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Above & Beyond: Cancer Survivors Trek to Everest




Watch as 14 cancer survivors from Iowa become one in Nepal.


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"Above & Beyond: Cancer Survivors Trek to Everest" is an inception of The World Tri creator Charlie Wittmack and was organized and led by Dr. Richard Deming, Medical Director of Mercy Cancer Center in Des Moines.


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New Growth in the Himalayan Mountains

Photography by Chelsea Lister






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The World’s Highest Relay for Life

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The Way We See The World

On April 6, a team of 14 cancer survivors ranging from ages 27-64 traveled from the flat fields of Iowa to the tallest mountains on the planet - the Himalayas of Nepal - to trek to base camp of Mt. Everest. The group’s three-week quest was an inception of The World Tri creator Charlie Wittmack, and was organized and led by Dr. Richard Deming, Medical Director of Mercy Cancer Center in Des Moines. will unfold stories of these unique individuals and their experiences as they absorb this once-in-a-lifetime journey.






Marcel Proust wrote that, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”


While I will live by this quote as long as I’m on this earth, I do believe the two can be done simultaneously, enhancing the effects of the other. But on unique occasions, attempting both at the same time is too much for the heart to handle and the soul to squeeze. I know this because I spent the past 18 days traveling throughout Nepal with 28 adults from all different backgrounds, including 14 cancer survivors from Iowa. I knew none of them at the start of spring, and most in the group can say the same. I lacked knowledge on cancer prior to this endeavor. I was oblivious to the magic of Nepal. And compared to what I now know, I feel as if I possessed little wisdom about life not so long ago.


To witness a collection of strangers become a family over the course of two and a half weeks - flying into unknown territory together, hiking day by day and sleeping side-by-side night after night, falling ill and feeling exhausted together, laughing and crying together, dancing carefree with one another like old friends at the last supper of their odyssey – this will give you new eyes. It’s a rare thing in this fast-paced world watching a bond unfold like this. Getting to know someone without the use of a computer or a cell phone or a car in the midst of surroundings that have been around longer than any of us combined, this feels pure and honest. No birth and building of a relationship could be more real.


To discover different ways of viewing the world and looking at life through the beautiful minds of these new friends in the landscape of the Himalayas where you forget that anything else exists aside from people and nature is a voyage that you could embark on a hundred thousand times and still learn something new with each journey.




Some cancer survivors were asked to join the trip but were not able to do so. One survivor who began the trek did not reach the base camp. Some who did take every step struggled each day to reach the destination. Some made it through more gracefully. But no matter how any of us performed physically on the trail, there were always the porters to keep us humble.


These amazing beings cycle the trail countless times with more than their own body weight on their backs in order to transport goods and gear, and they always did it with peaceful looks on their faces. I attempted to carry a load on the final day with the use of the handy forehead strap, thinking I would do so for a half hour and then go on to write a story about it. After ten second of wobbling around to the laughter of the Sherpa onlookers, I had to drop the weight in fear that my neck would break or my head would explode.


The success on the trail was not defined by the physical but rather by the mental. If you get caught up in comparing yourself to another on this trail, or anywhere in life, you have lost the plot and will see your purpose disintegrate. Compare what you are doing to what you thought you would never be able to do, and it is then that your meaning is revealed.




I spent four weeks visiting with the survivors individually back in Iowa. Even before boarding the plane that would take us halfway around the world, I discovered these people were gifts, here to teach us that life is short and that simply getting through it is not enough. We must embrace life like a friend, like a teacher, as if every moment that passes is one more opportunity to soak up a drop of the world any way we can.


Yesterday my wet eyes and aching heart said goodbye to these new friends who showed me so much in the ways of living. They boarded a bus for the airport destined for their homes in the cozy Midwest of America while I watched them pull away, leaving me alone in Kathmandu. Of course there were other people around in this bustling city, but since I didn’t know their names or their stories, I felt like the only person around for miles. And as my new friends took their seats on the plane bound for Iowa while I roamed these crazy streets, I could feel them flying further and further away because they were taking my breaths with them.


