“The mountain allows itself to be climbed.” It really is true. There are lots of slogans thrown around about “conquering the mountain,” “beating the mountain,” “attacking the mountain,” etc., but they are all incorrect. The mountain is not our enemy. It is our friend, our partner, and our collaborator in a journey toward personal growth. The mountain allows us to ascend it. Sometimes the weather is bad, the winds are fierce, the snow is impassible and we realize that she is not in the mood for our advances. When everything is right, she sheds her armor and invites us to the top.
It’s 12:30 a.m. We are awakened from our fitful sleeps by the banging of a kitchen kettle. It’s time to wake-up and prepare to climb Imja Tse (Island Peak) today. As we accept Imja Tse’s invitation, we also accept the invitation to come together as a team and be transformed. Today I will witness some amazing displays of grace, grit, determination and teamwork as we ascended from our 16,500-foot base camp to the summit of Imja Tse at a height of 20,300 feet.
At 1:00 a.m., we assemble in the mess tent for hot tea and a bowl of porridge. I look around the table and try to discern what people are feeling. There’s apprehension, anxiety, excitement, fear, anticipation and wonder. I’m feeling very calm and peaceful. I’m not sure why. I didn’t sleep particularly well and I don’t have a ton of experience climbing high altitude snow-covered peaks, but for some reason, I feel good about today. Perhaps it’s a well-placed confidence in our kind and competent Sherpa team that will be taking us up the mountain. Before we begin our climb I share a reflection from John O’Donohue’s “For Presence”.
Awaken to the mystery of being here
And enter the quiet immensity of your own presence.
Receive encouragement when new frontiers beckon.
Respond to the call of your gift and the courage to follow its path.
May you experience each day as a sacred gift woven around a heart of wonder.
At 1:30 a.m. we put on our packs and begin the climb. It’s zero degrees, but there is no wind, nor are there clouds. The moon is 4 days past full, so there is still plenty of moonlight to illuminate our path. We all don our packs and put headlamps on our heads. Twenty of our Above + Beyond Cancer team begin the climb along with 9 Sherpa. We have a well-defined plan. Mountain climbers know that reaching the summit is optional, however, making it back down the mountain is mandatory. The lower two-thirds of the mountain will be a steep uphill climb on dry land. At that point we will encounter a glacier and the rest of the climb will be on snow and ice. We will need to put on our crampons at that point. Hence, that place where we encounter the glacier is called Crampon Point. If a climber has not reached Crampon Point by 6 a.m., he must turn around. That pace would be too slow to allow for a safe ascent and descent of the mountain. That’s our “turnaround” time and our Sherpas will hold us to it.
Although it’s cold out, once we begin climbing I warm up quickly. There are 29 of us in a single file winding up the mountain. As I look back down the mountain in the darkness of the night, all I see is a ribbon of headlamps weaving and bobbing up the mountain. The path is steep and the footing is unsure, especially in the dark. We progress from what is obviously a “mountainside” onto what appears to be a ridgeline. I think, “I’m glad that we can’t actually see how far the drop-off is or I’m afraid some of our team might be even more anxious.”
At about that time, Tensing, one of our Sherpas says to Andy, a 38 year-old Hodgkin’s Disease survivor who is at the front of the line, “Be careful here. This is where a lot of people die.” Andy and I acknowledge the comment and climb on in silence wondering just how far that fall might be if one of us were to stumble. We continue on through the night. Slowly the line of headlamps spread out as the faster climbers are separated from the slower. Word passes up the line of climbers that some have decided to turn around because of the steepness of the climb and the fatigue related to the altitude. Most continue on.
One of those who continue on is Ruth, a 63 year-old sarcoma survivor who has lost her left hand to her cancer. She is an inspiration to me. Throughout this journey, and throughout her life, she has not allowed her disability to direct her life. She is climbing this mountain with only one hand. Actually that is not exactly true. You could say that she is climbing this mountain with three hands because a strong and gentle Sherpa, Kami, is at her side. What courage and confidence Ruth displays! What kindness and strength Kami displays! They make a wonderful team.
The sky begins to show a hint of dawn at the time I reach Crampon Point at about 5 a.m. Within the next half hour, 12 of our team, including Ruth, reach Crampon Point. We’ve beat the “turnaround” time. I take off my backpacks and remove my crampons and ice axe. As I’m putting on my crampons, I hear Ruth say, “I’m going down.” I momentarily think about trying to talk her into going on. Then, I realize that I don’t truly know what physical risks lay ahead of us. She has accomplished so much by having summited the two previous peaks and having made it to this point on this mountain. I reflect on what I have told everyone all along: It’s the journey that matters, not the destination. I tell Ruth that I am proud of her and that she inspires me. I silently pray that her descent will be uneventful and that we will hug each other again at base camp later today.
