Chasing the Phantom

Stok Kangri

The Roof of the World

October 2009

Of words I am Om, the Word of Eternity.
Of prayers I am the prayer of silence.
Of things that move not, I am the Himalayas.
Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita

I awoke to pain. I often hurt upon waking, especially after sleeping out of doors on a thin pad as I had just done. Old injuries come to the fore in the early hours, including those of the avalanche I had survived the year before. It had snowed during the night, but now the sky was clear, and a few stars were still visible in the dawn twilight. Lying on my side, I could see the spreading luminescence of the sun, the orb still hidden behind the mountain ranges of Tibet to the east.
I sat up and pushed my arms into the oversized parka that served as both jacket and part of my sleeping gear. I brushed the snow off the custom-made half-bag that came up to my upper chest and kept my lower body warm. These were tricks I had learned to save weight while soloing in the thin air of the high mountains. I had no tent, and had even, on this jaunt, eschewed a waterproof bivi-bag, expecting good weather. One of the nice things about this sleeping arrangement is that you can just sit up, light your stove, and make breakfast without getting out of the warm bag. I would never light a stove inside a small tent, as I consider that practice far too dangerous. The water I had left in the pot the night before was now a block of ice, some of which would have to go through two-phase transitions before I could use it to make my coffee. It gets impossible to cook some things, like rice, for instance, at this altitude without a pressure cooker – water just never gets hot enough before it boils away. I was now at 4300 meters (14,100 ft)

Sleeping out in the open in the high mountains is always a humbling experience. Opening my eyes up here in the middle of a clear, moonless night is like awaking in outer space. I was at 4300 meters (14,100 ft). At this altitude, more than half the atmosphere, counted as molecules, is below. Here one can see more of creation than can ever be imagined. I always look forward to spending a night in the open over 4000 meters above the ocean of dusty air, cradled in the womb of stars.

I put my hands behind my head and contemplated the fading points of brightness in the sky. Inhaling the cold air, I watched my breath condense and swirl above me in the early morning light. The weather would be clear today, and I would see the impossibly blue Himalayan sky. I had missed that sky. A few weeks before, I had been l on the summit of Mt. Rainier in Washington State, and I saw that sky again for the first time in many years. I had lain there on my back in the snow, in the sub-zero sunshine, staring. My eyes had been full of tears. Almost as soon as I returned to the dusty, flat world, I purchased an airline ticket. 

Twenty-four years ago, during a solo climb near here, I had a moment of letting go. While putting on my crampons, alone, watching the sunrise over Tibet, I was suddenly beyond loneliness, fear, greed, the whole condition of life. I felt subsumed into something much greater than myself. I felt quite prepared to die in the next few hours on this climb amidst such splendor, knowing I was eternally a part of it. 
But then I returned to the world. Returned to the clinging. The avalanche had reminded me how hard I clung. It reminded me that no matter how many times She embraced me and let me go, one day ,She would claim me and take me back. She owned me, as she owns us all, no use railing against that. But I wanted to see her, know her, before she took me. She had shown herself to me here once. That is why I returned. 

But how do you look for something that is everywhere? That is everything? Perhaps you pick something hard to find. And you make that your goal and metaphor – a fleece, a grail, a unicorn, or some other phantom beast. And then you see what you can find along the way. 
Down the slope from me was a late-season trekking group with guides and cooks and all the camping luxuries they could carry on their ponies. I hadn’t expected other people here as the tourist season here in Ladakh was pretty well over, but I also knew that this site was one of the few places in this vicinity and at this altitude where one could find water at this time of year. 
Ladakh is an ancient high-altitude desert kingdom about the size of Switzerland, and it normally rains there only about five inches a year. Although geographically located on the Tibetan side of the Himalayas, it is politically a part of India. The Chinese, however, carved off a chunk of it during an invasion and war with India in 1962. In culture, dress, and religion, the people are similar to Tibetans and  Ladakh is now probably more Tibetan than Tibet, as more Han Chinese than indigenous Tibetans now occupy the latter. The Ladakis don’t seem to mind the large number of Indian troops stationed in their land, primarily in the Indus river valley around their only city, Leh, and a few other strategic valleys. The troops are there to act as a deterrent to an invasion from the bordering countries of China and Pakistan; the latter with whom the Indian army has also fought several wars in this region: most recently the twenty year armed struggle over the desolate Siachen Glacier  — for which a truce had only recently been brokered. 

After I had finished my breakfast and was packing up my gear, one of the guides from the trekking party wandered over. He had berated me the evening before for not having a tent or real sleeping bag and seemed to think that I was quite crazy. He seemed amazed now that I was still alive and cheerful. 
“Do you think that it will be safe to leave my gear here while I go climb that ridge up there?” I asked him. 
“ Don’t worry,” he answered, “no one else coming here now – winter coming.” He waved at the mountains and sky. Then he smiled and added, “You will be alone up here.” 
He was a grizzled-looking middle-aged man. The guides that worked up here, besides the local Ladakhis, were either Tibetans or Sherpas from the Everest region of Nepal. Often there were subtleties in the features that enabled one to distinguish them. I guessed that this guy was Tibetan. There were many Tibetan refugees living in Ladakh, some of whom had never seen their homeland. 
“Shan?” he asked, “You look for Shan?” 
“Yes, Shan,” I answered. 

Shan is the Ladakhi word for the snow leopard, the “ghost cat” of the high places that even many locals had never seen in their lifetimes. I met a local guide once who, although he made a living taking trekkers out in the mountains to look for snow leopards, admitted to me that he had never seen one himself. Although the previous evening I had told this Tibetan guide the purpose of my being here, I think that he took me a bit more seriously now, for even though I seemed under-equipped by his standards, or rather the standards of the tourists, he was used to catering to, I was obviously not ready to bolt down to the valley after spending the night out in a snowstorm. Or maybe he thought I was just crazy — as he smiled and walked away.

Maybe I was a little of both: experienced and crazy. I had been going to the mountains alone since I was a teenager. In 1985, at age thirty-five, I spent six months wandering and climbing in the Himalayas, much of the time alone. I had started that trip, a one-year journey around the world, in a Japanese Zen monastery and, nearer the end, had landed in an Indian Ashram. I have always been attracted to the concept of withdrawal from the busy world for inner reflection, having experienced my first retreat in a Catholic monastery at age eleven. Even at that age, I had been absorbed by questions regarding life, death, fear, love, and the inexplicable flux of human consciousness. Where was my place in this imponderably vast ocean of infinity? Seldom, I believe, has there been a day in my life when I haven’t, at some moment, been astonished to be alive.