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Adventures and insights on Everest’s flanks

Paint us another Rhodo, Chomo

for B.+ R. who have lived the Himalaya’s difficult beauty

Okay look, I want to get this out of the way right from the start. Chomolungma (8848 m), the great Mother Goddess of the world for Tibetans, Sagarmatha for Nepalese, or Everest for most of the rest of us, is not really, as they say, my thing. Yes, it’s part of my title–and for good reason–but if you’re expecting another chilling account of a grand or ill-conceived expedition up its vertigo-inducing heights, well, to quote the young sherpas with mirror-shades, Forget about it, ji.

Firstly, there are the crowds. I tend to go to stretch my legs in the mountains so I can largely avoid those. I could add to this unsavory reality by talking about the everso sacred cash required to have your noble self escorted (or not) up secured ladders and anchored lines. But I won’t.

Campers at Everest Base Camp, Nepal

I will say something about the garbage, all the stuff left behind by the crowds. Lots of it. That’s a substantial problem, one that is growing into something we should consider calling sacrilegious. If that isn’t addressed seriously, then even my own modest capacity for fantasy could construct a scenario in which the towering Chomolungma–or just Chomo to the polysyllabic-challenged like myself–takes her revenge. As she should. But don’t despair because the upside is that Disney will produce a spectacular animated version of the entire alpine apocalypse and make billions at the global box office.

Before I forget, when it comes to the mountain giants, I should comment on their death zones.

Don’t like them. Enough said, right?

Okay, if forced to pad what is perfectly clear on its own, there are perhaps one or two things. Though I or you could expire at any moment, and I begrudgingly accept that—even though it would be nice for a change if your beauty preceded my age on this one– I generally don’t follow one of Billy the Bard’s measured dukes in being “absolute for death.” Moreover, when it comes to those very real not-to-be thresholds, I don’t like the additional cumbersome gear needed to get up there, beyond, and back. Or, to put it more painfully, I just don’t need that kind of thin air with its pounding cudgel on the skull foreshadowing my imminent end. Sorry to the masked ones with forefinger held high to Chomo’s sky, but I prefer keeping all my fingers, toes, and silly self. Less importantly perhaps, but no less vital, going way up there just isn’t necessary in order to experience the singular euphoria that often comes from trekking in the majesty of the Himalaya or mountains in general.

150414shutterstock_158784116I’ve been as high as 6000 meters, so I guess I’m no slouch in the slow crawl up into less voluptuous oxygen. Yet I have also been captive of that sublime intensity in the head and heart during walks in the more wee, 1000-meter heights of, for example, Scotland’s highlands. Overall, the numbers game just doesn’t interest me– unless, of course, I’m counting packets of rice or noodles that will give my austere belly very too much exalted happiness.

Besides, if I may amplify, traversing death zones isn’t the only so-called difficult pleasure of alpine experience. In fact, when a person is that high up, one might argue that consciousness has very little grasp of any notion of “pleasure,” difficult or otherwise. It is perhaps only when the climber is fortunate enough to return to much lower altitude that deep satisfaction can actually begin. But that derives more from the realization of the accomplished feat; whatever we might call what was existing inside her or him above 7000 meters is now dead. It is not, I would contend, the same as the visceral mindfulness of ascending or descending moments and the exuberant, synergistic play of thought, emotion and imagination that suffuses you quite consistently below the killer-crush zones, whether climatic conditions are indigo-sky gorgeous or towards the drizzling misty mysterious.

So this raises the question: what else exactly is there? Especially when your primary motive is not necessarily to get to the top of a rocky colossus but more so to simply be present–physically, mentally, even spiritually–for all of it: sinking in and bathing like a child in startling beauty; remembering and drifting in nature’s familial music; succumbing to full silences, yours or yours blended entirely into a landscape choreography; laughing or even crying with all the untamed verses, typically slanted, that different footsteps on the trail cause to spring up from buried memory; or enduring inevitable, but sometimes unexpected, hardship or challenge. If there is no actual coherence, order or linearity to life—as Mr. Beckett had us believe–then we typically impose our narratives on the ever-present shunyata (Buddhist word for the emptiness or void). So please indulge my imposition– an elaboration wherein Chomolungma is not a Mephistophelean avenger, but rather a creative Himalayan shaman painting my unfurled magic carpet with brilliant rhododendrons. But of course, due to Chomo’s renowned taskmaster impatience with humans, we are often forced to shortened this to “rhodos.”

Chomolungma mountainscape, Nepal

It starts with a foggy day moving towards a path of mild ascent. Views are obscured most of the way to Manebhanjang on my all-morning busride from Darjeeling in India’s West Bengal state. It’s one of those typical “life-is-cheap” buses with every square foot of floor, seat, roof, or door space occupied. While I could certainly grumble about the sardine-squeeze discomfort and, moreso, the general precariousness of these winding, bumpy roads that can at times have you praying to Vishnu, your only possible protector and preserver, I can’t complain about the occasional pea-soup day.

