Ring! Ring! Ring! I awakened at 3 a.m. by the sound of the telephone going off on the bedside stand. For a moment I’m not quite sure where I am. I answer the phone. “Buenos Dias, Senor. This is your wake-up call.” It’s Pedro, the young man who works at the front desk of our small hotel in Cusco. All at once I remember exactly where I am and what I’m doing. Today we are going to begin our hike up into the heart of the Andes Mountains. This will be a difficult day and we need to start early. We will travel by bus for 4 hours before arriving at the trailhead where our trek will begin.
During our 4-hour ride, we climb up and out of the fertile Cusco Valley and ascend on increasingly narrower roads. Eventually the paved roads give way to dirt roads that make hairpin turns as they advance into the mountains. Dense vegetation gives way to scrub bushes and sparsely placed trees. Then we ascend above the tree line and are truly in the mountains.
During the bus ride I have an opportunity to talk to my Above + Beyond Cancer teammates. We are 31 in total, 17 cancer survivors and 14 caregivers. The survivors include 6 men and 11 women, age 23 to 66. They have survived breast cancer, prostate cancer, leukemia, lymphoma, colon cancer, sarcoma, melanoma, and uterine cancer. Some have had recurrences of their cancer and some have had multiple different cancers. Nervous energy is palpable, as we get closer to the trailhead.
Joseph, a 23 year-old Hodgkin’s Disease survivor from Minneapolis, had experienced some sleepless nights in Cusco with episodes of shortness of breath. He is very concerned about how he will tolerate sleeping at high altitude. Several other members of the group have already had episodes of diarrhea in Cusco and are concerned about the logistics of “toileting” on a mountain trek. Marcus, a 30 year-old survivor of embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma had open-heart surgery to remove a benign tumor earlier this year. He’s concerned about his heart rate and the physical demands of the trek. Diane, a 49 year-old breast cancer survivor, nurse, and mother of 4 is concerned about whether she has done enough training. We spend time talking through the concerns. This journey is taking everyone outside his and her comfort zone. Heck, that’s part of the reason we’re on this trek.
Most of the nervous energy comes out in the form of humor. Justin, a 30 year-old brain cancer survivor asks desperately if we can stop the bus for an emergency bathroom break. I ask if he needs more Imodium AD or would he prefer a cork. Turns out it’s just an overfull bladder from too much morning coffee. The bus stops at the side of the road and all the men jump into the bushes for relief while the women in the bus philosophize on the unfairness of the gender inequity when it comes to the creation of separate anatomic plumbing systems when it comes to males and females.
During the bus ride, we get an opportunity to discuss the fear and apprehension of the group. We realize that each and every one of us has some fear that the challenges ahead are greater than we might be able to overcome. It’s a great opportunity for us to discuss the role of fear in our lives and the relationship between fear and courage. Courage is not the absence of fear; it’s the way in which we respond to fear. These cancer survivors and caregivers are not mountain climbers. They have accepted the challenge of this journey because of the courage and confidence they gained during their cancer journey. It’s that courage that will provide the strength that will be needed during our climb.
We arrive at the trailhead mid-morning. We disembark from the bus and enter the world of the Peruvian mountain landscape. We can see Salkantay, a 20,600-foot snow-capped peak in front of us. That’s where we’ll be heading. Its massive hanging glaciers are brilliantly white against the azure blue of the Peruvian sky.
At the side of the narrow dirt road, we meet our guides and the trekking staff. We will be cared for by 4 mountain guides (Carlos, Guido, Alben and Raul), 10 horsemen and pack horses for carrying the gear, and 8 cook staff to keep us fed as we journey up into the Andes. We’re served a hot breakfast of coffee, eggs and ham by the side of the road. We marvel at our cooks’ ability to create a wonderful meal for us over a camp stove in a field beside the road.
After breakfast we come together as a group to reflect on the nature of our mission. We know that this is not just a group of outdoor enthusiasts who have come together to hike up a mountain in the Andes. We are on a mind-body-spirit journey to learn about ourselves and to reach above and beyond what we thought might be possible. Our common bond is cancer. The cancer survivors on this journey are not here in spite of their cancer. They are here because of their cancer and the courage and confidence they gained during their own cancer journey.