There are 11 of us that continue up the mountain. A number of our Sherpas have gone ahead to set the ropes that we will us to ascend the final 300 feet of near-vertical ice and snow that will get us to the summit. I am linked by rope to 4 other teammates along with 2 Sherpas, one at the front and one at the rear. With me on my rope are Andy, Mike (a 45 year-old colon cancer survivor), Yasmina (a 38 year-old professor of creative writing at Drake), and John (a 32 year-old filmmaker). We begin our ascent on the glacier in unison. We are all united on the same rope. We are tied to each other, but not to the mountain. If any one of us falls into a crevasse or starts to slide down the mountain, the rest of us are to dig our ice axes into the glacier to prevent us from falling or sliding. In lockstep, we continue our way up the glacier. The sun has come up and we take off our headlamps. The terrain is otherworldly gorgeous. We’re walking on ramps of snow and ice that are 4 feet wide with 1,000-foot drops on either side. Fifty-foot long icicles hang from the glacier above us and dangle down into the abyss at our sides. We cross snow bridges that barely cover the gaping crevasses. We will ourselves to jump over these snow bridges in order to prevent falling through the thin snow layer covering the crevasse. Like a caterpillar we wind our way in unison through the maze. First to the right, then to the left, as we slowly ascend the mountain.
After we get through the ice field and snow ramps, we find ourselves on a wide-open snowfield. Ahead of us is a 300-foot nearly vertical wall of ice and snow that leads to a ridgeline of snow that will take us to the summit. The Sherpas have set the ropes and one of our Sherpas is present at the lowest end of the rope to assist us in clipping in to it to facilitate our ascent. One by one we unclip from the rope connecting us to our team and we individually clip into the rope that will lead us to the summit.
Andy goes first, I follow and the others pursue us one by one. On the vertical wall, I need to use the “toe picks” of my crampons. I kick the toe of my boot (along with the crampon toe spike) into the snow as I grab the rope and pull myself up the mountains. I can see Andy clearly as he and I move our selves up the mountain. The climb at this point is difficult. It requires strength and stamina, but it also provides incredible exhilaration as we move closer to the summit. I move up 4 steps, then rest. I repeat the process hundreds of time as I ascend
At the top of the 300-foot vertical wall of snow we come to a ridgeline – a ramp of snow approximately 4 feet wide that leads to the summit. It is less steep than the wall of snow, but steep enough to require a rope to assist us in the climb. I follow Andy up the line and soon I find myself on the summit of Imja Tse, 20,300 feet above sea level.
It’s 8:15 a.m. and it’s a bit crowded at the top today. The conditions are still perfect. No clouds, no wind, just pure bliss. The surface area of the “dance floor” at the top of mountain is only about 100 square-feet. We are not the first group to summit. A group of Europeans are celebrating when we arrive. They eventually relinquish the summit for our group of climbers to have its day in the sun.
And celebrate, we do! During the next few minutes, Andy and I wait for Mike, Yasmina and John to arrive. Someone pulls the Above+Beyond Cancer out from a backpack and we being our festivities. We hug, cry and take photographs. We enjoy the cloudless skies and the view of all the world’s highest mountains that ring our Island Peak. As descend the ropes that had been set up for us, we begin to see the next strand of Above + Beyond teammates ascend to the summit. This group is comprised of a number of cancer caregivers. The group includes: Bikal, Dr. Laurie Kuestner, Dr. Charles Lozier, Teresa, Joe, and John LaPrairie. We exchange high-fives as our train passes theirs and the morning sun rises higher into the sky.
We all eventually descend the ropes by rappelling down the near-vertical wall of ice and snow. At the bottom, we unclip ourselves from the fixed line and then once again connect ourselves to each other on a rope line that will provide us security as we slowly retrace our footprints and hike back down through the hanging icicles and over the ramps of snow. Physically, I am “toast”. I try to stay mentally alert as I take photographs of the amazing environment. At times, however, I feel like I’m hallucinating or daydreaming. It’s the sort of feeling you get when you are driving a car while falling asleep.
We make it through the glacier and find ourselves back on dry land at Crampon point. We take the opportunity to drink some water and eat a few snacks as we wait for the other climbers in our group to return from the summit. Here they come! They step onto dry land and we are reunited again. It’s still a good two hours down to base camp. We descend on the same pathway that we had ascended. This time we are able to see the precarious spots and the drop-off below. I’m reminded by myself to pay attention. Eventually our group of 11 spreads out and each climber descends at his own pace.
I fall on my butt at least three times as my rubber legs try to support me on the descent on the steep and dusty trail. I make it back to base camp at 12:15 p.m. As I approach a group of teammates that had remained at base camp, I trip over a line that is attached to one of the stakes holding a tent in place. I do a face plant at the feet of my cheering teammates. Not the glorious entrance to camp that I had imagined!
That night at dinner, we all tell heroic tales of our death-defying ascent of Imja Tse. The truth is, we danced with a beautiful mountain and she was a willing partner today. The weather was perfect, our guides were talented and the mountain allowed herself to be climbed.