July 26, 2010

By Amy Farnum

Student-athletes are accustomed to striving for another level of success whether on the field or in the classroom, but this summer, a trio of Miami University women's soccer players climbed a lot higher -- literally -- during a trip to the Himalayans in May.

Seniors Rachel Byron, her twin sister Jessica, and Brooke Livingston, embarked on the adventure in order to fulfill requirements for their senior capstone course at Miami, but the 17-day journey was no ordinary class project. Rachel learned of the trip through her academic advisor Dr. Mark Walsh, who leads the trip annually for the university. She was just a freshman, but knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime.

"I knew since my freshman year that this trip was something I had to do because if I didn't do it through the school I didn't know it there was a way I'd be able to do it in the future," said Rachel.

The course would study the effect of altitude on the body, and the students did simple blood tests and took oxygen-levels in order to make comparisons of the different conditions.

Rachel enlisted sister Jessica and Livingston to join her and 11 other Miami students on the trip, which began with an overnight stay in Hong Kong before flying to Kathmandu, Nepal. From the city, the group took an exhilarating ride on an open-cabin airplane to the mountainside, landing on an airstrip of about 150 yards.

"Being in the mountains was what I was looking forward to most because you can only see so many pictures before you actually want to go," said Rachel. "The pictures just don't do anything justice. When we got off the plane, I couldn't stop smiling. The air was so crisp and clean. We were surrounded by beautiful green mountains, and then the clouds would part and you would see the snow-capped mountains. It was unbelievable - just amazing."
"I remember stepping off the plane and feeling like I was in a fairytale," said Livingston.

Upon arriving, the group began its trek up Kala Patthar Mountain, which reaches 18,600 feet at its peak - their highest destination altitude-wise and a great view of Mount Everest. They hiked five to eight hours daily for several days to reach the peak. The effects of the altitude were so tough on the body that three of the students were taken back down the mountain, including one by helicopter, because of mountain sickness. The class concluded the trip at Everest Base Camp, located on the highest glacier in the world - 17,100 above sea level.

"There have been countless practices where you're exhausted and you feel like you're going to die and wonder how you're going to get through it, but those only last about 90 minutes at the most," said Rachel. "There were days when it was hot and we were hiking uphill for five, six or seven hours straight. It wasn't necessarily that my muscles were tired, but that I was exhausted because I couldn't breathe. I think I really underestimated that - I'd heard a thousand times that it's really hard to breathe at altitude but it really, really is."

"It was by the most rewarding experience of my entire life, but I don't think I was physically and mentally prepared for it," said Livingston. "Camping overnight with our team one season was the only outdoor experience that any of the three of us had. We're in great shape because of soccer and all avid runners but what we did on a daily basis is totally different than that. Being at altitude was interesting because you would walk five steps and already be out of breath. I didn't think it would be as quite as physically challenging as it was."

In addition to the physical challenges they endured, the trio also learned a lot about the culture of the local people.

They do not use toilet paper or silverware (the group packed their own), they only eat yak meat, and it is very scarce, and they carry everything they need up the mountain on their backs - literally. Livingston described the sherpas as the "probably the strongest people in the world."

"The human body is capable of a lot more than I ever imagined," said Livingston.

The Byrons and Livingston will definitely use their experience as a motivation to persevere when preseason practice begins in early August.

"Every time there is a practice that I feel I can't do it anymore or we are running and running without stopping I will just look back at the trip and that it could be a lot worse," said Rachel. "It's a completely different fitness level. I think about the people who live on the mountains and their lives have got to be so difficult the way they live and their culture. No matter what we do here, we're blessed."

The RedHawks' women's soccer team opens the season against Alabama A&M on Aug. 20.