In The Mountain

Chilled in Old Tingri, we awake after restlessly tossing the night in the ramshackle motel ruled by a green-haired Tibetan princess. Darling daughter and I fondly recall the proprietor’s response to my earlier inquiry about the availability of showers. Her majesty had deadpanned that hot water was available 24-hours, adding that “Maybe it’s not so hot.”

Not so hot, we break from our room into the cool morning dim, roused by our driver and guide to begin the jeep ascent to the Mount Everest base camp. The “good road” has been shut down for repairs. So we bounce and bang our way up the alternate route - a twisting, winding, bumpy mess of a mountain trail - up and up and down and up and down and up and up and up. Painstakingly, we climb the harsh, rocky, marvelous terrain, above the tree line, on the roof of the world.

We cross frozen streams and deep dry washes. We bounce by scattered herds of goats, sheep and yaks tended by families of hearty nomads. Narrow stove pipes jutting from yak hair tents waft light blue smoke into the pale morning sky. I keep expecting the sparse tundra to peter out to nothing, but it never does. Bunches and bits of moss and lichen and grass endure the elevation, providing fodder for the animals and green relief from the variety of muted grays and browns that comprise the stark glacial landscape.

Hours later, we crawl past the sacred threshold, the incongruous Rongbuk Monastery. Strings of faded prayer flags drape the chorten, an enigmatic reliquary that resembles a giant marshmallow plopped on concrete steps topped by a tall, cylindrical metallic crown. Emblems of the sun and moon in the crown symbolize the light of the Buddha’s teaching. A solitary monk clad in a bold red robe trudges beneath the fluttering that connects the chorten to a complex of low-slung, chalky dwelling places.

We roll on without stopping. Our guide and driver know that the quicker we traverse the remaining distance to the North Face, the more likely we will decide not to stay overnight at the makeshift base camp tent city. They would much prefer the fuzzy motel at Old Tingri. We will not hear of it. We will spend the night stuffed under piles of yak hair blankets in a cozy, frozen tent they call the Hotel California.

The jeep trail ends at the tent city – two rows of room-sized, rectangular, chimneyed, brown hairy boxes, festooned with an assortment of faded rugs and bunting – astride either side of the built-up, packed-down dirt road.

We mount a rickety, wooden, horse-drawn cart for the final leg of the journey to the base camp, that is, to the photo opportunity tombstone that marks its official location for tourists. The weary dark steed is decorated festively and contrasts wonderfully with the sparce, rocky terrain.

Everest looms large in the near distance. All but its broad, streaked white base is surrounded by late July fog. The mountain hides. Our eyes are constantly drawn to it. We are pulled toward the peak, like souls searching.

The cart winds its way slowly up the dirt road, the clop, clop, clop of the horse’s hoofs punctuating the whistling breeze. We fix our gaze on the mountain. Pieces of Everest peak in and out of the clouds, tantalizing us.

We pose for pictures and linger, despite the clinging, insistent presence of the horse-cart driver who wants to go back for another fare. Time is money even here.

We strike up a conversation with a bicycle rider. About this time yesterday, he says, the wind cleared away the haze, revealing the precipice in all its glory.

We return to the tent city and walk into the nearby boulder-strewn expanse to wait – to wait for Everest to clear. We prop ourselves up against a couple of large rocks and sit. We are near a gentle rippling stream alone in the field with the stones, the wind, the lichens and the mountain. We stare at the clouds covering the crest. We gaze at the summit shrouded in mist. Hours pass in rapt contemplation.

I am struck.

God is in the mountain.
Mysterious, hidden, present, powerful, enduring,
drawing me near, pulling me closer,
lifting me up into the mystery.
God is in the mountain.