The Way Back, Pt II

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Sarankot

“You’re flying with the man himself, then?” a British pilot asks me while I wait for Lakpa to get our glider ready. We are in Sarankot, the famous paragliding hotspot up on the hill above Pokhara. There’s nothing but a small shack selling water and soft drinks, to mark the gliders’ place of takeoff. Sarankot was completely closed for paragliding just this morning due to unfavorable weather conditions. Although it’s still cloudy, the winds are said to be good now, and we can fly.

“Yes, I’m going with Lakpa Tseri,” I reply with poorly concealed pride.

“You’re very lucky. It will be fantastic even without the mountain views.”

I smile, “I am very lucky, and very honored to fly with The Man.” Regardless of what I may or may not see, I’ll still be a little closer to the Himalaya than anywhere else I’ve been in months, even years, and that’s good enough, for now…

In a few minutes I am invited to put my harness on. What will carry me through the air is a backpack-like structure, several thin ropes reminiscent of a musical instrument’s strings and the ‘instrument’ itself – the wing. It rests peacefully on the ground waiting for Lakpa to clip me in. When ready, The Man instructs me to look straight ahead and just run right off that hill. It sounds wonderful to me. Is it strange that I sincerely mean it? Lakpa quickly finishes the preparations and wastes no time in giving me the go. Embarrassingly enough, the first couple of times I endeavor to ‘go’, huffing and puffing, I can’t manage to run forward as I am being pulled backwards and sideways by the temperamental ‘instrument’. Eventually, I focus on the horizon, reset, and before I know it, find myself soaring. Lakpa and I fly back and forth in the cool wind with nothing but space all around. Living on solid ground your entire life, it’s impossible to imagine what having that much space would feel like – amazing! I instantly relax into my front-row seat to watch the clouds moving in, a few other gliders maneuvering gracefully between them.

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Paragliding over Phewa Tal

“I believe, I can see why you love this so much, Lakpa,” I comment a few minutes in, adding that it must be an out-of-this world experience to soar like this amongst the great mountains. The extreme exposure, the absence of gravitational reassurance together with the quick changes of the winds create a uniquely dynamic environment where, if unable to embrace it completely, one might panic and end up in serious trouble. Leaning into it, on the contrary, can be very liberating and soothing. Here Lakpa and I talk a little, take a few pictures and marvel at the scenery. Several more rounds into the flight we begin to turn and descend towards the lake.

“Do you want to do something exciting?” Lakpa asks suddenly. I assume he refers to some kind of a paragliding trick.
When was I ever not up for that? “Make it as exciting as you can!” And oh, does he deliver!

Positioning the glider above the lake, Lakpa allows it to swing like a pendulum, plunging down in a sharp spiral. I love this feeling of diving into nothing, this good kind of falling.

“I can tell you are a climber, and a fighter, and all those things,” Lakpa laughs while stabilizing the wing and starting the real descent now.

“How can you tell?”

“You’re happy instead of afraid.”

“Fear always clouds the view, and there are enough clouds as is, Lakpa. Besides, why would I be afraid to fly with you?”

“Yes, that’s why I fly alone every day before I do any commercial flights. This way I can fully enjoy the beauty,” he muses, instantly re-focusing on the task at hand as we approach the landing spot by the water. The Man tells me to simply keep my legs up while he does the rest of the work. Without active participation by yours truly, our landing is much softer and smoother than I’d expected. While we are packing and waiting for others, I feel sorry that I won’t be able to join Lakpa for a cross-country flight from Mardi Himal to Pokhara (3/4-day trek followed by 1/1.5hr flight back) because I had made other plans for the next few weeks before we were introduced to each other. However, I can see myself getting addicted to paragliding and wanting to learn to fly myself, so it is, perhaps, for the best that I don’t take any more steps in that direction just yet.

Back at his paragliding shop in Lakeside I thank Lakpa with all my heart for the best two days I’ve had in a long, long time: for taking me kayaking, trekking, biking and flying and thus guiding me through the first few all-important steps on my way back home.

I will try to interview Lhapka Tseri Sherpa about his Summit-to-Sea and other adventures. The interview will be published here later as a separate post. 

The Way Back, Pt. I

It is sweltering hot and Russian-banya-humid kayaking across Phewa Tal towards the white World Peace Pagoda perched high up on the hill above the lake. In the seat behind me Lakpa Tseri Sherpa is leisurely talking on the phone while I make my first painfully awkward attempts at handling the oar. Named National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year 2012 for the feat of paragliding off the summit of Everest and making it all the way down to the sea by kayak and bicycle with his partner in crime Sano Babu Sunuwar, Lakpa is the best possible guide back into the world I used to live in happily before literally dropping my axe at Everest Base Camp and walking away into martial arts, injuries, cancers and recoveries in May of the year 2013.

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Annapurna

August monsoon clouds sit heavily on the shoulders of the hills around Pokhara, and I’m grateful I’m not yet shown my world, the Himalaya, in all its hypnotizing glory. Every time Annapurna reveals itself to Pokhara’s off-season guests, the oddest mixture of feelings begins to battle for dominance in my chest: I feel both irremovably close to the mountains, all but inhaling the crisp high altitude air, and irrevocably exiled from them; it is as if I am two people at once when I look at the mountains: a sickly dorky try-hard who wasn’t built for the life she struggles to live and a limitless creature whose indomitable, indiscriminate love of life gives her amazing power. There is such an abyss of space, time and effort between the two, it seems nearly impossible to bridge. Luckily, I don’t need a bridge: I have a kayak right here and I don’t have to walk when I can fly – or paraglide – instead. Yes, it will be a very, very long way back home. I want to take it, however. I refuse the label of cancer survivor, somebody who’s fine merely getting by, happy to settle for easily accessible joys. ‘But you already have a lifetime’s worth of memories…’ I’m told. ‘But I am still very much alive,’ I’m compelled to argue.

