Kim holds her right hand in the air and points slowly, carefully with each finger.
“One, two, three...”
She mumbles something about alpacas, packing the alpacas, getting the alpacas? No wait, she means yaks. I bend down to speak directly into her right ear. The loaner hospital bed squeaks.
“Do you mean yaks, Kimma? Are we there?” I ask softly.
It’s hard to know if she hears me. I look at the clock, it’s just after nine. I think we are there…at the base of Mount Everest. Where she dreamt of going.
She’s slipping away from us now—the four friends from different chapters of her life, who have gathered in her home on this freezing first night in February. Marcella's plane from Raleigh had just landed before the Denver airport got weird because of the weather. This is the kind of night that brings the rare ice storm to the Front Range, turning parking lots into skate rinks.
Is she counting the five of us instead?
Kim fought Stage 4 metasticized breast cancer like a warrior goddess for three years. Truly, it was an honor to walk beside her. She had an incredible group of friends, many of whom flew in from the South to Colorado with regularity at first, to play with her and then, to sit by her side in hospital rooms and rehabs after multiple procedures. In her final weeks she'd let us climb onto her bed to chat, carefully, mindfully, as everything hurt now. Her bravery, silly humor and strength, right up until the end, forever altered my life. To be honest, I’m still trying to figure out how to live without my friend.
Fourteen months after we watched Kim take her last breath at dawn, I am standing at the base of the mighty Mount Everest. We’d dreamt of hiking here together, but time had run out. To reach base camp on the Nepalese side requires at least a 12-day trek, something I’d love to do sometime, but this was not that trip. My travel group had already been to Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal exploring stupas and temples, coconut factories, death rituals, Buddhist paintings, schools, gorgeous landscape at points, chaos and non-roads at others. We had risen before the sun to chant with young nuns in Bhutan and climbed the steps of the Dalai Llama(s) at Potala Palace in Lhasa. So many travel dreams have come true for me on this trip and now, here I am at the base of the biggest mountain on the planet, ready to leave my beloved friend’s ashes behind.
Kim came bursting into my life in 1991 when I was waiting tables part-time at Rudi’s (a fine dining natural foods place in Boulder). I was in the tiny cramped kitchen area making my signature whipped cream that was served with frozen coffee toffee pie. (You have to use a chilled stainless steel bowl when you whip and don’t put in too much sugar.)
I don’t know why a giant basketball player from Tennessee and a quirky gal from the East Coast hit it off so immediately. It might have been the instant connection of two sarcastic minds. Perhaps it was the shared desire to have an adventurous life in the West away from ‘all that’. She’d just moved to town and was delivering foods she said, for WOW: Waiters on Wheels. “You must be a WOW person then,” I said. We became rather inseparable for, well, years.
We did a lot of hiking in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, about an hour outside of Boulder. Her dog Nature was a three-legged 35-pound mutt who did not let anything get in his way. Artemis was my black Labrador-ish pup. Both dogs loved to get up into the mountains. We were also young, and fit, and could get up anything we put our minds to.
Our favorite thing was to mess with people on the trail.
“Oh, what happened to your dog’s leg?” hikers inevitably asked.
Me: “What do you mean?”
“Your dog, that dog, only has three legs.”
Both of us: “Whaaat?”
“Your dog, that dog right there, only has three legs.”
Kim: “Wow. Well listen, if you happen to find a dog’s leg on the trail, could you please put it aside? I’ll get it next time.”
And then we’d keep going down the trail, dogs in tow and laugh and laugh.
Our driver’s name is Cheery. With his big cheeks and easy demeanor, we just want to sing along with his Tibetan folk-pop music even though we have no idea what they’re singing about. It’s the kind of music that is both pleasant to listen to and also makes you want to bob your head from side to side. Cheery doesn’t speak a lot of English, so I just imagine we are listening to songs about love.
The drive to get to Everest Base Camp (EBC) has taken quite a while. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. There is a great deal of wild open country in Tibet and the Friendship Highway, a 500 mile scenic route built by the Chinese government, is an incredible feat of imagination and design. We are now far from the maddening crowds of Katmandu. To be in the Himalayas, with each curve and turn and new view, I gasp. We all do. We’ve been exploring Tibet now for five days, with Everest being our ultimate destination.
I’d had a fascination with this mountain for a great deal of my life, starting back when I was a high schooler in the northwest hills of Connecticut, dreaming of far far away. Can one get farther away than the highest point of the world on the exact opposite end of the planet? Ha. My boyfriend and I would sit in his beater car and listen to Yes and Steely Dan and maybe a little Dead and dream about trekking in the Himalayas.
