Today, we are going to climb the first of three peaks that we hope to summit on this journey. We are headed to the top of Nangkar Tshang Ri. It’s a 16,500-foot peak that is ringed by the big mountains of the Himalaya. Lhotse, the third highest mountain in the world is just to the west. Makalu, the fifth highest mountain in the world is looking down at us from the east. Ama Dablam, Mother’s Necklace, has our back covered as we ascend.
The morning begins with yoga and Tai Chi in the sunshine in front of our lodge. We all enjoy coming together in the morning for stretching and meditation. I share a blessing from John O’Donohue entitled “For Longing.”
Blessed be the longing that brought you here
And quickens your soul with wonder.
May you have the courage to listen to the voice of desire
That disturbs you when you have settled for something safe.
May you have the wisdom to enter generously into your own unease
To discover the new direction your longing wants you to take.
May your dreams gradually reveal the destination of your desire.
Our group of 19 cancer survivors and 17 caregivers has all faced a lot of adversity on this journey. Today’s climb will be a challenge for many. The 17 cancer survivors include 11 women and 8 men. There are 11 different cancer diagnosis included among the group. Most of the survivors are now cancer-free and are on this journey because of the courage and confidence they have gained during their cancer journey. However, some of the survivors still have cancer and are receiving on-going cancer treatment. It’s fair to say that the entire group has taken John O’Donohue’s blessing to heart and are on this journey “to discover the new direction your longing wants to take.”
The climb to the top of Nangkar Tsang begins with a gradual ascent but quickly becomes steep. Since this climb is an “out and back”, each member of our group can ascend at their own pace. It’s interesting to see how the members of the group ultimately divide themselves into groups. Some are based on speed, some on mutual interests, others pair up based on their needs. John and Mary LaPraire from Minnesota have come on this journey as caregivers. John works for 3M, Mary works for the American Cancer Society. They came on this journey for a number of reasons. First, they wanted to have an amazing journey in Nepal. Second, they knew that their journey would be even more meaningful if they were able to support others. Today, John pairs up with Kathy, a 65 year-old breast cancer survivor from Seattle. Mary pairs up with Richard Graves, a 62 year-old prostate cancer survivor from Fort Dodge, Iowa.
Kathy has done a lot of hiking in the Pacific Northwest, but has never been hiking in mountains this big. Her 24 year-old son, Andrew, is worried about Mom. The courage that Kathy has shown to join in on a journey of this magnitude will certainly inspire her son.
Richard in addition to being a prostate cancer survivor is also an Episcopal priest. He came on this journey because of the physical challenge, but also because of the spiritual dimension this journey promises. In his book, Mount Analogue, Rene’ Daumal wrote, “The Mountain is the connection between Earth and Sky. It is the path by which humanity can raise itself to the divine and the divine reveal itself to humanity.”
The climb to the top of Nangkar Tshang becomes more difficult the higher we go. The well-defined trail gives way to a difficult to find path marked by cairns, small rock piles that direct climbers along the correct path. The climb becomes slower. Several climbers need assistance from others as the footing becomes less secure.
I journey ahead to the top. It is such a joy to see the climbers reach the summit. There’s always a combination of elation and fatigue. The top of the peak is strewn with colorful Tibetan prayer flags that send their blessings on the wings of the wind as they are carried around the world. Our climbers have brought their own prayer flags with them to the summit. Our prayer flags have been handmade with photos and reflections on them to honor and remember those who have lost their life to cancer or who are still undergoing cancer treatment.
At the summit, Mike, a 45 year-old colon cancer survivor, pulls out a green flag that was made to honor his mom, Jan, who died of lung cancer one year ago today. At the top of Nangkar Tshang at 16,500 feet, Mike tells us about his mother. Even as an adult, he called her everyday to talk to her. She had a great sense of humor and loved to listen to his stories. She was a wonderful mother and loved being a Grandma. Mike and his three children made the prayer flag together back in Seattle. It now flies high in the Himalaya in honor of her. Jan would have considered this action as, “Crazy!” Crazy, maybe, inspiring, yes.
Debra, a 58 year-old caregiver from Des Moines has been working out for 9 months to prepare for this trip. She had followed the previous Above + Beyond Cancer journeys and wanted to be part of this adventure in order to honor family and friends who have been affected by cancer and to help support the cancer survivors on this journey. Debra brought 15 prayer flags with her to Nepal. Today, at the summit of Nangkar Tshang, she pulls a yellow flag from her pack and tells me what it means to her. It’s a bright yellow flag with the smiling face of a beautiful woman on it. It’s in honor of Wendy, a friend of Debra’s, who died of colon cancer on June 18th. Debra tells me that Wendy taught her courage. She faced her cancer diagnosis with the same courage, energy and resolve that she faced every challenge in life. Watching Wendy go through her cancer journey gave Debra courage to face her own challenges. Wendy’s entire outlook on life was the essence of Above + Beyond. On the flag are the words, “The strength and beauty with which she has impacted the so many lives will continue to reach far, wide and deep.”
The other members of the group continue to make their way to the summit. It’s high-fives, photographs and tears. Climbing a mountain is often used as a metaphor for accomplishing something difficult. Sometimes climbing a mountain isn’t just a metaphor; it’s actually climbing a mountain! That in itself is an accomplishment.
The last two cancer survivors to reach the 16,500-foot summit today are Kathy and Richard. They are supported along the way by John and Mary LaPrairie. John and Mary are patient, sure-footed companions providing words of encouragement and physical support as necessary. The 4 of them enjoy a moment of celebration at the summit before turning to head down the mountain. The journey down the mountain is actually more difficult than the ascent. The path is steep and more than one of the climbers falls on their butt on the journey down.
I take the opportunity to walk with Richard. I asked him what he has learned on this journey so far. He thinks for a moment and then responds, “I’ve learned that no matter where you are on your cancer journey or your life journey, you need to continue to reach Above + Beyond. I’ve learned that undertaking something this difficult is best done with a group that cares about you. I couldn’t have done it without the support of others in this group.”
Kathy, Richard, John, Mary and I continue our descent down the mountain. As we enter the common room at our lodge, the rest of the group is already eating lunch. They greet Kathy and Richard with cheers and heartfelt congratulations. None of us is as good as all of us. Today, everyone went Above + Beyond what they thought was possible. And this was just a warm-up for what is yet to come.