I don’t remember much of what was said during our embraces goodbye. I was at capacity for real discovery and it had begun overflowing onto the pavement. I needed a night’s sleep to let it absorb.


I woke this morning and found oxygen in the world again. It’s in the beauty of the life all around me. It’s in my recent million memories. It’s everywhere, past and present and future. I can see it with my own new eyes.


I thought this would feel like an ending, but instead this transition resonates as the beginning of a new chapter. Having been alone less than 24 hours, I have imagined how this journey will change each and every one of the 28 people I shared the world with for these past few weeks - the two doctors, the trainer, the yoga instructor, the writer, the photographer, the family members, the supporters, the 14 folks who fought cancer and won.


I envision which ones will soon stuff their small bags and set out for new horizons again. I wonder who will take up a new hobby or learn a new language or call an old friend out of the blue or have recurring dreams of Nepal and long to return. I question if we will all live more like the Sherpa, thinking of others before ourselves without complaints in our vocabulary. Or will we choose to forget and retreat to our old ways?


There are frequent power cuts in Kathmandu. As I’m brushing my teeth or writing in my journal - almost always right in the middle of some action - the lights will go out. Thanks to my new friends, I no longer see this as darkness but as a challenge to find light. I know they are doing the same even though they are in places far from my view.


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Many Mountains Ago: Base Camp Part Two

Photography by Chelsea Lister Contact:   Everest Base Camp and the beginning of the descent. Continue reading

Many Mountains Ago: Base Camp Part One

Photography by Chelsea Lister Contact:   Gorak Shep to Everest Base Camp Continue reading

That Dancing Man, He Makes Me Happy



The sun will remain asleep for another few hours as Dr. Richard Deming stands without a soul around on the street corner outside his apartment building in downtown Des Moines. The 57-year-old man whistles while waiting for me to arrive so he can begin another new day absorbing life and helping put death in perspective.


For now, before the clock has struck 4 a.m. on the day in late March I chose to follow his every step from start to finish, before he will spend the bulk of his hours caring compassionately for dozens of patients as the Medical Director of Mercy Cancer Center, it is time for the morning workout. Stair climbing and a lifting routine at the YMCA mark the beginning of what will be a 19-hour endurance challenge. The mental, emotional and spiritual workout that follows makes the morning exertion seem weightless. You can’t let a silly thing like gravity get in the way during a day in Dr. Deming’s shoes or you won’t last long.




A few weeks later and a plane trip halfway around the world lands us on Dick Deming’s present circumstance. He is in Nepal, leading a group of 14 cancer survivors and an equal number of supporters from Iowa on an 18-day round-trip journey to Mount Everest Base Camp. Most of the survivors had never crossed an ocean prior to this opportunity nor had they ever thought much about stepping foot in a place called Kathmandu.


The drastic time-zone change has taken little effect on him. He rises each morning before the eastern sun, makes his rounds in the hallways of the lodge with fellow physician Dr. Rick Rinehart to ensure each of his teammates is healthy and ready to begin the day. If it’s taking a while for the group members to come around, he jumpstarts them with a song or a dance or a backrub or an inspirational reading. We need this often on these hard, cold mornings, making him a busy man on all sides of the world. He then leads the charge up the world’s highest mountains where the beauty of the Himalayas grabs the hearts, minds and souls of the cancer survivors and transforms them in ways they never knew were possible. The doctor skips around yaks and curious onlookers on the hillsides, embracing the world how he pleases. He is well aware that the mountains he brought these people to have taken over his role of mentor. But they wouldn’t be in the world’s most majestic classroom had he not made it a reality.




Born and raised in South Dakota, Dr. Deming grew up “probably poor” but has no regrets of his upbringing. In 1950s small-town America, the world was innocent, the world was small and the world was his.


His parents were embarrassingly thoughtful, often doing things such as inviting the town drunk in for a meal. When his mother underwent cancer treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, during one of the many times she battled the disease before her death seven years after her diagnosis, his father looked up the home address of the neurosurgeon and delivered to him a pheasant, cleaned and frozen in a milk carton as a sign of his gratitude.


