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

The greatest invention in human history is the library, where dreams are born. It was 1979 when I pulled Seven Years In Tibet off the shelf at a university in southern France. I recall tipping open Heinrich Harrer's masterwork to photos of 7-foot-tall Tibetan monks dressed in maroon robes guarding Lhasa's 1,000-room Potala Palace. Strange dancers in fantastic headdresses seemed to jump off other pages. Barren landscapes held yak-hair tents tethered against the wind. And in the background were soaring, snow-covered peaks no one had thought to climb. The images and the stories of forbidden landscapes and foreign cultures stirred me like few things ever had. At 23, I'd climbed all across North America and Europe, reveling in the feel of rock beneath my hands and the camaraderie of kindred mountain spirits. But in Harrer's exotic images I suddenly recognized a wholly different and more profound opportunity for discovery.

Seven Years chronicled Harrer's 1943 escape from a British prisoner of war camp in India, the 2 years he spent crossing western Tibet, and his 5 years in Lhasa, which at the time was closed to foreigners. Home to the 14th reincarnation of the Dalai Lama--the living Buddha who for over a millennium had been the political as well as spiritual leader of all Tibetan Buddhists--Lhasa was without doubt the most closed, mysterious, and sought-after city on the planet. Harrer's journey seemed the perfect quest: adventure elevated to pilgrimage.

And then I discovered that Harrer had been my father's hero, not only for Seven Years in Tibet, but also for The White Spider, his definitive climbing history of Switzerland's Eiger. Harrer had made the first ascent of the notorious north face (also known as the Murder Wall) in 1938. My father made the first English-speaking ascent of Harrer's route in 1962; 4 years later, when I was 9, he fell 4,000 feet to his death on the same wall. The connection added personal resonance to my hungry read of Seven Years, as it did to my passion for climbing. I wanted to hold dear the things my father held dear, to know him better by living out some of his unfinished dreams. Dad had been making plans for Himalayan climbs just before his rope broke. In my early 20s, I felt my own destiny pulling me there as well.

My dream lingered for a decade, collecting cobwebs in a frustrated corner of my mind. Perhaps you know the complications that get in the way of big journeys, that ineffable stew of time, money, family, and career that can drown your dreams in distractions. Even an opportunity to meet and edit Harrer (Lost Lhasa: Heinrich Harrer's Tibet) didn't spring me loose. Harrer told me he'd wanted to go to the Himalaya ever since he was a boy; that he climbed the Eiger mostly to attract attention so he'd be invited on a Himalayan expedition. In the introduction to Seven Years, Harrer famously wrote that "all our dreams begin in youth." Some of mine seemed to end there, too. At least that's what I sometimes thought as I buried myself in work, moving through various new jobs and new houses, nurturing a dusty vision of Tibet between the many assignments and renovations.

Another decade passed before my fax machine bleeped and began inching out a mysterious topographic map. Congested lines squiggled deeply everywhere, but a close look showed that these lines meant more than most: the contours were at 1,000-foot intervals, a measure reserved for tall mountains in regions surveyed only by satellite. Three clusters of peaks were circled with a fat marking pen. The phone rang.

"Did you get the map? See the circles? Those peaks are all 21,000 and 22,000 feet. No one's ever climbed there, no climber's even heard of this place." It was Mark Jenkins, my longtime climbing partner and a veteran of nearly a dozen extended explorations in Tibet. In previous years, he'd lured me away from my desk for a wilderness first ascent in British Columbia, big mountains in Switzerland, fast hikes in the Grand Canyon. His timing was impeccable again. No, I couldn't spare the time for a month away. No, I couldn't afford the money. No, my family life wasn't improved by the stress of making it all happen. But those virgin peaks were too much for an aging climber to resist. I was now 15 years older than my father had been when he died, and I still hadn't achieved-even attempted-my Himalayan ambitions. Often I reflected on one of Harrer's favorite maxims, one he'd repeated to me as we crafted his book: "Have a plan and stick to it." I'd had the plan long enough. Now was the time to make it stick.

The Land Cruiser lurched to a halt. The dirt road lay under a 100-foot-long pile of rocks freshly peeled from the cliff above. We had reached the shores of Bassom Tso, a lake 200 miles east of Lhasa, but we were still a dozen miles short of our goal. We'd planned to drive to the end of the road, where we could hire yaks or horses to carry our mountaineering gear and food to basecamp. Now we'd have to wait for a road crew or start hiking. No matter, we'd gotten here fast-only 5 days from America. We had time to spare.

Unlike the barren hillsides Tibet is known for, the Kongpo region is heavily forested. Buildings resemble old Swiss chalets, yaks graze like long-horned cows, and from the large glacier-carved valleys, peaks sweep upward with dizzying steepness. Few Westerners have traveled here, congregating instead on the main Himalayan chain 600 miles to the west (near Everest) and the popular trekking routes along the border with Nepal. In fact, I never bothered to name the region to fellow climbers; few mountaineers even know the existence of the 400-mile-long Nyenchen Tanglha Range, the northernmost chain of the Himalaya.

