set off up the path, which started with a heart-pumping staircase, for our first night's destination. I had never worked so physically hard as I did on this trek. It was exhausting and my leg muscles did not stop hurting for the entire 11 days.

Our first night was spent in a luxury 'teahouse' in Dhampus. It even had baths with hot water in the rooms - this was a much higher standard than I'd anticipated and was so glad to sink into a hot tub after a very hard day's trekking. We all had dinner together that night and then it was time to send the first of many internet updates back to our webmaster in Australia. This was my job and I felt a little bummed out that everyone else just had to walk and then rest, while I had other work to do! But I knew that once we were on Everest they'd all be doing the hard yards.

In order to send my reports back to Australia, I needed to use one of our ruggedised laptops and the satellite phone. Well, who do think was in charge of this communications equipment? The angry major I told you about earlier. So, hesitatingly, I asked him if he could show me how to set it all up. He was happy to do so and, with military precision, set it all up for me and told me he was happy for me to set it up by myself from now on. Sheesh, I couldn't even remember how to turn the laptop on, let alone set up a sat phone! But I didn't want to tell him that, so I tried very hard to commit the procedure to memory.

I shouldn't have worried, as Carl set the whole lot up for me every night. Thank goodness! I was so buggered from walking eight hours each day that my brain was in shutdown mode by nighttime.

We continued our ascent into the sanctuary through some of the most jaw-dropping scenery anywhere on the planet. One night it even started to snow lightly on us just as we were coming into the chosen village for a night's rest. In the morning, everything looked like a picture straight out of a fairytale - a light dusting of snow had transformed the landscape. I was so happy. So glad I'd made the decision to come on the expedition. A once-in-a-lifetime-trip kind of happy.

We eventually made it up into the sanctuary proper. It's called the Annapurna Sanctuary, as it's a natural amphitheatre, surrounded by a circle of mountains, with just a narrow gully that permits trekkers and climbers to enter. I could not believe how beautiful the snow-filled bowl and sky-high mountains were. I suddenly appreciated why mountaineers climb dangerous mountains.

And we were soon to find out just how dangerous they can be. The family of three (the one with the eight year old girl) decided to head out of the sanctuary one day ahead of the rest of the party. They wanted to take it slow and make sure their daughter wasn't too tired by the faster 'downhill' trek. We all thought this was a good idea and bade our farewells as we headed off for the day and they packed up, making ready to leave. Carl and one of the other expeditioners decided not come further up into the sanctuary, but to stay at the teahouse and try to recharge the sat phone batteries.

The rest of us headed up the track to its finish to bask in the sun and enjoy a coke and a bowl of something hot at 4000 metres. It was like being at a chalet in the European alps, only better, as there were only about 50 people in the whole area that day. We had a magnificent day in the cool, crisp air, trudging through virgin snow and taking in our surrounds. All that joy evaporated immediately when we returned to the teahouse and heard there'd been an avalanche down the track.

Some of the group immediately began worrying about our companions, but I thought they were over-reacting, as the avalanche had occurred around midday and the threesome should have been well clear of the avalanche site, as they were leaving quite early that morning. To my horror, Carl advised that the family group had been delayed in their departure because their daughter's boots had frozen up overnight.

Our expedition leader despatched our head sherpa down the trail to see if he could find out anything. By this time it was getting dark. What seemed like an eternity later, he returned. Ashen-faced. He had Peter's pack. With a ripped shoulder strap. I could not bring myself to think the worst. I hoped that Peter had dumped his pack and run safely out of the path of the avalanche and that he, Michelle and KC had continued down the track. They would be safe and well, I convinced myself.

Our team sprang into action. We made plans and lists of equipment we'd need to take with us to search the debris at sun-up the next day. We worked quickly and calmly before hitting the sack for the night. I don't think any of us got much sleep. We headed off down the track at daybreak and before long happened across the most god-awful, huge avalanche detritus. I'd seen avalanches on TV - you know the kind that start off with a snowball and cascade into a slippage of an entire snowfield. I thought I knew what to expect. I was wrong. This was a different kind of avalanche - it was all ice, boulders and hard-packed snow. The locals on the scene believed it was the result of an ice-cliff (serac) falling away off the side of one of the 7000m mountains that lined the trail.

