In the beginning, it could be argued that climbs contributed to geographic knowledge or expanded our sense of the possible. In the introduction to Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna, probably the most popular mountaineering book ever written, Lucien Devies writes, “Climbing is a means of self-expression. Its justification lies in the men it develops, its heroes and its saints.” In climbing mountains, he goes on, “man overcomes himself, affirms himself, and realizes himself in the struggle toward the summit, toward the absolute.”
Few climbers today would risk saying something quite so magniloquent about their hobby, especially given its many well-publicized problems with environmental degradation, overtones of colonialism and sheer heedlessness toward human life. Still, I think Devies was onto something. There is a kind of existentialism to the climbing of the world’s tallest mountains. I think it has to do with the tenuous balance between training, risk, ego and chance that goes into every expedition. Even more important than these, though, if we’re being honest, is the constant closeness of death. The climbing of the world’s tallest and most treacherous mountains is a mine for a kind of simple, but powerfully elemental, drama. Usually it goes like this: the mountain threatens. One person wants to go up. The other wants to go down. A decision gets made. Every great mountain book—Into Thin Air, Touching the Void, Nanga Parbat Pilgrimage—has a moment like this. In Annapurna, it comes just before the summit. The expedition has spent months trying to get close to it. If they succeed, they will be the first to stand on a peak above the magic eight-thousand-meter limit. By now, the party is down to two men: Herzog, the wealthy but somewhat inexperienced climber who put the expedition together, and Lachenal, a guide from the French Alps, a man with much more know-how but far fewer resources.
Herzog has staked his reputation on the climb and is willing to sacrifice nearly anything. Lachenal knows that going for the peak means risking their limbs. He asks Herzog, “If I go back, what will you do?” Herzog says, “I should go on by myself.” Lachenal replies, “Then I’ll follow you.” The two of them made it to the top of Annapurna. But they suffered for it. Frostbite cost Herzog his fingers and part of his feet. Lachenal lost his toes. It’s terrible, senseless. But like marriage or war or any true commitment, it’s a real crossroads. Those are rare. And when the stakes are life and death, I find it almost impossible to look away.
In the Eighties a generation of Polish climbers rose to prominence and came to dominate the demanding, and extremely dangerous, sport of Himalayan mountain climbing, just as the British had in the Seventies, and the Slovenians and Russians would in the Nineties. Three exceptional figures stood out in this “magic generation.” There was Jerzy Kukuczka, a short, bear-like plug of a man who worked like a steam engine in the mountains, indestructible and indefatigable. He was the second person after Reinhold Messner to climb all fourteen of the eight-thousand-meter peaks, but to every climb he added something fresh, pioneering new routes, climbing in winter and without oxygen, and doing them all in just eight years. There was Wojciech Kurtyka, the “thinking man’s climber,” thin and beautiful, who wasn’t motivated by altitude as much as by finding the most beautiful lines and challenging routes. His triumphs were ones of extraordinary skill coupled with style: the Trango Tower, the Shining Wall on Gasherbrum IV, the West Face of K2. And finally, there was Wanda. The least technically skilled but with the most endurance, she was indefatigable, the woman of steel.
She was the first Pole to climb Everest. When she came down, the newly elected Pope John Paul II congratulated her, saying, “It must have been God’s will that we should both be set so high on one and the same day.” She had begun her career by mastering the most difficult routes in the tallest mountains in Poland, the Tatras. Next, she mastered the Alps, and tested herself on trips to Norway and the Soviet Union. Finally, she was ready for the Himalayas.
These are the words people used when they described her: determined, difficult, perfectionistic, brave, demanding, cold, ambitious, uncompromising, meticulous, withdrawn, manipulative, calculating, competitive, tough—always, tough. Wanda left her first husband, then her second. She didn’t have children. “I didn’t want to give up on the mountains, so I chose loneliness,” she once said. She saw her lover, who she thought would become her third husband, slip during a climb of Broad Peak and fall four hundred meters. He was dead by the time she reached him. Back in Poland, she visited her friend, a journalist named Ewa, who asked if she would be able to keep climbing. Wanda answered, “You know, I feel like I don’t have anything holding me back anymore and now I’m going to fulfill my plan to the full.”