On the contrary, once my boots are on terra firma, I rather enjoy the shift in atmosphere. There’s a darting chill on the skin as the milk-white concoction pours over you; it’s invigorating. The blustery wind seems to expand and gather force like a haunting Tibetan Buddhist dung or long trumpet . At first, you submit to it and then quickly marvel at how it takes over the steerage of your body driven rhapsodically through the fog.

Shrine near Everest, NepalThe first leg of my walk is taken rather leisurely, lasting about three-and-a-half to four hours. It’s the right approach since the overall climb in altitude is from 2000 to 3000 meters. Best to give the bumbling brain a bit more time to acclimate. There, that’s better. The fix is in: left hemisphere functioning reasonably; right hemisphere, per usual, lost amongst the infinite procession of rainbow-colored prayer flags. But soon these colors are dwarved by even more compelling mountain-forest wizardry.

Along the stone path, the curtain of fog starts to rise over its stage. And the valley below appears like an enormous cluster of rosy-cheeked burlesque dancers. At least, that’s the saucy metaphor shaman Chomo planted in my head. Before me, a whole chorus line of rhododendrons (from the ancient Greek, meaning “rose tree”). They’re all aglow. Just for wee me. Or so we sometimes think when the mountains usurp us completely with their dominating power, allowing us to be deceived into the feeling, if just for a fleeting instant, that we are the noble bodhisattvas of this resplendent land laid out before us.

There are heaps of them anchored on the hillside– rhodo trees, that is, not bodhisattvas. Successive waves of crimson-pink petals rolling out and beyond as if these crests of alluring corollas are part of a tidal current pulled by Chomo’s massive orbit. Treading that petalled ocean, I suddenly begin to remember a few years ago, in the spring, planting a rhodo shrub in my own back garden, giving it the special care it requires, fixing the acidity of the soil just so. Normally, I plant local perennials that have to be hardy enough to endure the expected cruelties and injustices of the seasons–just like the rest of us. But this time, I broke with tradition and especially devoted myself to my rhodo because of previous travels during which the rich bounty of its bloom seduced me. Yes, trite but true: love or the love of beauty can make us do crazy things. As you can guess, then, I could only enjoy that raucous regalia for one season as my sweet baby- rhodo perished over the winter.

Chomolungma, near Everest,  Himalayas

According to what I’ve read, there are about a thousand different species within the genus, rhododendron. For months, as spring ran into summer, I grieved that too-early death in my backyard. While largely native to Asia and Australia, there are still some types of rhododendrons that grow quite fine in North America and Europe. So where did I go wrong? was the question taunting me, my own lighter form of self-flagellation.

But then the question turned. Maybe it wasn’t me. Maybe I could blame the dastardly caterpillars. Or the root rot. Or some kind of nefarious fungal dieback. Seemingly an endless supply of scapegoats in nature’s soil. But sadly, I quickly returned to my own anxiety. Perhaps Joseph Conrad was right: we live as we dream– alone. Certainly I was all alone, accusing my throbbing thumbs bereft of green.

When I see all these flowering rhodo trees and bushes tantalizingly here in the Himalaya, I have to do it. This is what fiction is for. So I’m readily convinced that this is, in fact, where they belong, thriving at altitudes of 10,000 to 13,500 feet. During another trip, going up to Lake Changu (a sacred site at almost 4000 m for both Buddhists and Hindus) out of Gangtok (capital of Sikkim state), I would see the blood-red variety staunchly defending embankments at 12,000 ft. At times, there can be quite a stark juxtaposition between the general harshness of the terrain and the visible and tactile delicacy of those veined petals and the often bold pointillism of the anthers and stigma that they shield. You can–and should–feel humbled by the seeming ferocity of these rhodo species’ survival instinct at this inhospitable height.

Near Everest, NepalAfter my long surf on the rolling hues, I head to my first night’s destination. When I arrive at the trekkers’ hut (a typical fieldstone and plankboard alpine structure with corrugated-iron roof) at Tonglu (3070 m), I’m the only one here, so lots to choose from their supply of thirty beds with thick quilts and woolen blankets provided. I have an opportunity to talk with Tshering Sherpa (39 years old) and his wife, Lamu (28) who have been caretaking the Ghorka council-run hut for over ten years. They have four children who are being schooled in another village lower down the mountain. I cozy up in their small shack adjacent to the trekkers’ hut, getting warmed by the fire in the clay stove, as well as by the yummy veg thukpa (noodle soup), chapatis and milk chai prepared by Lamu. They teach me some more Nepali, and I offer them a glimpse of what life in Canada is like—sort of– by singing a rousing version of Stompin’ Tom Connors’ “The Newfie Song.”

