On cloud nine: Filipino helper climbing 6,200m Everest neighbour peak after saving Hong Kong salary for 2 years
A Filipino domestic helper who overcame her impoverished background and reinvented herself as a keen Hong Kong adventurer has now set her sights on a bigger challenge - 6,189 metres to be exact.
Liza Avelino, 43, who has been working as a maid in Hong Kong for 19 years, is currently making her way to Island Peak - the first of her profession known to do so.
Avelino, who has been hiking on her days off for around a decade, said it took two years to save up money - her salary and bonuses - for the expedition to Island Peak, less than 10 kilometres from Mount Everest itself and a popular peak in the Everest region.
She also saved up much of her holidays last year so she could go on the 22-day trek up the Himalayas.
This morning she got her first glimpse of Mount Everest, the world's highest mountain at 8,848 metres, posting a photo of it on Facebook.
“When I was little, I had a dream to travel the world. But there was a lack of resources - time, money, I didn’t have it,” she told the South China Morning Post in an interview at her employers’ home in Discovery Bay before she flew to Nepal on Saturday evening.
“[Now that I am fit to hike], I wanted to experience the beautiful mountain as you go up to one of the highest peaks in the world, and have that feeling that you managed to get there, the satisfying feeling,” she said.
She paid a trekking company US$3,500 (HK$27,000) to help bring her to Island Peak, a snowy ridge popular among trekkers for its varied terrain and where temperatures can go up to minus 7 to 15 degrees Celsius. She is travelling with two Irish guides, three fellow hikers from Europe and a crew of sherpas.
It is a remarkable rise for Avelino, who was raised in poverty in Davao city, in the southern Philippines. Her parents, both farmers, could ill afford to send her to school. In 1996, when she was 24, she applied to work as a maid in Hong Kong through an employment agency.
She worked a two-year contract for a woman living in Discovery Bay, followed by a 13-year stint working for another local couple.
Avelino recalls how her first employer urged her to do “something more” with her days off instead of wiling away the hours at Statue Square in Central, a popular picnic and meeting place for Filipino helpers.
Intelligent and curious, Avelino started visiting the Central Library, where a book on guided walks for battlefields caught her eye. “I was interested in second world war history,” she said, “so I went and followed the trails,” exploring the former battle positions at Wong Nai Chung Gap and the old barracks on Mount Davis.
That was her first time hiking. She hasn’t stopped since. “I found out Hong Kong’s trails are quite safe,” she said. “I found that it’s more beautiful to see the city when you’re on top of a mountain. It’s so quiet and peaceful, I like that.”
She also says the constant exercise gave her strength and improved her work as a helper.
Her second employer encouraged her to join a hiking organisation. She joined the Hong Kong Trampers in 2006, doing 11am to 6pm hikes with the group every Sunday. Her favourite routes are in Sai Kung and Lantau Island. She established herself as an eager adventurer with a good memory for complicated hiking routes.
Avelino also stood out in other ways. “I was leading a hike and one girl said, ‘What do you do?’ They’re all bankers and it’s usually employers who go on hikes on Sundays. I said, ‘Domestic helper.’ She said, ‘Oh lucky for you.’ I responded, ‘Of course, domestic helpers can hike too!’”
Later in her career, when the financial burden of her family in the Philippines eased, Avelino said she started saving money for her own dreams and ambitions.
Each month, she would save up to buy a new piece of hiking gear - first a pair of hiking boots, followed by trousers, then a backpack.
A few years ago she started getting “bored with the normal trails” and started going off the beaten track. “We go off road, we make our own trail, go up a waterfall. I liked to be scared a little bit,” she said.
She regularly organises treks in the Philippines for the Trampers, and joined the endurance-testing, 100-kilometre Oxfam Trailwalker race in 2010 and 2011, finishing in under 35 hours each time.
The adrenalin rush made Avelino seek new heights elsewhere in Asia, from Malaysia to Japan.
By the time she was hired by her current employers, British psychologists Phil Smith and Julia Aufenast, six years ago, Avelino was already an experienced hiker.
“She’s always hiked the whole time we’ve known her. She takes us for hikes. She always wants to get out and do something,” says Aufenast, who now runs an online business.
When Avelino had to practise lifting heavier loads up a mountain for her Everest climb, she brought the couple’s baby in a carrier with her on a seven-kilometre hike in Hong Kong. She has also brought the couple’s older daughter, now eight, through Discovery Bay’s lush trails.
Avelino says she is “lucky” to have landed supportive employers throughout her career. “All they ask is that I come back in one piece,” she said.
The couple give Avelino plenty of free time - a rarity in a city long criticised for having excessive working hours for domestic helpers. When asked to comment on the notion that other employers might not be as lenient, Aufenast said: “People should have enough time to do what they want. That’s nothing special, it’s called being human.”
Aufenast gifted Avelino with a thick down jacket last Christmas to keep her warm in Everest’s glacial temperatures.
The desire to climb Island Peak took shape some time after Avelino turned 40, when she promised herself that she would always be scaling a new mountain on her birthday from then on.
She trained for the snowy terrain by flying to northern Japan for a three-day ascent on the 3,180-metre Mount Yarigatake, which involved 16 hours of non-stop climbing. Avelino claimed the Japanese consulate in Hong Kong was so “surprised” to find a helper looking to climb one of their peaks that it took them two weeks to approve her tourist visa.
Avelino also said she owed a lot to her friends and hiking buddies, who donated money to cover the cost of her plane tickets and gear. Some lent her hiking equipment.
When more people expressed interest in funding her climbs, Avelino redirected the donations to Enrich, an NGO that runs financial literacy programmes for fellow helpers. It was co-founded by a friend she met through a hiking group and which Avelino volunteered for years ago. The fundraiser is still ongoing.
On Monday evening, Avelino posted a photo on her private Facebook page, saying she had reached Namche village in Nepal, which is 3,440 metres at its lowest point. Then she plans to head to an Everest Base Camp for 15 days of trekking through ice walls and crags before reaching Island Peak, where she hopes to pitch a Philippine flag.
Though she returns to Hong Kong on April 25, days before she turns 44 years old on April 28, the breathtaking view from the mountain will be an early birthday present.
But she won’t stop at Everest. “If I finish Island Peak, maybe in a few years I will go to the [5,947-metre-high] Alpamayo in Peru. I also want to go back to Japan to climb their ‘ice candy wall’ [a slippery, vertical face at the volcanic Yasugatake mountains in the north],” she said.
“You can set your own mountain - your own challenge - right? There is always another peak - it’s what keeps me motivated.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Avelino's birthday.