Himalayan Dreams: Listening to a wild heart

‘POLISH Dream Team,’ includes author Peter Marbach, center, in Lukla, Nepal. On page A1: prayer flags at Ama Dhalam base camp.

Photo by Peter Marbach
‘POLISH Dream Team,’ includes author Peter Marbach, center, in Lukla, Nepal. On page A1: prayer flags at Ama Dhalam base camp.

In life, there’s the plan, and there’s what happens.

And if you follow the way of a wild heart that embraces journeys into the unknown, you can expect the unexpected to upend The Plan.

In November, I embarked on a vision quest to Nepal, a journey that had been quietly brewing for over four years. Since my return, I have been at times overwhelmed with emotion as I continue to process the lessons learned. Like any good therapist will tell you, sometimes it’s best to start at the beginning, and by doing so you find that common thread that delivers clarity and purpose.

In 2013, a childhood dream came true when I traveled deep into the Himalayas serving as a still photographer for a documentary film project about Jagat Lama, a Nepali trekking guide and humanitarian. For 20 years, he has followed his wild heart dream of bringing healthcare, education, and job skills to his remote home area of Kumari. We trekked to the summit of Kala Patthar, an 18,500 foot hill that overlooks Everest base camp. Standing that close to Everest was intoxicating. Maybe it was the thin air, but it was there that the seed of a dream was planted to one day return and see how high this heart of mine could take me.

In July, 2015, I returned to Nepal, not to climb, but to document the earthquake destruction of most of the homes and medical center and rebuilding efforts in Jagat’s home area. For three intense, monsoon-laden days, I observed with awe how the villagers simply got to work rebuilding their lives. Jagat introduced me to a young woman named Sumitra Gurung (the subject of a previous column, published March 2, 2016), who aspired to become the first woman leader from her village. Her story took hold in my heart and less than a year later, thanks to a scholarship from Hood River Rotary, she is now enrolled in college.

While reviewing images from that trip, I recognized her face from my first trip. As a leader of a local youth group, she was escorting elderly patients on opening day of the medical clinic. I remembered her leadership and taking charge skills back then.

This summer, I decided to return to the idea that first took hold that spring day in 2013 while staring at the Everest pyramid. Jagat’s trekking company only guides people up “easy” 20,000-foot trekking peaks. Since my goals involved Everest, I needed to do a qualifying climb with a different company, and I was blessed to have discovered Summit Climb, a great company based in Olympia, Wash. On Nov. 5, after months of training and anticipation, I left for Nepal.

I had no idea who or how many would be part of this expedition to Island Peak, so I was thrilled when I met my two teammates, not only because I much prefer the intimacy of a small group, but because they were a couple from Poland (me being a descendant of the Pochocki clan)! I immediately dubbed myself, Agata, and Erwin the Polish Dream Team. The next morning we flew to Lukla, (known as one of the world’s most dangerous airports), where we were greeted by our guide, Thile. A veteran of seven Everest summits, he was warm and gregarious, and often gave the same funny answers to inquiries, including “Easy peasy, lemon squeezy” or “No hurry, chicken curry.”

There is no easy way to head deep into the Khumbu Valley, the abode of many of the world’s 8,000 meter peaks. No amount of training can prepare you for the brutal steep descents and ascents of several thousand feet on a given day on the approach trek. But after four days, I was feeling strong, pacing myself at turtle speed to help with acclimatizing. With the memory of surviving open heart surgery 16 years ago, I was thrilled to feel my heart beating strong.

The next day was a rest day, which really means going on a 1,500 foot acclimatizing trek which took us to 15,000 feet at the base camp of Ama Dablam. We sat for hours staring up at the white fang of the impossibly steep summit ridge. Feeling good, the return trek to the lodge at Pangboche was beautiful, strolling lost in a dream world. I could feel my left knee starting to ache and tighten up, but thought it wasn’t anything a few Advil couldn’t cure. At my tea house room, while changing into dry clothing, I looked down and noticed a swollen balloon of skin where my left knee used to be. And despite more Advil and elevating the leg, the pain increased.

After a few hours of agonizing denial, I realized this might be serious. I told myself to sleep on it and see how it felt in the morning. I had invested so much of my heart and soul into this journey so best to not make any rash decisions in a heightened emotional state. Surely in the clarifying light of dawn, I would know what to do.

(To be continued ... )

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