Whatever this man is–wanderer or evil monk, or saint or sorcerer–he seems touched by what Tibetans call the “crazy wisdom”: he is free. – Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard
Just as a white summer cloud, in harmony with heaven and earth freely floats in the blue sky from horizon to horizon following the breath of the atmosphere – in the same way the pilgrim abandons himself to the breath of the greater life that…leads him beyond the farthest horizons to an aim which is already present within him, though yet hidden from his sight. – Lama Govinda, The Way of the White Clouds, taken from The Snow Leopard
On day four of our trek up to Annapurna Base Camp, I pondered the point of a pilgrimage. I knew that Paulo, my brother, and I were on a pilgrimage to see this magnificent place referred to by all on the trail as “ABC,” but I did not know what we would find when we got there. It sort of bothered me; after all, why go on a pilgrimage if you do not understand the point of your journey. I looked into the eyes of the weary travelers coming towards us on the trail, the ones who had already made the journey to the high altitudes and snows of ABC, and wondered what they were thinking. In most of their eyes I saw nothing but weariness, exhaustion, and perhaps exasperation: exasperation with the distance they now had to travel back to civilization. It seemed to me that on many of their faces was painted the knowledge of how far they had yet to travel, and the intense desire that they were already there, and did not have to make the effort to walk these long and hot miles back to the nearest road. To me these people seemed unaffected by what they had seen, and I wondered if they were on a pilgrimage like I was, or if they were merely fulfilling the itinerary set out for them when they planned a trip to Nepal: when in Nepal you go trekking, and the most popular trek is to ABC.
But perhaps I am just being judgmental. Perhaps these people were just really tired. But there was a distinct counter-point to these blank and tired faces – there were those souls walking towards us who glowed with radiance, who were powered by an inner energy, despite the days of hard walking and fatigue. These people were affected, they had found what they were seeking and more in the hall of the mountain kings that we walked towards, but what was it they had found?
As I slowly plodded upwards to my own mantra-chanting rhythm, step by step up yet another interminable himalayan stone staircase, I wondered what my pilgrimage was all about. What was the point of this journey? I had flown half way around the world over the course of five days to land in Nepal. I had then traveled eight hours on a mini-bus to reach a village near the start of this walk, and had packed a backpack, written emails, withdrawn money, and scoured maps in preparation for this five day march to a place which is defined as being merely the base camp for expeditions wishing to tackle the real challenge – the famous and menacing mountain Annapurna which rises above. Don’t get me wrong, I will happily do all these things and much more just to enjoy a fine walk in the mountains, but this one was about much more than just seeing the sights. I could feel the hidden significance within myself, but it bothered me that I couldn’t put my finger on that internal meaning, the reason for sharing this march with all these countless fellow souls from every country in the world where people have enough income to travel to Nepal, as well as with my brother. And so I marched onwards, wondering…
A day later we finally arrived at the 4,130 meter high Annapurna Base Camp (roughly 13,600 ft.), at the end of an eight hour day of hard hiking with packs on, in a complete whiteout and blowing snow, to the realization that all four of the guest houses (guest houses at base camp?) were already full! There was the very real possibility of needing to turn back around and march down to Macchepucchre Base Camp, which we had passed two hours earlier, in order to find a room for the night. At the last moment a man provided us with two beds in a group dorm room, which we shared with a group of Koreans. After dinner eaten in a cold group dining room, we decided to head outside into the snow to see if the clouds were clearing and there would be a view for us to enjoy in the morning. To our delight, the clouds to our east were clearing away from the fantastic snow covered rock spire of Macchepucchre, also known as Fish Tail Mountain, for its distinctive summit, which has never been summited by man as it is a holy mountain, the living place of the gods to the Gurung people, whose villages are scattered about the green hills below these mountains. The view was sublime! Our first sight of the peaks we had come to see from up in this snowy mountain cirque, seen in the last hint of twilight, inspired me to say to Paulo, “there we go! We have our views of our mountain summit! But what is the meaning of our pilgrimage?”
“Affirmation of the Path,” is what he replied. “Simple as that!”
I thought about it and realized he was right. We are on the Path, and the simple good fortune of having the clouds clear away and being able to have the magnificent views that we had come so far to see was truly an affirmation of the path. If we were not walking truly then the views we were seeing would surely have remained obscured from us, like they were from some of the folks we had talked to lower on the trail. And if we had to walk all the way up here just to have it re-affirmed that we were walking truly on the Path, then surely that was worth the journey! Great views, crisp mountain air, and reassurance of purpose – I went to sleep happy.
In the morning we awoke and jumped out of bed and into the cold morning at the first sign of light, for we didn’t want to miss the sunrise on these holy mountains. We were confident that it would be totally clear out for us, and of course it was. Cameras at the ready, we took in this fabulous cirque in the pre-dawn light. Himchuli, Annapurna South, the mighty south face of Annapurna, which I have been reading about since I was a child, Tent Peak, Gangapurna, and Macchapucchre ringed our horizon. Four guest houses worth of tourists, as well as ones which had hiked up from below for this moment, all reveled in the splendor as the first rays of sun hit Annapurna and painted its summit orange. Many pictures were captured, and many smiles and laughs were shared by all.