One Polish climber said that Wanda’s “mistake” was making climbing her whole life. “She left husband; she left family; she left friends. She had no one to come back to. She had no job, no profession, no garden, no other interests. She had no fallback position. She had nothing. She was completely alone and there was nobody to help guide her.” He wasn’t alone in thinking that her ambition had hardened her. But she may have had to be hard to succeed in a field totally dominated by men who often doubted her talents and only grudgingly allowed her a place on climbs.
Wanda called her plan the “Caravan of Dreams.” She was 49. She still felt fit, but she knew she was running out of time. She had climbed eight of the fourteen eight-thousand-meter peaks. Now she was going to do the rest. She was going to do what Messner and Kukuczka had done, but in her own way.
She announced that she was going to climb the six remaining peaks in a little over a year. “No woman has ever braved such an enterprise,” she said, in her press release. “I shall be the first.” Wanda’s targets included Dhaulagiri (8,167), Manaslu (8,163), Makalu (8,485), Lhotse (8,516), Broad Peak (8,051), and Kanchenjunga (8,586).
Kanchenjunga was next on her list.
For Wanda, the peak of Kanchenjunga represented the culmination of a personal dream; for the Tibetans who live in their shadow, the Himalayas are the stage for a different kind of quest, one that pits people against mystic depths as opposed to unscalable heights. According to the teachings of local practitioners of the Nyingma school of Buddhism, the slopes of the mountains are dotted with hidden lands, called beyul. These are secret, inaccessible valleys of incredible beauty. Placed there by Padmasambhava, the great yogi who first brought Buddhism to Tibet, they are guarded by snowstorms, mists, leopards and magical seals.
After 1949, when Chinese Communist forces first entered Tibet, and especially after 1956, when the Chinese army brutally suppressed a rebellion in the province of Kham, ransacking monasteries and imprisoning monks, a group of religious leaders—high lamas and treasure-seeking tertöns—met in secret. They wanted to determine who would be the one to find the sanctuary into which they could flee from what increasingly felt like the end of days. After performing a series of rituals, they received a vision. It contained the five attributes that would identify the man destined to open the hidden valley.
He was to be from a place called Kham, in eastern Tibet. Besides that, he was to be tall, have long, braided hair and eyes like a tiger, and be a myonpa—a crazy person. A few months later, one of those present at the revelation of the prophecy found himself living in the mountains of northern India, where he had come fleeing the Chinese occupation. He was working on a road crew, breaking stones, when someone told him that a great lama was living in a cave in the cliffs above his camp. He went to investigate. The man was tall, had long, braided hair, and was from Kham. Everyone said he was crazy and that his eyes shone like a tiger’s. It was Tulshuk Lingpa.
With some of his disciples, Tulshuk made a trip to the lower reaches of Mount Kanchenjunga. It was a kind of spiritual reconnaissance, aimed at finding an auspicious place to conduct the opening and discovering what obstacles the local deities might put in their way. Meanwhile, word of the lama who was prophesied to open the gate to the hidden valley had spread across the high country, and families across the kingdom were setting aside supplies for the journey to the mountain. All this movement alarmed the king and his ministers. The king was worried about his subjects. Perhaps he was also afraid that if the valley really were opened, he would soon be a king without a kingdom. A representative was sent to Tulshuk. He explained that the lama would have to present himself at the capital and perform a miracle, to prove he wasn’t a charlatan.
Tulshuk said of course he would. Only he wouldn’t do it at the royal palace—it would happen right where he was, among his followers. It would happen at 8 a.m., at a date to be determined later. On the day of the miracle, a crowd gathered in anticipation well before dawn. Tulshuk led the king’s representative and his retinue to a place of honor in the front. Then it was time to begin. The American writer Thomas Shor describes what happened next:
Since no one knew what form the renting of reality would take and what miracle was about to occur, some were looking intently at Tulshuk Lingpa. Others were watching the sky, awaiting a sign. Yet others were looking towards Mount Kanchenjunga, because that is where they were to find the secret hidden country. One man told me he was looking down the steep slope to the Tashiding Monastery because it was the holiest place.
