Thursday, February 10, 2011
A Day in the Himalaya
We started off at 8 p.m. from 16000 feet and were taking a trail that is used mostly by locals and a handful of trekkers. I had just spoken with my wife on Skype so my spirit was floating. I could tell it would be one of those magical days where there is no structure of time. An open arena where one can become the wind. We started off slow and were headed down valley, the great North ridge of Cholatse shooting straight out of the ground and rising almost 5000 vertical feet to her summit. Our hike was below the vast west face of this mountain who’s snows meet stone, then wild flower.
On this day I was hiking with Gombu. He is the son of my head guide Chapa Sherpa who had passed away in 2008. I had never spoke with Gombu about his fathers passing and was curious about the last minutes of his life. The days of his passing are clear in my mind.
I remember one afternoon in August while I was barefoot in my vegetable garden, Chapa had flashed through my mind. An urgency prompted me to call Nepal. I straightened from the row of carrots I was thinning, washed my bare feet off with the hose and went to make the call. I hadn’t spoken with Chapa in months but now in the middle of the day, on a hot lazy afternoon,the pull to speak with him was unexplainable. Entering my house I noticed the prayer flags that lay in a wooden bowl. They were the vertical prayer flags that attach to a pole so I had not gotten around to hanging them. Deep inside I wanted to hang them on a special day.
When the other end of the line crackled to life it was Gombu. He seemed in good spirits, “Hello Uncle, how are you?”. I became “uncle” to Chapas 6 kids. Chapa and I had worked 15 expeditions together and after each climb we would return to his house for a huge table of food. Dhal Bhat, Chicken Curry, broccoli with Masala, spiced lentils with plenty of rice . I would play with the kids and buy them gum, Chocolate, and treats their parents forbid them to eat. It was always an exciting reunion and even more so when I would announce it was time for all the kids to go for ice cream at the shop 2 doors down. Four of the youngest kids would quickly grab me. Two kids to an arm they would pull me toward the ice cream shop, huge smiles, laughter, and a menu of ice cream being screamed in my ear.
Because of the delay on the phone Gombu repeated “hello Uncle”. “Yes Gombu how are you and family?” “Father is sick he has the flu”. “Gombu can I speak with him?” “Yes OK OK!” I could hear the phone being rustled around. Chapas voice came clear and strong. “Hello Matt.” “Hello Chapa how are you?” His reply was delayed, there was an eery silence. “I am fine Matt but not feeling so well.” I remember being worried and promptly suggested he go to the hospital. We ended the conversation on pleasantries.
The next morning I pass the bowl with the prayer flags and decided today was the day to hang them. I was not quite sure what was so special about the day at the time. When I opened the french doors to my home in West Seattle, the smell of lavender was strong, a monarch butterfly flitted above the koi pond, a light breeze made music with the bamboo leaves. A squirrel had scored a peach from my tree and was happily rolling it down my sloped driveway. The day had a strong sense of peace. I grabbed the 2 sets of prayer flags and hung them in the prominent corner of my yard. Looking up at them flapping in the wind a thousand memories of Himalayan adventures raced through me and again Chapa came to mind and a smile creased the corners of my mouth.
What I would find out later that day in August of 2008 was that Chapa had gone to the hospital that night, the same day in Seattle I had called him out of the blue , on a spontaneous whim. In the night, right around the time I was hanging the Tibetan prayer flags that had sat for 2 years in a wood bowl, Chapa had passed. I received an email from Gombu because it is expensive for them to call. I opened the email about 3 hours after I had planted the prayer flags.
