On cue, the sun came up this morning and the world looked new. The first glimpse of the sun wasn’t in the east, however. It was the reflection of sunlight off the east-looking face of a 22,000-foot snow covered mountain that stands to the west of Namache. As the snow covered face gradually turned from rosy pink to white hot, the sun also found its way on to the courtyard at our lodge. There’s nothing like the feel of the morning sun warming my body after a good night’s sleep in the mountains.
My first order of business this morning is to check on the members of our group who were having some difficulties yesterday. I call this our “morning rounds”. Fortunately, on this trip, I’m blessed with three other physicians, Charlie Lozier, Laurie Kuestner, and Leah Dietrich. Together, as a team of 4, we have the ability to keep an eye on everyone.
Marilyn pushed it to the max yesterday. The elevation gain and the length of the journey were difficult for her, but she doesn’t appear to be ill. She looks great this morning and is ready to go. Suzanne had no problem with the climb yesterday, but she was totally exhausted at the end of the day and went to bed without eating dinner. She greets me with a warm “Good Morning!” She’s ready for the day.
Judith had the toughest time last night. She wasn’t able to eat dinner and got sick a couple times during the night. I knocked on her door and entered quietly. I was greeted with a warm, “Good morning,” and a smile. That felt as good as the morning sunshine. A good night’s sleep had been good medicine for her. She was ready to join us for breakfast and journey on.
After breakfast and morning yoga in the mountain sunshine, we put on our packs and headed up and out of Namche. Namche, often called Namche Bazar because of large marketplace at the center of town, is a very distinctive village. It is located in a natural amphitheater with the shops and houses forming a semicircle on a terraced mountain slope. Yesterday we entered the village at the bottom. Today we are exiting the village at the top.
Our first stop this morning is a hillside at the top of the village where we have the first view of Mount Everest. We are blessed with a perfect day with cloudless skies. As we ascend the hill, the first mountain that pops into view is Ama Dablan. It is my favorite mountain. The name mean’s “Mother’s Necklace”. On the face of the mountain, about a fourth of the way down from the top is a large hanging glacier that is described as a large pearl, hence the name, Mother’s Necklace.
As we reach the top of the hill and look to our left the entire Everest massif comes into view. Mount Everest is a broad pyramid with a plume of snow blowing horizontally from the top, like a flag unfurled in the wind. Everest’s companions, Lhotse and Nuptse, join Everest to form the massif. No matter how many times I see this site, it takes my breath away. However, what provides me even greater joy is witnessing those in our group who are seeing it for the first time. You can never have a first-time experience a second time, but you can definitely get an emotional rush by sharing in another’s first time experience. We spend nearly an hour on the hilltop taking photos. Emotions were high. The height of those emotions certainly contributed to what I experienced a few minutes later.
While enjoying the excitement of Everest, Mary, one of the caregivers in our group, approached me to tell me what she had just heard from another trekker. At 6:30 this morning an airplane taking off from Kathmandu on its way to Lukla crashed, killing all 19 on-board. It was the same airline, perhaps even the same airplane, that we had flown to Lukla yesterday. It felt like I had just learned of the death of a family member.
I gathered our group together on the hillside with Everest and Ama Dablan looking over us and told our group the news. My voice choked up as I spoke. Gasps from the group were audible. We said a silent prayer for all those affected by the tragedy. There are families in various parts of the world that would be learning about the deaths of their loved ones. Our thoughts also went out to our family back home who worry about us when we travel. We sent an email out to all of our families to let them know that had arrived in Lukla yesterday and we were safe and sound.
How should this event affect us? All of us on this special journey are well acquainted with death. That is one of the common themes of our shared experiences with cancer. We know that we need to acknowledge and honor those that have died. But we also know that there is no greater honor we can pay to someone who has lost his or her life than to live our life fully and passionately. The fact that life is potentially short is all the more reason for each of us to live each and every second. Life goes on, and so do we.
As we continue our hike to Kumjung, I have the opportunity to walk with Tensing, one of our Sherpas. He’s 42 years old and has summited Everest 8 times. As we hike up the slope with Everest in view, he tells us about his various expeditions and the different routes he has taken. Andy, a 35 year-old Hodgkin’s Disease survivor asks Tensing, “How much stuff does a client carry with him to the summit?” Tensing replies, “The client only carries his heart.” Yes indeed, you’ve got to have heart (and passion and enthusiasm) if you’re going to make it to the summit.