When Tulshuk Lingpa finished the text, he was standing in a dramatic pose with his right foot hovering over his left. There—where no one was expecting the miracle to occur—embedded in the stone, was the imprint of his foot. The crowd gasped. The king’s representative was amazed. The matter was settled.
Two hours later, a policeman rode in on horseback. He was the king’s real emissary, and he had missed the whole thing. The matter wasn’t settled after all.
REALITY AND DREAM
Tibetan Buddhism is a vast, submerged continent of thought, the barest of outlines of which are visible to outsiders. Built on a foundation of Sanskrit classics, expanded by centuries of interpretation and exegesis, honed by centuries of theological debate, and supplemented by countless revelations, both public and private, it abounds in refined philosophical distinctions and ontological speculations. Out of the entire, immense edifice of thought, only two items have made the jump into the mainstream of the West: prayer flags and mindfulness meditation. Like the summit of Kanchenjunga, the rest remains hidden.
Feeling trapped by years of depression and cut off from any religious tradition of my own (unless you count Marxism-Leninism, the closest thing my family has to a creed), I have tried to gain some understanding of the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism. I have found myself stymied again and again, though, hopelessly at sea in the doctrine’s sheer vastness, tripping over incomprehensible distinctions between different vehicles of Buddhahood and forms of reality and non-reality. Yet every so often, a passage will bring me up short with a pang of recognition. Like this one, from Rolf Stein’s Tibetan Civilization:
The artful solution was to posit two kinds of truth. One is “really true” and from that point of view “things”—the phenomenal world—has no existence. It corresponds to the Absolute, which is indefinable and beyond understanding: “the silence of the saints.” The other truth is “relatively true,” conventional truth, the relative reality of appearance. From that point of view “things” exist. In other words the constituents of our world are empty of inherent reality, are illusory; but the illusion itself exists and is perfectly real, at any rate as long as one has not attained “the Absolute.” Our world exists, as a hallucination does.
Stein goes on to explain that Tibetan Buddhists view what we call reality as a mental phenomenon, an illusion. But that illusion can still be harmful. It overpowers and blots out the true state of things, turning life into a waking dream. To me, this sounds particularly familiar. Anyone who has suffered from depression or madness knows that mental phenomena have their own reality: they can overwhelm you as surely as any avalanche.
THE ART OF SUFFERING
All Himalayan expeditions are hard. But the Poles pioneered a style of climbing that made even extreme exertion seem ordinary. If there was an established route up a mountain, they made a new one. If a rock face seemed unscalable, they scaled it. Instead of laying siege to mountains with vast teams and multiple camps, they raced up the peaks in Alpine-style assaults. When everyone else climbed in summer, they learned to climb in winter. In the Himalayas, that means climbing right into the jet stream where temperatures drop below negative forty degrees Celsius, and winds reach over a hundred and seventy miles per hour; it means enduring cold that destroys your reserves of energy and snow that makes it impossible to see.
Kurtyka named this style of climbing the “art of suffering.” Partly, it was a product of time and circumstance. The Poles came late to the Himalayas. Travel restrictions enforced by the Iron Curtain kept most climbers close to home throughout the Fifties and Sixties. By the time these were lifted, the Germans, French and English had already conquered all the great peaks. With inferior equipment and shoestring budgets, the Poles had to find their own way. Partly, they did this through sheer difficulty and style. But it also had to do with what they brought to the mountains from back home.
