Life Beyond The Summit
Climbing wearily up onto the Deurali La above the small settlement of Goripani we stood amongst lines of Buddhist Prayer Flags strewn among the rocks and fluttering in the morning breeze. This was my first trek to Nepal and the first time I had come upon these flags in the mountains. As Thakur, my guide, told me all about them I found myself contemplating religion beyond the bounds of my own Christianity and eternal life beyond the very summits amongst which we stood.
Despite being raised a Catholic, I have long since held the belief that there are many ways to worship. Standing among the foothills of the Anapurna Range that morning surrounded by some of the highest mountains in the world I felt humble and at peace. I offered up my own silent prayer with those I was told were fluttering out of the flags. My fascination and love of the spiritual powers attributed to the mountains and those who live among them began.
Buddhism is the main religion among the Sherpa people who live in the mountains of Nepal. Symbols of the Buddhist Religion are everywhere along the mountain trails of the Himalayas and it seemed a constant stream of prayers was rising up among them.
The colours of the Buddhist Prayer Flags are symbolic of the elements of the world.
- Blue for the sky or space
- Yellow for the earth
- Green for water
- Red for fire
- White for air
What I love about the Prayer Flags however is that prayers are imprinted on them and it is believed that, as the flags flutter in the wind, those prayers are carried to the heavens.
This was particularly moving for me a few years later when, on the Everest Base Camp Trek, I stood in the Chukpo Lari. This is an area of stone cairns and prayer flags standing as memorials to many of the climbers who have died on Everest.
It’s almost impossible to trek in the Himalayas without coming across Prayer Wheels. These are vertical cylinders on which prayers are printed around the outside. It is believed that the act of spinning them as you walk past has the same merits as saying the prayers printed on them. Often there is a bell which sounds as the wheels rotate which just adds to the tranquil sounds in the mountains.
One of the most amazing views I have ever seen opened in front of me as I arrived on the plateau in the settlement of Thyangboche. Everest and Lhotse among the line of mountains towering above and directly in front of us. To my left was the world famous monastery of Thyangboche. The feeling was as though standing before the very alter of Heaven itself.
After a short acclimatisation walk, we were soon back in the settlement where we were allowed in to see the Monks conducting a service. Listening to the low drone of mantras recited by the monks and the clang of small symbols in the soft light of the temple, the serenity was incredible. We could indeed have been sitting in eternity.
The religion prevalent among the Berber People who live in High Atlas Mountains in Morocco is Muslim. Despite the different religion from the Sherpas in Nepal, the faith of the people is just as strong and the welcome just as warm.
In this part of the world it’s the greetings from the local people, as much as the sincere and friendly welcome they give you, which shows their religious beliefs. “As-Salamu Alaykum” is the main greeting you will hear which means, “Peace be upon you”.
Often, when we said that we were heading to the summit of Mount Toubkal (The highest of the Atlas Mountains) the reply was, “InshAllah” which translates to, “If God wills it.” In the phrase there is both the expression of the hope that you will be successful and an acknowledgement that nothing happens unless it is God’s will.
The Song Of Kilimanjaro
The prevalence of Christianity in the region of Kilimanjaro was very apparent to me as soon as I headed out to explore close to the small town of Moshi. Most of the local population were processing back down the road into town from local Churches.
If his name alone didn’t hint at his religion, Abraham, our lead guide for the Kilimanjaro climb told us that he had previously trained to be a Priest. When telling us how far it was to each of the camps along the way, he would often joke, “Trust me. I’m Catholic. I can’t lie.”
On summit day, as I desperately struggled towards Stella Point, Abraham’s conviction drove my spirit on. “Yes you can!” he told us many times as we pushed ever upwards.
One of the Porters called Alias did everything to get me to the top. Carrying my pack and sometimes physically supporting me as I slumped exhausted along the path.
Though the songs the guides and porters sang as they carried heavy loads up the mountain weren’t necessarily Christian, their humility, generosity and their actions spoke volumes to their Christian faith.
Having encountered many different religions and cultures on my travels, I would say that mountain people and the lands they inhabit have much in common. Whether Buddhist, Muslim or Christian, they possess humility and charity in equal abundance. Perhaps they are touched by the enormity and sheer raw beauty of the lands they occupy. For sure they enhance it with their spirit and by their actions.
The Day I Turned Around And Started To Climb
For those of us who climb hills and mountains the notion of turning around often conjures images of failure to summit, near success or unplanned descent for reasons of safety. For me, there was one particular turn around which was actually the start of some amazing adventures. Over 50 Munro’s (Mountains over 3,000ft) in Scotland and trips to the Himalayas, Kilimanjaro and the High Atlas Mountains. And all because I turned around one day on the outskirts of the small Scottish Highland Town of Kinlochleven and started to climb the route we had just descended.
Glencoe To Kinlochleven
We had parked the car in Glencoe with a plan to ascent the Devil’s Staircase, a relatively steep climb of around 1,800ft, and then descend the 4 miles or so along the West Highland Way into Kinlochleven. After a break for lunch, we would turn around and walk back the route we had come, back to Glencoe and the car.
