ET at Everest

SYNOPSIS: About Mount Everest, the Base Camp, a Fortune Teller, and Karma.

It’s all about Karma, Sergej believes. Some people have to wait for days before they see the famous North side of Everest, we don’t have the time to wait. Others get lucky. The first chance we had to see Everest was from a viewpoint along the road. We saw the lower mountain range, but Everest itself was shrouded in clouds. Did we drive all this way, to see nothing? Did we have enough Karma, or as I would say, luck?

We had gotten a 2-hour late start in the morning. We arrived in Shigatse after 4 PM on a Saturday and the permit office closed at 2 PM. I could tell by the look in Tenzin’s face that he did not know about this, and that he worried that we had to wait until Monday. But at 10 AM on Sunday, the permit office opened for those who had missed the boat; for people just like us… By 11 AM we were on the road but the anticipated 7 km evening walk listed on our program was out of the question. We would arrive too late for that. The best we could hope for was a good, clear, evening view of the holy mountain. Our chances for that did not look promising judging by the viewpoint.

At 8848 meters, Everest is among the highest mountains in the world. Only experienced mountain climbers, and among those, only the ones who can cough up $50,000 for the hike (sherpas, equipment, insurance, etc) will even think about climbing Everest. Still, an astonishing number of people are doing just that. Ordinary people like us only reach the base camp, a two-lane row of about 50 tents made of black yak wool. Each tent is owned privately. Tea, food, and blankets are provided. Wooden benches line the square of the tent. In the middle, there is a burner that is fueled by little pebbles of goat poop and doubles up as heater and cooking stove. Beautiful textiles decorate the benches and the walls. It is comfortable and warm in there. Up to ten people can sleep in each tent. The four of us were assigned tent #52. But when we arrived, we hardly wasted a moment as the unexpected had happened: Everest shone in all of its beauty in the evening sun. We had about 1/2 hour before dark and we were running for our photo ops.

A field of stones with some cairns that had been built by previous visitors provided an unobstructed view of this beautiful cone. Luck or karma? Hard to tell. We just could not believe that we actually stood there. It is one of those “wow” moments in life, of which there are not too many. Something chokes up in you and it is hard to tell what it is: The beauty of the site? The fact that it took so much to get here and that you actually made it? Or is it after all the holiness ascribed to this place that gets the better of you? Perhaps, it is a bit of all three. A near full moon hung over the cliffs to the right of the mountain and made it all even more wonderful. The 1/2 hour passed fast. It was cold up here! We now were at 5200 meters and at temperatures below freezing.

Our tent provided a most welcome haven of warmth. By around 10 PM I rolled up in my sleeping bag and the added heavy blanket. Once the stove would go out, it would be nearly as cold inside this tent as it was outside. I am on my altitude pills now and so far, I am doing well. When I rush, even a hundred yards (as I did to reach the end of the camp), I can tell that I don’t have enough air to breathe. But if I take it slowly, all is well.

I was told that the guys were up until 2 AM partying and talking religion and politics. I am sorry I missed it, but I have to take it easy if I don’t want to tempt fate. I feel very vulnerable “up here”.

The morning came fast. If the weather was clear, we would do the 7 km towards the mountain via shuttle bus rather than walking. And it was! A clear blue sky and the sun still hidden behind the flanking mountains, Everest glowed in the early morning light.

We got as far as non-climbers are allowed. A hill covered with prayer flags and more cairns mark the spot. In the distance we could see the camp of the climbers, a bunch of small yellow tents. How did these people stay warm?! Yaks were resting nearby. They are used as pack animals.

Half way back, Tenzin, our guide stopped the van to get out with us. Sergej had mentioned a couple of days ago, that he wanted to consult a fortune teller about his future. Perched up on the hill was a small monastery and a meditation cave ascribed to Padmasambhava with just one monk in residence, who also was known as a fortune teller. We hiked up the 50 or so steps (Tenzin and Sergej went up like gazelles, with me following like a turtle). In a tiny dark room equipped with a stove on which the ever-present milk tea was boiling, there was a middle-aged monk who welcomed us. He would take your question(s) and then roll the dice in a cup which he would hold on his forehead. Depending on the roll of the dice he would consult scripture or formulate an answer on his own. Sergej heard what he had expected all along. It looks like he is on the right path with the turns he took in his recent life. Tenzin also had questions. At age 27 he does not seem to find a wife that is right for him and he was contemplating to become a monk. There was an affirmative “no” to that idea. The monk instead advised him to be patient. I contemplated a question but then decided against it. I have had my fortune read by a shaman in Peru using coco leaves, and once in America, I consulted a psychic. That’s enough for now.

But for Sergej, the place could not have been more auspicious. At the foothills of Everest, his life’s choices had been confirmed. He had come one step closer in his quest for answers.

We packed up and got back on the road. We had a long way to go before we would reach Mount Kailash, the ultimate destination on this journey. A few kilometers down the road, a spring comes down from the mountains. Its presence is marked by prayer flags and cairns. It is crystal clear and the locals ascribe all kinds of powers to it. Water from this spring is considered holy. We all rinsed our faces and hands, filled up our bottles, and went on our way, blessed by the powers of the water.

Bon Voyage!