Like a Prayer Flag

There was good money to be made in the coal mine. It was a means to an end as he had never intended to spend his life underground. His passion and his dream were to climb mountains. The dream of whiteness sustained him in the dark and the filth. Every time his pickaxe hit the wall, he saw ice and practiced putting his weight on it. The cold was good practice, the headlamp was good practice. Any unforeseen event made him sharpen his reflexes and think back on mistakes he could have avoided.

The day that part of the mine collapsed, he was trapped with his co-workers. As the others were panicking and getting desperate, he found ways to calm them. What would you do in an avalanche? Signal your presence. He got the slimmest of them to bring a red kerchief wrapped around a message to the farthest reaches of the fault. It was to be their message in a bottle, containing their names and the location where they had been working. The slim man was brave – he wedged himself amongst the unstable rocks, extending his arm as far as he could, all the while fearing it would get crushed. Two men were holding his legs, ready to pull him out quickly if he said so. They did not have to. A lamp threw enough light to show the bit of red that held their hope, like a beating heart in the rubble.

He advised them to catch some sleep and they got organized. They set up rotations of two men who kept watch. The men were exhausted despite their dire circumstances. They slept soundly. Two men stayed awake in the dark. They were tough men used to tough lives. He had advised them to take their minds off the slide and pay attention to minute sounds. He took the second watch with Colin, a man who was not well liked. They did not need to chat – indeed it was better if they refrained to conserve oxygen.

Part of his mind was straining to hear sounds of a rescue team, but the best part of him was busy planning his climbing expedition. He imagined his dream team, based on the best qualities his fellow miners exhibited. He found it exhilarating to have the chance to sample flaws in character in a matter of life and death. He felt fortunate at having gotten trapped to have material to work with. He was too young not to be optimistic. He fully believed the cavalry was coming.

Thus he slept soundly after his turn was up. He slept so soundly that even the yells of the others calling out to the rescue team did not wake him. The rescuers were progressing slowly. They had spotted the red flag, retrieved it, told the anxious people on top the names of the survivors in that cell. They managed to pump fresh oxygen, water and hope. The men still used their lamps sparingly.

However, the men were not ones to rejoice before they had been pulled back up and were safely into a beloved’s arms. Yet hope filled their hearts, and their cramped quarters now felt cozy. He had at last woken up and was observing everything closely. He was interested in people’s reactions. Had he read them properly? Were the chosen ones made of the right cloth?

At last, they were brought up. He put himself last in line. He wanted to experience it all. He saw the accident in slow motion – the frayed rope giving way, the cabin falling. Of course, he was daydreaming this. They were all safe and sound, heroes every one of them. He noticed after the ordeal that Colin was now accepted and integrated. He had proven his worth. They had lived through fear and bonded.

To him, the event marked a turning point. Shortly after, he settled his accounts and headed for the mountains. He wanted to feel the sun on his skin, the cold in his bones, the camaraderie of the rope.

Every climb taught him something. He was a methodical student and progressed quickly. He felt little fear, which made him a liability in his companions’ eyes. Yet he was cautious and neither caused nor suffered any serious accident. Slowly, he was accepted and invited to join more experienced climbers. He was as strong as an ox and unbeatable with a pickaxe. He noticed everything and took detailed notes which he read and reread. A few years after the mine incident, he heard of an explosion there. At the time of the explosion, he had been climbing a very tricky wall with two other mountaineers. He swore after that he had felt the blast in his body, bursts of wind pushing him against the mountain wall. He was breathing hard, feeling the clean air in his lungs, thinking of his old life and its dangers. It felt like light-years away. His spikes gripped the slippery wall as he serenely continued pegging his way, a song in his heart, his dream team clipped to the rope, like those prayer flags in the Himalayas.

The Mountain

You can read this piece starting at any month of the year and circle.

JANUARY

Summit! I plant the flag I’ve been hauling in my backpack, part of the essentials, a necessary validation for my efforts. My fingers are numb from the cold, despite the exertion. I know better than to strip off my gloves, what with the altitude and the funny things it does to the brain I might forget to put them back on and freeze them. I take a few pictures of myself and the flag, of myself, of the breath-taking view. That’s for my ego and posterity. Another summit ticked off. It’s very windy and barren and a bit crowded with everybody milling about. We can’t dawdle. After thirty minutes, I start herding the group. We can’t stay exposed to the high winds. I worry that the members of our little group will get dehydrated and confused. We must start the descent. One last look – I can’t believe I’ve done it. I can see the Earth’s curvature.

FEBRUARY

We descend cautiously. Sure, you’re cautious ascending but the reverse is treacherous as well. You still need a team to help you navigate your way down. The same issues going up exist going down, except you are no longer fuelled by adrenaline. Again, you need to fight your tendencies to self-destruction and prop yourself up. You will yourself to keep going. The goal is no longer to summit but to rejoin the ranks of the mortals down below. You fight the urge to fall off the face of a cliff, a glorious end after this brave summit. Except dying nullifies the win. You need must keep going to complete the cycle. And so you do. One foot in front of the other.

