On our first night in Namche Bazaar we stayed in two different guest houses. Zina (Rachevsky) and Jacqueline and the Lamas were a few houses away from us. They met the French filmmakers there. When Prinz arrived, he was walking slowly with a stick. He had caught a cold and it was going into his lungs. Actually, he clarified, it was going into his one lung. The other one had been removed. First, no skull, then no lung! Should this man be in the Himalayas? I wondered. Fortunately, we found out that there was a small hospital established by Sir Edmund Hillary not far away. We planned to take him there the next day.
Our party split up the next morning. Zina, Jacqueline, and the Lamas headed toward Lawudo. Lama Zopa would return to his birthplace for the first time since he was carried over the mountains as a small child to go to Tibet for his education. At the time Lawudo was restricted and you needed a special permit to go there. The rest of us headed to Khunde, which was on the way to our destination, Tengboche Monastery. We walked along a high ridge spotting a beautiful iridescent bird along the way. It was Nepal's national bird. It was the only time I saw the bird except on postage stamps. What a country! A flag with the sun and moon, a national bird that was beyond belief beautiful, and...the Himalayas!!! I was transferring my allegiance to this remarkable place.
The Hillary hospital was staffed by a young couple, doctors from New Zealand. They examined Prinz and diagnosed pneumonia. He would have to stay there. That night we stayed in the beautiful gompa room of another Sherpa home in the village. We slept in their gompa facing an elaborately carved altar with many statues and texts. I felt privileged to sleep in this holy place. Through the small window we could see the sacred mountain, Ama Dablam. When we awoke the next morning and looked out, the landscape had been transformed with a covering of snow. We were going to have to take a lay over day and wait for the snow to melt.
Fortunately this would allow a visit for some of us to see the famous Yeti skull which is housed in Khumjung monastery. I was told by some Sherpas that there were actually three kinds of Yetis—small ones who are vegetarians, medium-sized who eat small animals and big ones who eat yaks and people.
Max (Matthews) and I stayed in the gompa room most of that day. We spent the time in a deep philosophical discussion about the meaning and purpose of our lives. I was reading Alan Watts' book, "East meets West" which prompted a discussion about Eastern and Western philosophy and our good fortune in meeting the Lamas. It was a magical time deeply imprinted on my mind...looking up at the benevolent gaze of the Buddhas, wondering about the contents of all those beautiful silk-wrapped books. Max and I truly became "Soul Sisters" that day. I felt it was a turning point for both of us. Max wanted to change the direction of her life. Till now my study of Eastern philosophy had been merely an intellectual pursuit. I felt my heart opening to a deeper level.
We were up early the next morning. We knew it was going to be a hard day. When we reached a view point above the valley, the Sherpas pointed out where we would walk: way, way, down to the river and way, way, up the other side. I thought, "no way am I going to be able to walk that far in a day." Every muscle in my body was sore from the previous day’s walk, but on we went. That day I really began to understand the workings of the human body - things I had taken for granted before - the need we have for oxygen and food for fuel. When we got down to the river, I was about spent. I had discovered that going down is not really easier than going up and that "Sahib's knee" (the sore knee that inexperienced trekkers get) really happens on the way down. We had a few bars of pemican with us and I ate one. I could feel the renewed energy from the food. It’s funny, but I had never associated eating much with fueling the body for work.
I started up the other side, quite slowly. We were going to a higher altitude than we had been before. Gradually, I became aware that I was running out of oxygen, another thing I had always taken for granted. I had to take several breaths to get enough oxygen to take a few steps. I was moving so slowly that one of the Sherpas came back to help me. He wanted to pull me along with a belt. I didn't want to move any faster than I was, because each step up meant less oxygen. We compromised finally, with him giving me a bit of a hand, but progressing more slowly than he would have liked. When I finally made the top, everyone else was there and had found lodging in a stone hut at the far end of the village. Mt. Everest was straight ahead with the plume of snow that always blows from the top. The Sherpas call it Chomolungma--Mother of the World, which to me is a more fitting appellation. We were surrounded by magnificent peaks. Each seemed to have its own presence, its own emanation. Indeed they are sacred and deserve our deepest respect.
Tengboche monastery was to our left. The view was vast. Gradually, I adapted to the altitude and could actually walk around without huffing and puffing. We spent a couple of nights there, hiking toward Base Camp one day and visiting the monastery for a blessing on the next. In the doorway of Tengboche I noticed that the same "Wheel of Life" drawing was at the entrance as I had seen at Samyeling Monastery near Bodhanath. I was curious about what it meant. It took several years to patch together the meaning of all the symbols in that amazing drawing. Now there is a book about it, but then I learned about it in bits and pieces when I had some time with a monk or a lama.