Dr. Deming is certainly his parents’ child. While his career in oncology was influenced by his mother’s cancer as much as his interest in math and science, the compassion wasn’t something picked up in a classroom. It was more genetic and could have been applied to any field he chose to pursue and would have likely made him the best at what he does no matter the task. He will be honored with the American Cancer Society’s Lane Adams Quality of Life award this May among having received many other accolades over the years. In his office, he shyly revealed a stack of letters from patients and families of patients who were deeply touched by his role as doctor and friend throughout treatment.


Following Dr. Deming around the cancer center for a full morning and afternoon split up by a lunch of coffee, you realize how heart can go a long way. He’ll listen to a patient talk about grandchildren for two minutes, and that same person will speak of how that Dr. Deming sat and listened to them for an hour.


To quote patients and coworkers of his for this story would be the making of a broken record. Words like “amazing,” “incredible,” “saved my life,” and “changed my life,” get repeated to the point in which you start to believe he might have affected more lives for the better than any person you’ve ever stood next to. He also enters Ironman competitions, goes heli-skiing in Canada and canyoneering in Oman, stories that will make you scratch your head. But those are tales for other times.


When asked when the importance of caring surfaced in his character, Dr. Deming recalls the time he was called to the principal’s office in middle school. There was a dance coming up, marking the first time boys and girls in all their pubescent glory would socialize together under one roof to the magic of song. The principal had a concern and seeing that Dick had a knack and interest in lifting people up, he turned to the young boy. The request was simple. If any girl wasn’t asked to dance, Dick was to take her hand. The dancing hasn’t stopped since.




On a shivering cold, snow-covered morning at the base camp of Mt. Everest, Dick Deming helped string up over 300 pieces of colorful cloth, which danced in the wind over a group of 14 cancer survivors. Here they are called prayer flags, and each one had been written out as a tribute to someone affected by cancer who wasn’t able to join in the journey to Nepal due to either their weakness or their death. There is a good chance Dr. Deming knew most of them personally or had at least learned of their fight.


There are two flags that carry added meaning to him. One he made out to his mother, Odetta, with the words, “The inspiration for my career in caring. Thank you for showing me the meaning of compassion,” written beneath her name. The first and only time I've seen him cry is when he completed this tribute. He observes another for a long time. It’s a green flag with a picture of a man in his early 20s on it along with words from his family. His name was Chris Hade. He was a unique individual who had recently passed away. He'd been a patient and friend of Dr. Deming. The boy never needed cancer to teach him perspective. His desire to absorb the world and all it could offer was already in full force just like his doctor. His blossoming life ended so soon.




After a full day at the office of visiting with cancer patients and helping them with life and death decision-making, Dr. Deming explains the power of what went on behind closed doors that had nothing to do with medical terminology or procedures. Despite his phone and pager going off simultaneously and the knowledge that demands were increasing with every breath, he listened to every word as the patients talked about their families.


“What they’re talking about is the way that we as humans are immortal,” he articulated. “How do we live forever? We live forever through the genes that we pass on. We’re immortal through the memories that those who live on after us have of us, the tales that they tell about us to the next generation.”


Dr. Deming never started a family of his own, which is why after his workday he is able to continue the relationship with his patients, visiting the hospice or the funeral home or the families of those lost to cancer without a second thought.


On the evening of the day I chose to follow Dr. Deming’s every step, we took a half-hour drive south of Des Moines to the Hade’s house. Chris has been gone over two years, but Joel and Deb still cry hard at the briefest anecdote of their only son.


We chatted for hours without looking at the time. The Hades said that Chris would have been the first to sign up for the excursion to Mt. Everest had he survived his cancer. Dr. Deming shared a powerful reading from a favorite author about the loss of a loved one. Feeling like I hadn’t contributed to the evening in a specific way, I offered to play a song on the guitar since the Hades mentioned how much they enjoyed music. On the car ride to the home, Dr. Deming had mentioned how I reminded him of Chris, and that the parents might feel the same way. This was all I could think of as I sang a song called “Upward Over the Mountain.”