One American climbing writer thought that Polish climbing was synonymous with “exquisite” suffering, which they endured for the sake of achieving “alpine transcendence.” Others have seen its roots in traditions of Polish messianism, in the nationalist cult of martyrs, in centuries of battle and in difficult childhoods. The climbers themselves sought inspiration in different places, just as they cultivated individual styles. For Kurtyka, the aesthete of the mountains always in pursuit of the perfect line, it came from Zen and the samurai code of the Bushido as well as from the human suffering of Christ. For Kukuczka, less of a craftsman but possessed of a drive and endurance that awed even Reinhold Messner, it came from a deep well of Catholic faith.
Bernadette McDonald, author of Freedom Climbers, the definitive history of the golden age of Polish climbing, describes the corrosive effect this extreme form of climbing could have, even when it didn’t result in death:
To survive in intense cold, with little food or water and barely contained fear, all the while giving one’s physical all, requires a ferocious stolidness. In Himalayan climbing, this is seen as an attribute. It’s referred to with admiration as being “hard-core.” Inner strength is admirable, but what does it look like from the outside? Often, selfish callousness. It is easier to concentrate on one’s own battle with exhaustion and terror than empathize with a less able partner. A kind of inner deafness, a loss of sight, and even a hardening of the heart are sad but frequent byproducts of survival in the mountains.
1992, KANCHENJUNGA, 27,230 FEET (WANDA)
On the way up the mountain they nicknamed her abuela—grandmother. There were six people on the expedition: four Mexicans, one young Polish climber, and Wanda. She was the slowest member of the group. She had a chest infection and couldn’t get acclimated. As they climbed, her legs, hands and throat all swelled up. None of the leading Polish climbers would accompany her; they did not want to climb in her shadow. Almost forty of her friends were already dead. She was on the outs with most of those who were still alive. Before the trip, she had written in the announcement of the “Caravan of Dreams” that she didn’t “mind the idea of dying on the mountains. It would be an easy death for me. After all that I’ve experienced, I’m familiar with it. And most of my friends are there in the mountains, waiting for me.”
As they went up, it seemed as if Kanchenjunga was trying to repel them. The weather was terrible. Two of the climbers suffered terrible frostbite and had to be helicoptered out. Two more got sick from eating too many canned mangoes. In the end, only Wanda and Carlos Carsolio, the head of the Mexican party, were fit enough to climb. They made it from Base Camp to Camp II and then Camp III, where the snow became deeper and their progress slowed. Camp IV was just a hole in the ice. At 3:30 a.m. on May 12th, Carlos and Wanda woke up in their cave and prepared to climb.
They were going to try a lightning-quick assault on the peak. Carlos made it by 5 p.m. Wanda was lagging behind. He met her three hours later, on his way down, crouching in a hole she had dug for herself in the snow and trying to get warm. They were at eight thousand three hundred meters— just two hundred fifty meters from the top, but also well into the Death Zone, the altitude above which it is so cold, and there is so little oxygen, that climbers routinely suffer from headaches, nausea and hallucinations, as well as an elevated risk of frostbite and cerebral edema.
Carlos begged Wanda to come down with him to Camp IV. She refused. She was going to spend the night where she was, and try for the summit the next day. She didn’t have a tent, sleeping bag, food, or even a stove with which to melt snow for drinking water. She made Carlos tell her all the details of the climb he had just finished. She also asked him for his pants. He said no, and continued downhill.
That was the last time anyone saw Wanda alive.
1963, KANCHENJUNGA, 16,000 FEET (TULSHUK)
It was springtime. The snow was melting in the high mountains. Tulshuk was in a town at the base of the mountain with his closest followers. Every day, more pilgrims arrived, hoping for a chance to enter the hidden valley. The time seemed right to make an attempt. But first, Tulshuk needed a sign.
He had Yeshe, one of his khandros—female consorts who act as spiritual guides for treasure seekers—perform a mirror divination. In the mirror, she saw three beings. One was all white, the others, completely red. Tulshuk said this was a good omen. These were the guardian deities of the mountain, come to welcome them. He told his followers, “The time has come. The time has come. The time has come.” They were going to climb higher on the mountain to find the gate to the beyul. He chose twenty disciples to come with him. When they did, they would be leaving everything behind: money, property, food, family. This plane of existence. They had to be ready for that renunciation, and believe in it completely. Otherwise, they would never succeed.
