Reflections on Nepal – The Journey or the Destination

Given my “cast-iron” stomach and typical adaptability to the unfamiliar, I was reasonably confident I’d be at least a satisfactory caregiver, as the Above + Beyond Cancer trekkers made their way to the 20,000 foot summit of Imja Tse.   

Things did not work out as planned.  Although I was one of the few who never got physically sick from either altitude or food, I could barely take care of myself, let alone have something left over for others. 

As we rose higher and higher up the mountain, it became more and more difficult to match my breathing to the rhythm of my legs.  Many days, I was one of the last to reach the teahouse where we’d spend the night. Often, I was too exhausted to eat dinner or to join in the recapping of the day’s sights and sounds.  By the time we’d reached Chukkung, our next to last stop at 15,500 feet, packing my sleeping bag in the morning was almost more than I could manage. 

And so, on the eve of the final push to the base camp on Imja Tse, I was forced to admit that I couldn’t achieve the climb that had been our goal from the first day.  Along with Kent and Brian, who’d also reached their AARP limit, I headed down the mountain as the rest of the group headed up. 

The three-day trip down was far from easy, but our Sherpa, Pasang, was a natural caregiver, and suggested we get horses to carry us up the worst of the uphill stretches. Being on horseback allowed us to observe the magnificent scenery and life in the mountain communities, in a way we could not do on the trek up, concentrating almost every moment on the often precarious footing.  

Only when we were sitting in a Starbuck’s knock-off at the bottom of the trail, musing on our unplanned adventure, did I understand that my journey had not ended when I turned back.  My journey was seeing as much of the Himalayas as I could manage, not simply reaching an arbitrary destination.

Reflections on Nepal: Sherpas

I knew, in some imprecise way, that sherpas were the guides who accompanied mountain climbers in the Himalayas. But I assumed the term sherpa was a catchall for the guides, the porters, the cooks and the camp-setters.

In fact, “sherpa” is a last name of members of a Buddhist tradition, in much the same way that Singh is the last name for members of the Sikh tradition.  Not all sherpas are guides, but those who are embody an amazing array of skills that go far beyond their ability to climb a mountain under difficult conditions, and does not include carrying food, baggage or tents.

Above + Beyond Cancer group of 36 was accompanied by 13 sherpas, all of whom spoke English.  There was always a sherpa in front, setting the pace (to ensure trekkers did not move too quickly in the thinning air).  There was always one bringing up the rear, to make sure no one got left behind.  But mostly, the sherpas kept a watchful eye out for trekkers in trouble … offering an arm to a climber whose balance seemed precarious, carrying a backpack for a trekker who was tiring too quickly, reminding us to keep on drinking water (“pani, pani”).

I watched the sherpas play this role for several days, but did not appreciate their acute sensitivity until Day Four, when our climb was unusually steep and I found it difficult to match my breathing to my footsteps.  Within ten minutes, I was spacy and kept missing my footing.  Suddenly, a sherpa was at my side.  Where the trail was smooth and regular, he walked alongside, offering encouragement.  Where the trail was irregular and required careful maneuvering, he walked behind to catch me if I lost my balance.  He volunteered several times to take my pack.

I trudged on, grateful for his presence, and within ten minutes, seemed to have found my pace and was  climbing smoothly.  He disappeared as quickly and as silently as he had come.

Oh, that we all had such sensitivity to the needs of those around us. 

Reflections on Nepal: A Different Reality

When I decided to go trekking with Above + Beyond Cancer in Nepal, I knew I wouldn’t be like hiking on anything like the groomed trails you find in America’s national parks. I understood our rails would vary in type and quality. Dirt paths, perhaps muddy or rutted. Loose rocks or gravel. Irregularly spaced steps made of wood or stones. Swing bridges over rivers or canyons. Narrow tracks with thousand foot drop-offs and no guardrails. I knew the trails would be steep, winding up and down as we traversed to ever higher destinations.

But somehow I harbored the illusion that our trails were “trekker trails,” there for the benefit of those adventuresome sorts who felt the urge to conquer the challenge of Everest, Lhotse, or Imja Tse.  It never occurred to me that our trails were the main, and often, the only route through the Himalayas for those who live there. It never dawned on me that the trails we were hiking for our amusement were the same arteries used to bring food and fuel and construction materials to the many and often quite large villages that dot the mountainside as we climb up through more than 10,000 feet.

Several times each day, our climb was interrupted by a caravan of yaks–huge bison-like animals with long and erratically curved horns–each loaded with several hundred pounds of stuff.  Several times a day, as trekkers with 15-20 pound backpacks struggled to put one foot in front of the other, a Nepali porter passed us at a good clip, carrying a huge and over-filled woven basket on his back.  Some relied on shoulder harnesses, other used lengths of cloth hung across the top of their heads, making you wonder why their necks didn’t break.  These porters often carried more than twice their own weight!

It is a reminder of the kind of effort that the settlers of America dealt with every day, a legacy that we modern Americans take for granted.


Reflections on Nepal: Cancer in a New Light

Our first activity after arriving in Nepal — a tour of the 62-bed Bhaktapur Cancer Hospital – provided a great insight into the luxuries of life that we Americans take for granted. 

The 20-year old hospital aspires to be a state-of-the-art facility for cancer care in Nepal.  And in one sense, it is.  Many of the physicians are western-trained.  They offer a variety of cancer treatment and supports, including radiology and chemotherapy.

But “state of the-art” means something quite different in Nepal than in the U.S.  The buildings were surrounded by muddy yards, piles of old bricks, and a host of mangy dogs.  Dust was everywhere in the air and a sterile environment seemed utterly beyond reach.  

The pharmacy was an open-air shop along a path between two buildings. The wards and procedure rooms had raw concrete floors, dinghy painted walls and limp curtains grey with age.  Much of the equipment was old. Most wards held multiple beds, with no curtains to give even a modicum of privacy.  Even the most camera-happy among us were reluctant to invade the personal space of the patients.

But the real shock came after our tour, when one of the physicians gave a lecture, with slides, on the range of cancers that show up in the hospital. The full-color photos were disgusting to the untrained eye, and the presentation seemed almost lurid.  But the truth behind his lecture was that the cancers that those doctors see are far enough advanced to be visually obvious.  The lack of financial and technological resources stands alongside a cultural reluctance to seek medical help, often until it is too late for radiology or chemotherapy to make a difference.  

Perhaps the most significant moment of the visit came when our host spoke of his delight at our visit … not just because Above + Beyond would make a donation to the hospital, but because it was so thrilling to see nearly two dozen people who had not only survived cancer, but were well enough to even consider climbing a mountain.

The mountain these doctors have to climb is far bigger than the one we plan to surmount.