In many ways, today will be the culmination of our journey to Peru. Today, we will enter Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas. There has been a lot written about Machu Picchu since it was “discovered” by American Hiram Bingham. Many theories are postulated, but most scholars believe that Machu Picchu was a sacred religious site for the Incas. This Above + Beyond Cancer journey has been as much a spiritual endeavor as a physical endeavor for all 31 of us as we have been travelling together in Peru with a common bond and a higher purpose.
Before beginning our journey up the mountain today, Mary leads us in yoga in front of our hotel. I share a blessing from John O’Donohue entitled, “A Morning Blessing.”
“May my mind come alive today to the invisible geography that invites me to new frontiers, to break the dead shell of yesterdays, to risk being disturbed and changed. May I have the courage today to live the life that I would love, to postpone my dream no longer but do at last what I came here for and waste my heart on fear no more.”
Machu Picchu is perched on top of a flat-topped Andes mountain at 8,000-ft elevation. It’s surrounded by even higher peaks that form a circle around it. As we enter the gates of Machu Picchu we are greeted by a view of the entire city with the peak of Huayna Picchu rising from its western edge. The top of Huayna Picchu is approximately 9,000-ft elevation. We intend to climb it later this morning after we have toured the Lost City. Right now, it looks impossibly steep as it comes in and out of view as clouds sequentially surround and then release it. The clouds that are ever present are part of the ambiance and mystery of the mountain. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is a sacred space.
We take a group photo at the entrance with all of Machu Picchu visible below. We then divide ourselves into two groups so that we won’t be a nuisance or distraction to the other visitors. I’m in a group that Guido is leading. He takes us to one of the highest points in Machu Picchu and from there he tells us the history of the Inca civilization and the history of Machu Picchu. Although the history is fascinating, I have to admit that I find this place to be exquisitely beautiful and the beauty and sacred nature of the place stand alone, regardless of the history. My mind wanders as Guido speaks and I find myself taking in the grandeur of big picture – this city of stone walls on a mountain top surrounded by steep green mountains all around and clouds dancing in and out of the peaks intermittently enveloping them in white. I could sit here all day and take in the beauty.
Our group wanders through the ruins and visits the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Three Windows, and the astronomical observatory. It’s hard to imagine how the Inca civilization could have built this with the primitive tools they had in their possession. I marvel at how advanced their knowledge must have been and I marvel at their sense of beauty.
After a two-hour tour of the stone village and temples that make up the central city of Machu Picchu, it’s now time for us to climb to the top of Huayna Picchu. Because this climb is so popular, we need tickets and a start time for the ascent. They allow only 400 people a day to ascend the steep Inca stairway trail to the top.
I’m climbing with a group that includes Cyndi M, a 55-year-old breast cancer survivor and Joni, a 54-year-old melanoma survivor. Cyndi admits that she is afraid of heights – really afraid of heights. At first she decides that she is going to skip the climb because she thinks it may be way too far out of her comfort zone. I encourage her to reach above and beyond her comfort zone and see if perhaps she may gain some strength and courage from attempting to climb the peak. I reassure her that it is an “out and back” climb, so that if she wants to turn around at any point she can. I also tell her that I will remain by her side the whole way.
If Joni is scared, she doesn’t show it. She’s an elementary school teacher and I think that she wants to reach the summit for her students as much as she does for herself. She eagerly accepts the challenge and we begin our journey up the mountain.
Most of the ascent is on steep stone steps that weave back and forth as they ascend the outside steep walls of the mountain. There are some chains attached to the mountain at several points where the steps fall off precipitously. This gives us something to hang onto when the risk of a fall is greatest. Joni and Cyndi are climbing with a steady and deliberate pace. The steep part of the ascent kicks our hearts into overdrive and we are forced to stop talking in order to keep our breath.
As we approach a series of terraces that overlook Machu Picchu below, we meet up with others in the Above + Beyond Cancer group. This provides us with an opportunity to take some photos of each other with Machu Picchu below. The adrenaline of the climb and the beauty of the view add to the excitement.
Cyndi decides to stay on the terrace and wait for us to summit and then pick her up on the return. I don’t try to convince her to go all the way to the top. She has clearly expanded the horizon of her own comfort zone. Diane, a caregiver among our group, offers to stay with her so that she doesn’t have to stay alone on the terrace 800 feet above the ground. Cyndi reluctantly accepts Diane’s selfless offer, but then when another member of our group arrives and declares that she isn’t going any higher, Diane is free to ascend with the rest of us to the summit.
After another several hundred-foot climb up the peak, we come to a place near that top that consists of a series of “free hanging” steps that protrude out into space and form a free-floating staircase up to a high observatory near the very summit. These steps are known in some guidebooks as the “Stairs of Death”. Ascending them like a regular staircase without holding on to the adjacent wall is an act of trust. As Diane said to me earlier, these steps should be called the “Stairs of Courage.” I agree. Climbing these stairs, like life itself, is all about trust and courage. Life is not about avoiding death, it’s about confronting difficulties with courage. The stairs end at the top of a small outcropping that contains a carved stone that resembles an altar. It is a beautiful and sacred space. From this high altar one can see all of Machu Picchu below and the entire valley and the mountains that encircle the Lost City.
It’s at this sacred place that I encounter Justin, the 30 year old brain cancer survivor who I have known since the first Above + Beyond Cancer journey to Mount Everest Base Camp in 2011. In his backpack are some sacred items that he has been carrying with him since we began this journey in Iowa a week ago. When he sees me he says, “Doc, I think this is the place that Brenda would like.”
