We’re up at 4:45 a.m. We’re leaving the mountains and flying back to Kathmandu today. Because our group is so large and the planes are so small, we have to take three separate aircraft today. The first group departs on a plane that was here in Lukla overnight. The morning begins clear and cloudless, perfect for flying. The first plane departs without a hitch. Then, the clouds come in and hover over the end of the runway, essentially shutting the airport down to any planes that want to land here. The Lukla airport is infamous. If you Google it, the first site that comes up boldly declares, “World’s Most Dangerous Airport.” Although that may not in fact be true, it’s an oft re-stated “fact” and has become part of the common lore. There’s no such thing as “instrument landing” here. If clouds are present the airport is closed because pilots know that there are rocks in them there clouds.
Those of us who aren’t fortunate enough to be on flight one sit and wait until the clouds move away and allow planes from Kathmandu to land. It’s a good opportunity to practice the art of being present. There’s nothing we can do to make the clouds go away. I have plenty of writing to do; there’s no better time than now to take advantage of this time and write.
Writing does not come natural to me. Maintaining this daily blog has been a challenge, a struggle and a blessing. I had committed to writing a daily update when I departed the U.S. At that time I didn’t realize the time and energy it would take to honor that pledge. I’m glad that I committed to it because it has forced me to keep a handwritten journal of observations that I would turn into a written “piece” at the end of the day. Knowing that I would write something at the end of the day motivated me to observe the happenings of each day with a greater sense of presence. This whole process has enabled me to experience my journey with greater intensity and hopefully bring others back home along on our journey.
Suddenly I hear the sound of an airplane in the distance. We look out of the window and see that the clouds have cleared and soon there is a line of small planes landing every 5 minutes at “the world’s most dangerous airport”. It takes only 10 minutes for each plane to empty itself of passengers and baggage, load up with new passengers and baggage and then fly off the cliff that marks the end of the runway. I’m on a plane with one-third of my teammates as we take flight and leave the mountains behind.
The flight back to Kathmandu takes about 40 minutes. We fly over dark green hillsides that are sculpted into terraces that tumble down the hills to the valleys below. I’m in a state of ennui. I’m wishing that I were back in the mountains, I’m wishing that I were home, I’m longing for the journey with my team mates to continue forever, and then again, I just want a nice hot shower. I’m not sure what I want, so I decide to want what I have. I look out the window at the incredibly beautiful country below me and count my blessings. What an incredible journey this has been.
We land in Kathmandu and climb into a shuttle bus for the airport. It takes longer to get from the airport to the hotel than it took to get from Lukla to Kathmandu. The traffic doesn’t really abide by many rules. It’s every man for him self as cars, vans and zillions of motorbikes fight their way for a piece of the road. It’s required that the driver of a motorbike wear a helmet. It’s not a requirement that passengers wear a helmet. Hence, you will see a motorbike with helmeted Dad driving while Mom and 3 kids hang off the motorbike at various angles, sans helmet.
I get checked into the hotel and luxuriate in a long hot shower. I’m almost embarrassed to admit to this blog that while I was on the mountains there were many days when I didn’t change my clothes for days on end. Part of this journey has been to let go of things. Now that I’m in a modern hotel, I’m grabbing with gusto the hot steamy shower.
All of us have lost weight on this journey, some more than others. One of the team happens to have a bathroom scale in their hotel room. Team members take turn weighing them selves and declaring how much weight they’ve lost. The average seems to be 10 to 20 pounds. Everyone needs to cinch their belts a few extra notches.
Tonight we have a celebration dinner at the climber’s bar and restaurant called Rum Doodle. It’s a climbing tradition to have dinner here after returning from a climb. We are given a cutout of a Yeti foot to decorate with colored pens, sign and hang from the ceiling. Ours says “Above + Beyond Cancer” and describes our itinerary. On the back we write, “None of us is as good as all of us.”
Before dinner arrives I share a final John O’Donohue reflection with the group. It’s called, “For Celebration.”
Now is the time to free the heart,
Let all intentions and worries stop,
Free the joy inside the self,
Awaken to the wonder of your life.
Open your eyes and see the friends
Whose hearts recognize your face as kin,
Those whose kindness watchful land near,
Encourages you to live everything here.
See the gifts the years have given,
Things your effort could never earn,
The health to enjoy who you want to be
And the mind to mirror mystery.
I thank all the Above + Beyond Cancer staff that have made our journey so successful. In the past two weeks our group of 19 cancer survivors and 17 caregivers have hiked over 100 miles and climbed 3 Himalayan peaks. We have been transformed from a loose group of trekkers to a tight-knit team with a common bond and a higher purpose. This type of transformation doesn’t happen by accident. It requires the courage, dedication, introspection, perseverance and compassion of everyone involved.
I thank all the caregivers who have come on this journey in support of the cancer survivors. They have taken time off from work and paid their own way to be part of this team. What a generous gift of compassion!
I then turn to the cancer survivors and express my appreciation. “You are the heart and soul of this organization. It’s because of you that we exist. If it weren’t for your courage and determination, none of this would have happened. Each day you inspire me with your willingness to reach above and beyond what you think you can attain. Your grace and grit and determination have the power to inspire and motivate the world to join us in our fight to reduce the burden of cancer.”
Finally, I tell our assembled group that it will up to them to determine just what this journey means to each of them. I asked them to consider that, regardless of why they were on this journey, whether they are a cancer survivor or a caregiver, none of us should think of this journey as something that we deserved. I ask them to consider this journey as a blessing of cosmic proportions. “As you return to your renewed life back home,” I said, “when confronted by others who are in need, I hope that you will find the Sherpa within you and respond to their needs with compassion. Don’t ask, ‘what’s in it for me’. Ask, ‘what can I do for you.’”
Find the Sherpa within you. The world will be a better place for it.