I’ve now lived in Colorado for almost three decades and much of that time, I've had an outdoorsy life, skiing, dogsledding, traveling with and running programs for people with and without disabilities. I was an avid reader of Outside and Backpacker magazines and would attend talks put on by the many climbers and adventurers that call Boulder County home. In Colorado it’s not uncommon for locals to make public presentations on conquering the “seven summits” and in Boulder County there is a significant Nepalese/Sherpa/Tibetan culture. Naropa University is the only Buddhist college in North America. I read accounts of Everest adventures and of course devoured Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air when it came out. The mountain held this mystical quality, of course, it does for a great many of us.
Earlier in the trip, we had gotten up and out very early in the morning. Huddled in a small crowded room at the Katmandu airport, the departure sign is maybe one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen in my travels. Destination: The Mountain. What else is there really, to call Mount Everest? The scenic flight was a thrill ride of the highest order. Rising up out of the brown fog of the overcrowded city, we lift up up up and now I’m seeing the great Himalayas. And they are truly ridiculously spectacular. This range of mountains formed over 50 millions years ago when two continents (India and Eurasia, driven by plate tectonics) collided. I’ve got my nose pressed against the window like a little kid, as we pass some of the highest peaks on the planet, many of which rise 26,000 feet into the sky.
Tibetans call Mount Everest Qomolangma and the Nepalese call it Sagarmatha. She is sheer beauty. We arrive at EBC at 17,056’ in Tibet Autonomaous Region, China. While lunch, noodle soup that we spice up with yummy chili sauce, is being prepared by one of our guide’s second cousins (much as I think of the Sherpa community in Nepal, it seems that the EBC Tent Village is also run by a tight-knit, related community). I wander along the tent village, snap a few photos. I stop here; take a moment to take in Mount Everest. After removing my gloves, I reach into my down vest to take out my old prescription bottle with the label ripped off, unscrew the cap and take out the neatly folded baggie that contains some of my dear friend’s ashes. I sprinkle a little bit here.
Honestly, I don’t realize that our destination is just up the road. I’m looking at it. I suppose I thought I’d see all sorts of tents and people and action, but I learn later this is up a bit further and only climbers/support teams get permits. It’s about an hour’s walk at that altitude. We are among only 30 other tourists at the most. It's extraordinary.
I also don’t know yet how remarkably fortunate I am to have this opportunity to fulfill Kim’s wish. Just one month later the Chinese government closed this camp to tourists “due to an increasing amount of trash left behind” at the site. (We were there before the height of climbing season in April 2018. There was absolutely no garbage, and even the toilet area was kept fairly well maintained. Which is saying something for many parts of Asia.)
After lunch, it’s time to go. I pour a packet of hydration salt water into my water bottle and chug it. Again, in my mind we’re going on a big trek, and my former-outdoor guide husband Jay had urged me to take this at altitude. We do live at 5,600’ but now we’re talking 17,000+ feet. Up in the air. Walking up this dirt road, with Mount Everest right there, I’m awe-struck. Here is this magnificent presence, the tallest mountain on the planet. I’d wondered if I’d feel overpowered by it, knowing so many stories of lost lives up there. Would it feel harsh, foreboding? No. The Mountain, like Kim, is a warrior goddess.
We were walking in downtown Boulder, as we had hundreds of times together over the last quarter century. This time we saunter, slowly, as she uses a cane.
“Loretta…” Kim was one of two people who insist on calling me by my given name.
“You are a traveler. I want you to bring me to all the places.”
“I can do that, Kimma,” I say, glad to have something, anything to do to lighten her load.
“Maybe plant a tree or two?”
“Absolutely, of course, I'll love that.”
She stops and looks me right in the eyes. “Okay, and you know I need to get to base camp of Everest. No rush though.”
I call my new friend Karma. Now living in Colorado with his lovely family, Karma grew up in the Mount Everest region of Nepal called Teksindu. His company, Sherpa Mountain Adventures is carefully planning this three-week adventure for our travel group. I tell him of my plans, to bring some of Kim’s ashes to the base of Mount Everest, as she’d requested.
“I don’t want to disrespect the mountain,” I say to Karma. This may sound a little weird to you, but I felt it in my bones. I’ve have held deep reverence for this mountain for 40 years. I know that this is a sacred place for millions and millions of people.