The way back to the Hillary Hospital was much easier. We were losing altitude rather than gaining, and my stamina had built up to the point where I could get up and walk for the day without too much problem. It was a real breakthrough for me and my body: to know that I could walk as far as I needed to go and that it didn’t matter whether it was up or down, it was all the same. I felt stronger and more in charge of myself than I had for my whole life. There was way more to this trek than what we saw along the way. For me, it was an incredible integration of body, mind and spirit. I knew I had the strength to do what needed to be done.
Prinz was on the porch of the hospital waving and smiling and looking way better. Thank God for antibiotics. Thank God for Sir Edmund Hillary’s kindness. And here was another amazing karmic incident. The doctors excitedly told us that they had an old x-ray machine that had been donated to the hospital. It had never worked and it was so old they had no idea what to do with it. It turned out that Prinz had driven an ambulance during the war and served as a medic. He was totally familiar with this type of machine, and without hesitation, he made the repairs. (Can you imagine—repairing the x-ray machine, so they can look at your lung?) Not long after they had tested it out on him, a Sherpa walked into the hospital who had fallen off a mountain. They used the machine to diagnose the extent of the damage and found multiple fractures, arms, legs, ribs, everywhere. The miracle was that the Sherpa was so muscle-bound that his musculature was holding the broken bones in place. He was his own cast. That is how he could walk in with all of those fractures. We left Prinz and his assistant behind as he needed a few more days of recuperation before getting to work on his book.
When we arrived back at Namche, it was like coming home to a familiar place. At that point, Chip decided he had to try to go to Lawudo. He just took off down the trail without a permit and said he would be back the next morning in time to leave for Lukla and to catch our flight out. He was flying along the trail and right past the guard station. The guards chased him for a while but gave up. He was moving too fast.
Max and I were waiting back in Namche for him to return. I was getting very nervous. We had to leave by a certain time to make it to Lukla to catch our plane back to Kathmandu. Chip came back late. He was so excited about his experience in Lawudo—going to the cave belonging to Lama Zopa’s predecessor and seeing Lama Zopa and Lama Yeshe make themselves at home there. He had helped open the door by wriggling underneath the entrance. The whole village had turned out for the opening of the meditation cave.
Chip carried a note from the Lamas to Max and me. They said that they were going to stay in Lawudo and do some retreat, so we wouldn’t be seeing each other for a while. They also asked if Max and I could work on establishing a school for the children in the Lawudo area. Pieces of the puzzle were coming together. We finally understood that the people of the village had come to Lama Zopa when he was in his previous body, meditating in the cave, and requested that he start a school for their children. There was no school in the area, and, if they wanted an education, children had to be sent to Tibet or down to Kathmandu. The old lama said that he was too old and was going to die soon, but that he would do it for them in his next incarnation. Now, Lama Zopa was back and it was time for fulfilling the promise. Really, this was the first I had heard of promises being made in previous bodies or lifetimes. It was all very far out, but my skeptical mind was relaxing and allowing for possibilities that I would have questioned before.
At Lukla, we bid farewell to our Sherpa guide, Ang Dorje. I felt so grateful to him for taking good care of us. I wrote a letter of recommendation on a scrap of paper and explained that he should show it to future trekkers to obtain jobs. Many years later, a friend who went trekking told me that they hired a Sherpa who carried a barely readable note from me. It had to be Ang Dorje. I was glad that gesture had served him well.
We waited in Lukla for the Arizona Helicopters plane. There, we were told that the King’s plane had returned on another run the same day we arrived. Maybe they were delivering the cargo that we refused on board. This time the pilot undershot the runway. The landing gear hit the mountainside and the plane crashed. Fortunately, no one was hurt. The plane was later towed by yaks up the runway to Lukla and converted to a Tea house, I heard.
I couldn’t believe how the STOL plane landed. It just flew directly in, without all the spiraling downward that we had done on our arrival. It hit the runway and stopped half-way up,— no U-turn needed. The steely-eyed rough neck pilot got out, cussing and swearing. He was mad because we had a big Sherpa pot with us and it would put us overweight. We begged to take the pot with us, but to get the weight down, he dumped some fuel. He knew what he was doing, but the terror on the way back to Kathmandu, was watching the fuel gage tip toward zero as he swore at us and told us that if we ran out of fuel it was our fault for insisting on bringing the big copper pot.
Max, Chip and I returned to teaching and I began to ponder how we might start a school in the High Himalayas.
Editors note: The school opened in May 1972 at Lawudo with the title ‘Mount Everest Center for Buddhist Studies.’ It later moved to the Kathmandu Valley and become the basis of Kopan Monastery.
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