Prior to saying our goodbyes, the Hades gave me a tour of their son’s room. I couldn’t imagine being the boy’s parents. I couldn’t imagine being his doctor. I took the passenger seat on the ride home, fully exhausted physically, mentally and emotionally from a day in Dr. Deming’s life. It was nearly 11 p.m. and we'd been going since before sunrise, dealing with bigger things than I'm used to. I cried silently in the dark thinking about Chris and those who died from cancer and those who had just received the news that day in the office that their lives had changed significantly. These were normal people. Good people. It would take me a couple days of rest to feel normal again. In the meantime, Dr. Deming walked to the gym at roughly 3:55 a.m. the next morning to do it all over again. New faces. New cases. Same patient heart.




During one particular moment on this endeavor, Dick Deming seemed more human than at any other time. Sure he passes gas and curses faulty Internet connections like anyone else - these things are hard to hide when living amongst 28 other people in tight quarters for nearly three straight weeks – but one evening after a long day on the trail of lifting others up and dancing with them when they were silently begging to be asked, he crashed. He attempted eating his dinner, took a couple measly bites, and lay down in the corner of the dining area, barely conscious and shaky. I placed the coat he had loaned me over him. The next time I saw him was the following morning. Before I could open my mouth, he asked me how I was feeling.


Thoughts of 22 years worth of patients seen during his time at Mercy Cancer Center are with Dr. Deming on his trek toward Mt. Everest. Good folks come and gone, cared for and passed away, looked after and living to tell about it, these are the moments and memories that this one individual carries the weight of.


Yet he skips up the mountain as if gravity doesn’t apply to him. It’s the middle of the journey toward Everest and some of the survivors are having a tough day. He sings out tunes from his favorite musicals and shakes his shoulders and hips as if no one is watching, although he knows they are because he is trying to turn his energy contagious. He shuffles past a Nepalese porter who is lugging nearly 200 pounds on his back up the mountain. The weight looks impossible to bear for more than a few seconds. Yet the young man pauses to observe the doctor. He smiles as if the weight has been lifted off his shoulders.


“That dancing man, he makes me happy,” he says.


He’s just one of many on that mountain, one of many on both eastern and western hemisphere who feel the same way. One of many who will make a man who never passed on any genes live on forever.



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Rising High



After nine demanding days on the trail, without the comforts of home, without a road to hitchhike out on as far as the eye could see, thirteen cancer survivors and fourteen supporters reached the base camp of Mt. Everest at 17,600 feet.


The day started out sunny and the group intact as one unit. But upon arrival to the camp, which appeared like a strange carnival of blue and yellow tents sitting upon a thawed glacier at the end of the earth, snow fell from the sky and the trekkers filed in one by weary one.


Any elation among the survivors was internalized. It wasn’t the celebration I had envisioned on the march up. Not much about this journey has been in sync with anything I’d imagined when I signed on. And I mean that in the best of ways.


We couldn’t have dreamt up the magic of the nature that surrounded us for days on end. Just when you thought your eyes would never see such beauty, just when you thought your ears would never hear such serenity, you’d round the next corner and be kidnapped again by the creation of the universe.


We never predicted our stomachs turning against us, or the chorus of coughs ringing out in our lodge hallways at night, or the strength we’d need to muster to peel our bodies off of hard beds in the morning. As a healthy 26-year-old, I had to harness courage a dozen times a day, and I am younger than any of the cancer-surviving members of our group, which ranges from ages 27 to 64.


I witnessed most of them hike into a slippery, rocky, nothing-like-you’d-ever-seen-before base camp. I couldn’t quite read each one’s facial expression and body language. They seemed a combination of jubilation and exhaustion, uncertainty and pride. Tears dropped as they have all week. High-fives and fist-pounds were dished out to the Sherpa staff members who helped us reach our destination with smiling faces.