Of course, having just come in from ogling the sky’s dazzle of star-power, I think it’s suitably relevant to the occasion because the song’s protagonist, Codfish Dan, is, after all, a beautiful dreamer, netting his fish in our Milky Way. That’s right; I’m all about connections even if they sometimes seem to exist exclusively in my own cranium. Surprisingly, it’s really hard to determine if the looks on the faces of Lamu, Tshering and their kids could be characterized as those of fear or amusement. I try to settle for the latter and afterwards paste on the most stellar rendition of a harmless, beatific smile that I can muster. Soon after, I’m easily persuaded there had to have been some sort of aphorism or juicy lesson wrapped up in all of that most significant cultural exchange because, when I recline on my bed in the suitably vacant hut, there beside me is a translated copy of the parables of Premchand (nom de plume of an Indian writer–in Hindi and Urdu–born in a village near Varanasi, 1881-1936). Proudly armed, I search Premchand in vain for some kind, any kind, of link that might unpack the unpackable. Luckily, though, the dim light and the fine print angle the quest rather quickly across borders into my own delinquent dreams.

Tonglu isn’t too far from the Nepalese border. In fact, when I return to the path in the morning, heading towards Mount Sandakphu (3636 m), I’m aware that I’ll be crossing into Nepal through the village of Jobari. Fortunately, visas aren’t required for such a pass-through, so the only thing to possibly hope or pray for is a clear view up at Sandakphu because at that vantage point you can get a vista on not just Chomolungma, but the three other plus-8-thousanders that inevitably learn the high art of shamanism from Chief Chomo: Makalu (or “Big Black,”another Sanskrit name for Shiva, at 8475 m), Lhotse (or “South Peak,” at 8501 m), and Kangchenjunga (or “Five Treasures of the High Snow,” at 8586 m).

Yaks near Everest, Nepal

Heading toward the Sherpa Lodge (3600 m), located below Mt. Sandakphu’s summit, I’m a captivated witness to more rhodo rioting. At one point, though it wasn’t near my twelfth night, a scene popped strangely into my head– Sir Toby Belch prodding Andrew Aguecheek, shortly after his arrival at the estate, to “properly” greet his niece’s maid, Maria:

Toby: Accost Sir Andrew, accost!

Andrew: What’s that? … Good Mistress Mary, Accost –

Toby: You mistake, knight, ‘accost’ is front her, board her, woo her, assail her.

On today’s walk I wanted nothing more than to be lavishly accosted by more of Chomo’s rhodos. Frankly, quite an orgiastic accost, too, as there are–according to Dhurga, the Singalila National Park checkpost guard–over forty-five varieties of rhodos getting up to beautiful eros in this protected area (at 7000 ft.). There are entire sun-dappled harems of the blood-red sort, but also the tiny, delicate white blooms on miniature trees which seem to look like lost children, out of place, especially amidst some of the large, self-important sultans in this vast swathe of mountainside. Those sultans, apart from oak and erupting clusters of bamboo, would be the magnolias with their massive creamy-white blooms whose petals’ edges are stitched in interior clamshell pink. The individual petals are almost six to seven centimeters in length. When they’re in full upward obeisance to Chomo, it looks, from afar, as if the boughs are filled with morning doves having their morning constitutional in the early sun. On some of the narrower stone paths up the mountain, the way is at times carpeted in red-satin rhodo petals as though the trees themselves, following Chomolungma’s prescriptions, were in ritualistic preparation for another humble pilgrim’s arrival.

Friends of mine who have lived in a village embracing a mountainside in India’s western Himalaya have told me, part jokingly, that there can be quite a competition between the red macaques and the villagers for the rhodo blossoms. If Peter Sellers’ character in the film, The Party, were writing this, he’d say it’s because they are very birdy-num-num. The flowers apparently can be tasty on their own, popped into the mouth, or, for the locals, tossed into a salad, stirred into a refreshing juice, or transformed into a spicy chutney.

Hikers in the Himalayas, NepalReading some of Singalila Park’s own literature, the fauna here can be nearly floral: black bear, leopard, wild boar, barking deer, marten, serow, takin, pika, anteater, and even red panda, which have been re-introduced. Sadly, I don’t see any of these. Even the recorded one hundred-and-twenty species of birds, some of which are rare, are coy; understandably so given what one mere human can represent in terms of their habitat loss and other palpable threats to their existence. So there’s no fire-tailed myzornis or satyr tragopan or golden breasted fulvetta, not even a chestnut-capped babbler. Turning a corner, however, I am lucky to be pleasantly shocked by a retreating blood pheasant. But I really wanted to be accosted by a rufous-vented tit. Chomolungma, I suppose, didn’t deem me worthy enough.

