Ghosts on Everest

Features Issue 112 Feb, 2011
Text by Evangeline Neve / Photo: ECS Media

As I walked along the edge of the hill lonely and desolate, I saw a line of rock formations, man-made. Then more. Then metal plaques attached to huge rocks. I bent over and began to read. Lives I had never heard of. Some had died here, mountaineering or even just trekking. Others had once climbed here and died elsewhere, but this spot had been chosen to commemorate them.

I could write tomes about the blue of the sky, the roar of the rivers, yaks grazing on hills covered with multi-colored heather and plant life.

Thirteen years and seven months is how long it finally took me to get there. One of the things I’ve wanted to do almost since I first came to Nepal, but for some reason it never quite all came together. Funny, when I travel outside Nepal how many people ask me when they find out how long I’ve been here, if I’ve climbed Everest. Like it was that easy.

The answer is no. My uncle has, as a matter of fact, but I haven’t.

But it’s surprising how many people have, and how easy it is becoming. A few years ago, while waiting to meet a friend in a hotel lobby, I stumbled into the back of a room where an open talk programme was in progress, with Reinhold Messner one of the speakers. One of the things he talked about, and I am paraphrasing here, was the demystifying and commercialization of the mountains, particularly Everest, but also of climbing in general. He wasn’t a fan.

I’ll never forget the Sherpa who looked me up and down and said “You look young, fit; I can take you up Everest.” I hadn’t even asked him. But he’d been up several times, now he ran his own mountaineering agency. Mind you, I certainly don’t feel that I could climb Everest. But it does seem to be the truth. If you have enough money—if you can hire the right people, competent people—yes, even you can climb Everest.

Some chortens are well-built altars, others resemble simple stone cairns, reliquaries.

It’s been 57 years since humans first reached the summit of the great mountain, Chomolungma, Sagarmatha, Everest. Though even that is of course, disputed. In the years I’ve been here I’ve kept up on the progress of several of the Irvine and Mallory search expeditions, as they try to find what really went on that day in 1924, argued about whether history needed to be rewritten.

Living my dream
So here I am. (Or there I was). Not setting out to climb Everest, but only to fulfill my small part of the Everest dream. I’ve always wanted to trek to the Base Camp. I know, it’s going where thousands of others have gone before, but I’ve lived here for years now, and this is something I still need to do. I’ve read about it, but I want to live it. The Annapurna treks are supposed to be amazing—some even say more beautiful—but they have never held the same mystique for me. I can go to my grave without having done that.

A visiting friend with a limited time here was the push needed to get a group of us together to make the trek at last, and we set out in late September—a little ahead of the pack, hoping a last wringing of late monsoon rains wouldn’t make us regret it. Setting out, in the footsteps of many, many before us. Nothing groundbreaking there—yet for us, all new.

And what a wonderful experience it was. I could write tomes about the blue of the sky, the roar of the rivers, yaks grazing on hills covered with multi-colored heather and plant life. The flimsy-feeling bridges over deep, narrow gorges that were enough to truly take your breath away, in more ways than one! And around every corner, snow-capped peaks looming up, surprising you by their nearness and their clarity.  Silent, crisp forests.

But what you’re reading now isn’t going to give you a detailed description of each step that was taken and what was seen at every turn—part of the joy of a trek like this, I think, is the adventure of finding that out for yourself, so that even if you know that you are walking in the footsteps of many, many others, for you each bend and curve brings a new and joyful experience. Follow the trail. The adventure will find you.

Tengboche Monastery

Rediscovering yourself
While some decry rampant commercialism—and I’m sure it’s not like it was 50 years ago—there are still amazing patches of wildness, of silence; enough to make you catch your breath and feel a million miles away from civilization and the world of e-mail, omnipresent wi-fi, and your Blackberry. As a matter of fact, I had brought my Ipod along, but within a few days it became too much hassle and expense to charge it—and though I kept my digital camera full of juice, it was my one concession to the modern world: everything else faded into the elemental, the earthy feel of the ground under you, as you pushed your body and discovered, if you didn’t already know, just how much it was capable of doing on your behalf.

It was the adventure a lifetime, yet as I look back on it, what I took away from it, what remains with me, was not what I expected at all.

We spent a full day and a half at Pheriche, acclimatizing. If you wander down the row of houses, huts and lodges that make up this tiny village, just near the clinic, you’ll find a shiny, slightly garish metallic structure. It looks like a cone, chopped in half and opened up a little. On the two inside walls are etched names—the names of anyone who’s died on Everest, ever. Their name, nationality, and the date of their death. At the bottom, there is empty space for the names that have yet to come here, yet to lose their lives on the highest point on earth. Commissioned by the Everest Memorial Trust, it is a poignant and eerie silent memorial. I searched for and found the names from the 1996 Everest Disaster, which happened just months after I first arrived in Nepal. I still remember the surprise and shock, when all this was new to me and I knew nothing of its history. Doug Hansen. Yasuko Namba. Scott Fischer. Rob Hall. Names that went with faces that I’ve never met, but can recall still, from newspapers and memorials.