The group climbed above the tree line, into the cold, rock-strewn waste that lay just below the glaciers on the mountain peak. The directions had come to Tulshuk years ago in a vision. He knew what the gate should look like, and the signs that would announce it, but he didn’t know where it was. Finding the gate wasn’t just a question of where, though. It was also a question of when. Entering a hidden valley requires not just locating the right place, but arriving at the perfect time. The vision Tulshuk received in his dream was firm on this and on the consequences of getting things wrong: “When the world is devoid of happiness, the door of the ascetic valley will open. If one delays, troublesome things will occur and the great and small valleys will be shaken by a red wind of fire, and poisonous hailstorms will drop.”
For three weeks they searched. The weather was terrible, alternating snow with impenetrable mist. Some days, the party couldn’t even leave the cave they were camping in. Finally, on the twentieth day, the weather turned. Brilliant sunshine illuminated the slopes of the mountain. Tulshuk took a disciple named Wangyal with him to perform a reconnaissance upslope. They climbed to the very edge of the ice. Suddenly, with a tremendous crack, a piece of the glacier the size of a house broke off. It slid towards them, scattering boulders as it went. The disciple was terrified, certain that he was going to die. Tulshuk stayed completely calm. He reached into his sheepskin coat and drew out the dagger he had pulled out of a vision as a child. Like a fencer squaring off against his opponent, he held it in front of him. Just before the ice block reached them it split into two pieces, passing them by on the left and right. They continued up the mountain.
Perhaps because of the lack of oxygen, coupled with the supreme physical effort of elite climbing, hallucinations are common in the Himalayas. People report seeing strange lights and of hearing whistling sounds that seem to come from nowhere. Reinhold Messner is convinced that he has seen at least two types of Yeti in the mountains: a dark one with deep red, nearly black fur and a light one with long white hair. Frank Smythe, a climber who attempted to scale Everest several times in the Thirties, wrote of seeing strange hovering objects, including one that had wings and one with a beak-like protuberance like the spout of a teakettle. He was also visited by a ghost-like presence; he tried to offer a piece of mint cake to the apparition, but by the time he turned around it was gone. Visits from such invisible companions are perhaps the most common type of Himalayan apparition. Usually, they are benevolent. Sometimes, they aren’t. During their climb of the Shining Wall, Wojciech Kurtyka’s partner Robert Schauer reported the presence of a ghostly third climber, an imaginary partner he felt was trying to push them off the cliff.
Carlos Carsolio, Wanda’s last climbing partner, had his own supernatural encounters on the mountain. Once, in 1993, when he was descending K2 alone at night, he thought he could hear the ridges on the glacier arguing about him. Some guided him forward. Others wanted him to die. Eventually, he felt a presence appear—a climber who had died in Makalu on a previous climb, who helped lead him to his tent.
Carsolio cherished such experiences. He was convinced that the illusions were proof of a channel to something else opening within him. “I looked for such moments,” he said. “It was a kind of spiritual addiction.” Wanda was more skeptical. In an interview, she said that she was “a proponent of empiricism, logic, and, generally speaking, reason.”
Wanda’s mother had a different view. She believed her daughter had entered a mystical cavern thought by some to lie at the base of the mountain, and that Wanda was waiting for the right moment to return. She claimed that Wanda was always interested in the philosophies and religions of the East. “Tibetan monasteries fascinated her. She only felt at peace in the mountains. She went higher—into the cosmos.”
1963, KANCHENJUNGA, 18,000 FEET
After the glacier tumbled past them, Tulshuk and Wangyal kept climbing. They arrived at a place in the midst of the ice that was green, and filled with rainbows and the scent of saffron. They heard the sound of a gyaling, the clarinet-like instrument used by lamas in their rituals. “It is the gatekeepers of beyul,” Tulshuk said. Wangyal knew that they were right at the gate. Ten more steps and they would be through. But they had to turn back. It would be selfish for them to go through alone, and leave the rest behind.
