Interweaving the dramatic story of his own ascent during the infamous 1996 Mount Everest disaster with little-known stories from his father's historic climb and an insider's view of the Sherpa's world, Jamling offers the first complete account of the Everest experience. Yet, this is also a story of personal discovery. For when he reaches the top of the mountain, we witness more than one man's triumphwe witness a son finding his family's honorand touching his father's soul.
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Chapter One An Ominous Forecast
Rimpoche bunched his mala rosary into his cupped hands and blew on it sharply. He withdrew the string of beads slowly and inspected it, turning his head slightly and squinting, as if trying to peer inside each individual bead. He looked up at me.
"Conditions do not look favorable. There is something malevolent about the mountain this coming season. "
I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach a feeling that surprised me considering that I was nothing of a devout Buddhist.
Rimpoche sat on a wide, flat cushion, and he adjusted his robe and began to rock back and forth as if he, too, had been surprised by the divination. He clapped his hand loudly to call the attendant monk. His clap broke the silence the way a guru's clap in a Buddhist teaching is meant to trigger awakening to the nature of emptiness, sparking a flash of recognition that all life is impermanent, containing no inherent existence. I experienced a narrow, momentary space of calmness, a millisecond of emptiness, then felt my stomach again.
A monk padded in quietly and served us tea, gently lifting the filigree silver cover from Rimpoche's jade teacup, which sat on a silver stand. The monk then offered me some fried breads from a woven bamboo tray. I declined, then accepted after the third offer. Such trays are always kept heaping full, and I had to concentrate to avoid knocking off the other pieces. My hand was shaking.
In early January 1996, 1 had traveled here to Siliguri, West Bengal, for an audience with Chatral Rimpoche, a respected but reclusive lama of the Nyingma, or"ancient lineage," of Tibetan Buddhism. His principal monastery was located in Darjeeling, where I lived with my wife, but Rimpoche's patrons and supporters had built him a small monastic center in the northern plains of lndia, several hours away by jeep. The West Bengal landscape is relentlessly flat, far from the remote monasteries that the Nyingmapas established, beginning a millennium ago, across the Himalaya. I felt fortunate to have been born on the south side of the Himalaya, safe from the Chinese invasion of Tibet. Since the late 1950s, Tibetans have been crossing their border into India, Sikkim, and Nepal seeking refuge. Partly as a result of their unerring devotion, Tibetan Buddhism continues to flourish along the south side of the Himalaya, including among my people, the Sherpa.
Rimpoche's chapel and quarters are painted in the bright primary and earthen colors of Himalayan monasteries. Accented by the tall prayer flags on the roof, the compound looked invitingly familiar across a landscape of banana trees, Tata trucks, and blowing dust. It hardly seemed like a place to get a technical reading on the advisability of attempting to climb the world's tallest peak, Mount Everest.
I told Rimpoche that I was there to request a divination, then cautiously asked him about the coming season on the mountain.
I wondered how accurate such divinations really are, statistically speaking. The ability of some lamas to see into the future is remarkable, my parents always said, and their words can be frightening for some. Indeed, fear of prior knowledge of events is one reason why many Sherpas are careful about requesting divinations and one reason why lamas often shroud their counsel in generalities and aphorisms. The truth, especially when presented in advance, can be too much for some people to accept graciously. They tend to become angry or to deny it, only further exhibiting the "afflictive emotions" of anger and ignorance. Many lamas feel that laypeople don't use knowledge of the future properly. Seldom do people apply it to further their self-understanding or to aid noble causes. Again and again, people hope vainly to control events that have yet to occur, events that never seem to play out in the way they imagined.
Raised in a religious family, I was aware of the danger of asking questions of lamas. "When you request a divination, you must always be prepared to abide by the answer,"my father, Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, had cautioned me. Fine, as long as it was a positive answer or even neutral. But this divination was unequivocally bad.
I was already firmly inextricably committed to climbing Mount Everest. Should I tell my teammates on the Everest IMAX Filming Expedition about Rimpoche's ominous forecast?
How could I? I was the Climbing Leader. Were I to drop out, and only three months before the start of the climb, it would cast a long shadow over the expedition and, I felt, over my father's name and my family legacy. My wife, Soyang, was the reason I was here. She is a young and educated Tibetan woman, yet traditional and reserved. She was against my plan to climb Everest unless a lama pronounced it safe.
A week earlier the veteran Himalayan mountaineer David Breashears had phoned me from the United States. He said that a modified IMAX movie camera had been successfully field-tested and that funding had been secured for an expedition that would try to haul the cumbersome forty-two-pound device to the summit. An extraordinarily ambitious goal. "I need you, Jamling,"he told me. "Your story, your father's story, and the story of the Sherpas will be important to the film. But I first wanted to make sure you haven't committed to another climb for this spring. If not, then welcome to the team. Let's talk details soon"
Soyang overheard the phone call. She had been uneasily quiet all afternoon. That night, lying in our bed at home in Darjeeling, she sat up and looked at me sternly. In a determined voice, she said that we had better talk about my Everest plans.
"You don't simply say you're going to climb Everest in the manner that you say you're going to see a movie." Her tone was imploring, but not entirely dissuasive.