Tibet 75, 2000
Mt. Kailash, Tibet, September 2002
I looked up and saw the roof of the tent was dark and sagging heavily, and knew that today again it was snowing. After I poked my head out of the tent flap to confirm my waking apprehension and couldn't see more than a few yards, I buried my head in the sleeping bag once more. It's the third day we've been camped to the north of Mt. Kailash.
PhuPhu the cook showed up a little later at the entrance to my tent and with his customary "Good Morning" handed me a hot cup of tea. Pointing to the sky, I queried, "Snow? "Snow" he replied simply, looking crestfallen. Even the cook seemed concerned that for the past three days I'd not taken a single photograph.
Last year I captured the north face of Kailash on the morning after the whirling snow, but bad weather kept me from completing the Kora, as Tibetans call the (32-mile) ritual circumambulation of the mountain that is believed to wipe away a life's bad Karma. So with my pilgrimage with a camera only half complete, I've come again to Mt. Kailash, but this year the weather is even worse. Since I set out three days ago from the base camp at Darchen, the peak of Kailash that reaches over 22,000 feet into the heavens has remained hidden in snow and fog.
I drank the tea, wrapped up in my parka and made my way to the kitchen tent for breakfast. Looking troubled, my guide Nyma told me that our yak driver had abandoned us, taking his yaks down the mountain last night. We needed 8 yaks to move the camp, and it looked like the young porter Nyma had hired to round up fresh yaks from the nearby villages wouldn't be able to make it back. I could carry the photography equipment with the porters and kitchen staff , but without yaks it would take twenty men to handle the provisions and the tents.
On the morning of the fifth day I woke once again to an accumulation of snow and fog. As usual I pushed up the roof of the tent to get the snow to fall off, bundled up and set out for breakfast. When I finished Nyma said worriedly, "that was the last hot drink you'll have... we're out of propane. I expected five days would be ample time to finish the Kola with the photos of Mt. Kailash... Pointing to the paper napkin in my hand he said, "we're even out of toilet paper now... that's the last of it. I thought the young yak driver would be back yesterday with a fresh supply of food and fuel, but... he faltered and went on to tell me that he'd first met the boy only the other day in the village, but he'd hired him anyway because "he seemed like a good guy". He'd given a large sum to a total stranger, sending him off to the village, and he didn't even know where he was going, or whether he'd even come back. I figured that if supplies didn't arrive by today, we'd have to enlist some pilgrims to help us get back to Darchen.
Still ahead was the most difficult ascent to the 5800 meters high peak of Dolma la. Without yaks it would be impossible to make it up through the slippery banks of snow.
This will be the second time I've had to turn back from Kailash without accomplishing my quest, a completion of Korula. Thoroughly disheartened I tromped back to my tent and feigned sleep. I don't know how long I lay burrowed in my sleeping bag, staring up at countless droplets that condensed on the ceiling of the tent. Suddenly, it came to me!
For five days, I stayed here before Mt. Kailash veiled in snow and fog, fretting and thinking of nothing but sighting the mountain. I put all my faith in what can be seen with the eye, but I'm beginning to see that if I rely totally on what can be seen with the eye, there is no perception of what is beyond sight. In those drops of water on the tent roof, and yes, in the veil of fog that hid Mt. Kailash.
I saw how shallow were my aspirations, how filled I was with doubt and pessimism. I'd spent five whole days thinking of nothing but the photographs I couldn't take. Dashing outside, I filled my lungs in the atmosphere of the elusive Kailash and closed my eyes, straining my ears for its voice. Suddenly my heart was brimming over with warmth. Filled with joy I walked ahead, seeing the ice, the snow on the rocks scattered in the ravine, and the grasses that grew under their protection as though for the first time.
A monk arrived from the temple on the cliff on the other side of the valley. Nyma greeted him respectfully and translated for us. He said that he'd noticed our tents in the same spot for five days and so he came to see if anyone was ill. When I explained the situation, the monk told me that he thought that if I'd failed twice to complete the Kora of Mt. Kailash, some negative karma might be accumulated. He suggested that I abandon my photography, leave the equipment and go on alone to complete Kora, with only a strong porter to carry a single day's provisions and a small tent. Nyma and the rest of the staff could return to Darchen with the rest of the equipment. I thanked the monk for his kindness and saw him off on the long way back to the other side of the valley. I discussed the course of action with Nyma and decided to set out early the next morning with Chiung, the strongest porter/truck driver to cross over Dolma la.
At that point, Phuphu the cook began to shout from the top of the hill. We looked up to see the young man Nyma had hired come running up, panting with exertion. We listened to his report that now when there were only two weeks before snow would make the mountains impassable, that the no grass left growing for the yaks fed on was gone, no yak driver wanted to venture out to Kailash. He'd gone from village to village and finally managed to find a driver and his eight yaks for hire. In six hours he'd run back to the campsite that had taken us two days to reach. Quickly he reported that the yaks should arrive carrying fresh supplies by evening.
After dinner the boy who'd made it safely up to Kailash Kora took the sum agreed on in Darchen and announced his departure. He came up to my tent with a beer brimming in each hand. "I've worked many times as a porter but this is the first time I've been treated like a member of the staff, eating in the same tent. I'm so happy that I want to offer a toast in thanks", he explained. Hearing his words and watching his happy smiling face I felt a flush of shame ashamed at how I'd doubted him as I waited, thinking only of the foiled photographs. Unable to hold back my tears I couldn't look him in the eye, but simply downed the beer, listening to the voices of the others laughing at jokes I couldn't understand. This trip there would be not a single photograph of Mr. Kailash, yet I began to realize that no sight could surpass the vision of the drops of water on my tent roof, and that boy's smiling face. This time the prize was the lesson of the dripping water and the experience of feeling the aura of the sacred Mt. Kailash hidden beyond the fog.