“Dear Uncle, My beloved father has departed this world. I dont know what family life will be without father. In his last breath he whispered your name to me”
As we descended, I couldn’t help but think about Chapas last minutes. After receiving the unbelievable email I had never had a chance to talk with the kids or Chapas wife in detail about what happened. Now the first hour had passed and I was alone with Gombu in a place where I used to walk with Chapa. I asked about the last 10 minutes of chapas life, what did Chapa say? Gombu said "the whole 10 minutes I do not know. The last 3 minutes he said 2 things." The first thing Chapa said to Gombu was: "Gombu do not worry about me, I always have uncle Matt with me". The second thing he said to Gombu: “Gombu, please stick by uncle matt, his heart is of purity, he will take care of you and family". Shocked I asked if that is what exactly what his father said. "Yes". After Gombu’s reply I pulled off the trail. I was trembling and began to cry. Gombu dropped his head. I was in pain. This man took care of me for 15 years in the mountains. He was the living Buddha and I his student. Between the pain and tears I was also happy. Happy that I had a real friend in life. Between sobs I would look up to see huge mountains blurred by tears of happiness and pain. I swung around wildly and looked across a 10 thousand year old glacier, into the rock and ice, dry tundra on the high hills. I could feel Chapa everywhere.
Gombu and I slowly recovered and headed down trail. Two hours pass and we arrive at a stone hut. A Sherpa in his 70s is digging potatos from his terraced garden. These terraces and his stone hut Cheat gravity. Glancing down hill the canyon drops to the river. One slip and it would be a quick arrival at the bottom. I ask the man if he wants help. "yes". No words he just hands me an adze like farming tool. He puffs a cigarette, he has 3 teeth with gaps between, a handmade wool hat sits crooked on his head. His hands are of steel and stone. They make mine look like a fragile orchid protected in a green house, temperature just right. I dig for 15 minutes stop and ask Gombu to dig. We are digging potatoes at 15000ft. A man appears in the door way of the Sherpas house. "This is my brother from Tibet, he has just traveled over the high passes at night to arrive here. He did not want to be detected by the Chinese" I ask his name. "Pasang" he says in a deep growl. He is wild eyed, red cheek bones, a wild horse would be tame looking standing next to him. He has a traditional knife wrapped in his sash around his waist. He smiles a smile that brings down all defenses. We all sip tea outside the door, the valley flowing below, wind, a high sun.
We continue. An hour passes. Grey trail dust swirling from the wind, the bright red tundra brush, and white white granite, color and time blend. The occasional purple blue wild iris clump and cling to wind scoured dirt. An hour seems infinite. A typical day on a Himalayan trail where often the world disappears and the walk is a meditation.
I step through an open space in a stone wall that crosses the trail. I run into a man building an outhouse for his mother in law. He is very humble and quiet. Something did not fit. He just did not seem like an outhouse builder. He was strong, his movement smooth. He balanced on the support sticks of the roof, they bent and swayed under his weight but his balance was unchallenged. I asked his name. "Danaru". He came down. He asked " Do I see you in this valley? "Yes" I reply knowing that we have probably crossed paths before. I ask him where he lives. He happens to live in Phortse where my friend Dave works at the climbing school. Danaru has climbed everest 17 times, just 2 times less than my friend Apa. He knows Dave, Apa, and we connect like brothers. His mother in-law brings out hard boiled eggs and black tea. We sit in the pasture like setting in front of a stone house. The village name is “na”. We talk as if we had known each other through the ages, peel the shell from the hard boiled eggs and eat. A few chickens gather around our feet hoping for a morsel and pecking at the shells.
He finishes his tea and begins working on the outhouse. I shoulder my pack and continue. It is a connection that will last a life time. Just before we drop over the rim of the river gorge I hear a whooop. Look back and Danaru is waving from the top of the outhouse both hands above his head, a smile that says, “I will see you again”.
It is afternoon maybe 2 p.m. We are in the deep gorge of the Dudh Kosi, words than mean milk river. The sun is passing below the far ridges in the West. A chill sets in but the warmth of the people we have met today and the angels that still accompany us produces a fire inside of me. I turn to Gombu and say “What a day”. He smiles and being a Sherpa from the City knows he has experienced a magical day in the Himalaya, his fathers spirit close at hand.