On the Trail to Everest

Solu Khumbu, Nepal
June 25th, 2000
There is a trail that leads from Jiri, near Kathmandu all the way to the Everest Base Camp. It is justifiably famous among the trekking and mountaineering communities and thronged by them come high season. But in the middle of the monsoon season, there were hardly any other tourists on this trail. Instead, I had the company of the villagers for whom this is the road that links their villages. Lodges and inns remained closed and I simply stayed with them in their homes, ate with them in their kitchens. From the dense foliage covered slopes near the beginning to the thin air near the high peaks at the base camp, these are the sights, sounds, smells and feel of this mountain region called Solu Khumbu. Snippets from my journal taken at random from the pages of a month-long trek.

Fields and orchards decorate the slopes in the lower elevations. Small houses are perched here and there, their roofs made of roughly rectangular slabs of slate. I hear the sound of a cowbell wafting across in the breeze.
The tinkle of the spoon as we stir our cups of heavily sugared tea in a teahouse. And the low murmur of chatter as everyone take a break before walking on again. Someone brings in a few strawberries and urges us to eat them. I bit into one and have juice dribbling down my chin, much to the amusement of a precocious six year old.


Often the trail leads between fields and under trees. It is hot and humid which makes carrying a full pack difficult. But there is something worse. It is peak leech season. They drop from branches above and somehow manage to wriggle inside my boots, no matter how carefully I tuck the trousers in and tighten my gaiters. Once in, they gorge themselves and now are too fat to get out. The result? Squashed leeches and bloody socks to show for it. I have begun to play a game called “How many carcasses will I find today?” The highest so far in one boot alone was four.

There are bridges that span rushing, roaring frothing rivers. Some of them made of planks, once tightly woven but loose and occasionally missing now. The locals blithely walk across, singing a ditty while I gingerly step, holding onto the thin cable that passes for a handrail, trying not to look down several hundred meters to the angry white froth.
There are porters bent under their wicker baskets. They laugh at my pack – to them who routinely carry 60 kg or more, it is nothing! We sit by the trail, and they share the tea they are cooking. I share a few biscuits I have.
There is a new mantra on this trail. Instead of asking for money, now the village children chime “pen, pen, pen”.


There are odd looking plants and wildly beautiful flowers edging the trail and occasional mountain slope. Long columns of sheep are herded up the trail, urged along with a combination of yells and short jabs of a stick. Stupas loom over the trail, their sides moss covered and sporting ribbons of prayer flags from their tops. The yellow roof of a monastery glints in the three seconds of sunshine.
Spanning a small stream is the village mill, its grinding wheel powered by the water. Next to it is another smaller waterwheel-turned device. But this is no mill. It is a prayer wheel and the bell on it dings every time it turns.
The tree cover lessens as I climb higher and higher and so do the fields. The houses are made of stone rather than wood now and the sound of chisel and hammer on stone rings through the air. Everyone it seems, wants to have a lodge. Come trekking season, they can earn good money, they tell me.


A bit further up, only barley grows. Anything else is brought up from below, on somebody’s back. The plastic chairs and tables, the heavy glass bottles of Cocacola and Fanta, the rice and beans and sacks of potatoes, fabric and tableware, tools and clothes, books and pens….just about everything is hauled up here on a porter’s back. Too expensive to haul back down, the empty bottles now form a decorative border of someone’s flower garden. Empty paint tubs double as hanging basket for potted plants. Other wrappings and packages are tossed down the hillside, blown by the wind in an ever-shifting garbage dump.
I am above treeline. It is only rocks now and there is a bite to the wind even in the sun. I don’t quite know what it is but, there is something about being above treeline suits me. I have that giddy sense of happiness that goes with it. There are those that tell me it simply the lack of oxygen. Who knows why? No matter the cause, I wear a broad grin more often than not. Oh, I am happy!