Despite the season being early spring, we hadn’t climbed too high before we reached the snowline. With snow and ice along much of the route, the going was tough and slow. Another feature of winter climbing also came into play where clothing and equipment were frequently changed to accommodate the terrain and the weather. I was quite inexperienced on the hills at that time and pretty much had enough by the time we reached Kinlochleven.
I sat, eating my sandwich mulling a very generous offer my brother had made. I could go into town and find a bar while he walked the 7 miles back to Glencoe, got the car and came to pick me up. I decided that was a good plan and I’d head into town as soon as we finished lunch.
Change Of Heart
Then I changed my mind. There was nothing noble or positive that made me change my mind. I just wasn’t too keen on facing the boredom of sitting in a pub. There was also an over riding sense of failure in going into town. I somehow knew that if I walked off the route that day, I wouldn’t be walking onto any other routes any time soon.
We were training for the Great Glencoe Challenge later in the summer. 26.2 miles from Glencoe to Fort William across rough mountainous terrain in 12 hours or less. I was also thinking of doing the Everest Base Camp Trek later in the year and I wasn’t getting any younger. There was just too much at stake to throw the towel in then.
We finished lunch, turned round and started the long climb out of Kinlochleven back towards Glencoe. It was then that the magic started to happen and a spell was cast which has bound me to the mountains ever since.
Falling In Love
First was the realization that I could do this no matter how much I had doubted myself before. We climbed steadily higher but, though tired, I was still going.
A few miles along the track and we stepped off the forest trail into the open moorland of the hills between Kinlochleven and Glencoe. Soon we were skirting streams which were frozen solid and walking into the snowline. As we put our crampons on and headed on up, there was a sense of adventure.
As we rested at the top of the Devil’s Staircase with the car in sight below us, the beauty of the world around us was breath-taking. The sun was setting over Glencoe and the snow clad mountains along her flanks were glowing pink in the setting sun. Across the Glen from where we sat was the mighty, stunning, Buachaille, one of Scotland’s most famous and beautiful mountains situated at the entrance to Glencoe.
That moment outside Kinlochleven was a definite turning point in my life. Even as I crossed the mountains and descended into the town on the outward path, the mountains were a foreign, tough and scary place for me. Walking among them was a nice idea but the reality sucked. Yet, after facing the fear of those first steps back into the mountains on the return journey, quite unexpectedly, I fell in love with them.
I wrote this poem a while back to capture some of the feelings and the beauty which can be found high in the mountains. Hope you like it.
High on Ben Nevis, tantalisingly close to the summit in the middle of the night, we had to make a painful decision. But now I’m here to tell the tale and live to climb another day.
We sat silent in the fast disappearing darkness as the dawn spread over the world thousands of feet below us. It had been a logical place for a rest. The start of the Zig zags on the ascent towards the summit ridge of Ben Nevis along the Mountain Path. Despite the sub zero temperatures of the pre dawn high on the mountain we were comfortable enough in our winter clothing. But still, too much was wrong and we had to make the call and start our descent. For sure Ben Nevis would still be there. By descending now we were giving ourselves the best chance of coming back to try again another day. A moment of pain and regret as we glanced up at the summit ridge now tantalizingly close in the morning sky and then we started back down towards the Red Burn and the plateau she cuts through.
Both my brother and I are relatively experienced in the mountains. Looking ahead towards an attempt I would be making on Kilimanjaro later in the year, our aim was to complete an overnight ascent of Ben Nevis in preparation for the summit bid on Kilimanjaro. What we ended up practicing was some endurance techniques and knowing when the best thing to do is turn back. The latter may sound simple but it’s arguably the most vital skill any mountaineer has to perfect.
It was nothing more complex or dangerous than a common cold that caused the problems but we’d taken that common cold into an environment where it could contribute to conditions far more deadly.
“The weather was being typically Scottish”
I knew I was far from my best within the first 600ft of the ascent. We climbed into the darkness from the Ben Nevis Centre to a small bench that sits at a bend in the path as it winds it’s way up the mountain towards a gully. I slumped on the bench already starting to feel exhausted, sweating profusely and dehydrated. The weather was being typically Scottish and contrary. Hot and clammy one minute, jacket off, smir and rain the next, jacket on, and my moral was sinking the more we climbed as we headed towards the steep ascent of the gully.
The Climb To Half Way
“We agreed to head up to the top of the gully and the plateau where the track crosses the Red Burn and turn back there.”
Progress was slow, stop, start as I tried to raise my morale and we climbed higher with a steep drop into the burn cascading far below in the darkness. We could see the campsite of Glen Nevis as an Island of light far below. During one of our rests in the gully came the first conversation about turning back. Despite frequent drinks from my camel pack I was still dehydrated and feeling quite weak. I was still up for the challenge and ate what I could of a Snickers bar to see if some sugar would boost me on. We agreed to head up to the top of the gully and the plateau where the track crosses the Red Burn and turn back there.