MARCH

Coming across human remains is always a shock. You are faced with your own mortality, and failure to survive in this harsh environment. And then there is the ethical aspect. Should you protect the body, bury it, try and bring it down though you are tired? Will you put your own life at risk to bring solace to unknown parties? Or will you give the mountain its due? All those humans climbing it, without regards for her feelings. She may need her share of flesh to consume. I am aware those are strange thoughts, feverish thoughts. I say a quick prayer in my heart and move on. We should wear dog tags, I reflect, so they could be returned to the family. I will lie and say he looked peaceful, like he just sat down for a minute. Actually, I’ve never seen such an expression of fear. He was struck down with fear in his heart and the image will haunt me for years to come. Mercifully, I don’t know that at this point.

APRIL

I am in the foothills, reluctant to leave. I stay in the village, trying to support myself while living with a family. I don’t want to be a drain on resources. I bring a bit of fame to the place. Foreigners who want to climb the mountain turn to me. I eke out a living on consultant fees. I may yet write articles for Mountaineering magazine. Spring here is fierce and short, blossoms competing in speed and fragrance. It’s hard to believe I feared dying from exposure a few short months go. I am smack in the middle of a verdant landscape, no longer lunar, but quite earthly. I accompany the family’s young herder as he leads the flock to pasture. He wears skins, like a prehistoric man. He walks with a staff. I imitate him the best I can, with a warm coat and ski poles. We are an unlikely pair.

MAY

Nights are cool, but days are mild. I teach Bao some English every day. He wants to grow up to be a mountain guide, so he will be sought after if he speaks English well. He is smart and lively. He finds ways to feed us both, with goat’s milk and hot tea. We’re stationed near a stream which makes for the best tea I have ever drunk. We also have strips of tough dry yak meat. To my companion’s unending mirth, I spend a lot of time foraging. He won’ t try my discoveries at first. Every day, I make a salad of dandelion or other edible plant. He affectionately calls me a goat. As the goat is a prized possession, I am not offended. He plays the flute for me. I play the harmonica. The goats hang around when we play, grazing to our music and laughter. I journal and meditate. I patiently untangle knots and tangles in my heart and mind. I have left a mess behind me and another within. Living outside helps.

JUNE

Relentless rain. Miserable soaking wet. Bao is unconcerned. He wears a large hat. He gets soaked indifferently, but we keep a fire going with dried dung he’s been collecting. The mothers have calved and the newborns shiver. The males have established a guard perimeter to protect the herd. We are also on guard for predators. Bao tells me if I see an eagle, to extend my arms out to appear bigger. He says also to protect my eyes and make lots of noise. He teaches me to whirl a slingshot. Pebbles abound. I understand now the Indian gods with so many arms. Protection, attack, gratefulness, sharing. I hope I will not be tested.

JULY

I have been tested and failed. We lost a kid to the king of the sky. We pelted him with rocks, but he never dropped the kid. We could hear the bleating as he was airlifted, as well as his mother’s calls. Neither Bao nor the mother dwelled on the unfortunate incident. I can’t get the bleating out of my mind. It fuses with the human remains one may come across high in the mountain where the living is fierce. I’ve started thinking about heading home. We resume our English lessons in earnest. I practice with the slingshot at the slightest occasion. Wildflowers get decapitated. My aim is getting better.

AUGUST

Bao’s brother comes and spends the night. Lin has brought food and news from the village. They talk urgently. I can’t make out much of it. Bao shows off his English, gives me news. We prepare a feast with food Lin has carted – freshly-made bread and kumis to celebrate. Bao’s brother also brought a live chicken. Bao ties its leg with a twine he’s braided into a solid rope. We tell Lin about the eagle. Still, Bao is willing to take his chances for eggs. We agree that I will return to the village with Lin. I spend a great deal of time fretting about my pack while the brothers laugh, talk and drink into the night. They sleep in each other’s arms. A few months together is nothing compared to the bond these two share.

SEPTEMBER

Bao will spend the remainder of the season at pasture, with no company other than the wind, the grasses, the creek, the goats and the eagle. I give him a hug and my coat that he has been eyeing since Day one, lavishing me with compliments on its bright colours. He gives me his flute and memories of music under the stars. I think I get the best deal. The trek back with Lin is easier than I remembered. I am stronger and fitter, and my lungs are accustomed to the high altitude. Lin sings as we walk, his voice a deep baritone that he enjoys throwing against the rocks. It echoes loudly, a deep rumble that I believe could set off an avalanche if used foolishly. Lin is anything but foolish. He pointsout to me dangers on the road, holes and unstable rocks. Finally, he is reassured with my footing and only points at beautiful vistas or flowers. We stop to rest and eat when the sun is at its zenith. I have given up on wearing a watch. We can see the village below, another two hours with traffic. The path is wider and more travelled. I miss the quiet of the flock as I get re-accustomed to meeting people.