It would have hit them like a freight train. I felt sick to the stomach as I walked past the avalanche debris. I knew that if they had been in the path of it they were dead for sure. We still held out faint hope that they'd made it out the other side. Our fastest trekker rushed down the trail to the next village, and the next in search of anyone who might have sighted the family. He came back empty-handed.

The group split into two - most of the team stayed at the site and started to dig. I went down the track with our deputy expedition leader, another trekker who was in shock and unable to function mentally or physically, and with Carl, our comms guy. We had to get far enough down the track to plug our phone and laptop into mains power to report the incident back to our headquarters in Australia. I went into hyperdrive at this point, helping our 2IC to prepare a situation report and media talking points. It's all now a bit of a blur.

Many hours later the rescue team arrived, looking very glum and mostly unable to speak. They had found nothing except Peter's very distinctive camera. They had had to leave the site as the sun hit it, making it dangerously unstable. They were worried that if they continued to dig they'd risk their own lives. They performed a brief ceremony at the site of the avalanche, with the help of our Buddhist sherpas, before they said their goodbyes to our companions.

We were contacted by the Australian Ambassador to Nepal and advised that he would be arriving on location the next day. We had a very quiet, sombre night before we headed back to Pokhara and into a media frenzy.

I was very upset and shaken up by the deaths of Peter, Michelle and 8-year-old KC. They were a very loving, adventurous and happy family. They'd shared many a caving, canoeing and bushwalking adventure together and were just in the primes of their lives. The avalanche and their loss threw me (and the whole team) into a spin. We all were asked to make an individual decision as to whether to continue on or to return to Australia. I very seriously considered pulling out of the expedition, but was convinced by one of the climbers that they needed me and that I would regret it forever if I didn't continue. I decided to go to Tibet.

Eventually our decision was unanimous. We would go on and we would summit Everest in the memory of the fallen. Our expedition took on a new meaning and the climbers were all motivated to achieve their goal in memory of our friends.

After a week or so of media commitments and logistical preparations, we boarded the minibus that would take us across Nepal and into Tibet. I climbed onto the bus only to find that the only spare seat was next to Carl. Bugger, I thought. Oh well, hopefully he'll listen to his headphones the whole way there and I won't have to talk to him.

He turned out to be surprisingly chatty! We talked about this and that and discovered that we shared in common a love for the same kind of books and the same kind of music. Well, well, I thought. Maybe he's not so bad after all. Of course, I wasn't thinking romance at all. I'd had a series of failed relationships over the preceding decade and I had sworn off men - particularly army men! I just assumed (to be on the safe side) that they were all married and of no interest to me.

So I said to Carl, what does your wife think about all this gallivanting around the world? What wife, says he. Okay, your girlfriend. Nope. Boyfriend? He laughed. Oh, says me.

But I had sworn off men.
After a couple of days making our way slowly up through Tibet, we arrived at Everest Base Camp (5100 metres; 16,700ft). Our acclimatisation was just about complete, but I certainly felt the lack of oxygen at such a high altitude. There's about half the normal oxygen level than at sea level, so you get puffed even bending over to tie up your boots!

At Base Camp we had one large main messing tent and two-man tents for sleeping in. There were three women on the expedition - me, our cook and one of the army's top female climbers. Merran and Tanya were friends from way back, so they shared a tent. I had no tent buddy and when I mentioned it, Carl immediately jumped in and said, you can share with me!


We had some laughs in our tent, snuggled deep into our respective down-filled sleeping bags. He turned out to be a very charming, funny guy. Boy was my first impression wrong. Put that down to experience, I told myself.

After a week of preparations and final acclimatisation, it was time to head 22kms (14 miles) up to Advance Base Camp (ABC), with an altitude of 6400m (21,000ft). This was where I was to spend the next six weeks of my life.

The climbers came into their own at this point on the expedition. They began the arduous task of ferrying equipment and food up the mountain. The aim was to establish four camps up the north-west ridge of Mt Everest and, after a small break, begin the summit push in three teams of four climbers.

