Dr. Barbara-Anne Huculak cringes when she hears somebody describe a hamburger as "awesome."
"That's not the definition of awesome," insisted the Western Iowa Tech Community College faculty member. "Awesome is seeing the sun rise over Mount Everest."
If Huculak had to pen a "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" essay, the topic alone -- spending three weeks to reach the base camp of Mount Everest -- might be worthy of an A.
Huculak is no stranger to ascending higher elevations, having previously scaled Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa and the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru.
"I'm not one to sit on beach or relax for a vacation," said the instructor in WITCC's physical therapist program. "I'm always looking for something challenging."
Huculak confessed a long-time fascination with the mountain, named in honor of Sir George Everest and first summited by Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953.
"I've watched documentaries on television, read National Geographic stories and read 'Into Thin Air,'" she said, referring to Jon Krakauer's 1997 personal account of the Mount Everest disaster in which eight climbers were killed and several others were stranded. "When I decided I wanted to at least make the base camp on Mount Everest, I started researching, training and found a group I wanted to travel with."
Huculak implemented a vigorous training regimen.
"I knew I had to be in shape," she said. "So, I did circuit training, cardio exercises, stair-climbing, circuit training, spinning, cycling, and strength training."
Huculak, who previously resided in Canada, chose the Toronto-based Gap for the tour group. Her 23-year-old son Matthew Durward also made the trip.
"Matthew did not need much convincing," she said. "He was very agreeable to the idea and carrying my camera equipment."
First stop on Huculak's adventure was landing in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
Day 1 of the journey began May 20 in Kathmandu, Nepal. Nine people were in Huculak's group.
"They were all under 30," she said with a grin. "I kind of felt like the mom, but there were times I was better prepared than some of the younger ones."
Days 2-4 were spent getting to know Upper Khumbu, a region of highland valley, ringed by soaring snow-covered peaks. Huculak and her traveling companions resided in teahouses.
"They weren't like hotels or motels," she explained. "They were more like bed and breakfasts, since we took our meals there."
The tour group flew into the first stop on the ascension to the base camp, Lukla, at 9,000 feet, which Huculak called an experience in itself.
"You get to see the Himalayas from the air, literally in the clouds," she said. "But when you land, the runway is very short, uphill and it looks like you're going to fly into the mountains."
Motorized vehicles were gone at this elevation. Porters carried gear. Yaks and yak caravans transported larger gear, trekking equipment and supplies for those climbing Everest.
"Just to lighten up the atmosphere, I would approach our yaks, and say, 'You look mahvelous, dahling!'" Huculak said laughing, referring to Billy Crystal's "Saturday Night Live" impersonation of Fernando Lamas. "It got everybody laughing and pretty soon, it became a ritual for me to tell the yaks that."
By this time, walking for three hours or six hours uphill was not out of the ordinary for Days 5, 6 and 7. Food consisted of potatoes, rice or noodles or a variation of the three. Huculak confessed packing snacks and a pharmacy of medicinal needs.
The group spent Days 8-10, May 27-29 at the Everest Base camp at 17,300 feet. Altitude made climbing even tougher, Huculak reported.
"We had porters, but really, we carried our own stuff," she said. "As we ascended higher and higher, you'd throw stuff out as it got heavier and heavier. 'Do I really need this?' you'd ask."
At about 4 a.m. on Day 10, the group made a side trip to Kala Pattar, at 18,500 feet, to view the sun rise over Mount Everest.
"I was flabbergasted," Huculak said. "You have a 360 degree view of the Himalayas and Everest. The only words I can use to describe that moment is amazingly spiritual. It's a cliché, but you truly feel you are one with nature."
Huculak stressed the journey was not for the faint-hearted.
"It was long, tedious and freezing at times, 20 to 30 degrees below zero," she said. "And going down was not easier than going up. You just had more oxygen."
Huculak's troupe took another five days to descend.