OCTOBER

I am back home. The reacclimatising has been difficult, like trying to breathe in rarefied atmosphere. I’ve had trouble catching my breath and getting my body back into what feels like a frenzied pace. I’ve accepted to replace a climber who dropped out at the last minute from an expedition my friend Patrick is leading. I am meeting the group tonight for the first time. I’ve climbed with Patrick before and will be able to assist him. I have a sponsor, so I am not worrying about the financial aspect so much. I am getting free gear in exchange for pictures and articles. This is a mountain I’ve never climbed so I have been researching routes and weather conditions. I am a whiz at reading clouds.

NOVEMBER

I’ve spent the whole month in preparation but still I feel hopelessly behind and doubt I can be of help to Patrick, our leader. Much of my preparation is mental though I’ve also been training in the gym and bouldering to build up muscle. I am fit and trust my body to react in difficult situations. I’m up-to-date on my first aid training, with an emphasis on high altitude sickness and disorientation. We will have two experienced climbers with us to corral the group, middle-aged men and women looking for a challenge. No thrill seekers at first blush. The group seems to gel. Still I am concerned with a myriad of details. I will bring my good luck charm and my country’s flag on a collapsible post.

DECEMBER

We’re finally here, in the village at the foothills. It feels familiar and foreign all at once. The clouds and the smell of dung. Everything is rocky, a lunar landscape on Earth. A few villagers will help carry our equipment halfway where we will camp to wait for good weather and for our bodies to adapt. The experienced climbers have gone ahead to scout the route and will be leaving anchors behind for difficult passages.  The group breaks camp, leaving tents behind to use on our way back. The group is disciplined and focused. They are physically fit. We squeeze through a chimney, roping up the packs and hauling them first, pushing and tugging. We have trouble leaving stuff behind, relying on it more than our wits. I bring up the rear to help the mentally weak. Our goal is for everybody to summit, in their own time, but within a given period. I keep my eye on the cloud and the wind.

Scrambling

The mountain was watching me as I strolled confidently to its base. I had studied it intensely over the last few weeks and I knew its outer layer well. I was here to get acquainted from the inside out. I had no gear, save a helmet and soft-soled shoes. I did a bit of calisthenics, to warm up and settle my nerves. We would soon be entering into combat, and I wanted to come out of it alive. A camera crew was in place. Some of them would be climbing alongside me, in the traditional way, with ropes and so on. They were trying to blend with the rock as much as possible. I blocked them out of my mind’s eye.

Preparation is key, yet it is mostly preparation of the self. The goal is clear: summit alive. You can plan your route ahead, but you will have to readjust on the details. There may have been a slide or other recent phenomena. Your mountain is a living, breathing beast. I was still feeling antsy after stretching so did the next best thing. I ran full tilt to the mountain and jumped. I was strong, with powerful arms and legs. I grappled the wall and pushed and pulled myself up a few meters. It felt good. I could feel the rock pulsating under me. It was daybreak and the surface was not yet warmed by the sun. My assault had woken the behemoth and were now both aware of each other. I settled into a rhythm.

I am keen on meditation and scrambling, as I call what I do when scaling a mountain, is a form of meditation I love. I call it “extreme meditation” because you need to trust yourself fully, relax into the present, yet be aware at all times of your mortality. A drop from the wall is not advisable. If I did fall, I would see that as a failure to make friends with the mountain. The mountain would have shrugged me off. Mountains are friendly, and love company, as long as you treat them with respect. I was being playful when I ran to it at its base, and wanted to establish our relationship on those terms. In the same way that I roll on the floor with kids or dogs, playfully tickling, biting, and tussling, the mock fight is just that, mock. We know when to stop and are careful not to hurt each other.

I am relying heavily on my nose to know if the rock has been infiltrated with water. It will alert me to rot which could undercut its ability to bear my weight. My skin informs me of changes in temperature, sharp edges a recent scar and potential for falling rocks. I go for rounded textures, sculpted by wind and time. If you press your ear to the stone and you hear it sing, you must beware. The tiny vibrations that are so enticing mean the rock is brittle. You learn to trust silence and project yourself in that void.

The crew told me later that their vision of me flipped early on from me tackling a vertical surface to me moving on all fours on the ground. It is true that early on, my weight was no longer a consideration. I felt bound to the wall, my fingers strong and sensitive to the changing surfaces. I could anticipate the bumps and cracks, reading the surface and as I would read a friend’s expressions. We were communicating pleasure and displeasure. I felt the mountain holding me and guiding me. The last meters to the top were more arduous, and I think now it is because the mountain could sense my reluctance to have our association end. I was enjoying the tussle and occasional nip, leaving a few drops of blood as proof of my passage.

I was getting tired and wanted to summit. I knew I must guard against any type of hurry. There was a path, like one goats might have used if they had lived in those parts. It was tempting, with tufts of grass that would cushion my tired feet. But grass means moisture, water infiltration and possible rot. I looked up at the overhang and decided to get down from the ledge and around. From there, it was a cakewalk. Before I knew it, I was hoisting myself up and rolling on top. Summit! The sun was shining and the breeze cooled me down and dried my sweat. I could see another mountain in the distance. I still had many friends to meet.