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Backpacker Magazine – October 2002

Dreams Of Tibet: Exploring Lost Himalayan Mountains And Cultures

Deep in the heart of the forbidden Tibetan kingdom, a long-awaited adventure inherited from the author's father takes an unexpected twist.

by: John Harlin


Mountains are heartless bastards who care nothing for human ambition. We spent 5 days acclimatizing while carrying camps ever higher up the peak. The climbing was exhilarating-we front-pointed up frozen waterfalls and balanced on the edges of bladelike pinnacles. At 17,000 feet, we sliced a sleeping platform just 6 inches wider than our tent; steep slopes plunged thousands of feet in both directions. At the end, we felt good and strong and fully primed for a 4,000-foot dash for the summit, ready even for the tentless bivouac we half-expected on the way down. But it had snowed every day we spent on the mountain, building ever deeper in layers that we watched peel off in avalanches all around. And during dinner that evening, it snowed more furiously than ever until suddenly we felt like cornered rats. We knew our position was growing more dangerous by the minute. There was only one choice, but I waited, avoided it, forced Mark to give voice to my own growing fear. By 1 a.m. we were back in basecamp, tails clutched between our legs. I remembered Harrer saying that people often asked him about self-discovery in the mountains. But self-analysis wasn't Harrer's way. He told me, "I don't know whether I discovered myself when I climbed a difficult mountain and my clothes were soaking and freezing. I tried to survive without any need for philosophical explanation." I share Harrer's love of doing over mental processing. But from where I sat by the smoldering rain-soaked campfire, Harrer's operative verb had been "climbed," which translates to "accomplished my goal." Mine was "failed to climb," otherwise known as "loser." Here I was 12,000 miles from home, having invested way too much, poised to fulfill a mountaineer's greatest dream-a spectacular line up a big virgin peak in a remote corner of the globe. It could have been so glorious. I could have done myself and my father proud. I could have relieved pressure from the boiling pot of personal expectations. Instead, I had notched up another in my private list of ambitions foiled.

In the morning, Tenzin went to fetch our packhorses, and a day later we heard the familiar tinkling of harness bells and felt the gentle beaming smiles of their owners, who cared only for our safe return. I was already feeling a better place being stirred within. Was this peak-the name of which I hadn't known until a week ago-really the object of my 20 years of Tibetan dreaming? I recalled something else Harrer had said to me. Like us, he'd come to the Himalaya intent on etching his personal mark on climbing history. He'd failed on Nanga Parbat, landed in a prisoner of war camp, then escaped to spend his 7 years in Tibet. His character was molded by that journey, with cultural gifts proving so rich that climbing never meant quite as much to him again. By the time I met him, Harrer was 79 and felt that anyone focused solely on climbing was too narrow-minded for his taste. Richness of character, he said, came from richness and diversity of experience. Maybe those circles on Mark's map weren't the point of this journey. Maybe my mind was broader than that; perhaps my real dream had more to do with exploration than conquest, people than pitons.

Mark and I had already pulled out the map and studied it anew, with altered goals. We'd noticed that the large valley above Bassom Tso led away from the road to increasingly remote villages. And there, between 1,000-foot contours, we thought we spied a high pass leading into another drainage that would allow us to loop below Bassom's outlet to more communities and finally back up to Tsogo. It appeared we could visit villages rarely seen by Westerners, and throw in a little physically challenging exploration to boot. There seemed to be a silver lining to our storm.

The horses brought us back to Tsogo, where we could leave our expedition gear before striking off for parts unknown. Delighted to see us safe, our horsepacker's mother, Tsewangzoma, 53, worked the plunger on the large cylinder used for mixing salted yak-butter tea. Before serving us, she splashed an offering to the gods at the edge of the open fire in her living room (on the second story of her home), then filled our cups and resumed her wool-spinning on the wooden floor. Her spindles slipped neatly into small divots in the hand-hewn floorboards. Strips of yak flesh hung over the fire, while smoke drifted upward toward a hole in the ceiling. Chickens dropped in from the open ceiling to scavenge the floor. I felt a long, long way from home.

We found that no one in Tsogo really knew whether any of our possible passes were passable, but locals said someone in Tsala, a day's hike closer, would surely have an idea. This suited Mark and me just fine; the more mysterious our route, the better. The next morning, after relieving ourselves in the built-on outhouse-a wooden throne overhung the side of the house and pigs rushed in to clean up our droppings-it was time for us to hit the trail.

In Tsala the next night, we gathered 'round another cookfire with a 70-year-old great grandmother and various friends and family of young Tenzin, our horsepacker and host in Tsogo (he shared the common Tibetan name with our guide from Lhasa). Young Tenzin disappeared for a couple of hours, returning with a middle-aged man who emptied a plastic sack onto the floor by the hearth. They pulled out a couple of toothbrushes, and together they began scrubbing dirt off several hundred dried creatures that looked like deformed earthworms. These were in fact caterpillars with a fungus that protruded out the head like a giant horn. The delightful combination grew only at certain altitudes and only in these regions; they could be sold from trader to trader until they reached markets in Taiwan or mainland China. Believed to improve virility, they commanded exponentially increasing prices at each transaction. Various of young Tenzin's friends and distant relatives came and went during the evening, talking to our hosts, admiring the stash of "caterpillar fungus," but mostly stealing glances at us. Westerners pass through Tsala at most once a year, and even this limited contact began very recently. We were more exotic to them than they were to us.




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