There are huge looming peaks all around me. I know there are, just behind the clouds. Once in a while to tantalize me the clouds part and I am awestruck. But before I can whip out the camera, they do their magicians’ trick and disappear again. But there are pictures in my head that remain.
I have been seeing more and more yaks now. Grazing on the valleys, or carrying loads up and down the trail. Huge shaggy beasts, they seem gentle. The swing of their bushy tails makes me think of a swaying hula skirt.


There are rock cairns along the way, some as trail markers, some as offerings left near a stupa. There are mani walls as well. Some are a heap of carved stones but some as long as a hundred meters. Each stone carved painstakingly. The most common carvings are “Om” or “Om Mani Padme Hum” but there are other mantras and invocations as well. I walk by to its left and add my own small stone to the pile.

Near the saddle just before the last climb to the base camp are a rows upon rows of rock cairns. These are no markers though. They are memorials of all those who passed this way but did not return. Some are large, elaborate with names and dates carved on the rock while others are small. As the mist sweeps down, they stand like eerie sentinels along the way.

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She

Solu Khumbu, Nepal
June 20th, 2000

20150419152713461_0009I had trekked to the Everest base camp from Jiri and was now on my way back down. Along the way, I passed the same villages that I had passed on the way up to the base camp. It was at Tengpoche that a curious thing happened.

In the morning I settled up at Tashi Delek Lodge, said goodbye to Passang Thongdu and Nishir and started out on the trail back to Namche Bazaar. The black dog who lives outside the Tengpoche Gompa started following me. We did not know each other well, though we had exchanged a few words over the last couple of days. She was old and haggard and I could see her ribs under the long fur. I thought she was simply seeing me off and would soon turn back. But further on down the trail when I stopped to peel off my jacket, she stopped too and waited. I stopped to put on sunscreen and she waited again. I stopped to get a drink of water, and she stopped too. But she wanted neither water nor food. Several times I tried to talk her into going back, but in vain.

IMG_0052Sometime later we met two monks headed to Tengpoche and between the three of us we failed to make her change her mind. As soon as I started walking again, there she was. On the steep descent from Tengpoche to the river, at one point I slipped and fell on the rain-slick trail. ‘She’ stopped, waited till I got up again and cocking her head walked on ahead a little ways for the next couple of switchbacks. Was She showing me the less steep path? I don’t know. Perhaps. Perhaps she decided to befriend me. Every so often She would stop and look back – making sure I was following.

IMG_0076Once I deliberately waited longer than usual. I was sitting on a rock along the trail looking out at the waterfall tumbling down the other side of the canyon. She had gone past the curve on the trail ahead of me. A few minutes later I saw her coming back. She looked at me and then curled herself up in the middle of the trail. ‘I’m ready when you are’ the look said. The next time I stopped to talk to a couple of villagers going to Pangboche and they asked me the usual question “Shathi chhoi na”? Instead of the usual no, this time I said yes, and pointed to She. They laughed, commented “ramro chha” and went on their way.

She and I walked together for two days. We would walk, stop sometimes and admire the views. Sometimes we’d talk. I did most of the talking; she would listen with ears cocked. When I stopped to buy food, I’d buy some for her too. A little past Namche Bazaar She and I parted ways. She left as mysteriously as she had joined me.

IMG_0074

Translations
When I met people on the trails, we would speak in Nepali.
Shathi Chhoi na? : Have you no friend?
Ramro Chha : That is good.
Gompa : Monastery

Morning Prayers

Tengpoche,
Solu Kumbhu, Nepal
June 17th, 2000

I woke to the sounds of cymbals and drums and the sight of the prayer flags fluttering in the breeze atop Tengpoche Gompa. The morning promised a beautiful day. It was 5:30 in the morning and Passang Thongdu, his wife Nishir and I were sitting in their kitchen over cups of tea and coffee. Out of the window we could see Thamserku. In a few minutes I headed over to the Gompa, for the morning prayers.

20150422141213254_0003_rszThe outer gate led inside to a raised courtyard surrounding the inner building. Across the courtyard, through the curtained doorway was the prayer hall. The room had a raised platform with a statue of Buddha seated in a teaching mudra. Khatas were laid out over his hand.

