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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.

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.

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