Ray Sykes is Senior Operational Risk Manager at Macquarie Bank and a dedicated supporter of Stepping Stone House. Ray teamed up with his wife, Di, a fellow outdoors adventurer, to tackle one of the biggest challenges of their lives: embarking on a 24-day mountaineering expedition in Nepal to raise much-needed funds for Stepping Stone House.

After completing a trek to Everest Base Camp in 2008, Ray and Di felt inspired to return to Nepal for the next big adventure. In April 2017, they set off to summit Mera Peak (6476m) and Island Peak (6189m), and cross the Amphu Laptsa Pass (5800m). Mera and Island Peaks are both popular trekking peaks in Nepal – but very few people attempt both on the same trek.

S: Hi Ray, thanks for putting the time aside to have a chat. So what’s your relationship with Stepping Stone House? How did you find out about the organisation?

R: Hi Sarah, no worries.

To give you a bit of context, at Macquarie Bank, we have a have staff counsel that focuses on community-based projects and donating time for charitable organisations. We have around 700 or 800 staff, and our foundation will match dollar for dollar any funds raised – which can make a huge difference for small charities.

We also have a special week called ‘Foundation week’, where Macquarie Foundation donates $2 for every dollar raised, and there are a lot of charity events during this time.

At one of these events two years ago, I was introduced to Jason, CEO of Stepping Stone House, and it was suggested that SSH would be a suitable charity for Macquarie to support. The cause really resonated with me and a lot of the employees here. We raised $5000 on the night – so $15 000 when the amount was doubled by Macquarie Foundation!

S: Why do you feel so strongly about Stepping Stone House and helping young people at risk?

R: I think SSH’s focus on helping young people over the long-term is fantastic. SSH tackles issues in such a preventative way, starting in childhood rather than adult life and changing people’s circumstances through education. It’s the kind of situation where, if these young people were left without support, they would face a very difficult adult life.

What’s great about SHH is that they instill in young people the need to get an education, employment, life skills and so on to make something of your life. There’s a focus on outdoor activities like camping and hiking, which I really agree with. These activities teach young people to push through their comfort zone, to work as a team and to trust others.

SSH also doesn’t ask 18-year-olds to leave, but provides assisted, independent living for residents up until the age of 25. This gives young people the best possible chance to succeed in life – not just getting through school, but going to university or TAFE, gaining work experience, long-term job prospects etc.

S: How did you get involved in Stepping Stone House as a volunteer and fundraiser?

R: SSH are always on the look-out for volunteers and mentors, so I put myself forward as a volunteer.

I thought I’d be a good fit because I do a lot of outdoor activities that are based on confidence-building and trust, which is a very important part of SSH’s ‘Stepping Stones to Independence’ program. I figured outdoors fundraising would be a great way to make a difference and raise money for SSH.

S: What was biggest challenge of your experience trekking in Nepal?

R: My wife and I always knew it was going to be physically tough. We’d been to Everest base camp in 2008, but had always wanted to go back while we’re still physically able.

It was the hardest 10 days of my life. The hardest thing for us was being in such remote areas. The road is well-travelled at Everest, but this time we were in a really remote valley, with 6 or 7 hours per day of walking at altitude.

As you might expect, there was pretty basic accommodation with a dirt floor, rickety bed, no hot water and not much electricity. It was dark by 7pm, and we ate rice and noodles with a few vegies for dinner every night, for 14 or 15 days in a row.

On the day of the Mera summit, the cold was really penetrating and we had to contend with a helmet and ice axe. It was still dark, we were attached to a rope, and we had to walk at same pace as everyone else, jumping over crevasses.

Interestingly, we learned that people who die during mountaineering expeditions die on the way back down, not on the way up. It’s because the sense of exhilaration and adrenaline disappears. At that altitude, it’s difficult even to go downhill, especially when you’re emotionally and mentally exhausted.

So the actual physicality of putting one foot in front of another was tough. Mera doesn’t present as much physical danger as Everest, but no matter how fit you are, the altitude sickness can affect anyone, and if you’re not careful, it can be fatal. Luckily, Di and I were physically well and didn’t get altitude sickness.

S: Whoa, that sounds incredibly scary! And what was the biggest highlight?

R: Once we got to the top, the view was truly amazing, and we had a huge sense of achievement and exhilaration. We had the most incredible views of the highest mountain in the world!

One of the biggest highlights was getting to know our guide. He was 26 years old, left school at 12 and started working as a porter, carrying his body weight in baggage for years before working his way up to being a guide on Everest expeditions.

Our guide summited Everest three times, but in 2014, he was involved in an avalanche. Tragically, he was on a rope with 13 of his colleagues and was the only one out of the 14 who survived.

He suffered several injuries and could no longer do Everest expeditions, but he was determined to keep going and now summits smaller mountains. He was such a motivated person with an incredible story, and if it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have had the confidence to complete the trek.

S: Sounds amazing! How much did you raise in the end?

R: $2500 – so $5000, as the amount is matched dollar for dollar by Macquarie Bank.

S: More broadly, why do you feel that supporting youth at risk of homelessness is so important, especially in Sydney?

R: I have an underlying philosophy that everyone should be given a fair chance in life. My wife and I are in a privileged position, and I wouldn’t say that the issue of youth homelessness is unique to Sydney.

Still, like every city, there are a lot of domestic violence issues, where children don’t come from secure and loving family units. We also have drug and alcohol-related issues, but again, I wouldn’t say that Sydney is any worse or any better than other places.

Basically, if young people in Sydney feel that they have nowhere to go, no stability and no family to turn to, there needs to be a support network and safe place like SSH. Otherwise, the cycle will continue and these social issues will spiral out of control.

S: Fantastic, thanks for your time.

Later this month, Ray Sykes will share his inspiring story with the young people at Stepping Stone House.

Ray is also on the executive committee for Stepping Stone House’s biggest fundraiser of the year, Sleep Under the Stars. On Friday 27th October, corporates, families and young people alike will come together to sleep in cardboard shelters for the night, at a truly amazing location overlooking Sydney Harbour.

Want to get involved in Sleep Under the Stars and raise money to help Stepping Stone House support youth at risk? Register today

This article was first published as a Sleep Under the Stars blog.
Interview conducted by Sarah McKenzie