Behind the statue was detailed artwork on the wall. The artwork continued on all the walls and the ceiling. Every single square inch had been painted in rich detail – bold vibrant colours of red, yellow, maroon, blue and green and gold. Gold painted figures on the murals, gold threaded embroidery on the thankas, golden flames of the butter lamps. Scenes depicting Buddha’s life blended with the paintings of the Bodhisatvas. Everywhere one looked there was colour and beauty. The smell of incense hung in the air.

20150422141213254_0001_rszDirectly in front of the platform was another platform with more khatas laid as offerings. In front of that were rows of mats on the floor. The High Lama sat at the center and the other rows were perpendicular to his, on either side of the room, facing each other. The monks were already seated, all of them dressed in the yellow and maroon of the Gelugpa sect. I took off my sandals, went in and sat down at the end of the last row amid much giggling of my neighbours. My neighbours were six young disciples all between the ages of five to eight. They would participate in the prayers albeit with furtive nudging and whispering. I found myself laughing at their antics. They were like children anywhere else. Another young disciple, aged eleven or twelve kept watch at the door. He would run to fill the cups in front of the monks in between prayers.

20150419152713461_0006_rszThe prayers were chanted, sometimes by one, sometimes more than one monk. In between chants there would be pauses. Cups would be re-filled and a new chant started. The big gongs heralded the end of a sutra and the beginning of another. Cymbals, horns and the chiming of bells blended in perfect harmony. I closed my eyes and gave myself up to the prayers. They hummed and ebbed and flowed around me, and in me.

 

Translations:
Gompa: Monastery
Mudra: Refers to the position of hands and feet on a statue. The different positions are each associated with specific meaning.
Thanka: An embroidered wall hanging typically depicting a Bodhisatva
Khata: A silk scarf usually draped around one’s neck is a traditional offering for anyone leaving on a journey
Bodhisatvas: Those who have achieved nirvana but choose to be reborn so that they may help other living beings.
Sutra: A verse or section of a mantra

Of Mountains and Men

Solu Kumbhu, Nepal

11:30 a.m.
June 15th 2000

20150419152713461_0003_rszI am sitting here at the top of the ridge just before descending down to Thukla. Behind me is the long gentle valley that leads to Lobuje and beyond that, the trail to Everest. This small saddle is a collective memorial to all those who have gone this way but have not returned.

Some are elaborate monuments with inscriptions, some are nameless ones, and some are just simple rock cairns. I have been walking around reading the inscriptions. There is one dedicated to Scott Fischer. It reads:

Father of Andy and Katie Rose
He believed in the mountains.

Scott Fischer, May 10, 199620150419152713461_0002_rsz

As I sit here, I imagine the group as they walked toward Everest. Agog with anticipation, they must have walked past the same spot I am sitting on, seen the same views, breathed the same thin air. Being here on the same trail somehow makes Into Thin Air more real than pages of a book. And I remember anew the horror of that tragedy. Horrifyingly real as it was when I read it, it seems even more so now. And that was just one of them. How many more tragedies were there that I do not know of?

There are other monuments too, some grand, some not as grand. Some even have notes attached to them. One little cairn has several paper flags attached to it, with messages scribbled on it in different languages. One of the flags, in English reads:

Hey, Good luck on your trek. Don’t freeze. I’ll meet you at the Everest Steak House for some bloody good dinner.

20150419152713461_0004_rszIt is signed “Tim (Jean)”. Whomever that was written to, didn’t come back and didn’t get to eat dinner at the Steak house. I remember the Everest Steak house. From the room in Tibet Guest House where I had stayed for a couple of days in Kathmandu, I could see it across the road. Small personal reminders that are gut-wrenching. They make me weep. Yet, I wonder why. Each one of these people died doing what they loved best; what they truly believed in. What more can one ask of life?

If I believed in prayer, I would pray for each person here. Perhaps I will – in my own way.