A temporary bridge being constructed over a glacier river.

However, I had already fallen under the spell of the chortens a few days earlier; the strange and fascinating mystique of life and death that felt pervasive up there, like another friend along for the ride. Some are well-built altars, others resemble simple stone cairns, reliquaries.

I first saw the chortens when I took a walk behind our small, icy, clapboard hotel at Tengboche. It had been a long slog up, and we were exhausted, chilled to the bone by the winds which blew across the edge where our hotel sat, like a rampart above an escarpment, looking down on the world. Our lodge was rather more of a freezer than even a refrigerator, following one of the ‘Ten Commandments of Trekking’ which I would later read on a T-shirt in a pool bar at Namchhe Bazaar: 9) There is NOTHING you can’t make from plywood!

Poignant memorials
The Himalaya come at you from all sides up there, clear and bright, you feel you could reach out and touch them. As I walked along the edge of the hill which ran past our lodgings the next morning, lonely, and desolate, I saw a line of rock formations, man-made. Then more. Then metal plaques attached to huge rocks. I bent over and began to read. Lives I had never heard of, not the more famous names from 1996, but ones I did not know. Some had died here, mountaineering or even just trekking. Others had once climbed here and died elsewhere, but this spot had been chosen to commemorate them. Once I started looking, I found them everywhere, at scattered intervals along the trail, though the greatest concentration is in a large, open space that you come upon suddenly after a difficult climb as you’re making your way from Thukla Village to Lobuche, a place known as Dughla. Others were at Gorak Shep, yet more can be found at upper Pengboche, on a ridge with a spectacular view of the river ravine below.

In the end, these faceless names are my most poignant Everest memory, and I often flip through the dozens of photos I took, each plaque and chorten symbolizing a life, someone loved and still mourned and remembered by a family somewhere. And yet, though I’m sure many still grieve, I was surprised by the joy and celebration of life that shone through so many inscriptions.

Arne Naess (8.12.1937-13.01.2004) Mt Everest 1985—the happiest expedition ever

This was my personal favorite—Arne Naess did not die here, but in a mountaineering accident in South Africa, some years after first marrying and then divorcing soul singer Diana Ross. An experienced climber, he had already made 20 first ascents of Norwegian mountains by the age of nineteen. The first Norwegian Everest expedition, which he led in 1985, is recorded as ‘one of the more successful Everest climbs to have taken place.’ Whatever that may mean in technical terms (17 members of the team summitted, so that may have had something to do with it), someone came back here, a full 19 years after the fact, to record his death and pen those words: the happiest expedition ever, on an out of the way ridge in Tengboche. While joy can never be quantified, I think it’s fantastic that they remembered it in such terms. Maybe I should call our trek The Happiest Trek Ever. We’ve certainly had our share of laughs, huddled in one particular lodge so dirty and smelly we can only laugh at the recollection (the owner was wonderfully friendly, to make up for it!), dodging yaks loaded with gas cylinders galloping past us on a run, rejoicing at snow, for two of our party their first snow ever. An unexpected view of a musk deer, which stood and stared at us for long minutes as we lay under shrubs off the main trail, resting for the next forge ahead. The thrill of picking our way across the final, icy glacier just beyond Gorak Shep to ‘base camp’ itself, pools of icy water beneath us, piles of dirty ice around us. Joy!

Russian Lhotse Expedition, Vladimir Bashkirov, 28.01.1952 – 27.05.1997, To a great climber and a dear friend

Vladimir Bashkirov died attempting to climb Lhotse Middle, at the time the highest unclimbed named peak on earth. Though he did not make it, the route that he pioneered was the way that finally led a Russian climbing team to summit Lhotse Middle in 2001, a climb they dedicated to him.

Sean Agan, Ad Astra, Always Aim High, 1942-2005
As with the majority of these names, I’d never heard of Sean either, but a little research turned up a 63-year-old Irish-born Canadian, aiming to become the oldest person to climb Everest. Taken ill with respiratory illness, he suffered an apparent heart attack on the way down. Always Aim High. As I read his personal diary entries of his first trip to Nepal, when he took a group of students along the same path I took to the Everest Base Camp, I find a man with a great sense of humor and a keen insight into the Nepali people and culture. A log of another adventure he took cycling across America is also posted, and I find myself wishing there was one of his final adventure, that he’d lived to complete it and write about it.

Mount Everest

In memory of PETER GANNER from Klosterneuburg/Austria. He rests at 8,400 metres in the Kangshung-face, where he died on May 24th 2001 in the arms of Pasang Gelu Sherpa. In love, your wife Ingrid and your children Rupert, Klemens, Hedwig and Agnes.

Online searches led me to a detailed summary by Ingrid, Peter Ganner’s wife of her search for the truth of her husband’s death and what she came to learn. Poignant, heartfelt, reading what she wrote brought home to me the reality, the life, of each person whose chorten I passed and photographed. I hope she has found her peace.