My greatest goals have always revolved around strange places well off the beaten path. I dream of exotic journeys where I can feel like I'm making a mark-if not on history, then at least on myself. In North America I've ventured deep into remote wildernesses. But somehow here in inhabited Tibet I felt even more remote; an explorer rather than merely an adventurer, a traveler in time as well as distance. I felt like things were different from anything I'd experienced before.

At first blush, Bassom Tso wasn't what I'd expected. It's served by a gravel road that's soon to be paved; the region around it shows signs of creeping development. But look deeper, and there's another story. The lake itself draws Buddhist pilgrims from hundreds of miles to walk its kora, the clockwise circumambulation of holy sites that earns merit for the faithful and propitiates the deities. (In the pre-Buddhist Bon religion, the kora was practiced counterclockwise. For the last 1,300 years, it's been done clockwise.) As soon as Mark and I left the road to pick up the pilgrim's trail, centuries peeled away, and I felt connected to the Tibet I'd read about. Tall poles of multicolored prayer flags fluttered in the wind. Colored tufts of wool decorated the rhododendron-tunneled pathway. Mani stones-rocks engraved with the mantra Om mani padme hum, meaning "praise the jewel in the lotus"-piled waist high where the devout had stacked them. Many of these stones were so old they showed signs of weathering. We'd crossed into an ageless place.

As if to reward our observance, the morning's rain-curtain rose, and we arched our eyes skyward 10,000 vertical feet to peaks dazzling in fresh-white brilliance. One in particular speared the blue with a sharp-edged ridgeline: Gayjin Namla Karpo. Three days later, as horses packed our gear from the village of Tsogo to basecamp at 12,500 feet, the packer told our guide Tenzin about Hor Gunka, the demon who formerly lived on this summit and terrorized the dominion. Along came King Gesar on his renowned horse, which left a footprint in a rock still visible today on the lake's only island. Gesar, normally a man-god of violent action, in this case used his smooth tongue to persuade Hor Gunka to descend from the mountain and alter his ways from evil to good. Hor Gunka changed his name to Gayjin Namla Karpo (karpo meaning "snow mountain" in Tibetan), and his namesake peak still rules over the neighboring queen, sons, and ministers. From the trail, Gayjin's summit looked so fine we worried that it might not be possible to actually stand on it. But we knew we'd have to try. Every dream we'd had of mountains was being fulfilled.

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.

They were still cleaning, coming, going, and talking when Mark and I rolled out our pads and bags near the cupboards away from the fire. Drifting off to the sound of mellifluous Tibetan voices reminded me of so many other travels, where unknown words on foreign tongues planted me firmly on terra incognita. It's a marvelously distant feeling, and I regretted spending our nights in Tsogo in a tent among the dogs and roosters. Again I remembered Harrer, as I so often did on my long-delayed pilgrimage. After leaving Tibet, Harrer made several important first ascents of virgin peaks in Alaska. But he found these peaks stark in their wilderness purity. Soon thereafter, his interests turned to explorations among primitive peoples. By the indoor fire that night, I understood his change of heart. While I'm far from giving up on my love for uninhabited wilderness, there is something deep and rich about being among fellow humans from cultures other than my own. Snow-encrusted rock I can find in my backyard; Tibetans are another story. They were adding layers to the journey, putting soul into the landscape.

Incense juniper burned under dozens of fluttering flags as we walked out of town the next morning. We'd learned that the pass we intended to cross (somewhere between 16,000 and 17,000 feet) was impossible at this time of year. The only Westerners to attempt it, a year or two earlier, had returned far short of their goal. Tibetans wouldn't try until 4 months later, after the monsoon. But we were better equipped. Besides, to headstrong mountaineers, the word "impossible" was not so much a red flag as an irresistible invitation.

By evening, we reached the snowpack at about 14,000 feet, just below treeline. In the meager oxygen, we spent half an hour and roughly a cup of gasoline working on the fire before we decided to leave the burning stove under the wood as a blow-torch firestarter. By then, falling snow slanted nearly to horizontal, and by dawn, another 5 inches of fresh had fallen. The mountains, including where we hoped our pass might be, could be found only on the contour map. We inverted the monocular to use as a magnifying glass as we debated which squiggles connected and where they might lie in real life. We didn't talk about turning back.

Snow fell all day as we struggled up waist-deep drifts and crossed words over the safety of the avalanche-prone slopes. In the back of our heads lurked the dreaded unvoiced thought that maybe we couldn't make the pass. And even if we did cross over, would the other side be safe enough to descend? Mark and I could have avoided this pass in the first place; we could have simply walked up and down the main valley without taking any more chances. But from our perspectives, removing all risk would have doomed the adventure.

