By Leif Whittaker
The spiritual tone of this valley and these mountains is amazingly rich. Prayer flags hang from the corners of every building; mani stones are piled along the trail; memorials for fallen climbers and Sherpa are hidden among the juniper bushes and the dusty hills. One of these memorials is for Jake Breitenback, a young mountaineer who died in the Khumbu Icefall during the 1963 expedition. Visiting this private memorial, tucked in a secluded ridge behind Tengboche, was a powerful moment for my dad and Gombu in 2003.
The accident itself—a serac collapse in Everest’s Khumbu icefall, buried Jake and injured Ang Pema and Dick Pownall—must have been a sad and depressing event for the entire team. This is from my dad’s journal on March 24: “We met the injured. Helped them part-way down. I carried Ang Pema on my back over the steepest section. Then Lute, Willi and I went to the accident scene and dug in the ice blocks an hour, looking for Jake and following his rope under the ice blocks. We found no trace of him and came back through the icefall in the dark using headlamps. Very sad and discouraged.” This tragic event could have ended their expedition, but instead, after a few days of rest, the team pushed into the icefall again and this time made it through safely.
Dave Hahn and I spend a clear morning paying our respects at the memorial. I immediately notice how quiet it is here, away from the pulsing vein of trekkers that clog the valley. I’m reminded of my dad’s return to this spot. I remember looking in his tear-filled eyes, giving him a choked-up hug, and telling him how grateful I felt that he was not the one who had been lost.
I’m reminded of another thing as well. I’m reminded that climbing this mountain can kill you if you don’t respect it. I’m reminded that it has killed hundreds of climbers, many of whom were probably stronger than me. My connection to this fact feels unusually powerful, maybe because I’ve grown up hearing the names carved into these memorials. I crouch next to the timeworn letters, listen to the rumbling Dudh Kosi far below and breathe the thin alpine air, asking in my head for the blessing of the spirits of past climbers that seem so close, so intimate here. On an endeavor like this, we need all the blessings we can get.
The next day, after a few hours of hiking, we stop in Pengboche and visit the home of Lama Geshe. A smile-wrinkled, milky-eyed old man, he sits against the wall of his red and yellow living room. Hundreds of summit photos dedicated to the Lama cover the walls. One by one, we approach the cheerful man and hand him a kata (Nepalese prayer scarf) folded over a modestly sized bill. He takes the kata, dropping the money on the seat beside him, and places it over my shoulders. He extracts a red cord from a pile on a nearby table. Tying this cord around my neck, he pulls me down toward him and touches his forehead to mine. He writes a blessing on an envelope that contains a card with a painting of Jomo Langma (Mt. Everest) on it, and a brief description of the mystical creation of the mountain inside. Once the entire team has received these artifacts and is sitting in the Lama’s living room, he begins chanting and ringing a bell that echoes loudly, throwing rice over us, dispelling all bad spirits. The repetitive sound of the bell and the old man’s voice lull me into a peaceful awareness that seems to melt all the stresses I’ve felt in the last few weeks. I leave the house feeling refreshed.
I’ll carry the red cord around my neck for the rest of the trip and I’ll keep the envelope in my backpack all the way to the summit, as the Lama asked. No matter what people say, there is an aspect of luck in climbing Mt. Everest and I’m not going to test mine.
I feel empowered by the blessings these last few days have provided. Hiking into Pheriche (14,000 feet), where we will spend the next two nights, I’m entranced by the view of these amazing peaks—the highest in the world—that surround us. We’ve been walking for a week now, and my body and mind are almost completely adjusted to life on the trail. We’ll be at base camp in three days and soon, very soon, we’ll be moving through the icefall.
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