Particularly poignant, the memorial for Peter Ganner, found on the plateau at Dughla was built up around the base like a cairn. In the corner above the inscription, this poem had been included:

Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep
I am a thousand winds that blow
I am the diamond glints on snow.

Surrounded by piles of stone and sincere, heartfelt memorials; ringed beyond that by what must surely be some of the most beautiful mountains on earth: you cannot have a better resting place. It is certainly the world’s most spectacular memorial ground.

The snowy white landscape of Gorak Shep.

At Upper Pengboche, Jason Mark Schone: his hand carved stone set inside a chorten says simply ‘Trekker’ – his birth and death dates are worn down too far to read clearly. 1957-2005 is the best I can make out for him. I can find no information about him and wonder how he, a trekker like me, came to rest on this spot, amazingly picturesque, off the beaten track.

There is a large chorten, also at Dughla, to Babu Chiri Sherpa, whose death I clearly recall; I’d met him briefly, as well as his widow after his passing. The large brass plaque set into it details his life, world records, and how he died. Not mentioned are the six daughters I know he left behind. I wonder how they are now. He never went to school, but taught himself to read; he’d often said that his motive for climbing and constantly breaking records was to give his girls the education he’d never had. He was also raising money to build a school in his small village, Takshiundu.

Babu Chiri is only one of many, many Sherpas whose names are engraved on stones all over the Khumbu; they accomplish amazing feats but also run unimaginable risks, and every year, there is news of more fatalities.

Some chortens are just poignant, spare; the information scarce or nonexistent, yet the names remain with me:

Namche Bazaar in the evening.

Yoshio Maruyama  
Simon Burkhardt
Cathy Phibbs, Climber + friend, 1991

Mr. Noboru Mori, Mrs. Mitsuko Mori, 28 March 1996 – and I wonder about them. Who were they? A married couple, I assume. How did they die? Their names are not to be found on the list of those who died on Everest, though of course the chortens are not limited to Everest deaths alone. The stone their names are etched on has cracked into about six pieces, carefully pieced back together again. Maybe it is the proclivity of a writer, but I imagine their life, their story, those they have left behind.

At Gorak Shep, also a memorial for six Indian army officers “who rest on Everest,” the date not recorded. Alongside it, on the same large stone, a plaque for late warrant officer Bhim Bahadur Gurung, from the May 2003 Nepalese Army Everest Expedition.

So many names. Celebrations of life
But my trek wasn’t just about death, it was also, joyously, about life. Because the other mental snapshot I carry with me from the two weeks I spent in the Everest region is of its children. From the tiny Sherpa newborn that slept peacefully through the whole flight from Kathmandu to Lukla—coming home in his mother’s arms from a Kathmandu hospital to meet his family and his land, just days old—children were everywhere.

Schools were closed for the Dashain holidays, though in some of the remote places we visited, I’m not sure how much difference that would have made, as schools didn’t seem like they would’ve it on the agenda in some areas anyway. Children on the trail, in the homes, playing in the rivers. In an environment that seems so fraught with hidden dangers and growing up to face a challenging existence, there is nothing more disarming than children, at play and fearless.

On our way back to Lukla, we passed over a small bridge by Thabokoshi, and I had the shock of my life to see three tiny children, two boys and a girl, not more than three or four years old, balancing on a huge rock ten metres above a deep, azure pool of water. Which led to a river. Which plunged into a ravine. . . you get the idea. I stared at them, terrified, until I heard them shrieking with laughter as they climbed back up, then edged down again, as far as they could go, without tumbling off. Their offhand courageousness is a sight to behold, and while terrified for them, I could not help but be caught up in their instinctive joy.

You should do this trek for the Himalayan children alone. I realized that as I wandered through Monjo, hunting a room for the night. Himalayan Sherpa babies are a joy… fearless and fun loving, they hold your eye like an equal. Working harder than you may at times feel children should, the older ones also play hard—and as I mentioned earlier, they all seem to possess an amazing fearlessness which makes you want to both protect them and stand in awe of all they are able to pull off.

Like the ones that use the outside panels of bridges as monkey bars. Enough said!

On the way up and back down, we stayed at the tiny Amadablam Lodge at Pheriche, mostly huddled around the dung-burning pot-bellied stove, the only guests of a Sherpa mother and a younger female relative. She had just arrived from a larger town, carrying her baby, only months old, snugly wrapped in its basket, to open a lodge for the tourist season, just beginning. As we had time to kill there, I hung out with the baby a lot, a bright and cheerful wee girl, while her mother prepared us her excellent potato momo. In her basket, a photo of the Dalai Lama, tucked into her crib for luck. For her life, I wonder, or perhaps for her fathers’, one of the many who were likely making best use of the tourist season as a guide or porter, up and down the endless trails.

I will remember the chortens, so many who are no longer with us, whose stories should not ever be forgotten – and I will cherish the memory of the children, who will grow up to be the future. If they are as brave and fearless then as I see them now, there is no limit to how far they can go, Everest or beyond.