I was feeling rather blessed from 6 to 9 am this morning as the winds blew the clouds all the way to Bhutan. Or so I imagined. In addition to the rhodo feast, I had amazing views of Kangchenjunga, but none yet of Chomo. However, as with my outstanding flatulence–usually seeded from all the dhal (India’s dietary staple, lentils)–the fog, too, eventually does return.

Getting lost on a mountain path in the thick broth is complicated. On one hand, it’s an extraordinary experience being up there, enveloped in the damp vapors where, I can assure you, I have yet to grasp hand or wing of angel. But it can literally and metaphorically tap you into the larger mysteries, as your skin gets licked by Chomo’s far-reaching tongue and your vision in the big opaque turns inward, and you somehow feel yourself—like water itself—changing form, combining with all that is pulsing at that very moment. Of course, all of these more lovely responses come from having your head survive being in the clouds. The other side of the experience can be far less about downy pillows upon which to dream away.

Normally I only take short-cuts for a specific reason like an injury or a dwindling water supply. I’m not sure why I opted for what I thought was one on today’s walk. It’s easiest to blame Chomo, egging me on so that in the getting lost, I could be found. Well done, Chomo, well done. Instead, I had other very real, sometimes tense, visions.

Yak carrying equipment, Nepal HimalayasUnderstandably, I always have my map and compass and, even if I don’t really need them, I’m very focused in situations like these on my visual markers in case I have to retrace my steps. The further I get away from the main path today, and the more time passes, the deceptively comforting chant begins within: Hickory-dickory dock, main path just beyond that rock. But clearly, Chomo’s not impressed with my feckless chanting, as the prime way just doesn’t materialize.

In its place, the big brume sweeps back in and, as my heart rapidly ticks away into descending night, it appears as though the cover has, in its chilly density, intentions of moving in, spreading out, and staying for maybe a century or two. That’s when I begin to see myself spending the night wandering through the brambles on the mountainside searching for an exit route or, worse, curling up under a rock and resigning myself to a return to the soil (if it would have me). When my imagination starts to get really whipped up, the soup around me becomes amrit (heavenly nectar), and I drink in huge drafts. Soon, I must be drunk or just pagal (crazy) because, with my laughter, my arms open up: sultry, exquisitely beautiful Parvati (consort of Shiva) is riding down on a swan from one of Chomo’s high clouds to rescue me with hot milk chai and pakoras (as any truly good-good boy might expect from his goddess of salvation).

The real story is not as interesting– fog clears and lost boy finds path to freedom (ah, that is, hot thukpa and chai up at the Sherpa Lodge below Mt. Sandakphu). The last steep bit up has my interior furnace working harder because it’s getting rather cold. Painted on a concrete embankment before reaching the top, some giddy sage has left his wisdom: No sweet with no sweat. But even sages have to pick their moments. And at this particular one, with my own sweat rolling into my eyes after almost seven hours of walking, someone desperately needs to work on his message if not his medium.

After a very cold night wearing multiple layers under I don’t know how many blankets, I get up at about 4:30 am, followed by a couple of other foreigners, to make the last short climb up Sandakphu (West Bengal’s highest peak). One source I came across says that the word “Sandakphu” translates as “mountain of poisonous plants.” I’m really not sure how accurate this is; however, it apparently derives from the growth of cobra lilies in the area. Good enough for me. I’ll fight or avoid a thriving plant over a live cobra any day of the week.

With a hot milk chai kick-starting my chilly pre-dawn, I was grateful that there was nothing coiling up my pant leg on the way up– only the feeling of taut muscles in my jaunty stride towards the summit. At 5:30, buffeted by wind, we’re waiting in dusk for Chomolungma and her three big shaman babies to wail in the rising sun. For the time being, the heavy clouds have more or less deserted us (probably another trip to Bhutan or maybe Tibet this time).

Slowly, the pale ocher light inches in. As it splashes onto higher ridges and rough faces, from this distance, all the angular heads mastering the hard heights look as though they’re composed of semi-translucent, white marble. There’s deep silence for a long while. The shamans’ vital resonances have swept out all other sound, leaving us brimming over in the quiet. Which is as it should be. Until I hear a low moan.

It’s coming from one of the really young things—on Sandakphu not Chomo’s flanks. I guess she couldn’t suppress it any longer.

Mountain landscape, Himalayas

It’s so awesome, she finally says, with something akin to Twilight-vampire reverence.

It is very sundari (beautiful), I whisper back. But just wait.

She has a perplexed look on her face, but I quickly swivel back to continue staring at the world’s top shaman and her disciples, their bold egg-white headdresses drenched now in early morning sun juice.

Wait for what? she finally asks anxiously.

I don’t turn towards her; I keep gazing out as though hypnotized. From my pocket, I hand her a soft, blood-red petal.

Then, into the wind coursing down Sandakphu, I say respectfully, Paint us another rhodo, Chomo.

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

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