MOUNTAINS THAT MADE ME WHO I AM: Part One – Nepal

Moonrise over Nuptse and Everest

I should be in Greenland now, dogsledding with the Thule Inuit, but injury has caught up with me once again. Sidelined with a broken arm (thanks to a Mexican horse), I have decided to revisit some of my early adventures, the ones on which my love for high, beautiful mountains and rugged wilderness grew into a lifelong passion.  Be forewarned: the photos here are from slides dating back to 1972.

My first climbing schools were in 1967 with the  Edmonton Section of the Alpine Club of Canada.  Despite being spectacularly unfit and terrified of heights, I persevered, ignoring the often vigorous suggestions of fellow club members that I should find some other form of recreation.  Stubbornness has its rewards, however, and eventually I became, if not a good climber, at least one who was no longer a complete hazard on the mountain.  I settled into a routine of weekends in the Canadian Rockies climbing easy peaks.

In 1972 a sabbatical from my university allowed me to spend a month trekking in Nepal.  Starting near Kathmandu, we hiked through leech-infested forests, passed groves of giant rhododendrons, and crossed raging rivers on fragile bridges. After several days we entered the high Rowaling Valley, almost the first western tourists to go there.  At the valley’s end we surmounted 19,000′ Tesi Lapcha pass and descended to Thami and the Everest region, eventually reaching Everest Base Camp.

Nepal was a turning point in my relationship with mountains, and Tesi Lapcha pass was the instrument that turned a simple pastime into a passion.

The young head lama of Thami in 1972

Just below the glacier that flows from Tesi Lapcha pass, we were joined by a young boy who we were surprised to learn was the head lama of Thami.  He had come to the Rowaling Valley for his first visit with his family since being taken away as a small child.  Now on his way back, he was accompanied by a few Sherpas and 2 yaks which his father had donated to the monastery.  From the moment our parties came together until we reached Thami our Sherpas were far more interested in the welfare of this holy figure than in us.  Far from resenting his presence, we knew that we were witness to something very special, something that few other visitors to Nepal would ever experience.

Starting up toward Tesi Lapcha.

Unless one has been there, it is difficult to grasp the scale of the Himalayan landscape.  As a Canadian I was no stranger to glaciers, but the “trade route” over Tesi Lapcha pass filled me with awe.  How could humans be at home in this chaos of sheer rock walls, ugly moraines, vast snow slopes and towering ice?  Yet the Sherpas carried their loads of firewood and baggage with the matter-of-fact air of people crossing a meadow.  The young lama (seen at the far right above) displayed a calm grace and obvious pleasure that belied the perils of the terrain.

Entering the icefall

I had never felt so small and insignificant, yet at the same time so captivated by the savage beauty of a place.  To the Sherpas our crossing was all in a day’s work; for me it was the first encounter with an untameable, primordial geography.  I did not know it at the time, but I would develop a longing for wild, desolate terrain that would rule my life for decades; indeed it still does.

In the icefall

Just how were they going to get the yaks up this?  We had our climbing ropes to use as a hand line and crampons to give us purchase on the slippery surface.  Sure enough, as soon as we westerners were safe our ropes were co-opted to help with the yaks.  With ropes secured to the horns, several Sherpas pulling, even more pushing, the frantic yaks were dragged up the ice and deposited on the snow at the top like so much baggage.  Then the Sherpas, wearing running shoes, brought up their heavy loads, not without difficulty, but as always, without complaining.

Approaching the top of the pass

Among the soaring peaks of the Himalayas, this summit, seemingly swathed in icing, barely rates as a bump. Yet it was one of the most beautiful we saw, painted against the deep blue of the sky.  We spent a night just below the top of the pass. As we descended to Thami, passing first blue poppies, then tufts of green vegetation and finally grass, I felt that I was stepping out of a dream and back into the real world.  Or was it the other way around?

We saw the lama safely to his monastery and were granted an audience and blessing.  I promised myself that I would send him copies of the photos I took of his crossing, but somehow I never got around to it.

A few days later I climbed Kala Patar and trekked to Everest Base Camp, where there was only one set of tents belonging to a British expedition.

Me on the summit of Kala Patar

Khumbu Icefall from Everest Base Camp

While we were camped at Gorak Shep, I watched the full moon rise over Nuptse and Everest, and I asked myself, “What can I ever do to top this?”  I wished that I could reach out and stop the hands of time.  I did not know that this was only the first of many moments when I would ask the same question.