It’s Your Funeral

Aside

Ed-Whitlock-580x358

Close your eyes, reach into the future and imagine you are at a funeral. Now realize the funeral is yours. Walk down the aisle and examine the faces of friends and relatives as they remember your life. What do you see in those faces? Take a seat. Listen to the service and pay attention to what is being said. What important memories about you, the deceased, do people share now that you are gone? As you watch and listen to your ceremony, do you feel comfort in what you see and hear or are you filled with sadness? If such an exercise gives you a sense of well being you are lucky. You have lived life fully, without regret. If the exercise brings up pain or guilt, relax. You are not dead yet and there is still time to change your destiny.

 

The sad truth is that everybody dies, but not everybody lives. The Dalai Lama said it best.

Dalai-Lama-Quote2

 

With such a statement in mind, what then, constitutes living fully? My definition is simple. It involves showing up and being an active participant in the only life you have. Psychologists call living fully self-actualization and I see shining examples of this in the everyday lives of those around me. Whether it is a 72 year old widow starting a university education, a blind kayaker running the rapids, a grandmother raising her grandchildren following her daughter’s death, an 80 yr. old gentleman on the summit of Everest or children at play in the midst of 3rd world squalor, they are individuals who inspire me simply because they have shown up and are engaged in the life they have been given.

 

 

Mercifully, today is not my funeral and neither is it yours. It is instead a day to reflect upon an ordinary life lived, the only one we are given, and a second chance to choose whether today will be lived as a spectator or a participant.

When today is done I will have no regrets if I choose a few conscious steps. I will spend time with my husband and tell him that I love him. I will connect with my children whose absence is sometimes an ache. I will give silent thanks for my great luck, health and family before I spend time outdoors and simply, live.

IMG_0314 [Desktop Resolution]

Above photos:

Ed Whitlock, 3:41 marathon at age 82.

Vernon, BC, Canada after the rain 2013.

Advertisements

In Thin Air

It sucks to be oxygen starved. Until recently, I took the meaty oxygenated air of sea level for granted. At home, atmospheric oxygen is the ubiquitous, ethereal life giving substance that enters the body with each respiration, as reliable as the tides. Oxygen is a substance best recognized by its absence and a low oxygen environment is a mini prequel to death, a disagreeable place filled with a host of physical symptoms that tax survival. The best place on earth to go should one wish to experience the effects of oxygen starvation is the high Himalaya.ImageAt sea level billions of oxygen molecules jostle with nitrogen, carbon dioxide, water vapor, argon and other gases to form a dense atmospheric mantle. The part we breathe in is referred to as air. Conveniently, this dense, moist blanket of air is kept in place by Earth’s gravity and at sea level red blood cells can grab all of the oxygen molecules necessary to saturate the blood and sustain life. As altitude increases, the wet blanket dries out, becomes lighter and because gravity is correspondingly diminished, the atmospheric density decreases. Thick air becomes thin air and oxygen concentration plummets exponentially. In the atmospheric slurry of colliding molecules and atoms at sea level, oxygen constitutes 20,9% of the total gases. At 16,000 ft./ 4876 m. oxygen availability is halved and at the top of Mt Everest (or the height our jet flew to get to from home Vancouver, BC) only one third of the oxygen available at sea level remains. I hadn’t given much thought about the science of air until I experienced the science and its effects first hand. Image This spring my husband and I went to Nepal to climb Lobuche, a mini mountain by Himalayan standards, but still higher than any peak in North America. It is nestled on the western flank of the Himalayan massif that includes Everest and is reached by trudging from Lukla into the Khumbu valley. To get to Everest one must fly from home (1, 250 ft./ 380m) to Kathmandu (4,600 ft. /4,600 m) to Lukla (9,380ft /2,860m) before walking uphill to Everest basecamp at 17,659-ft./5.364 m. Image The epic nature, the mountainous beauty and the fantastic people one meets on such a trip cannot be overstated but the residual memories I have of high Nepal are ones of feeling God awful. In Lukla, before the trip has barely started, hypoxia hits you like a brick. Physical symptoms of low oxygen concentration are acute at any elevation above 8,000 ft./2,400 m. and it was not uncommon to find freshly arrived Westerners experiencing headaches and searching for ibuprofen. Image Acclimation takes time. Part of the ability to adapt to altitude is genetic but Diamox, a drug many Westerners take to get out of Lukla, can remedy the acute symptoms. I felt fantastic as I left Lukla for the Khumbu, so I chose to ignore the twice-normal pulse, as the heart became a hammer and the lungs a bellows, extracting all the available oxygen they could. At dinner I attempted to take in enough to keep up with caloric expenditure, and there I sat. The gut had decided to call it a day. There was no way my stomach was willing to accept even a portion of what was before me. With all of the blood supply diverted to the muscles, heart and lungs the digestive system went on strike. Over weeks this did improve but the weight and muscle I accumulated through training melted away. If eating were out of the question, surely sleep would be welcome and come easily. No such luck. Going to bed was an exercise in frustration. Night was the time to wake up with a headache and gulp for air before resting and repeating the process of tossing, coughing, gasping and waiting until it was time to wake again. Anorexia, headache, cough, gut disturbance, lethargy, air hunger, weight loss, cold intolerance and insomnia are common at altitude and are euphemistically diagnosed as acute mountain sickness or AMS. Although AMS will not kill you, it is an unpleasant part of high altitude travel and when left untreated can morph into the more serious and potentially fatal HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema where your brain becomes water logged) or HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema where the lungs fill with fluid). Image Over weeks the severity of AMS dissipates as the body compensates through physiological adaption to the low oxygen environment, but this process takes time. For this reason, climbers spend months at Everest waiting for the body to acclimatize. The key to acclimation is to ascend slowly or better yet, descend and recover. Many climbers use supplemental oxygen, as there is no adaptation to altitude above 26,000 ft., an area known as the death zone. After a month at altitude my symptoms diminished (save for the eating and sleeping issues) but it is fair to say that the body and brain knew that this was not a place they wanted to be. ImageThree weeks after arriving in Nepal I stood on the top of Lobuche. It took everything I had to get there. My husband who has experienced the pain cave of competitive athletics remarked that the physical effort of the Hawaii Ironman paled in comparison to the exertion of this small Himalayan peak. It was on that day at that moment that I realized there would be no Mt Everest in my future. I like oxygen in my air and besides, I just couldn’t suffer for that long.Image