The orange glow eventually faded to the platinum white shine of sun on snow and people began to trickle away, back to western lives. Paulo suggested we head over to our guest house for some porridge breakfast, but as I began to walk away, I noticed a small stupa adorned with prayer flags, where people had affixed plaques for fallen climbers on Annapurna. I looked over these plaques commemorating the lives of famous climbers who had died here – Anatoli Boukreev, Ian Clough, Pierre Beghin, Alex MacIntyre – and others whose names I did not recognize but who I am certain led just as inspiring lives. These were the idols of my childhood, a time when I read every book or magazine article about himalayan mountaineering I could get my hands on, but which I had not contemplated for years. Unaccountably tears came to my eyes as the power of this place struck me, and I also had the simultaneous realization that I had another purpose for coming on this pilgrimage – the time for me to shed my past was now. Like these climbers who shed one corporeal body here at this place so that their soul could travel on to occupy another one, I felt that I needed to symbolically shed the recent period of my past, so that I could be free to live the present and the future parts of my life without the emotional encumbrance of the past three months, and eight years, informing my actions. I intended to shed my past like a snake sheds its skin, and here was the right place to do it. I had even brought a talisman of my past with me to help with the ceremony – my wedding ring – whose weight I could now feel in my pocket. I had been waiting for some sort of revelation, and suddenly the true purpose of this pilgrimage was obvious.
After a quiet and contemplative breakfast Paulo and I packed up our backpacks for our return journey to Pokhara, and then went our separate ways to each experience this moment alone. I gathered my wedding ring, a small piece of sandalwood given to me by my friend Jonas, a small bit of toilet paper and a lighter and walked off up the edge of the glacial moraine above camp to be alone. I gathered some dry grasses along the way and found a peaceful spot on top of a large boulder sticking out of the snow. All around me on this snowy plain stood rock cairns, and it was powerful to realize that most of these had likely been built to commemorate other pilgrimages of meaning too. This was a place of power for many people before me.
I built a small alter and cairn of stones nearby and set on it the ring, symbol of my past, and piled on top the tissue paper, dried grass, and the piece of sandalwood. I looked up at the surrounding mountains, at the sun, and at the sky and said a few words to myself, ending with, “and so I shed my past like the serpent sheds its skin,” and lit the bundle on fire. At that exact moment I heard a large rumble, one I instantly knew from my time in the mountains as an avalanche, and looked up to pointy Annapurna South towering above, and saw the massive serac that had shed itself from the side of the mountain and billowed and crashed as it tumbled down the steep mountain. I watched it for maybe a minute till it settled into the glacier below, transfixed, then realized that my pyre had gone out. I lit it with the lighter and again, at that instant, I heard a boom and this time saw another avalanche being shed from halfway up the massive south wall of Annapurna in front of me. This one crashed much more rapidly and violently down the steep wall, but again when I looked down my flame had gone out. The spontaneous timing and synchronicity of these two avalanches, not to mention the metaphorical link of the mountain shedding part of its skin, was not lost on me, I was enthralled by the power of the One Love, which had surely heard my short prayer moments before and understood my own significance in this moment. With anticipation I bent over and lit the grass a third time–but no crashing was heard. I stood still listening, and perceived nothing but the sweet music of chirping birds, a small flock flitted about the boulders, speaking happily to each other as they flew. The mountains watched in their silence, existing. The moment was past, the act was finished, and I was free.
With tears in my eyes and a beaming smile on my face I picked through the remains of the burnt grass and picked out my piece of sandalwood, bringing it to my nose to smell, then put it in my pocket to carry on with added energy to more fantastic moments yet unanticipated. I looked to the sun and thanked it for the life it gives me and everything else on this world, glanced again at each of the surrounding peaks, and then walked off, leaving the past exactly where it belongs: in the past.
Fittingly, Paulo was the first person that I encountered on my walk back to the world. He was all smiles as well, as he had thoroughly enjoyed his own spiritual time in this Hall of the Mountain Kings. We gave each other a big hug, had a picture taken of us, and walked away, pilgrimage fulfilled. The mountains, the sun, the Divine, Cosmos, One Love, the Path, whatever… had given us a fantastic gift that we both recognized, and we were positively infused with that energy as we marched back: to this cushy western life full of comfort, technology, and utter distraction…
And so on the hike back down the many stone stairs we had already walked up I pondered the idea of pilgrimage from a new perspective. I realized that the meaning of every pilgrimage comes from within the one making the journey. This is of course a metaphor for life and all actions. Many people walk up to Annapurna Base Camp without infusing it themselves with meaning or purpose, and so their experience is understandably hollow, simply an action performed. Performing a hollow task is nothing but a chore. You can see on the faces of the people returning from this magical place whether they have been on a pilgrimage, or whether they have performed a chore. And I’m sure you can guess which group of people has larger smiles on their faces!…
Thank you for reading. I hope that you allow yourself to give even the simple chores in your life meaning, and that your spirit is buoyed!