The next day, Tulshuk chose twelve of his disciples and set out for the pass. They ate a last meal, the remains of the food they brought from the valleys below, and then pushed forward through waist-deep snow. Tulshuk was holding a page of scripture and chanting certain sacred syllables aloud. Suddenly, the world disappeared, enveloped in white. It took a moment to realize it was an avalanche. It knocked them down the slope and buried them under a blanket of snow. Tulshuk vanished underneath it. The pages of scripture he carried with him revealed where he had been buried. They were piled up in one place on top of the snow.
1957, HALFWAY TO THE MOON
In 1957, just a few years after the first ascent of Everest and two years before the first winter crossing of the Tatras by Andrzej Zawada, which marked the start of the modern era of Polish mountain climbing, Wisława Szymborska published a poem titled “Notes from a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition.” It begins with a description of those unseen mountains, “racing to the moon. / The moment of their start recorded / on the startling, ripped canvas of sky.” At this point Szymborska switches registers quite abruptly. She starts talking to a Yeti. She tells it about “Wednesday, bread, alphabets” and the rest of what goes on in the world below. She tries to reason with the Yeti, to convince him to turn back from wherever he is going, to return (or to let her return?) to the land of Shakespeare, solitaire and violins. But the Yeti doesn’t listen, or he isn’t there. The poem ends with the poet trapped within “four walls of avalanche, stomping my feet for warmth on the everlasting snow.”
Szymborska included this poem in her debut collection. Almost forty years later she won the Nobel Prize for Literature. In all that time, she never once discussed what it meant. Some people think the Yeti is Stalin, or Stalinism. That makes sense historically, but it doesn’t make sense for the poem. In it, the Yeti appears to be someone who has escaped into the mountains, leaving the run of ordinary life behind.
That’s how mountains are seen by most people: as an escape. But to where? There’s nothing up there except death, says the skeptic. Maybe death and something else, says the believer. Frank Smythe, the British mountaineer who saw two pulsating bat-like creatures while trying to climb Everest, experienced something of both when he tried his hand at climbing Kanchenjunga in the Thirties. Although his expedition failed, the mountain left a deep impression on him. He would later write, “It is easy to understand the superstitions of those who live round Kanchenjunga. Their fears and fancies are merely an outward expression of a primitive instinct that recognizes in Kangchenjunga something beyond human understanding; a world apart, akin both to Heaven and to Hell; something to be revered, feared and worshipped.”
In 2006, Thomas Shor spoke to one of Tulshuk Lingpa’s last surviving disciples, who explained that most people misunderstand the meaning of the hidden lands. They aren’t paradises as we sometimes understand them, places where, in the words of one of his Buddhist followers, you “simply sit back and enjoy oneself because all one’s needs are taken care of.” The point of the beyul is that by eliminating earthly suffering, they free those who enter them to pursue uninterrupted practice. And practice has one goal: to develop compassion. “The entire world conspires for the strengthening of the ego and its drive to put itself first. How rare it is for someone to be developed to the point of putting others first!”
I don’t think my dad and I will ever take that trip on the Karakorum Highway. He’s gotten old and has blood clots in his legs, and family quarrels have kept us from speaking or seeing each other for years. Then again, maybe there’s no need for us to climb. The terma tradition to which Tulshuk belonged believed that spiritual treasures are scattered everywhere. Some are concealed in stone, some in the soil, some in the grain of wood. Some are in the sky and some are in the mountains. Others reside in the mind. They were placed by the great Padmasambhava centuries ago as a hedge against the coming age of darkness.
But according to the Nyingma school, these treasures are just metaphors. The real treasure is always the same: wisdom.
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This essay appears in Issue 14 of The Point. If you liked it, subscribe now to read the rest of the issue in print.
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Art credit: Shezad Dawood, Kalimpong, courtesy of Timothy Taylor Gallery