This question concerning my latest climbing expedition was asked by my spiritual teacher, Sri Chinmoy. I appreciated his sincere concern for my safety and well-being; and I also appreciated the fact that he listened carefully and sympathetically to my reply. He cares enough about me to take the time to understand my motives for climbing. But to all the other people, including my parents and some of my colleagues, who look at my mountaineering ambitions as if they were a completely useless and hardly understandable – not to speak of justifiable – extravaganza, I wish to tell this story.
Sri Chinmoymade it clear to me that I was free to decide. I wasn’t told not to climb this mountain, nor was I in any way ‘ordered’ to test my capacities and fate there. Everything was up to me. This moral dilemma was a several tonnes heavy boulder in my heart. I called a dear friend, another silly girl ‘who does things in the mountains’, (actually quite brave things far beyond my skills and abilities) and I told her about my plan and The Question. She asked back: ‘Yes, why do we take a risk?’ And we both laughed – even if it was a serious kind of laughter. We both knew that we take risks, because there is simply no mountain without danger, there is hardly any summit without risks… And then why do want to get Up There? The question persists.
I remembered the first day I saw the picture of the summit I was aiming at. I liked it immediately. I loved the number of its height in meters: 4027. (That is approximately 13 289 feet.) And I knew it was meant for me, just as well as I knew that I was too weak, too heavy, too slow and too inexperienced. Thus I decided to give myself time to train, and to gradually progress until I would be able to try it. And each time I saw the picture of this mountain, I would burst out in tears and mumble a prayer. I thought that in a year or two, I would pull myself together and try it.
But life and time had a word on it. Only one extremely busy month later, an opportunity turned up to join a small group that would venture climbing this ‘horn’. And suddenly the clouds I could see from my balcony after the big summer storms took the unusual shape of a cone (clearly imitating the summit) with other types of clouds lightly floating near the upper edge of the triangle: so much reminding me of the picture some brave climbers made of Mt Everest with those almost transparent veil-like clouds touching its topmost parts, somewhere above the Hillary step or South Col. At the sight of this I asked loudly, ‘Are you playing with me God? You want to send me up to this mountain? Please, give me another sign, a clear one.’
Have you ever heard of clouds that take exactly the same peculiar shape in two consecutive days? I hadn’t. The next day, however, this is what happened. I refused to let God to pull my leg like that. I wanted another sign, and I made it clear to God: no way of using clouds, He has to use some better means of letting me know whether He wants me to try to climb this mountain or not.
And no third sign came. I only got a call from a Swiss mountain guide association asking me whether I wanted to participate in this trek as the implementation of it would depend on my answer: if I said ‘yes’, it would take place, if I said ‘no’, they would cancel the trip, for there weren’t enough participants. This was a long distance call, the program of four other people depended on my decision and I had only one second to answer. Quite unfair, I thought, and quickly said ‘yes’.
On the way home from my office, I cursed myself, knowing that I no longer could recline; I felt nothing but uncertainty. How could I accept the challenge without the third, the real sign from God?
The same evening I glanced at a new climbing magazine nd the first thing I saw was a picture of my compatriot unfolding the Hungarian flag at the summit of Chomolungma. I immediately started sobbing and couldn’t stop until it slowly dawned on me that the third sign had been carved in my heart long ago: I so badly wanted to do that mountain! I cried a little more and went outside to run downhill and then uphill and then I trained on stairways… after all, in a week I had to be able to do this for four consecutive days at the maximum of my strength. Thank God, I had already been doing that all spring and all summer, so it wasn’t that I was starting training a week before the probe. However, in spite of my yearning to get up to that summit, all I could feel was fear and worry.
A month ago I had some unpleasant falls in the treacherous crevasses of a glacier and now the prospect of repeating this wasn’t to my liking at all. There was just too much fear in me that I needed to overcome. Not only the fear of falling, but also, and above all, the fear of failure. I was trembling at the thought of not being able to keep pace with the others, of having to give up, especially if I gave up after reaching the ‘no return’ point, for instance the first glacier or any place where one cannot just walk or climb down alone. I was scared to imagine myself being totally exhausted on the second day while others lightly went on. I was really terrified at the thought of this humiliating retreat. So, when I was put to it, I felt compelled to choose the harder thing: packing and going to try, instead of enjoying a calm and peaceful week at home.