Sherpa Politics and Everest’s Future

Shame. I experience considerable shame when I travel. I cannot help but compare all that we have in this culture to what the majority of the world does without and the contrast means that guilt feelings are often my predominant souvenir. This spring I wanted a different experience, one that was physically demanding but less emotionally perplexing; a holiday to a place of my dreams where I could use the body but turn off the mind. A destination that satisfied those criteria quickly became a trip to Everest base camp.

IMG_1169 I was excited beyond belief. In my dreams, I stand on the top of Everest. The dream will sometimes percolate into consciousness as an appetite or thirst unfulfilled, and I picture myself, ice axe above my head, smiling for the photo. This trip was to be a reconnaissance of Everest, a chance to get to the base of the mountain, climb a much smaller peak while there, and check out whether an Everest expedition could be a possibility in the future.Ama Dablam Bill

Everest had other plans. It had demanding lessons to teach but these had nothing to do with the egotistic goals I stuffed in the duffle bag with my crampons, glacier glasses and summit fever. They were, instead, lessons previously gleaned in other poor countries, those that profile how Westerners exploit the lives of the less fortunate. Everest is just a different take on the same old story -the Canadian clothing factories in Bangladesh paying their employees $1a day, the Chinese workers warehoused by Apple assembling cheap computers or the displaced New Guinea villagers whose land and livelihood has been lost to Mobil Oil. The list goes on. All are different versions of the same old exploitative relationship the developed world has towards the under developed one, justified to fulfill our meaningless desires at a cheaper cost. In the last place I expected to feel this way, I came home from Everest filled with angst, my duffel bag of Western shame still a heavy burden as I resume my comfortable First World life. EBC Pano-X2 Sixteen Sherpa lost their lives and nine were injured on Everest’s Khumbu glacier while I was in the area, enjoying myself. Their airlifted bodies dangling from the underbellies of buzzing helicopters were taken from the ice to their village homes, in some cases to be met by bewildered families who thought their men were still climbing the mountain. In the biggest disaster of Everest’s history, the lives of countless Sherpa families changed in a second. One has to ask, for what?Climbers%20Kumbu-XL

The Nepali government took the fallout. Nepal takes in $10 million per season from issuing permits to Westerners climbing Everest. The Sherpa were outraged when the government gave each family $400 per dead son to pay for burial and nothing more. In such a country where roads, sewer and infrastructure are at a premium, the fact that no safety net exists in the form of life insurance, Worker’s Compensation or medical coverage to buffer the effects of such a disaster should not come as a surprise. The American Alpine Association immediately jumped into the fray setting up a fund for the families of the lost Sherpa by soliciting donations from climbers and interested parties abroad.

As I watched the scenario unfold it was the questions that were unexpressed that I found much more disagreeable, for muffled in the resounding silence was the culpability of each of us who were there. No Sherpa pointed a finger at the West yet the Sherpa were there for us and few in our number had a chance on Everest or any other Himalayan peak for that matter, without them. What was our individual and collective responsibility for the dead? In North America it is the primarily the employer’s responsibility, not the government’s, to have adequate insurance in place to cover an employee in the face of a workplace accident or death. Did any of the companies that took climbers to Everest provide funds to the Sherpa families after the accident? It takes well over an hour to stroll through the tents of the various climbing companies at base camp and wealthy corporations populate Everest (such as Discovery Channel) as do other companies that collect from $40,000 to $110, 000 per person for the right to climb. Each of us was a part of such an organization. Do such organizations have insurance coverage for the Sherpa that are put in harms way? Western guides may be paid $25,000 or more for their work on Everest whereas a Sherpa guide makes between $2,500 and $5,000.Why are the experienced climbing Sherpa paid so little for a season on Everest when a Western guide is paid so much more for so much less risk? None of us had contemplated these questions. We were there to enjoy ourselves while the Sherpa fed us, packed our gear, set up the tents, doctored the ice ladders in the treacherous icefall, packed gear to high camp and helped us on climbs when we could go no further. What about the Sherpa who survive but are permanently disabled on the mountain? What is in place to look after them, knowing they live in a poor country with a corrupt government and little health care? And further; Why were donations solicited from abroad when these funds should come, at least in part, from the companies where the Sherpa are employed? I did not hear these questions asked, let alone receive answers. It felt that the story was spun to implicate the Nepali government and thus avoid all the unpleasantness that the questions would raise in the collective guilt that Westerners should feel knowing, once again, that we have not done the right thing in the first place. I cannot answer the questions that I have posed but the death of 16 Sherpa and the future of climbing Everest will demand the answers. Solutions need to come not from the Nepali government but from the individual integrity of those who love the Himalaya and the companies we pay to take us there. Doing the right thing will be costly but it needs to be factored into the cost of doing business.

Thank you to my friend at Everest,Dalton Hobbs, for sharing his great photos.

Further articles to read: Sherpa: The Disposable Man by Grayson Schaffer

The Value of a Sherpa Life by Grayson Schaffer