Thoughts and Adventures From Greenlite Heavy Industries

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Manaslu Part 23


On the afternoon of our eighth day we passed through the village of Lo where we began the descent into the Upper Nubri Valley. I scrambled for a good camera angle as a procession of six women, each carrying a doko filled with firewood, came silently past. I could see how their namlos pressed against their scalps limiting their gaze to the dust of the trail and the heels of their companions. I felt fit enough to climb one of the world’s highest mountains, but would have struggled to heft the burden easily carried by these women.

The Upper Nubri Valley is a broad expanse of weedy brown pastureland and small garden plots, each maybe an acre in size. We had left Seattle in the spring, flew to the warm summer sun of Kathmandu, were now in the gray skied brown earthed season of autumn, and would soon find winter on the white omnipresent slopes of Manaslu. With nothing to divert its progress the trail led straight across the valley floor before finally disappearing through a mile-distant kani. We were now at eleven thousand feet above the level of the sea and crisp air and lightened loads hurried our Garung porters towards home. They had dropped their loads in Samagaon, collected their pay and would now backtrack in three days what had taken us a week to ascend. Spread across the flat valley the distant porters resembled a retreating army only until they came near, whereupon we saw the content smiles of people who had more than earned the pay in their pockets. Brian stopped a young permanently grinning man, the strongest in this group of strongmen, and slid a thick fold of rupees into his pocket saying, “I know you don’t understand what I’m saying, but I felt you were my friend, good luck.” As we passed, each porter stopped and with clasped hands wished us namaste – good luck, God be with you. Through the lens of my intrusive camera I had come to know the face of each porter, no man or woman passing us on that trail was a stranger to me, and the intensity of their concern for six frivolous foreigners rested on me like a leaden cloak.

It is a strange thing for a Western person to feel, and to feel quite viscerally, the concern of a stranger. We hadn’t done these people any favors, instead we’d bought a hard day’s labor for the price of a cup of coffee, and their gratitude could have easily slid me into the role of benevolent prince: yes yes my children think nothing of my generosity. I didn’t want to be just another great white hunter.

The final mile of the day passed slowly, Jerome, weakened by a gastro-intestinal infection, was reduced to nearly dragging his feet while Brian, Khan Cha and I hovered around him like three bothersome grandmothers. Whatever was churning Jerome’s stomach seemed to be eroding his body also, he was no longer able to carry his daypack and was truly wasting away before our eyes. Though he leaned heavily on his trekking poles Jerome kept his back straight and vertical, he was a proud man and though he wanted to do was to collapse into his tent he walked tall.

As we made our way across the broad weedy floor of the Nubri Valley, I saw, on a distant tree-lined hill, the Samagaon Monastery. In the low afternoon light, the gold dome of the central temple created a small sun rising above the gray stone village. At the entrance to the village a triangular mani wall split the trail like a wedge; I naturally took the left fork.

Our eighth day of trekking ended at the village of Samagaon. Here Nawang had paid and dismissed our Garung porters, and set to finding local men and women willing to carry our gear four thousand vertical feet to base camp. Samagaon is eleven thousand feet above sea level, and is situated in a broad scrubby valley between Manaslu to the south and the white glacier covered boundary peaks to the north.
Though the citizens of Samagaon pay taxes to Kathmandu they are ethnically Tibetan, and look, speak and dress differently than the Garung people who farm the lower valley. It was while walking through the town of Deng, one day’s walk from Samagaon, that I noticed the change. Mani walls, chortens, Kanis and prayer wheels began to line the trail, and the teardrop-shaped domes of hill top gombas began to appear, shining gold beneath the midday sun. The mani walls, some well over one hundred feet long, and containing anywhere from a few dozen to well over a thousand intricately carved stone panels, regularly divided the trial and they, like all other sacred structures, are passed on the left. The kanis, rough stone structures that form an arch over the trail, were my favorite as their rugged exterior belied a bright interior decorated with delicate thonka paintings. As we passed through the fantastic kani on the outskirts of Samagaon Brian commented, “well the secret of life is written right here, now all we have to do is learn how to read.” What distinguishes Samagaon from the other villages of the Nubri Valley is the large gomba – a Buddhist monastery - located on a hill overlooking the town. Manaslu, in turn, overlooks the gomba.

We camped in the courtyard of the nearly completed Mt. Manaslu Hotel, and after eight days on the trail this was the first teahouse, or trekkers hotel, we had encountered. The proprietor of the hotel, Fergu, immediately befriended the team and would come to form an especially close relationship with my teammate Scott Boettcher. As it turned out Fergu was an up and coming entrepreneur who had started with a small store – the hand painted sign over the door of this closet-sized establishment advertising “Cold and Hard Drinks” remained nailed to a building on the other side of town – got a loan to build his hotel, and as it neared completion was actively constructing a school where he plans to teach. Fergu spoke excellent English and said that he wanted to improve life in his native village without eroding the culture. He also confessed that the village leaders resented the fact that though he didn’t have a traditional leadership role he controlled most of the economic wealth of the village and therefore his voice sounded more loudly than it traditionally should have. Fergu’s brother is a monk at the gomba, and it was he who invited us to a ceremony to be given in our honor.

Fergu said that he would meet us at three o-clock in front of his hotel, and since I had little to do and did not want to miss the ceremony I took up residence on a rough wooden bench next to the loom which Fergu’s sister, Tashi Lama, had set up in the courtyard. At three I was joined by Brian and another climber, Dan Percival, and at four thirty Fergu arrived stating that the monks were ready. Fergu led us up a tree-lined path leading to Pema Choling, or the main temple, where we ducked through a brightly painted doorway and entered the dimly-lit sanctuary. The monks, shoeless and clad in burgundy robes, sat placidly on the periphery of the room, while a dozen closely cropped boys, who I guessed to be students, sat in two parallel rows down the center. One of the young monks winked as I passed by. We were seated on a low bench and after a brief silence the monks began a low methodic chant, the deep baritone voices sounded as one and the sound waves washed over me and encircled my head like fine juniper incense.

I know little about Buddhist theology other than Buddhists recognize no omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent being, in other words no God, and therefore the chants that drifted out of the monastery windows and rode the afternoon breeze towards the summit of Manaslu were not what we Westerners call prayers. One doesn’t need to speak Italian to understand the plot of an opera and nor did I need to speak Tibetan to understand the meaning of these chants. The monks were wishing us luck and safety; they were generating positive energy and directing it towards us. They gave us what that they had.

The ceremony lasted for nearly two hours, long enough for me to give some thought to who I am, where I was and what I was doing there. I realized that though I am far from perfect I had arrived at Manaslu a descent person, and that if I had to justify my life I could. After the ceremony I walked alone into the juniper forest beneath Manaslu, looked up at its needle-sharp East Pinnacle and told whoever was listening that I had come to this mountain as a fit, prepared and basically descent person, that I would give up possession of what I couldn’t control and would closely guard that which I could. If Manaslu wanted to kill me I was going to die and there was nothing I could do about it, but on the other hand I wasn’t going to make it an easy job. I knew that in order to summit I had to first make peace with myself and with the mountain, if I planned to go mano a mano with Manaslu I was going to lose.

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