I’m awakened at 4:45 a.m. by our friendly tea-boy, Rhemish. Just like every other morning on this journey, he greets me with a big smile, a friendly “Namaste”, and a hot cup of tea. We’re up early this morning because it’s a long and somewhat strenuous hike to Lukla. It will be our last day on the trail. Tomorrow we’ll fly from Lukla to Kathmandu and on the following day we’ll begin our long journey home.
Our morning ritual includes my reading of a blessing from the author, John O’Donohue. Today it’s, “To Come Home to Yourself.”
May all that is unforgiven in you
May your fears yield
Their deepest tranquilities.
May all that is unlived in you
Blossom into a future
Graced with love.
The hike today begins with a long downhill from Namche to Phakding where we will have lunch. A week and a half ago we took an entire day to ascend in the opposite direction. That was our second day on the trail and it was a very difficult hike for several of our team. It feels like I’m hiking the Via de la Rosa in reverse today! Each steep decline recalls memories of the previous week’s incline and the cheerleading that was required to get everyone to the top.
It’s a busy day on the Khumbu trail. Lots of new trekkers must have flown into Lukla today and are now on their way up the mountain trail. They are all fresh-faced, cough-free and they still fill out their clothes – all sure-fire signs that they have just arrived.
All of us are showing effects of the two weeks at altitude. We all have weather-beaten faces and each of us sports The Khumbu Cough. The cough is a result of weeks of dusty trails and altitude. Cough drops are a scarce commodity.
There must be a building project underway in Namche. I swear that I’ve seen an entire house being transported up the trail on the backs of the porters. They are a hardy lot. Most of them are very short in stature, but carry up to 250 pounds of lumber, siding, and two-by-fours. While we insist on state of the art hiking boots, they do this in flip-flops. It’s humbling, amazing, and depressing all at the same time.
Three of our team are having a particularly difficult time today. Suzanne, a 48-year-old breast cancer survivor from Alabama has a bum knee. Her gait has slowed to a hobble. She still is a style queen, however, and today she’s sporting a newly-acquired knitted Sherpa hat that appears to have the eyes, ears and snout of a horse head.
Kathy, a 64-year-old breast cancer survivor from Seattle, has the worst Khumbu cough of the entire group. The cough and the altitude have slowed her down to a mere trickle.
Richard, a 62-year-old prostate cancer survivor, has been a trooper for the entire journey. He is receiving ongoing hormone therapy for his prostate cancer. That treatment has definitely weakened his muscles. For weeks, he’s been able to keep up with the group, but today he’s nearly two hours behind.
We have lunch today at a tearoom on the banks of the Dudh Cosi River. We will be crossing the river on pedestrian suspension bridges several times today as we weave our way down the trail to Lukla. All of us have finished lunch by the time Suzanne, Kathy and Richard arrive. To our surprise, Suzanne and Kathy arrive on horseback! It has become clear to our Sherpas and to Suzanne and Kathy that they would not get to Lukla before dark if they continued on their own power. At lunch, Richard also “sees the light” and agrees to go the rest of the way (mostly uphill) on horseback.
The horses are actually ponies. They can be found “for hire” along the trail. For the rental price (approximately $80), one gets use of the horse (with saddle) and the horseman who leads the pony on short rope. For extra safety, one of our Sherpa walks alongside to keep the rider from falling off as the pony walks up and down the steep trail and staircases.
The rest of us continue on to Lukla by foot. I hike with John and Mary La Prairie from the Twin Cities. They have come along as caregivers and they have been the ultimate compassionate companions for those of our group in need. Each day they have walked with members of our group who have been having the most difficulty, offering them support and encouragement. This morning they had been walking with Suzanne, Kathy and Richard. Now that the three musketeers are on horseback, John and Mary are free to walk at their own pace. Mary takes the lead, picking up the pace, and before you know it, we have passed most of the people on the trail, and arrive at our Lukla lodge in record time.
Soon, everyone except our intrepid horseriders are assembled at the lodge. A pool soon develops as everyone wages a bet as to who will be the first of the three musketeers to enter the lodge. The money is on Suzanne; she seems to have the most spunk and is the most likely to sweet talk her horse into a gallop. To our surprise, Richard enters the lodge first, having out-maneuvered Suzanne and Kathy at the door. All three are in good spirits and have enjoyed the camaraderie of the shared experience.
Tonight is a night of celebration to honor our Sherpas, kitchen staff, porters, and yaksmen. We share our last mountain meal of rice, dal, cauliflower, and yak momos (e.g., pot stickers). For dessert, we have another large cake that our Sherpa kitchen staff has baked for us. With great fanfare, I cut the cake and offer the first piece to Lhakpa, our head Sherpa. I tell him that our journey would not have been successful without the talent, professionalism and compassion of him and all his staff.
We then recognize each member of his team individually with heartfelt thanks and an envelope filled with rupees. The tip ceremony is a formal and traditional ritual at the end of a Himalayan trek. We take our ceremony “over the top” with individual “shout-outs” and formal handshake photographs. We give special recognition to our group of climbing Sherpas in addition to the traditional enveloped filled with rupees, each one receives a new pair of crampons from us. This elevates the joy and excitement of the Sherpas by a hundredfold.
Before the party really gets going I ask Lhakpa to translate for me. I want all the Sherpas to know how much they mean to me and how much they have meant to the success of this journey. They have been with us every step of the way and they have been attentive to all of our needs. If one of our team was having difficult, they would anticipate the needs of the person and lend a hand, carry a backpack, provide a drink – all in a subtle, gentle, non-showy display of compassion. I tell this group of Buddhist Sherpas that I am very fond of the wisdom of the Dalai Lama. My favorite quotation is, “If you want to make others happy, practice compassion. If you want to make yourself happy, practice compassion.” I tell them that they are the embodiment of compassion and we, as recipients of their compassion are eternally grateful.
As the formal ceremony concludes, Justin, a 28-year-old brain cancer survivor and former lead singer in a rock band, breaks out his guitar. Music, dancing, and a little bit of beer drinking follow. Father Frank donates the last of the bottle of communion wine to the celebration, and we party until the yaks come home!