He said, “What is most important is the intention that you carry within your heart. In a way, you have already brought your dear friend to the base of the mountain. For it is within your heart and your consciousness.”
I love that. Still, I have to ask. “Is it okay, though, to leave some of her ashes behind at the mountain?”
He says, “Yes, Lori, it is okay.”
With his blessing in mind, I walk away from the others and find a spot by the clear glacial waters. I have a lot of layers on and I can hear my nylon pants squitch squirsh as I do a bit of bouldering to find the exact right spot. It’s a thrill to be here, and it’s a privilege to honor my dear-heart friend in this way. I find a spot that Kim will like, near the chilly glacial waters that are running off this natural wonder and I begin to hang prayer flags, the ones I bought from the old Tibetan beauty at a road stop.
Sprinkling ashes around her flags, I say a prayer of thanks to Kim, for all of the loud easy laughter and outdoor adventures, the healing and tears, for the 26 years that we were important in each other’s lives. My breath slows. It gets quiet. I can feel it now, all of it. The gratitude for the gifts of our friendship (“It’s all good, Loretta.”) The weight of the grief I’ve been carrying. The utter sadness of losing someone who’d been a true-blue constant in my life, like the sky. The anger at cancer that sliced her life in half. The part of my heart that wants to harden off from further pain, but insists on breaking open over and over again.
I smile, knowing that Kimma is happy to be at Everest, finally! I can almost hear her saying, “Thanks, Loretta. Appreciate ya.” I glance over to see our guide, who told us to call him Prosperity, as that’s what his Tibetan name means in English. He’s glanced over at me from afar, hands in his pockets. It’s actually perfect that my friend Lynn is in the background of the photograph of Kim’s spot. I like that she knows what I’m up to and had been a very sweet support. She and I shared a pretty amazing hike to Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Bhutan two weeks prior. On the hike down, we listened intently to each other’s grief stories about our mothers, both of whom are living with some form of dementia. People who know loss just get it.
Now Everest has some of my friend Kim, and Kim has a place at the base of Mount Everest. As I said, Kim has an unusually close group of friends from her college days, many of whom like to travel. We all got some of her ashes. I’m just betting a few of these women will take Kim to the Nepalese side some day. I wonder if five yaks will join them on their journey.
Oh, another thing.
I had a reading with a medium a while ago. Don’t ask me to explain any of this. But here’s what happened. By this time, I had sprinkled a little of Kim in Africa, Bahamas, Ireland and various states, ski resorts and music venues. It had become routine to put some of her ashes in my toiletries bag.
He says, “Kim is here, of course.”
I smile, of course.
“OK, she’s showing me a map of some kind. Very enthusiastic. Pointing to countries all over the world map.”
The medium stops, and even over the phone I can hear his smile.
“Oh Lori, she’s so happy!”
I believe I’m a pretty open-minded person. While I cannot explain any of this, what I think I might know just maybe is that it’s all about energy. And, we are all energy. Who am I exactly, to say there are no spirit guides? Who am I to give a stink eye to psychics? Who the hell am I to even think about questioning this man’s ability to tune into what? Something Beyond the field most of us live in? ‘Cos he says this:
“Oh wait, she insists I call you Loretta.”
I let out a laugh. That’s so Kim. A loveable, stubborn pain in the butt even in the afterlife. Like I said, I don’t pretend to understand any of this, but I know that I am connecting with her through this medium.
(One other time I sat with him in person and what came through were on-point details about what her parents looked like. “Wait, whaaaat? Why is she describing her parents, her mother’s dyed hair and the way she walks and the side-parted hair style of her father?” my inner New Yorker’s impatience rising. I thought I was visiting a medium to hear deep life lessons from beyond.
“Kim knows you don’t always believe she’s still around. This is her way of proving it to you. She’s still here.”)
The medium continues now. “She wants you to know that she loves what you’re doing…” He pauses.
“Are you doing something with her ashes? Yes, that’s it. She really loves it and thanks you for honoring her in this way.”
Kim’s favorite band was the Indigo Girls. This song, amongst many others, was played repeatedly during the last hours of her life. These first lines from Closer to Fine exemplifies our friendship.
I'm tryin' to tell you somethin' 'bout my life
Maybe give me insight between black and white
And the best thing you've ever done for me
Is to help me take my life less seriously
It's only life after all, yeah
Songwriters: Amy Elizabeth Ray / Emily Ann Saliers
Closer to Fine lyrics © EMI Music Publishing, Universal Music Publishing Group
For Kimberly Ann Valek