Our destination today is Kumjung. It’s a beautiful village in the heart of Sherpa country. There are perfectly formed stonewalls that form seamless boundaries walling off the gardens and yak corals. There are women in the gardens digging potatoes and pulling up the remains of the barley plants. The houses are all painted white and the windows are trimmed in blue and green. There are yaks and ponies in the small corals. A Buddhist temple is at the top of the village.
As we enter the village, we come to the Hillary School on our right. Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to summit Everest, founded the school. As his fame and fortune grew as a result of his climb in 1953, he realized that he owed a lot to the people of Nepal, especially to the Sherpa community that had supported his climb. Our head Sherpa, Lhakpa, lives in this village. He was born here, went to the Hillary School and now raises his children here. His youngest son, Sonam, is 15 years old and is a student at the Hillary School.
Lhakpa had told the school about Above + Beyond Cancer and our journey. The school is waiting for our arrival. As we enter the school grounds, the principal comes out to great us. A group of approximately 50 high school students sit on benches in a makeshift outdoor auditorium. The Sherpa people are perfect hosts and enjoy the opportunity to treat visitors and guests with formal hospitality. I am introduced to the students and given the opportunity to talk to them about cancer, cancer survivorship and Above + Beyond Cancer. Most people in Nepal think that cancer means death. They haven’t experienced a world with patients being cured of cancer and embracing their survivorship with pride. In Nepal, having cancer is often viewed as an embarrassment. I proudly introduce to them the 19 cancer survivors, aged 22-72, and tell them about the journey we are on. They, like I, are inspired and motivated by these amazing survivor. We are also deeply honored by the welcome that we have received at the Hillary School.
After lunch, we are invited to Lhakpa’s home for tea. His wife, Ang Lhakpa, is also one of our Sherpas for this journey. I met Lhakpa and Ang Lhakpa last year when Above + Beyond Cancer journeyed to Everest Base Camp. We developed wonderful friendship during that journey. Six weeks after we had returned to the U.S., Lhakpa called me to tell me that Ang Lhakpa had been diagnosed with leukemia. It is a chronic leukemia that can be controlled with an oral medication that costs approximately $40,000 a year. We were able to help connect her with an organization that provides her the medication and we are providing on-going financial support. Over the last year, our relationship and friendship has deepened. What a joy it was for us to re-connect her in Nepal.
Lhakpa proudly leads us on a path between waist-high stonewalls meandering between garden plots to his home. As we enter through the door that leads to the kitchen, Ang Lhakpa is waiting for us. Her smile is big, bright and beautiful. She is healthy and happy. She brings all 32 of us into the living room and serves us Sherpa tea (tea, salt and yak butter) and cookies. We are also introduced to Lhakpa’s mother. Lhakpa’s father died when Lhakpa was only 2 years old. He was a Sherpa for a Japanese expedition that was attempting to summit Everest. He died in an accident in the Khumbu icefall that took the life of 6 of the expedition members. When Lhakpa became a young man and took up the occupation of guiding, he promised his mother that he would not lead expeditions to the summit of Everest. Although he is certainly capable of climbing Everest, he kept his vow to his mother.
After tea and cookies, Ang Lhakpa brings out a big plate of fresh boiled potatoes. They had probably been dug from the earth yesterday. We sit in the Sherpa living room eating whole boiled potatoes with our fingers under the proud and watchful gaze of our Sherpa hosts. Before we leave their home, I have the opportunity to stand and formally thank our hosts. I had already shared Ang Lhakpa’s story with our group. They knew of the bond that she shared with all of them.
I thanked Lhakpa and Ang Lhakpa for their hospitality. I told them that we are forever indebted to them for the wonderful care they provided our team the last time we were in Nepal and how thankful we were that they could take care of us again. I shared with them some words of wisdom from their spiritual leader, The Dalai Lama. He said, “If you want to make others happy, practice compassion. If you want to make yourself happy, practice compassion.”
Lhakpa and Ang Lhakpa embody that expression of compassion. We hope that this journey will help us learn to find the Sherpa within each of us.