Kathy, a sarcoma survivor who lacks the full use of her left arm, crumbled to the ground just ten feet from the tent which held hot tea and her new friends inside. Everyone around came to her aid, lifted her to her feet and found her a chair to silently celebrate on. One of these people was Charlie Wittmack, an adventurer from Iowa who will summit Mt. Everest next month in completion of his year-long World Triathlon, which includes swimming the English Channel, cycling to Nepal and climbing the world’s tallest mountain. He, along with two other members of his expedition team, Matt Boelman and Joe Brus, hosted us for the evening.


The night was cold, enough to keep me from drinking water as my bottle had frozen shortly into my slumber. My bladder reaching capacity coincided with the rising of the sun, allowing me to see the most awesome sight I’d ever awoken to. A colorful sky hovered over colorful tents with everything else draped in a blanket of untouched white.


The demeanor of the group changed to an externalized joy in the morning. When they reached consciousness, they realized they had done what they set out to do back in their homes in Iowa. Most had never left the continent before, some had never left America. Yet here they were, starting their day at the base camp of Mt. Everest in the middle of nowhere Nepal. Their courage had paid off.


A well-known dog around the camp named ‘Hero’ ran laps between the legs of the survivors. His energy was contagious. Kathy was back on her feet, rubbing Hero’s head and getting him wound up. He liked her best. I like to think that in some way he could sense that she needed the pick-me-up after her struggle to reach the camp the day prior. On this clear new morning, she was as playful as a puppy herself.


“Animals like me for some reason,” she mentioned.


The group finished the morning by hanging over 300 prayer flags in memory of those who lost their lives to cancer and for those survivors who weren’t strong enough to make the journey. The red, yellow, blue, green and white pieces of cloth had hearts poured out onto them with pens and photos prior to the journey, and they now danced in the Nepalese winds.


We silently circled the flags as an American Cancer Society tradition known as Relay for Life. The laps symbolized survivors, caregivers, lives lost to cancer and finally, fighting back. It marked the highest one ever carried out. The hugs exchanged and the weeping that ensued is something I never want to fully understand, but am glad I witnessed because I knew then better than ever what powerful effects this terrible thing called cancer had on these individuals.


The survivors and their supporters packed their bags and headed down the largest hill they’d ever climbed. It will take them four nights to reach the bottom before boarding a plane for home.


The first night down the mountain, we gathered in a frigid lodge, ate warm soup and drank warm tea and reflected back on what we’d just accomplished. Some did this through hilarious narrative, some through poetic words, others quietly to themselves.


I did my best to help those in our group with their uncontrollable diarrhea and vomiting in the night. I shook my head with a little laugh in the morning at the never-ending coughing that graced the place. I was the lead singer of this band.


I looked down the sleepy hallway, noticing my clouds of breath that hung in the cold air. Then I saw something on the floor outside one of the rooms. As I approached it, the power of the scene hit me like the completion of a magic trick with all its awe and amazement.


It was a dog. The same black and white one who danced among us miles back at base camp the day before. He was lying outside Kathy’s door in a hallway filled of heroes. I like to think he knew exactly where he was.



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Here and There and Everywhere



“And at the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
-T.S. Eliot



We left Iowa 11 days ago. Subtract the time change and the layover in Abu Dhabi and that means we’re on our ninth day in Nepal. Back home, that’s nothing. A workweek bookended by a pair of redundant weekends. How many nine-day periods in our lives did absolutely nothing eventful happen? If a calendar page from a past time was ripped out arbitrarily and you were asked to describe the events of that week, you’d stare with empty thoughts more times than not.


The point is that we haven’t been away for long. But to many of the 14 cancer survivors who stand a day’s walk away from Everest Base Camp, it feels like an eternity. Here are a few reasons why:


-Trace misses his daughter climbing into bed with him and his wife for a 30-minute cuddle session every morning.


-Kathy misses her kitties.


-Theresa misses big hugs from her kids.


-Justin misses cozying up to a campfire with his wife and a bottle of wine.


-Emelia misses her mother’s voice and her dad’s laugh.