During this time, however, the dreaded base camp lurgy hit our team (and others) hard. Just about everyone came down with a dreadful bronchial infection. Everyone except yours truly (for some bizarre reason). The sickies headed back down to base camp to try to get better and to have a rest at lower altitudes before their summit attempt.

Carl and his climbing partner had to head down the mountain very suddenly, as Peter had suffered a mini-stroke while we were having lunch one day. He suddenly couldn't feel his cheek or right arm and began speaking in tongues. We rang our doctor (who had become sick himself and returned to Australia) who said Peter had to get off the mountain right now and back down to as low an altitude as possible immediately. His climbing days were over. Carl rushed Peter down the mountain as fast as he could, with Peter suffering yet more attacks on the way down. It was scary. (Peter made a full recovery and waited out the rest of the expedition in Kathmandu.)

Carl eventually came back up to ABC, and, after one more attempted 'load carry' to Camp I, conceded defeat. The chest infection had knocked him hard and he declared himself incapable of climbing further up the mountain. It was not to be his expedition. (He wasn't overly worried by this, having just completed in the previous six months successful climbs on Kilimanjaro and Mt Kenya in Africa, Mt Shishapangma in Tibet and various peaks in the French Alps!)

This meant that Carl spent a lot of time alone with me in ABC. We shared books, he lent me his spare walkman and homemade music tapes, and we talked and talked. We even went to a party at another team's tent one night. It was most surreal! You should see the stars up there. I've never seen anything like it - stars down to the horizon with a 360-degree view of the mountains. The moon over the summit of Mt Everest away in the distance. It was just amazing. And would have been quite romantic I suppose - if any of us had had a shower in the past six weeks!!

We worked hard supporting the climbers in their endeavours to reach the top of the world's highest mountain. In the end, only one of our climbers and two sherpas summitted. Two other climbers came tantalisingly close, but turned around when they realised they'd run out of oxygen, time and energy.
It was exhilarating when one of our climbers radioed down to us from the top of the world - we were ecstatic!

However, this ecstasy was tempered by the death a few days earlier of an Australian climber in our camp. He wasn't part of our expedition, but we'd grown close to him through social engagements in the tent city that was ABC. He was a lovely, lovely man who'd gotten himself lost on Everest after a failed summit attempt. It was dark, he was out of oxygen and at death's door when he staggered into our top camp - our climbers took him in, gave him fluids, food and some of their precious oxygen and slept with him crammed into their tent for the night. In the morning he seemed right as rain, but when he stood up to get his boots to put on he just keeled over and was dead when he hit the ground. Our boys tried to revive him, but he was dead.

The worst thing about dying on Everest is that it is actually impossible for the body to be recovered. Unless you can walk, you cannot get off that mountain. It is all anyone can do to get themselves down. It would be suicide to try to bring down another man. This is one of the sad realities of mountaineering. That's why you have to maintain rationality and realise when it's time to get off the mountain - whether you reached the summit or not.

Again, I had to deal with all of the department of foreign affairs and media enquiries over this fellow Australian's death. All through this ordeal Carl was by my side, making sure all the comms gear worked when it needed to.

Once our summit attempts concluded, it was time to pack up ABC and head back down to the base camp. I was pleased to be leaving - it is very hard going existing where no living thing can manage to survive (there are no plants or animals at that altitude - there are a couple of scavenger birds, but they don't live there - they fly up, raid the camps, and then return to their nests. Clever mother nature), but I was also sad, as I knew I'd never be anywhere like that again, and we were leaving a lovely man behind, alone on the mountain.

The trek back down to base camp was awful. After six weeks of not walking very far, I found the going very tough and it took 12 hours to walk the 22kms. I was stuffed!! We overnighted at base camp and then in the morning that too was packed up. The land rovers arrived and we all piled in. Well, all of us except Carl and I. I realised that I was waiting to see which vehicle he got into as I wanted to go in that car too.

Uh-oh! Trouble!!

I finally threw my pack into the back of one of the cars, as Carl didn't seem to making any moves in that direction. As soon as I picked a vehicle, he chucked his pack into the same car! Double trouble!!

We were literally thrown together in the front seat of the 4WD. It was really only 1 1/2 seats, so we were shoulder to shoulder, thigh to thigh. It was tight!

