We wake up excited this morning. We are going to climb the second of the three peaks that we have on our agenda for this journey. Today’s peak is called Chukkung Ri. It hovers protectively above the village of Chukkung. The word “Ri” refers to a small mountain that is not covered by ice and snow. Obviously, “small” is a relative term. The top of Chukkung Ri is 18,200 feet in elevation. Certainly not “small” by U.S. standards.
Our morning dawns in glory. Bright sunshine, snow-capped peaks, yaks wandering outside our lodge with the gentle melody of the bells around their necks. After breakfast, Father Frank is going to celebrate an outdoor mass for us. “Father Frank” is Monsignor Frank Bognanno. He is the pastor of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Des Moines. He is also a prostate cancer survivor and the oldest member of our Above + Beyond team. Father Frank is an amazing man. He is probably the fittest 72 year-old that I know. He was part of the Above + Beyond Cancer Kilimanjaro team and was the oldest person to summit Mount Kilimanjaro. In addition to his status as a cancer survivor, Father Frank is providing spiritual context to our journey. All of our Above + Beyond Cancer journeys have mind, body and spirit components, but this journey in particular is conducive to exploring how the various religions view suffering and compassion in the human condition, especially as seen through the eyes of cancer survivors. In addition to Father Frank, we also have Reverend Richard Graves, an Episcopal minister from Fort Dodge on our team. He is a 62 year-old prostate cancer survivor and also is providing input into the spiritual explorations of our group. Our team includes member of many different religions including: Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, as well as atheists and agnostics. The spiritual aspect of our journey isn’t so much about religion as it is about personal spirituality.
On this bright October morning, Father Frank dons his white robe with purple sash. We’ve set up a small table in the middle of the yak-yard. Hand-assembled rough stonewalls form boundaries between the various corrals and garden plots. The sky is a deep Himalayan blue and there are no clouds to obscure our view of the largest mountains in the world. Lhotse and Ama Dablam look down on us protectively. Father Frank places a beautiful embroidered cloth on the makeshift alter. It’s a cloth he purchased in Kathmandu and it is decorated with Buddhist symbolism. He brought his chalice with him from Des Moines. On the altar are also a bottle of wine he purchased in Nepal and his hiking water bottle – they will serve as the water and wine for the communion ceremony. He brought communion wafers with him from home.
All of our team assembles in the yard in front of the altar to participate in the mass. It doesn’t matter what religion we call “home”, we all enjoy the opportunity to assemble together before our hike for some fellowship. Father Frank celebrates the mass and Reverend Richard does the readings from the Bible. All of us join in the part of the mass where we show a “sign of peace” to those around us. In fact, this delays the mass a bit as all 36 of us hug each other in a display of not only “peace” but also true affection.
During the sermon, Father Frank talks about what St. Thomas Aquinas called “vestegii dei”, that’s Latin for the “footprints of God.” St. Thomas believed that we could see signs of the divine in nature. After spending a week in the beautiful high Himalaya, we readily concur. Before mass ends, Father Frank asks God to take care of all of us on our climb. We pray for those back home that are praying for us. We pray for all cancer patients everywhere who are undergoing treatment. We also pray for all our Sherpas. Father Frank asks God to help the Buddhists in Tibet who are experiencing persecution and being denied religious freedom. Regardless of our personal religious beliefs, we all feel blessed to have come together for this purpose.
After mass has finished, we put on our backpacks and head up the mountain. It begins a steep and dusty ascent. After a half hour, it levels off a bit before it becomes steep again. Everyone is in a good mood, struggling hard, but enjoying beautiful views of the mountains and the fellowship of the trail. No one is walking alone. Small groups form and teammate assists teammate up the steep path. I reached the saddle ridge between the peak we were climbing and an adjacent peak. A small group of Chinese climbers were there. One of the gentlemen is very fatigued and is considering turning back. He sees our t-shirts with the Above + Beyond Cancer logos. He asks about our group. When he learns that there are 19 cancer survivors climbing this mountain, he is inspired by their courage and perseverance and decides that he too can make the summit.
The summit is well worth the price of exertion. It is an irregular rocky mountaintop with prayer flags flying from the highest rocks. It is still cloudless and there is amazingly no wind. We are at 18,200 feet! Few of our group has ever been this high. Hugs are exchanged and tears of joy fall. Many of us take out of our backpacks prayer flags that we have carried up the mountain and share the stories with our climbing friends. Today, I pull out the flag two flags that are made in honor of Ginny, a lung cancer patient of mine that is still undergoing treatment. Ginny made one of the flags herself. It’s a green on and has a quotation about courage written on it as well as Ginny’s best-wishes for us to have a safe and successful journey. The other flag is blue. It was made by our cancer center staff. It has a picture of Ginny’s smiling face. It says, “An inspiration to all of us!” Ginny is the only patient that I’ve ever cared for who has come to my weekly exercise class after having been an inpatient in hospice. In strength and in spirit, she has metaphorically climbed bigger mountains than the one we’re on.
Ginny, thanks for the inspiration. I’ll put you back in my backpack with the other flags I’m carrying and you will head down the mountain with me. In two days we will head up the third and final peak of our Himalayan adventure.