A whole evening spent in train, a whole night spent at a noisy railway station, and here comes the morning of the first day I won’t be able to take a shower as usual. Who cares now? I am just too nervous to meet my future companions. To climb with strangers is always a lottery game. Then we set off. We test each other’s normal pace. I warn the others that I am utterly slow. They say, it’s OK, and that they don’t mind it. They all are much more fit than I am, one of them had climbed Kilimanjaro, the other two, a couple, spend every week-end at high altitude… the fourth is the mountain guide. He spends almost every day of his life in the mountains. I am just a little self-taught mountaineer-seedling, with not much time spent above 3000 meters, not much experience in running downhill with crampons on (this will be regrettable), and quite concerned about glacier crevasses. How will the five of us spend the next four days together?
We go up to a hut at 2600 m altitude to stay there overnight. By the time we arrive, we are a little bit wet. After two more hours of rain, the sky is again clear albeit colourless and the sacred object of all mountain fans, the Matterhorn condescends to reveal its particular shape. We stare at it like devotees at a murti (idol). I remember a colleague of mine complaining that during the two weeks he had spent in the region he hadn’t managed a single time to get a glimpse of it. So, I feel chosen.
I AM chosen. We leave for our next, somewhat higher destination early in the morning. Continuously moving eastward and upward I feel very tempted to look back all the time at the twisted horn-shaped stone god, the awesome and exhilarating Matterhorn which occupies the horizon and boldly watches our tiny bodies becoming smaller and smaller with the increasing distance. We crawl higher and higher. We struggle up from huge stone to another huge stone amidst a debris of rocks of every size from a lion’s head to a mammoth’s head, or a house even. Stones that almost all move below one’s feet.
Remembering the experience of my first big marathon, the 1996 NYC Marathon, I offer gratitude at regular intervals, when I feel that we gained again 50 or 100 meters altitude. It makes me happy. I use all I learned from my spiritual Master on yogic breathing. It does help. However it doesn’t reduce the risk of twisting one’s ankles while moving upwards on, in between and amidst all these small and big boulders. I start repeating a mantra in English, some simple sentences about a Master’s love for his students and vice versa.
The boulder-chaos becomes milder and we find ourselves in a col, a mountain saddle or ridge section at 3150 m altitude. I am glad that my sunglasses hide my tears. I am bathing in love. Again I offer my gratitude and keep offering it as I climb on. For long minutes all I can feel is but gratitude, unalloyed gratefulness. .
Far in the horizon the challenging alpine tasks of Dufourspitze, Castor and Pollux, the Matterhorn, la Dent Blanche, Fluhalp, Breithorn stand immobile, invariable in the sun. And according to the guide, our goal, Allalinhorn is there, just before Taeschhorn and behind Alphubel, if I just look more to the right. I don’t want to look, I just don’t dare. I need two more days to bear its majestic aspect in its shining white overcoat.
Half an hour later comes the first fall. As we descended a particularly icy slope, we see the remnant of a glacier that has almost disappeared. Quite steep, at places we cross huge stone blocks, at places we cross streams of grey glacier water running down, at places we make our way through half-vertical fields of ice. The place where I fall is the bed of a fast running river current. I fall in ice-cold water, right on my back. I spring up, shake my body and go on. Something is weird though. I touch my back, my clothes, my rucksack and everything is dry!!! It was very clear that I had fallen in icy water. After all I slipped on a wet stone while crossing a stream. Yet, I am dry. My elbow bleeds a bit. I wash it with the dirty snow I find everywhere, where it hasn’t yet become either ice or water. I keep on descending, lowering the altitude, and wonder: ‘if it is bleeding why does it not hurt’? A day later I check the wound, it is smaller than a gentle scratch… I feel love all around me.
