The Everest Base Camp Trek Was a Dream I had Lived With For 11 Years
I did this trek back in May 2014, almost exactly two years after surviving cancer and going through three major surgeries - the last one, just eight weeks before my trek was to start. So what you read here, is me at my unfit worst. Three years later, I did this trek again - in fact it's tougher cousin EBC-Gokyo Lakes, in May 2017. And my experience was quite different. Firstly, it wasn't as physically hard as I expected, and secondly, since I was the trekking leader, it was I pushing, urging, egging people along! The tables had turned - in just three years!
Everest Base Camp is still about 45 minutes away at my trekking pace, and I have this strong urge to simply turn back. I am so tired, I don't think I can make that 45 minute walk across the ridge and the downhill trudge - the altitude isn't making it any easier. "Eleven years, Dilshad" I tell myself, "I've waited for this for 11 years!"
Everest Base Camp (EBC) was always my dream, ever since I came up with this crazy docu-reality show when I was with National Geographic Channel which sent five ordinary Indians to EBC with the Indian Army.
"Come on!" I yell aloud to the winds. "I've survived cancer, radiotherapy and three major surgeries in the last two years, I can bloody do this!" Khudam Bir, my guide, suspects my desperation, turns around to look at me, and says: "Just 15 minutes, come on!" "15 Nepali minutes," I mumble under my breath. It takes us mere mortals three times as much!
In February 2012, cancer found me. Knowing my family history, I should have known the search wouldn’t be too hard, but we all live in this ridiculous bubble where we believe we’re immortal. I wasn’t any different. I sat at the hospital in a daze, the pathology report on my lap while I rapidly Googled the words on my cell phone: "Desmoplastic stroma", "neoplasm", "lobular hyperplasia"...nothing seemed to make sense. There must be some mistake, I thought. Maybe they mixed up the reports. "Conclusion: Invasive Tubular Carcinoma" - that, I understood. The rest of the report was all gobbledygook, but the word carcinoma, yes, that was one word I understood. My first surgery at one of Delhi's most over-rated hospitals, done by an incompetent and over-rated surgeon, led me to the doorsteps of Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai. The surgeon stared at my case history for a while, looked up and said with the slightest trace of humour: "so, which part of 'family history' did you not get?" I loved him instantly. If he could deal with this dreaded disease and still make his patients smile, I was finally in the right place! "I'm sorry," he said, "your surgery is incomplete, we'll have to go in there again." Within three weeks of the first surgery, I was back on the operating table.
Two major surgeries and 30 sessions of radiotherapy later, I was sapped of all my energies. I didn’t just lose eight kilos, I lost the perpetual silver lining I always see in every dark cloud that gathers overhead. The “eternal optimist” is what my friends call me, a moniker I really didn’t deserve any longer. I felt like I was caught in a big giant wave, just trying to stick my nose out so I could breathe. My 9-month old baby and a loving husband were my oars in the Grade 5 rapid I found myself in. They pulled me out before I got caught in that big dark whirlpool that would have sucked me right in.
A year later, not only was I back on my feet, I was all set to achieve my dream. Eleven years was way too long and I wasn’t waiting any longer. Life was too short. That I had learnt already. I put a plan together to take a team of people to Everest Base Camp in May 2014 and began training for it in earnest. I was still on medications and injections to stave off any nasty cancer cells that were still floating around, medicines that caused insomnia, joint pain, and the worst of all, a 0.2% probability of getting another form of cancer. That was a chance I wasn’t willing to take. And so, just eight weeks before the trek was to start, I went in for another major surgery. The only promise I extracted from my surgeon – that she would get me back on my feet within six weeks. She kept her word, bless her. Two weeks before the trek, I started walking again, trying to build up my stamina for a trek I knew would be grueling for me.
“Can I do it?” I asked my father-in-law, Col. ‘Bull’ Kumar, India’s most decorated mountain climber and soldier. “Will I be able to make it there?” I will never forget his words: “At some point, my dear, your body will give way. And then, you will continue on with your mind. Eventually, that is what will get you there.” Prophetic words indeed.
It's just 2.5 KM back, I tell myself. How hard can it be? Very. Bloody. Hard. After a long tiring nine hour day at high altitude, this return journey is a bummer. The cold winds are picking up now. I dig my hands deep into my wind breaker, keep my eyes glued to my boots and start to walk...climb, trudge, scramble, slip. I really can't remember how I make it back. All I know is, I stumble into the little tea-lodge and collapse into my friend’s lap and start to howl.
All these years, every time I passed an Adidas billboard that read “Impossible is Nothing”, the words would whirl in my head. I’d try to create a complete sentence, I’d look at those words and create a mind map – trying to fit them into something more concrete. I always thought that was an ingeniously worded campaign, but somehow, their true meaning deserted me. Until now. I learnt how much my mind was capable of doing, when the body packs up.
My Everest Base Camp trek taught me that impossible really was nothing.
This article first appeared on the MHE Stories blog and was re-published on my LinkedIn page.
Dilshad is an inspirational speaker and is invited by corporates and institutions to speaks on topics closest to her heart. Being a cancer survivor, her talks focus on doing what you always thought was "impossible" and turning that into "I'm possible" (with due credit to the great Audrey Hepburn!)