-Lynnette misses plopping her son on her lap and reading him a story.


The others also cite children, parents, husbands, wives, and of course warm beds as reasons for their homesickness. And these days are long, packed in with more excitement and adventure and overwhelming beauty and time to think than usual. Add thin air, hard days and cold nights on top of the thoughts that travel halfway back around the globe, and you’ve got a lot of mixed emotions.


These people don’t operate on the same calendar as us non-cancer-survivors. They have seen that life can be short, and they know the value of time better than any group of people I’ve ever been amongst. Many of the survivors seem to have embraced the live-like-you-were-dying mantra. As we stand in the shadows of the highest mountains in the world, having caught glimpses of Mt. Everest’s tip throughout today’s cloudless afternoon, life is simple and confusing at the same time.


Our only immediate concerns are finding water and taking the next step up the rocky trail. Our surroundings include a world stripped down of all its complexities added on over the centuries by mankind. We listen to yak bells and the chirping of birds and see clear blue pools created by glaciers that once stomped these grounds but made sure to leave their mark.


The confusion comes in because we don’t know exactly how much time we have on this earth. If we knew we had a month, we’d likely all be staring at that peak as we were today. If we knew we had a year, we might just hang out a while longer. If we had a day, we’d likely be reading books to our little boy, cuddling in bed with our daughter, sitting next to that campfire with our wife, telling jokes with our dad.


But we don’t know, so we do our best to make decisions based on a combination of hope, optimism, reality, and a surrendering to the fact that we don’t have too much control over these things.


For now, we are here, in this foreign moment, in this foreign place, extracting the meaning it provides and interpreting it however we choose. Tomorrow we will arrive to the destination we set our sights on from the fields of Iowa. The day after, we will begin the walk toward home, toward the things we used to know, but will soon know in a different way. A better way. Much of what we are learning won’t hit us for quite a while. Travel as a teacher has a funny way of sharing its lessons at the most unpredictable of times.


In nine days, the 14 cancer survivors will be with loved ones, possessing the ability to surround themselves with the comforts of home. But who knows? Maybe things will be different. Maybe they will pursue new food, new friends, new ideas. Maybe exploring home and embracing it for all it’s worth will become the next great adventure.


We are all living and dying in different ways at different speeds. If we all acknowledged that, we’ll become better decision makers. Some may cuddle in bed five minutes more, others may set their sights on peaks in other corners of the earth. These choices are all around us. Whether it takes place in Iowa or Nepal, whether it’s in the form of mountain climbing or reconnecting with an old friend, this journey has taught us that we can do anything we put our minds to. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it smells like dirty socks you don’t want to wear another day or feels like you can’t get enough air to breathe. But then you realize your friends still like you despite your stench because they smell worse, and you do find that gulp of oxygen when you need it most. And once you realize everything is okay, it’s more than okay. It’s invigorating because you are alive and you’ve rarely known it more. You may then proceed to use those new feelings as you please.


I overheard 27-year-old Justin talking to Dr. Deming on the trail today. He’d been having some anxiety about being away from home, missing his wife, and the fact that there is an 85% chance his cancer could recur began messing with his mind.


After the doctor shared comments I couldn’t make out, which were surely wiser than anything I could ever come up with, Justin walked at my side.


“If you wouldn’t have come on this trip, we wouldn’t be friends,” I said, quickly realizing that his new bride at home was light years prettier, cuddlier and more important to him than me. I switched gears.


“What we’re doing here is only a fraction of the best part. You’ll have all the memories to keep forever. Next week, you’ll be lying in bed with Alicia, telling her stories of what you did here. So many she’ll tell you to shut up… Or maybe she won’t say that, she’ll say, 'Keep telling me,'” I suggested.


“No, she’ll tell me to shut up,” Justin responded with a laugh. “You don’t know her like I do.”


He smiled and walked on. It was so clear how much he loved her. Clear as the sky over the Himalayas he was exploring that afternoon. And for that moment, he managed to be in two places at once.



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Knock Knock Knocking on Everest’s Door




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