“Allahu akbar! Ash-hadu an-la ilaha illa llah”
The morning call to prayer jostles me awake at the unholy hour of 3AM. As I roll over, the light body aches and night sweats of the fever I’m running add to the unpleasantness of the moment. It’s Ramadan, and the chanting over the loudspeaker serves a practical purpose for the Skardu locals: it’s their last chance to eat until sundown. At our northerly latitudes, people here will be fasting for 18 hours each day until we arrive in base camp next week. In any objective sense this is a strange time and place for me, but for some reason, I feel at home. More than ever, now I must go to the mountains as a process, a practice, a return to fundamentals.
Just a few months ago, I wasn’t even sure I’d be functional enough to make it here. To say last year crushed me would be an understatement. The short story is that my mom died. The long story is a circuitous inward journey to depths of myself that I didn’t even know existed. I moved home last March following my mom’s terminal breast cancer diagnosis. Showing the hallmark signs of Pierce family stubbornness, she furiously resisted my return home saying I should focus on work, but I could tell things were descending into chaos and everyone else urged me to apply for Santa Clara’s generous family medical leave. The first month and a half or so were filled with endless appointments, phone calls and meetings to get her things in order and streamline my grandfather’s affairs. We took time to fit in some of mom’s favorite activities: putting together puzzles, going to meditation groups and bossing me around in the garden 😉 During one last trip to the beach with friends in April, however, her condition worsened to where she went on oxygen 24/7 and even went so far as to take a quarter of an anti-nausea tablet. Despite constant and excruciating trouble breathing, she managed to resist medications even in her last hours. For her, my hunch is, the integrity of the process was more important to her than even the worst life had to offer.
Over the next few months, her condition progressed and layers of her independence, personality and dignity faded. New and unforeseen problems abounded. For a while, patchwork solutions such as my teaching her the “rest step,” a high altitude technique to save energy, served as a temporary way for her to ascend the stairs to her bedroom. Negotiations over her move downstairs into a hospital bed produced some of the greatest anger and irritability one could experience. Then, one weekend in the beginning of August, fluid enveloped her heart and lungs drove her into constant and unmitigated torture.
The disease walked a tightrope between life and death, creating the sensation of drowning, vivid violent and paranoid hallucinations and profound nausea. The eerie parallels between her cancer and the symptoms of mountain sickness and the struggles to survive I’ve faced in the high mountains were not lost on me. Health crises manifested at all hours of the day and night, and multiple times we saw all the resources hospice had to offer. Finally, after six weeks of the worst suffering one can experience, she took her last breath, the trials of taking on cancer on her own terms over at last.
For a couple months I held my shit together. During September and October, I routinely logged 16 hour days settling her affairs, working on the house and getting ready for a move back west to return to Santa Clara full time for the winter quarter. Oh, and I quickly prepped for an expedition to Nepal’s Rolwaling Valley and Ama Dablam. In case you missed it, check out the trip reports linked in the previous sentence and the new expedition video.
Then, during AGU, the largest earth science conference of the year (of course!), things changed. Instead of hopping on the train to San Francisco, I found myself shaking in the fetal position at home, my head racing. For the next few months, I was unable to focus on anything. Among other things, I became lost on the way to the grocery store, routinely sat in parking lots for hours on end trying to figure out if I needed to eat, drink or pee. Communication of all sorts was an enormous challenge. When people asked how things were going, I rarely knew how to respond. I tried to focus on the positives and use my time to work on things that made me happy like going for a walk, but often that was too daunting of an undertaking. Brewing with frustration, I routinely lost control and broke my things, often for reasons unknown to me even in the moment. I lost confidence in myself all of my abilities to work, be happy or contribute to my relationships. I wrote Mingma Gyalje and told him I might not be able to climb this summer. He told me he’d lost his father to intestine cancer and found himself slowly getting more hopeless and weaker. He told me he changed his routine, returned to trekking and climbing, shared moments with friends and gradually came back.
Slowly things began to change. Michelle got me a watch to track my activities. Old interests like biking and gear-fondling re-emerged. I bought a Pivot, a gorgeous mountain bike just begging to climb the steep fire roads and rip singletrack descents in the Santa Cruz Mountains where Michelle and I had recently moved. At first I was self conscious about the purchase, but soon the freedom opened me up. But the epic rains of this past winter quickly put the trails out of commission, so I did the only logical thing I could think of: splurging on a ridiculously capable BMC road disc bike ready to hit the rough pavement and gravel climbs. Soon, I felt my complete self returning to form. My legs rounded into shape and my aerobic fitness skyrocketed. I could finally focus long enough to send an email. I could do the dishes, make the bed and fold laundry. The house in Virginia sold, and I finally wasn’t getting caught by daily legal and financial surprises in the mail for my mom and grandpa. I started to feel new emotions: gratitude for my privileged and rich life, the support of those around me, the freedom from Santa Clara to focus on my health, and a desire to get on with things. I was on my way.