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.


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.