As it happened the Mountain Trail had undergone significant repairs since the last time either of us had been on it and the going up the side of the gully was much easier than either of us expected We were soon walking across the plateau towards the Red Burn. Reaching here raised my morale tremendously and I started to think we might make the top. Even despite the slight incline and easy walking on the plateau however I was starting to feel exhausted. Lack of sleep, my cold and the consequent dehydration were taking their toll.
We took another rest just before crossing the Red Burn to prepare for the ascent we knew would soon follow. I was unable to quench my thirst, very much in need of energy but, as a result of the dehydration, felt sick and unable to eat anything. Things were getting worse. “If only I had some dextrose tablets.” I said to my brother. He laughed and produced a pack from his pocket. Small tablets, dextrose are nothing but sugar and energy but they are small enough to eat even when you feel sick. I had 2 of them.
Snowline At The Red Burn
It was late spring but there can be snow high on Ben Nevis all year round. Where the Mountain Trail crosses the Red Burn, we’d started to reach the snow line. Around 3am we were into sub zero temperatures and so we changed into our winter jackets and headed across the Red Burn towards the Zig Zags.
Seeing how regularly I was eating the Dextrose Tablets my brother was worried. He reminded me that we had already done fantastic and to remember not to push too hard. We agreed to head on up but if I didn’t feel any better we could turn round at any time. As we started to climb the Zig Zags I started to feel increasingly dizzy in addition to the nausea. I called for a quick rest to drop my pulse and then headed slowly on to round the first bend in the Zig Zags. Climbing slowly on up the second part, we reached a point where the path became notably eroded and I called for a second stop. Even sitting I could feel the dizziness and my brother looked on concerned as I crunched on yet another Dextrose Tablet.
Turning Round at The Zig Zags
“If I passed out then my brother would be left trying to deal with 18 stone of limp body thousands of feet up on Ben Nevis in the middle of the night.”
Looking at the practical situation there was little chance of anything other than further decline. The coffee in my flask, which could provide essential core heat in the sub zero temperatures, was untouched. I felt way too sick. Sources of energy such as chocolate and a sandwich I had packed were untouched for the same reason. Due to my nausea my intake of water was becoming more like sips and neither it nor the Dextrose Tablets were bringing any improvement.
Then I considered the possibilities. If I was sick then, already dehydrated, my condition would deteriorate rapidly and significantly. If I passed out then my brother would be left trying to deal with 18 stone of limp body thousands of feet up on Ben Nevis in the middle of the night. Worst still, however remote the possibility, was the chance of entering into the deadly cycle of exhaustion and hypothermia. In freezing conditions exhaustion aids the onset of hypothermia which in turn increases the exhaustion. Ultimately exhaustion makes progress impossible and hypothermia kills you.
“Sorry Bro,” I said. “I’m going to have to call it.”
“Head back down?” He asked.
“Yep. Think it’s best.” I said.
Valuable Lessons Learnt
“There was no regret about not making the summit”
He was glad I’d called it a day. He was trying not to make the decision for me but, looking at my condition, he had been getting close. He was full of encouragement reminding me how far we’d got. As we descended he was constantly checking everything was ok. Back down in the gully around 5am we met the first of the morning ascenders and soon we were passing the unbroken queue of trekkers that is the working day on Ben Nevis. We were back at camp around 7am. I climbed into my tent and drifted off to sleep reflecting on a night well spent. There was no regret about not making the summit considering the beauty of the surroundings, the sense of achievement at what we did cover and the valuable lessons learnt.
When I was really young I used to climb the stairs and say I was climbing a mountain. Later, when the snow landed, I’d sometimes stand on the hills in Queens Park in the South Side of Glasgow and pretend I was high on the snow covered mountains. Shortly after sunrise on 29th October 2017 I had to admit that I couldn’t keep pushing for the summit of Mera Peak and turned back to start my descent. I took the picture below capturing Everest and some of the highest mountains in the world glowing in the sunrise. At 20,446ft (6,140m) it’s the highest picture I’ve ever taken and, standing in the snow high up in the Himalayas, it captured a moment of my actual dreams.
If you’ve ever drunk a flask of tea to pass the time of an evening, chances are you’ve climbed a mountain, camped out or trekked a wild trail.
Drinking a flask of tea on a school night is a habit I’ve brought home from the Tea Houses and tents of Nepal and the African Camps on Kilimanjaro or the route to Mount Toubkal. Though it tends to be coffee when I’m climbing in Scotland, a flask with a hot brew is always with me when I’m out in winter.
Lemon, Honey/Lemon or Honey/Lemon/Ginger, whatever the flavour of tea served up by the Sherpas in Nepal, it was always welcome and often a life saver. On Kilimanjaro it was actually mostly hot chocolate that we tended to drink as we snacked on popcorn at the end of each day’s trekking. My favourite was the Mint Tea shared with the Berber People among the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco.
Read my post How To Stay Hydrated In The Mountains for more on tea and other drinks.