Brenda was a beautiful woman from Utah who lost her life to cancer earlier this year. We met her through her longtime partner, Mickey, who is a professional musician that plays harmonica in Willie Nelson’s band. Justin is from Clear Lake and works part time at the famous Surf Ballroom. He met Mickey last year when Willie Nelson and his band were at the Surf for a concert. Mickey saw that Justin had an Everest Base Camp patch on his backpack and that began the conversation. Over a few minutes time Mickey learned about Justin’s cancer and Justin’s trip to Everest Base Camp with Above + Beyond Cancer. It was at that point that Mickey shared the story of his partner Brenda.
Brenda was the epitome of living one’s life “above and beyond”. She believed in living her life to the fullest. She enjoyed nature and loved all physical activities. She was an avid skier, cyclist and hiker. She was also a seeker of wisdom and a trusted friend and mother. Justin and I had the opportunity to meet Brenda in New York City last year at Willie Nelson’s 80th birthday party concert at the Hard Rock Cafe. We hit it off immediately. She was a beautiful woman with a natural ease about her. When I think of Brenda I think of beauty, authenticity and love of life. She would have loved to be part of one of our Above + Beyond Cancer journeys, but that was not meant to be. Brenda died of her cancer in February this year. Ironically, I happened to be in Utah on a ski trip at the time. When I was there, I called to see how she was doing and learned that she was at home receiving hospice comfort care and was near death. I had the opportunity to visit Mickey and Brenda at her home shortly before she died. I met one of her sons, her sister, and other family members. They shared photos and stories. It felt like we had known each other for decades. Mickey, the family and I said a prayer as we encircled Brenda’s bed that evening. She died peacefully a few days later.
When Mickey learned that we were going to Machu Picchu this year, he reached out to us. Brenda had been to Machu Picchu a few years ago. It was the last major trip that she did before her cancer recurred. She always felt a connection to the beauty and sacredness of this place. Mickey sent Justin a prayer flag that he made in honor of Brenda. He also sent some of Brenda’s ashes so that she could accompany us to this sacred spot.
Justin opens his backpack and removes a yellow prayer flag that he had been carrying with him since our journey began. Brenda’s name is at the top and on the flag is several quotations, including, “Live while you’re alive.” Brenda certainly lived every single moment of her life. Justin placed the prayer flag on the stone altar. A photo of Brenda, smiling back as us, was place beside the flag. By now, several other members of our Above + Beyond Cancer group had also ascended to this spot. We all encircled the flag. I share a blessing from John O’Donohue from “A New Beginning,” a favorite of Mickey and Brenda.
“Awaken your spirit to adventure; Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk; Soon you will be home in a new rhythm, for your soul senses the world that awaits you.”
The sun is shining. The clouds have separated revealing Machu Picchu below us. The Andes mountains encircle us. Justin hands me a small container, which I open. I grasp the ashes tenderly between my fingers and thumb. As I release the ashes a gentle breeze swirls the ashes. Some land on the stone beneath us; others are carried by the wind to other parts of this sacred land. Brenda’s spirit, like her life, is too large to be contained in any one small place.
It’s just a short climb from this stone altar to another outcropping of rocks that marks the ultimate top of Huayna Picchu. We descend the Stairs of Courage and then climb a few more feet up to the top of the peak. At the top of Huayna Picchu I encounter teammate Bill. Bill is a 66 year-old colon cancer survivor from Des Moines. He and I share a moment at the top. He says to me, “Thank you. I would never have made it to the top without you and the team.” I am surprised. He has been strong all week and I wasn’t surprised that he was standing here at the top. I thank him for having the courage and confidence to join us on this journey. He tells me that he was in Peru when he was 24 years old and had attempted to climb Huayna Picchu but had been unsuccessful. At that time, his fear of heights had kept him from ascending to the summit. Today, however, he derived great strength and trust from our group. Today, he wasn’t climbing alone, he was part of a group that had a higher purpose, and that can make all the difference.
It’s now time to head down this mountain. Ascending was difficult, but descending is down right scary. The steps are very steep. The fastest way down is to descend like you would a flight of stairs – a very high, steep, narrow flight of stairs without a railing and will a big drop-off to the right. Another option is to descend the stairs facing the stairs and using both hands and feet. It’s interesting to observe how each person finds the technique that suits his or her physical or psychological needs. This challenge is taking everyone out of his or her comfort zone. In the process, I think that it is also providing each person the opportunity to find courage within.
As I approach the terraced area where I left Cyndi when we were on our way up, I notice that our group has once again assembled there. Cyndi is in great spirits. She has enjoyed her opportunity to spend time at that beautiful high and sacred space looking down on Machu Picchu. I ask her if she’s ready to descend. She says that she’s up for the challenge. Kelly, a 47 year-old sarcoma survivor offers to help as we begin our way down. As I assist Cyndi by offering a steadying hand for the descent, Kelly carries Cyndi’s backpack so that Cyndi will feel more balanced. Step by step, we slowly descend. We develop a rhythm to our descent as Kelly lead the way and Cyndi and I follow. Cyndi gains confidence with each step and soon she is descending the steeps stairs just like a regular staircase. Occasionally a particular step will have a big vertical drop and I offer a hand from below. It feels great to be working together as a 3-person team. We pause periodically to take in the view. Wow! What a blessing it is for us to be able to be here today, together, absorbing and be enveloped by this sacred space!
Before you know it, we are at the bottom of Huayna Picchu and are ready to re-enter the central area of Machu Picchu. We exchange high-fives and hugs. Lots of hugs. Cyndi says, “That’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done.” She says it in a calm voice that contains more courage than fear. I say, “Cyndi, you inspire me. Thank you for allowing me to climb with you today. It’s such an honor to be able to be with you on an experience that you will remember forever.”