On the sixth of February Dorje and I climb up to Phakding Monastery for a Buddhist prayer ceremony, a puja, to be performed by the monks to protect our team, separated by bad weather and other circumstances. One of the climbers, Pasang, is still in Kathmandu, another climbing Sherpa, Chongba, and the cook, Jangbu, are in Lukla, and I am planning to trek to Namche Bazaar early next morning to acclimatize to high altitude.
The day of the puja is beautifully sunny and the monastery, perched up on the hill overlooking the village of Phakding, is quiet and peaceful. During the long ceremony held in the cold prayer hall, I feel like I am in a dream. The sweetness and warmth of milk tea on my palate, the clear sound of the bell and the guttural chanting in the dim air as well as the icy numbness of my suddenly still body seem alien, far removed from whatever it is that I am. When the ceremony is over and we receive blessings from the lamas, I feel unassailably happy and prepared for what is coming. A Hurricane.
The day after I arrive in Namche, a storm hits the Everest Region with surprising force; it tumbles trees and moves rocks, howling and growling, while I, the only guest in a limbo like lodge, read The Wheel of Sharp Weapons stubbornly, over and over again; when I can’t hear my own thoughts because of the wind, I read aloud. The lights go out, and I turn my head lamp on to keep reading, to stay awake. The morning after brings little relief as the Hurricane takes a quiet breath before the next blow.
‘I will not stop until you understand,’ the Hurricane seems to whisper to me, ‘that I am not some external force, a storm you can sit out or hide from; I am your mind. I will tear, and break, and hurt everything you care about until you find the strength to tame me. ’
‘What am I to a Hurricane? I don’t have that strength.’
‘Then, make it out of something you have in excess.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘‘Dance and trample on the head of this betrayer, false conception;
Mortally strike at the heart of this butcher and enemy, Ego’’
[‘The Wheel of Sharp Weapons’, translated by Thupten Jinpa]
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Of course not; that is exactly why I want you to think about it.’
At four p.m. my phone is working again, and I can finally call Dorje: I want to let him know that tomorrow I will start down, and that the expedition is over: I will not risk my team’s safety for something I want, no matter how badly. Before I have the chance to say a word to Dorje on the phone, however, his tired voice tells me that he is already on the way to Namche. When he and Jangbu arrive I learn that, after six days of waiting, Pasang was able to fly out of Kathmandu by helicopter and will be joining us next morning. Strangely, instead of joy, I am overcome with grim anxiety: I had given up on Cholatse, I had decided to forget my insatiable ambition, but the Hurricane, true to its promise, will not stop until I’ve learnt my lesson well.
‘If you hadn’t come and Pasang had still been in Kathmandu, I would have simply walked back tomorrow morning, you know…’ I tell Dorje at dinner. It would have been easy, too easy.
‘That would have been hard, Milarepa,’ he smiles, ‘the trail is completely blocked by fallen trees after the hurricane. Our yaks couldn’t pass. It’s a mess.’
‘Oh…’ I am hardly surprised to hear that the way back to ‘before the storm’ is impassable. I must walk a full circle before returning home, and it is my fault, undeniably, that four good people have to join me on this eerie adventure. My desire to climb Cholatse will now have to turn into a quest to keep the team away from it.
‘Remember, Dorje,’ I ask after a moment’s pause, ‘how I told you I was an ice swimmer? Well, if we get to base camp and don’t like the look of the Devil Mountain, we’re gonna go swimming instead. In Gokyo. You can make me a hole is the ice and I’ll sit there and pretend I’m on the summit of Cholatse.’
‘Whatever you like it, take it,’ is Dorje’s response, his trademark, accompanied by laughter, ‘but,’ he adds, ‘we have to try.’
That night, for the first time ever since I began to live and to want, I pray that we fail.