After nine demanding days on the trail, without the comforts of home, without a road to hitchhike out on as far as the eye could see, thirteen cancer survivors and fourteen supporters reached the base camp of Mt. Everest at 17,600 feet.
The day started out sunny and the group intact as one unit. But upon arrival to the camp, which appeared like a strange carnival of blue and yellow tents sitting upon a thawed glacier at the end of the earth, snow fell from the sky and the trekkers filed in one by weary one.
Any elation among the survivors was internalized. It wasn’t the celebration I had envisioned on the march up. Not much about this journey has been in sync with anything I’d imagined when I signed on. And I mean that in the best of ways.
We couldn’t have dreamt up the magic of the nature that surrounded us for days on end. Just when you thought your eyes would never see such beauty, just when you thought your ears would never hear such serenity, you’d round the next corner and be kidnapped again by the creation of the universe.
We never predicted our stomachs turning against us, or the chorus of coughs ringing out in our lodge hallways at night, or the strength we’d need to muster to peel our bodies off of hard beds in the morning. As a healthy 26-year-old, I had to harness courage a dozen times a day, and I am younger than any of the cancer-surviving members of our group, which ranges from ages 27 to 64.
I witnessed most of them hike into a slippery, rocky, nothing-like-you’d-ever-seen-before base camp. I couldn’t quite read each one’s facial expression and body language. They seemed a combination of jubilation and exhaustion, uncertainty and pride. Tears dropped as they have all week. High-fives and fist-pounds were dished out to the Sherpa staff members who helped us reach our destination with smiling faces.
Kathy, a sarcoma survivor who lacks the full use of her left arm, crumbled to the ground just ten feet from the tent which held hot tea and her new friends inside. Everyone around came to her aid, lifted her to her feet and found her a chair to silently celebrate on. One of these people was Charlie Wittmack, an adventurer from Iowa who will summit Mt. Everest next month in completion of his year-long World Triathlon, which includes swimming the English Channel, cycling to Nepal and climbing the world’s tallest mountain. He, along with two other members of his expedition team, Matt Boelman and Joe Brus, hosted us for the evening.
The night was cold, enough to keep me from drinking water as my bottle had frozen shortly into my slumber. My bladder reaching capacity coincided with the rising of the sun, allowing me to see the most awesome sight I’d ever awoken to. A colorful sky hovered over colorful tents with everything else draped in a blanket of untouched white.
The demeanor of the group changed to an externalized joy in the morning. When they reached consciousness, they realized they had done what they set out to do back in their homes in Iowa. Most had never left the continent before, some had never left America. Yet here they were, starting their day at the base camp of Mt. Everest in the middle of nowhere Nepal. Their courage had paid off.
A well-known dog around the camp named ‘Hero’ ran laps between the legs of the survivors. His energy was contagious. Kathy was back on her feet, rubbing Hero’s head and getting him wound up. He liked her best. I like to think that in some way he could sense that she needed the pick-me-up after her struggle to reach the camp the day prior. On this clear new morning, she was as playful as a puppy herself.
“Animals like me for some reason,” she mentioned.
The group finished the morning by hanging over 300 prayer flags in memory of those who lost their lives to cancer and for those survivors who weren’t strong enough to make the journey. The red, yellow, blue, green and white pieces of cloth had hearts poured out onto them with pens and photos prior to the journey, and they now danced in the Nepalese winds.
We silently circled the flags as an American Cancer Society tradition known as Relay for Life. The laps symbolized survivors, caregivers, lives lost to cancer and finally, fighting back. It marked the highest one ever carried out. The hugs exchanged and the weeping that ensued is something I never want to fully understand, but am glad I witnessed because I knew then better than ever what powerful effects this terrible thing called cancer had on these individuals.
The survivors and their supporters packed their bags and headed down the largest hill they’d ever climbed. It will take them four nights to reach the bottom before boarding a plane for home.
The first night down the mountain, we gathered in a frigid lodge, ate warm soup and drank warm tea and reflected back on what we’d just accomplished. Some did this through hilarious narrative, some through poetic words, others quietly to themselves.
I did my best to help those in our group with their uncontrollable diarrhea and vomiting in the night. I shook my head with a little laugh in the morning at the never-ending coughing that graced the place. I was the lead singer of this band.
I looked down the sleepy hallway, noticing my clouds of breath that hung in the cold air. Then I saw something on the floor outside one of the rooms. As I approached it, the power of the scene hit me like the completion of a magic trick with all its awe and amazement.
It was a dog. The same black and white one who danced among us miles back at base camp the day before. He was lying outside Kathy’s door in a hallway filled of heroes. I like to think he knew exactly where he was.