As we come together as a group to begin our journey up the mountain, I share with them a reflection from the book, To Bless the Space Between Us by John O’Donohue. It’s entitled, “For Courage.” It remind us that it’s the difficult times in our lives and the challenges that we face that provide us the opportunity to grow and become stronger. It concludes,
“Invoke the learning
Of every suffering you have suffered.
Close your eyes.
Gather all the kindling about your heart
To create one spark.
That is all you need to nourish the flame
That will cleanse the dark
Of its weight of festered fear.
A new confidence will come alive
To urge you toward higher ground
Where your imagination
Will learn to engage difficulty
As its most rewarding threshold!”
We begin our journey up the mountain. The first two hours is a gradual uphill grade. We are all taking time to find the rhythm of our pace and our breath. Although our group is composed of many different fitness levels, we find comfort in walking together. Initially we walk on a dirt road until the road ends and then we are on a rocky muddy trail as we begin to ascend more steeply. Shortly after lunch, it begins to rain. We all pull out our ponchos and rain gear. The rain doesn’t dampen the spirits, but it does add a bit to the apprehension of the difficulty of the climb. Soon we are confronted with our first stream crossing. It a 6-foot wide stream with a log bridge. We cross the bridge one at a time, cheering the success of each one as he or she arrives safely at the other side.
Kelly, a 47 year-old sarcoma survivor, provides us the best entertainment. She is a physically strong woman and shared with us the fact that she used to compete in jumping events on horseback. Not a sport for the faint of heart. Kelly is wearing a bright pink poncho that covers her head, body and back pack. She confidently approaches the log bridge, but, uncharacteristically, loses her footing and lands in the stream. No problem, who needs a bridge anyway! She confidently walks through the knee-high stream to the other side and sticks the landing as we cheer her on. She’s a great sport and laughs along with everyone.
The trail becomes more steep as we ascend the mountain on a trail that begins to have many switchbacks in order to allow us to ascend it’s steep grade. At one point I find myself walking with Joni, a 54 year-old elementary teacher as we work our way up the steep mountain slope. Joni is a melanoma survivor. She has experienced several recurrences over the years, but is now cancer-free. She is one of the most optimistic and genuinely compassionate people I have every met. It’s easy to see why her students adore her. On this day, she’s having a difficult time. The high altitude (over 14,000 feet) of this trail makes it difficult to catch one’s breath while making steady progress up the mountain without stopping frequently. We want to arrive at our 15,000-foot campsite before dark. I offer Joni some advice on a technique that can help. Instead of walking for a while and then resting for a while, I teach her the technique of the rest-step. It’s essentially taking a split second pause with each step. Step, rest, step, rest, etc. Each step includes a small pause within. Instead of stopping to rest after a few steps, we incorporate “rest” into each step and continuously move up the mountain with stopping. How do you climb a mountain? One step at a time. If you can take one more step, you can climb a mountain.
Joni catches on to this technique quickly. She can’t believe the difference it makes in her ability to climb the mountain without becoming short of breath. Soon, we are a long line of individuals, each doing the step-rest technique up the mountain. Everyone arrives at our campsite before dark. Scott, a 40 year-old lymphoma survivor from Minneapolis, was one of the first to arrive. He is a strong man, father of two young daughters, and is filled with fun energy. He runs back down the trail to welcome the last of us as we arrive at camp. He gives me a hug and tells me what a wonderful day he has had and how grateful he is to be on this journey. His joy and enthusiasm unexpectedly causes me to tear up. It’s a great day to be alive and we are blessed to be enjoying this journey together.
All 31 of us have made it to camp and exchange congratulatory hugs. We are at the foot of one of the tallest mountains in South America enjoying the beauty and grandeur of the Andes. We are also enjoying the comfort and camaraderie of our teammates. We all know that this is a team endeavor. No one is doing it alone. None of us is as good as all of us.