A little lower, at the milder section of this slope, the stones transported there by this bygone glacier are simply fabulous. Each of them carries a whole history of our mother earth. For a geologist this place would be heaven itself, there are so many samplings of various minerals. But the majority of stones have some silicate in their composition and also metals, in all likelihood Iron. There are hundreds of silver-coated shining flat stones. I cannot stop wondering at these little marvels. Then suddenly I notice one that looks not alike any of the others. Its shape is common, it is a flat, several layered stone, shining in the sun. But its colour is something I haven’t yet seen today: it is golden! I don’t have much time to ponder, I quickly pick it up and walk on, following the leader. A gold coloured stone warms my palm. With eyes fixed on the uneven, rocky ground, I keep searching, scanning to find more of these fairy tale type of golden stones. Not a single one! By the evening I understand that the one in my pocket was the only golden one; all the others are silver or just some other plain colour. My heart gives a special significance to this and it dances with rapture, solemnly and excitedly at once: I found the only golden stone of this mountain! The Golden Stone. The mountain gave it to me! Not to the person who stepped there before me, not to the one who came after me… I guess this is one of the things we take a risk for. The task or mission of finding the Golden Stone. No other mountaineer would take a gram of extra weight on his back, especially if he has to carry that for several days. But I am bound to do this, for I have to carry the stone down after having taken it everywhere up here with me. I have proof, a justification that saying YES to that long distance call a week ago wasn’t a bad choice. I have at least and at last an answer to the question about taking risks.
Day Two continued: Silent Night
When dusk starts to descend with its long legs slowly slipping down the cliffs and valleys all around, when the temperature cools down to make our backs shiver, we all retire in the hut to enjoy a warm drink, a soup and each other’s company
At quarter to three, before the first flock of climbers, the ones aiming at the more distant summits get up to leave the hut. I quickly go out to silently pray and to do some spiritual exercises. I walk out into the chilly night only to realize that I have spent my evening and the first part of the night in a five million star hotel. Or five billion stars… or more even. Hush-gap silence envelops every single object of this undisturbed nature, no human eyes can perceive anything on earth but the sky where glittering diamond powder has been scattered by a noble and generous hand.
The Milky Way freely flows from one end to the other of two horizons incrusted among chains of black mountains. In the mythology of my ancestors, the high cheek-boned Szeklers who used to be the Kshatriyas of the Hungarian nation once upon a time, the Milky Way is not milky at all. We call it “Hadak Utja”, which means “The Road of the Warriors”. For the collective consciousness of my forefathers, this myriad of stars is nothing but the dust triggered by the galloping divine army of our Greatest Ancestor, Prince Csaba, when once he descended and lead down a massive celestial army from the eternal skies in order to rescue his trapped great-grand sons fighting against an enemy that largely outnumbered them. The memory of this miraculous battle is enshrined in the heart of every Szekler and I am no exception to that. And each time one of us looks up into the night above us at remote places non-affected by light-pollution, the sight of the “Warriors’ Road” reminds us of what we are: warriors, the Kshatriyas of a nation that tends to forget us, yet warriors to the very core, people who once upon a time received help of a divine army dashing down from the stars. In these moments I feel so proud of my star- and horse-worshipper forefathers who had the capacity of drawing divine grace while obstinately resisting the oversize adversaries storming on them from every direction.
A falling star puts a halt to my thoughts. I know that in a second I have to wish something and it will be fulfilled. I quickly wish “let nothing wrong happen to us, let us accomplish the journey safely.” Another star falls, and I wish the same thing. I realize that it is the 13th of August today, one of those days when a specific group of asteroids approaches our globe on their perpetual journey around the Sun.
I repeat my silent request five more times, as I see more falling meteors.
I still have some time at my disposal, in silence. I stay in front of the hut’s door, with my headlamp switched off and I inwardly sing the Invocation, a sung of supplication to the Highest of All Beings, the Supreme One whom I so much wish to be near me at this and at every moment. In no time I feel His Cosmic Aspect penetrating into my heart, my eyes, my smallest cells. I let him occupy my psyche and body as well. After I finish singing and bow to the glittering night of hundred thousands of years of space, I feel that God is looking through my eyes, God is moving through my movements. It is He, well, in my case: She that looks into the first headlamp coming closer from inside. It is She that hears the familiar sound of metals clinging and singing when bounced against each other the moment climbers clip karabiners, ice-screws onto their harness… I will soon be doing that too, in the deep night somewhere above 2700 meters on top of a slope, below the drooping feet of a hanging glacier.
Kamalika is a member of the Hungarian Sri Chinmoy Centre
See also Climbing section at Sri Chinmoy Races
Originally posted on Sri Chinmoy Inspiration Letters
Picture by Kamalika