When dawn arrives at base camp, I don’t see the sun directly. Instead I see the reflection of the sun on the snowy face of the mountains that loom high above us. It’s light, but we don’t benefit from the heat of the sun until it finally rises high enough to come over the ridge that protects us. When the rays of the sun finally hit me directly, my temperature soars and my cold body comes to life.
Suddenly there is a flurry of activity as the sunlight directly illuminates the berm of rocky earth that forms one border of our campsite. A flock of light speckled brown ground birds about the size of a grouse comes to life and scurries across the mountainside. They follow the sun and apparently the insect life that is also awakened by the warming rays of the sun. Our head Sherpa, Lhakpa, informs me that these are Tibetan Snow Cocks. Since they are of the size and appearance of a game bird, I ask him if they are good to eat. He informs me that he has never eaten one because they are sacred. I’m once again reminded that I’m not in Iowa anymore!
After breakfast, Father Frank celebrated mass at the foot of Mount Imja Tse. We all came together, regardless of religion, for the fellowship it provided. He also provided Sacrament of the Sick for those of us that were feeling the ill-effects of altitude. Each of us was willing to accept whatever spiritual help we could receive from whatever corner of the universe it might come. Later today, our Buddhist Sherpas would be asking for the blessings of the mountain spirits to assist us in our climb.
Several members of our team that had stayed in Chukung for an extra night of altitude acclimatization join us at base camp for lunch today. Even though we’ve only been separated for one day, we welcome them as if they were family that we hadn’t seen for years. We’ve become quite fond of each other and hugs come easily.
After lunch we begin the American Cancer Society Relay for Life. Our team has been waiting for this moment for weeks. We knew that we were not here to climb a mountain for mere bragging rights; we were here to demonstrate to the world that cancer does not have to limit one’s life. It also is a journey that is intended to celebrate survivors, remember those who had died of cancer and motivate us to fight back against this disease. And so we begin our Relay for Life. We are prepared to Celebrate, Remember and Fight Back!
Yesterday, we had strung 1,000 prayer flags on a two strands that now fly overhead.
Each flag is decorated with photographs, drawings, and phrases commemorating the lives of individuals who had died of cancer or survivors who weren’t able to make the journey but wanted to be with us in spirit. I spotted the face of my mom on one of the flags as it danced in the Nepali breeze. She died of lung cancer when I was in medical school. I saw the faces of Chris, Ginny, Marjean, Jill, Suzanne, Connie, Sid and countless other patients of mine who had inspired me over the course of my career. I also saw the names and faces of patients who are still fighting the fight. Every member of our team members gazed knowingly at the flags.
Sixteen cancer survivors walked in a circle around our campsite. Celebrate! They had survived cancer. They had also survived a grueling trek into the high Himalayas and had inspired those of us who were blessed to accompany them. Leah, a 45 year-old breast cancer survivor and medical oncologist reflected on the meaning of survivorship. Cancer changes lives forever. Even if one is cured of cancer, there can be long lasting after effects of cancer treatment. Survivors face on-going physical, psychosocial and practical concerns. On the positive side, cancer has the power to transform lives. It can help one re-order priorities and embrace life with more passion. Leah is a testament to that. Her husband and two daughters have supported her as she has pursued this Above + Beyond journey with as much passion as she relishes her roles as wife, mother, and cancer doctor.
The next lap was for the caregivers. We all joyously joined the survivors on that lap. Not just those of us who had come from the U.S., but also our Sherpas who had been caregivers to all of us during the preceding weeks. Kelly, a 42 year-old melanoma survivor and the manager of the Hope Lodge in Iowa City, spoke on behalf of caregivers everywhere. Cancer doesn’t just affect the life of the individual with cancer; it affects the life of everyone in the family. No one gets through it alone. She paid tribute to those friends, family members and medical team who provide comfort and care to cancer patients on their journey. Kelly is the ultimate caregiver. During this trek, she has provided care and comfort to those on the trip that have been experiencing altitude illness. Her calm and nurturing manner has helped many of our team through difficult times.
We then paid tribute to those who were no longer with us. The faces of family members, patients and friends looked down on us from the prayer flags that fluttered in the wind above our heads. We silently circled our track and reflected on how our lives had been enriched by the intersection of theirs with ours. Andy, a 38 year-old Hodgkin’s Disease survivor and Michael, a 45 year-old colon cancer survivor both spoke before the Remember lap. They are both cancer survivors, but they share another bond. Each of them lost their mother to cancer. They spoke about the importance of remembering those that have died. How, even after death, a loved one can continue to provide inspiration in one’s life. They read a poem by John O’Donohue entitled “On the Death of the Beloved.”
Let us not look for you only in memory,
Where we would grow lonely without you.
You would want us to find you in presence,
Beside us when beauty brightens,
When kindness glows
And music echoes eternal tones.
May you continue to inspire us:
To enter each day with a generous heart.
To serve the call of courage and love
Until we see your beautiful face again
In that land where there is no more separation,
Where all tears will be wiped from our mind,
And where we will never lose you again.
Finally, we vowed to Fight Back. Those who have died will not have died in vain. They and the cancer survivors who have climbed these mountains will motivate and inspire us to do everything we can to reduce the burden of cancer and create a world with more birthdays.
The American Cancer Society Relay for Life is an emotional experience. Although there is nothing overtly religious about it, one cannot help but feel the spiritual dimension that is involved with any ritual that recognizes those who have lost their life. Being in the mountains in Nepal, being guided by our Buddhist Sherpas also opens us up to a spiritual dimension. Once the Relay for Life ceremony ended, Lhakpa, our head Sherpa, led us over to the side of the mountain that we would be climbing tomorrow. We all gathered around him as he began a Puja ceremony to bless our climb. He and the other Sherpas sat in lotus position on the ground at the base of the mountain. On the mountainside, about 6 feet above where they sat, a bright flame burned. They began to chant. A small gold chalice was on the ground in front of them along with a platter of white rice. Lhakpa filled the gold chalice with beer. As they chanted, they flung kernels of rice into the air. Eventually, handfuls of rice were distributed to each of us and we also threw rice into the air as a sacrifice to the spirits of the mountain. As the ceremony ended, Lhakpa poured a small portion of whiskey into the palm of one of our hands and we were encouraged to taste it. What with the gold chalice and the small taste of alcohol, I couldn’t help but think of the parallels between this service and the mass that Father Frank had celebrated earlier in the day.
We then began the technical training of the climb. We learned how to put on our crampons, sharped pointed spikes that strap onto our boots and enable us to walk uphill on ice and snow. We received our harnesses and ice axes. The harnesses allow us to affix ourselves to ropes and the ice axes provide protection to us in the event of a fall as they can be used to stop us from sliding. The Sherpas have strung a rope down 50 feet of the mountain. We take climbing up the side of the mountain using the rope to assist us and then we rappel down the mountain. The training gives us some familiarity with the equipment, but I can’t say that it gives us all the confidence we would like to have going into the climb tomorrow. There is fear, excitement, anticipation, and apprehension on the faces of my teammates. There is also comfort in knowing that our kind and capable Sherpas will be accompanying us up the mountain tomorrow.
It’s been a full day and an emotional day. We go to bed tonight with lots to think about. Tomorrow we will begin the biggest climb of our lives.