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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.

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.

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