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Lakpa Tseri Sherpa, National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year 2012, & his Royal Enfield/Sherpa

Lakpa and I make it across the lake and head uphill to a viewpoint. When I see the familiar ‘trekking’ steps cutting steeply into the side of the mountain, I hesitate for a moment: what if my reconstructed knee’s ACL, more loose than ever because of the grueling martial arts training, doesn’t hold on descent? What if my heart begins to beat out control or stops once more? Dare I walk here at all, I, who had everything, thew it away, left and died, and somehow crawled back again? In 2013 I did not dare climb Everest without oxygen; I believed that I was unworthy of such an experience. Who was I but a girl who kept getting lucky: living in the right place at the right time, loved and supported in every imaginable way by the right people. I did not bury my dream in a crevasse in the Khumbu Icefall because I’d had enough; I did so because who I was at the time could not accept what was being given her. Too small, too ridden with guilt, too ordinary to live her dreams as they were coming true, of course, she didn’t dare do it. ‘Stay dead,’ I tell her, and start up.

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Phewa Tal

The views over Phewa Tal are stunning from the viewpoint cafe where Lakpa and I sit down for a water break. We chat about his experiences on Ama Dablam, Everest and K2 as well as, of course, the Summit-to-Sea challenge that made him famous. I am fascinated by the story he tells shyly, making jumping off of the top of the world on a glider sound like about as big of a deal as a weekend grocery shopping trip. He is humble to a fault, economical in his descriptions of the adventure, making it hard for me to understand what role exactly it played in his life. I know only one thing, that it must have been a big deal; I imagine his greatest challenge meaning about as much to Lakpa as my Everest success meant to me. I don’t like to talk about the climb in person and I don’t want to forever be referred to as Mila-who-summited-Everest. It makes me feel as if I’m living in the shadow of that woman from the past. No matter how important the experience, we naturally need to move on and to have a chance to outdo ourselves instead of being labeled by the names of our greatest achievements.

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World Peace Pagoda

We head down to the kayak after a break, cross Phewa Tal back to Lakeside and hop on Lakpa’s vintage red Royal Enfield he renamed Royal Sherpa. We ride around Pokhara for a bit and head up into the hills towards the World Peace Pagoda. With this being the end of the monsoon season, the roads are in a terrible condition, more muddy and bumpy than usual, and the bike barks and growls as it struggles uphill. I feel sorry and, for the bike’s sake, wish I were lighter than my 65kgs. Fortunately, we arrive before the the Royal Enfield is destroyed by the road and my confidence – by internal fat shaming. The surroundings of the Pagoda are quiet as we climb up the steps and do a kora around the white shrine. I stare intently into the thick clouds in the hope of catching a glimpse of Machapuchare or Annapurna but all I can see is the city of Pokhara as if emerging slowly from Phewa Tal’s murky warm waters, and miles and miles of wildly green hills and neat rice terraces. It’s the most beautiful country, I think!

“Lakpa, would you take me paragliding with you tomorrow?” I ask on our way back down to the bike. It would be an absolute honor to fly with him!

“Sure. Let’s hope the weather is good. But I don’t think you can see the mountains tomorrow either.”

“I just want to see more, and from a different perspective. It’s ok if I don’t see the mountains this time.”

We agree to meet for the 11:30 am flight the next day, depending on the weather.

“Now we take the dirt road,” Lakpa says pointing in the opposite direction of where we’d arrived from.

“Let’s,” I reply confidently while trying to remember how to horse-ride. It looks like the way back home is going to be extremely rocky. I sit behind Lakpa, grab a strong hold of the bike and get excited about maybe not falling off and breaking my neck. No matter what it’s like and where it may lead, this is a new road, and I am happy to have the chance to take it.

The Bucket List

I should have gone to touch the ocean

And watch the golden sun disk rise

Above the line of the horizon

In this one life at least one time;

/

I should have let white winds embrace me

Up on the sharpest mountain peaks;

I should have dared Saharan heat to melt me

As I chased after desert ghosts and visions;

/

I should have learned forbidden spells and curses

And in my heart reforged them into prayers;

I should have fought, not run, from battles;

I should have bled, and won, and lost;

/

I should have easier abandoned

Those who would waste a second of my life,

I should have easier surrendered,

And watched with calm the passing of my hours;

/

I should have doubled and returned

Each smallest gift I have been granted;

I should have used up every breath that

I did not know the worth of till tonight;

/

Tonight it is too late to travel

To see the sun spread wings over the sea;

Tonight’s no time to climb a mountain

For tonight it is monsoon season;

/

Tonight all desert jinns are sleeping

A sleep no human can disturb;

Tonight no witch, no ghost, no demon

Need teach me: by myself I’ll learn

/

That fights are only for the living,

That blood, victories and defeats

Are merely clouds, forever crossing

The skies above the river Styx;

/

I fidget in my empty pockets:

What little that I had is gone;

All I have left is but two coins

To pay the ferryman Charon

Two-Faced

You sit so peacefully before me:

Your hands rest, cold, upon your knees;

Your eyes half-closed, you smile a little,

Your breath so deep that I hardly hear it…

/

You must have gone again to wander

In pasts and futures, in nightmares and dreams,

To fight the bloodiest of battles

Against the mightiest of demons;

/

And as I watch your frozen figure,

I wonder if I know at all

What kind of mind and soul inhabit

This body and this heart of yours;

/

I sense you are both good and evil,

As short as time, as long as time;

I look, but cannot really see you,

I try to understand, but can’t;

/

You make me fear and make me hope that

Beyond your face, mine, and all others

There’s not a Dorian Gray’s portrait:

Instead, there is an emptiness called ‘god’