Today we head to Imja Tse Base Camp. Imja Tse is the local name for the 20,300-foot high snow covered mountain whose summit is our ultimate destination. Before starting our hike, we enjoy stretching and fellowship as Judith, a 59 year-old breast cancer survivor leads us in Tai Chi. I then share a reflection from John O’Donohue called, “A Morning Offering”.
May I have the courage today
To live the life that I would love,
To postpone my dream no longer
But to do at last what I came here for
And waste my heart on fear no more.
Today we’ll be leaving behind the creature comforts of sleeping in a lodge at night. We’ll be staying for three nights in two-person tents pitched on a rugged campsite at the base of a high Himalayan peak. Not everyone is coming with us today. Yesterday’s climb of the 18,200-foot Chukung Ri took its toll. Many of our group spent a sleepless night with vomiting and headaches. Most of them will benefit from an extra day at lower altitude before they journey to base camp to meet up with us.
Today I walk with Jeff. Jeff is a 56 year-old pancreas cancer survivor from Des Moines. Jeff is a big man. Let’s suffice it to say that his physique would never be confused with that of a marathon runner. He has had some difficulty with the long hikes, but he has remained “healthy”, albeit slow. Today we enjoy the slow pace up the mountain and the companionship it offers. Today is the 4th anniversary of Jeff’s diagnosis of pancreas cancer. He tells me in accurately remembered detail how he was diagnosed and the treatment he received. He is one of the “miracles” of modern medicine, and he is grateful for the successful outcome he has enjoyed. Jeff is a man of few words, especially on the trail, because he doesn’t have enough wind to hike and talk at the same time. He expresses to me his appreciation for having been chosen to be on this journey. His cancer diagnosis taught him that life is potentially short and he knows that he has been given a second chance. He wants to live his second life with passion and commitment. He welcomes the difficulty that this journey represents. He knows that the fellowship, inspiration, and commitment of his team of fellow cancer survivors will instill a new perspective on his life. We both marvel at the mountain splendor that we are able to enjoy together and continue our journey to base camp together.
Imja Tse is commonly known as “Island Peak”. It’s called Island Peak because it is a 20,000-foot mountain surrounded by much higher mountains. It is a “free-standing” mountain that is not connected to the surrounding peaks. Hence, when standing on Island Peak, on has the impression that he is on an Island in the middle of a sea that is bordered by the highest mountains in the world. Imja Tse, aka Island Peak, is our ultimate destination.
We arrive at base camp in time for lunch. The Sherpas had set up our tents yesterday. We have 18 bright yellow tents set up rather haphazardly on a rocky uneven terrain. At one edge of the group of yellow tents is a large blue tent that will serve as our “mess tent.” It has several long tables set up end-to-end and enough chairs to seat all of us. We buddy up and find a yellow tent to call home for the next 3 nights. We wander around the campsite exploring it natural wonders. The site is bordered on one side by the 20,000-foot mountain. On the other side is a larger rocky berm about 50 feet high. As we scurry to the top of the berm, we see are able to see a large lake about 500 feet below. It is formed by the foot of a large glacier that is “flowing” down an adjacent mountain into a tumble of ice that ultimately melts to form the lake. It’s a powerful display of nature.
After a lunch of rice, cauliflower, cooked cabbage and fried Spam, we begin to get our campsite prepared for tomorrow’s American Cancer Society Relay for Life ceremony. We have carried with us over 1,000 prayer flags that we have made back home. Each flag is decorated in honor or memory of someone whose life has been affected by cancer. Some are decorated in memory of someone whose life has been lost to cancer. Others are decorated in honor of a cancer survivor still undergoing treatment. They will serve as the centerpiece for our Relay for Life ceremony tomorrow. We have carried the flags with us in our backpacks and duffel bags. Today they pour out of our packs onto the tables in the mess tent. We divide them into colored piles. In the Tibetan tradition, there are 5 elements to the world and each is associated with a color. Tibetan prayer flags are made in 5 colors: green for wind, yellow for earth, red for fire, white for water, and blue for sky. In the Tibetan tradition, the prayers that are on the flags are picked up by the wind and carried to all parts of the earth. Our flags contain memories. As the flags fly, the memories of those affected by cancer fly around the world, motivating and inspiring all of us to help create a world with less cancer.
For the next hour, we string the flags onto long strands of twine. Each flag is a life to be remembered. There are pictures of smiling faces, Bible-verses, mottos of courage, and heartfelt remembrances. We pause in stringing the flags to contemplate the lives that lie on the table at our fingertips. My mom is there. Many of my patients are there. We pause, we remember, we reflect on how each of these lives has affected us.
With the assistance of our Sherpas, we connect the ends of the strands to rocks on the mountain on one side land the berm on the other. It takes two strands, each approximately 250 feet long, to accommodate all our flags. As the breeze catches the flags, the two strands of flags unfurl in a display of color and emotion as they fill the sky above our tents. We marvel at the beauty and reflect on the tragedy of lives cut short by cancer. Oh, would each of these individuals be able to be with us today to witness the beauty of these mountains!
We go to bed tonight in down sleeping bags in nylon tents in the midst of the mountains. Temperatures plummet. Our water bottles freeze. I shiver through the night, never quite finding sleep. In the middle of the night I hear what sounds like a freight train coming. I soon recognize that it’s the sound of an avalanche. I brace for a collision with a mass of flying rocks and snow. Fortunately, the avalanche is many miles away. The sound is accentuated by the mountain walls and the location hidden by all the echoes and reverberations. We become accustomed to the sound as it would become a frequent companion to our dreams.