It was a much quicker trip back to the border between Tibet and Nepal, as we didn't need to stop to acclimatise. On our overnight stop I had to confess to the two other girls on the trip that I thought I liked Carl as more than a friend. They were so excited! They promised to spy on him the next day, as I was so unsure of myself and my ability to read boy signals that I needed help!!

We crossed into Nepal the next day, only to find that the Nepalese royal family had been massacred by one of the sons, who had subsequently been shot down by palace guards. The place was in uproar and official mourning, which meant no one could travel into the capital. There was also a curfew in place to prevent rioting - the Nepalese take their monarchy very seriously indeed.

We were forced to stay outside the capital for the night.

Fortunately for us, this meant staying in a gorgeous hilltop resort with the Himalaya as a backdrop. The sunset views were just gorgeous. We wound down with a couple of beers each and a lovely steak dinner. Our first 'proper' meal in months. It was delicious - made even more so by the fact that Carl sat opposite me - after I'd already sat down. That night the girls confirmed my suspicions - oh he's DEFINITELY interested, they said. Big trouble!!

The next day we finally made it back to Kathmandu. We propped at a hotel in town for a few days rest and recuperation, as well as to clean and pack our several tonnes of gear for the return journey to Australia. That night, we were treated to a slap-up dinner at the hotel. Once again, Carl sat opposite me. We talked for hours until we were kicked out of the restaurant. A group of us retired to the bar.

Several drinks and several hours later, one by one people started to go back to their rooms to get some sleep. I didn't. Carl didn't. Eventually we were the only ones left in the bar. We were sitting together on a couch and neither of us wanted to move. Although we had to move our feet to let the guy finish vacuuming around us!

We sunk lower and lower on the couch and closer and closer together until finally I thought, I am going to kiss this beautiful man. So I did. At the very same moment he decided to kiss me.

Well how many cliches do you want to hear? The earth moved, my heart skipped a beat, my eyelids fluttered. It was the kiss. The Kiss. The most amazing kiss. A kiss of love. A kiss of promise. A kiss of relief!!

All this from one kiss. Boy, was I in big trouble!
After a couple more days in Kathmandu, it was time to leave Nepal, Tibet and Everest behind. Bittersweet memories for all of us, sweetened for Carl and I by the knowledge that we'd started something amazing.

We were married two and half years later, now are parents to a delightful 10-month-old and remain very happy with each other. I have found someone to love, and more important, someone who loves me just for me. Doesn't want me to change. Loves all my quirks. Loves me.

Anybody got any tissue? Pass it here, will ya?
Gawd, Lily, there's probably not a dry eye in the joint.
Thank you for letting me share your story. Tragic, romantic, adventurous – everything, all rolled into one. I wish you nothing but the best as you two take on the world. I mean, when you start at the very top, the eagles truly are your travelling companions.
And your dress? To die for gorgeous! 
(Carl isn't bad, either!)
With my September 25 wedding to Dave coming up fast, I invite you to share your own wedding tales. Send me your wedding photos. Send me your stories. If you're not married, send me a tacky bridesmaid photo. Or tell me about some disastrous wedding you've been to!
Share some love!
You can start by sending it to me here at Love Central.
May all your dreams be romantic ones.


  1. Wow! That is some story, Lily! What memories you both have to build on...pass the tissue, please.

  2. A love story one dreams of. The makings of a movie and the reason for the empty kleenex box beside me now.

  3. Great story! It really could be a movie. And a very handsome couple you two make.


  4. Aww, shucks, thanks everyone! Cathy, you're hysterical. I only hope your wedding day is as special and happy as ours was :)

    We now have two beautiful children and are as happy as can be :)

  5. Oops, I meant hysterical, as in very, very, funny, not as in 'somebody slap that woman'!

  6. Wow! What an amazing story. Lily you are soooo beautiful; I adore your wedding photos. :-)

    I will send some goofy ones your way, Cathy. My hubby hacked my ISP way back when to get my email address - his friend was interested in me and he didn't want to ask him for it.

    I am so excited for you, too. It will be here before you know it. I hope you have some awesome BRIDEZILLA tales for us ;-)

  7. What a story! I'm happy that you found the perfect man for you. :)


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