We hooked rock walls with our trekking axes, the better to pull ourselves out of waist-deep snow. We trailed avalanche cords, using the old-fashioned European technique where a climber could find his buried partner by following the tail of cord to its end. We clawed over drifts and generally exhausted ourselves where perhaps we shouldn't have been. And finally, we crossed the pass and slid down the far side until dusk caught us near a tumbling-down yak-herder's shack.

The ancient structure was missing half of the roof and two-thirds of the walls, but Mark had a vision. He pulled fallen shakes from under the fresh snow and wove them into an upwind wall. More planks went to build our beds; we broke the most damaged boards and gathered dried rhododendron for a campfire, which we built between our new bunks under the half-roof. Despite the 2 inches of snow that fell on the foot of our bags that night, it was one of the most enjoyable wilderness camps either of us had ever known: half wild and half connected to a sense of exotic history. It was impossible to identify where our modern adventure left off and a millennial-old pilgrimage began; the two were blended seamlessly in our primitive accommodations.

Lying there as the unseen rising sun brightened a slate-gray sky, I knew that few people on this planet would understand how much it meant to be in this empty valley. Fewer still would actually make it here. On this spring morning, out of 6 billion humans, it boiled down to Mark and me. And we'd arrived thanks to too much snow dropping onto an unknown mountain inside a circle drawn on a nameless map nearly 12 months earlier and 12,000 miles away.

One of the great mountaineers of all time, H. W. Tilman, once wrote that if you know you're going to reach your destination, why bother setting out in the first place? I could add that if you know what you're going to find, have you really discovered anything? The great trips of my lifetime have been the ones that kept me on my toes, that took me farther than I expected only because I kept dancing as serendipity changed the tunes. Finding fortune among the accidents of life: Is there any greater talent?

As Mark stirred, I reflected yet again on Harrer, remembering how people kept telling him he was lucky to escape, lucky to make it to Lhasa, lucky to become the Dalai Lama's mentor. But Harrer, now 91, doesn't believe in luck or faith. He believes only in his own strength; "the rest," he says, "is up to you." Here I was, having finally made Tibet happen for myself, and I felt like the luckiest man alive. I had entered the heart of this country through an unexpected valley. Harrer was only half right about not deviating from one's plans. The real trick in life is knowing which parts of the plan to stick with and which are getting in the way.

Without leaving my sleeping bag, I stoked rhododendron branches onto the smoldering embers and watched snow fall gently through the half-open yak-herder's roof. My altimeter watch said 15,000 feet. My heart said just right.

Tibet Expedition Planner

Getting there: All places in Tibet are reached through Lhasa, which has the only international airport. Various airlines fly to Hong Kong, Chengdu, or Kathmandu; only China Southwest Airlines serves Lhasa from those cities. Expect to spend at least $1,250 on round-trip airfare from the western United States. Try www.FlyChina.com (954-233-0680) or www.air-savings.com (212-545-1212).

Visas, permits, hassles: A visa for China must be purchased in advance. I used Zierer Visa Service (866-788-1100). With Zierer's fee, the price was $90. An alien permit is required to enter Tibet. These can be purchased at travel agencies in Chengdu or other ports of departure along with inexpensive entry packages consisting of airfare, basic hotel, and a tour guide for several days. To travel outside Lhasa and nearby "opened" monasteries and local hikes, you'll need up to four additional permits, plus a local guide (about $25/day) and a Toyota Land Cruiser with driver (about $.80/mile).

Travel services: There are many travel companies in Lhasa of mixed reputation. One recommended to me was Windhorse Adventures; the manager, Jampa, is said to speak excellent English (011-86-891-683-3009; Jampa_W@hotmail.com). Organizing your own trip is the cheapest way to go, but beware that the logistics and permitting process can be daunting. I highly recommend using a professional who can take you where you wish to go. We used Lenny (aka Cheng Zheng Ling) from Chengdu (011-86-288-733-0041; Lenny9529@sina.com.cn). He hiked to our basecamps with us, cooked, and arranged for permits, lodging, and horses. Two American outfits that specialize in high-adventure trips for budget-conscious and independent travelers are Blue Sheep Travel (703-593-4799; bluesheeptravel.

com) and Himalaya Inc. (206-329-4107; HimalayaTrek.com.

Books:Tibet (Lonely Planet; $19.99). Trekking in Tibet, by Gary McCue (The Mountaineers Books; $18.95). Seven Years in Tibet, by Heinrich Harrer (Tarcher Books; $13.95). Lonely Planet phrasebooks for Tibet and China ($8). Visit our bookstore at, backpacker.com/bookstore.

Maps: You'll find culturally oriented maps to most of Tibet at tibetmap.com. Bassom Tso is at 30°N, 93°E. The Department of Defense 1:500,000-scale TPC H-10A map we used can be ordered from MapLink (805-692-6777; www.maplink.com) or Omni Resources (800-742-2677; www.omnimap.com).