Wednesday, September 24th, 1997
Puja in Makalu ABC, 17.400 ft. (Per Lyhne).
It's a long way going up to Advanced Base Camp, you have to calculate at
least six hours, and most of the path is winding its way through big heaps of
sand, gravel, pebbles and rocks in all sizes, strewn across the whole glacier.
Certainly not a trek you want to make over again, once arrived here in ABC. But
in return for this, the view from here is impressive. The camp is situated
almost at the foot of Makalu's enormous, two mile high unclimbed West Face, thus
we are always reminded about why we are here. To the other side we look across
the Barun Glacier to a row of snow-clad unnamed 20.000 ft. peaks, one more
beautiful than the other, and culminating in the 23.517 ft. high mountain of
As our equipment is carried up from the lower Base Camp, our home for the next five weeks is established. The camp is pitched on the lower and rather hilly part of the Chago Glacier. But nevertheless we have succeeded in building small ledges to all our tents in ABC. For the sake of privacy, all of us have a tent each, furthermore we have tents for our two sherpas, the kitchen team, the Liaison Officer, the mess tent, day room for the whole camp, and last but not least the shower tent, which happened to disappear during a storm recently. Totalling twelve tents in a tight cluster here on the glacier.
On Wednesday our sacrificial altar in honour of the gods of the mountains was built. The prayer flags and the Puja were arranged - the climbing of Makalu could begin. The morning of the 24th showed a high and clear sky, and ABC felt like a lump of butter in the middle of the moraine-covered Chago Glacier, with the sunlit northeast face of Makalu like a lofty spectator in the stalls. And Makalu is indeed worth a ceremoni. All of us have a view from our tents to this huge and awesome mountain - resting firmly with its steep faces and keen ridges with only a little snow, giving a somewhat ominous impression. Together with Everest and Kangchungtse (the little sister), Makalu is outstanding, compared to the other 20.000 ft. mountains around. Sonam tells that those three mountains according to tradition are referred to as three sisters of god, who have to be pleased as such. We have read that Makalu is synonymous with "Sura Raghe", the male mountain god of the Tibetans and Sherpas. Sura Raghe means something like "hidden sacrificial pyre" - and actually on some evenings you can see spots of light in the red granite walls, like small fires as the sun sets.
Suddenly smoke is billowing from the sacrificial niche in the stupa; a stone altar built of moraine rocks amidst the camp between the kitchen tent, the mess tent and our private tents. We are ready to honour the middle sister as well as Sura Raghe and pray for good luck. Sonam and his right hand, the sherpa Nima Rita, is pouring kerosene over fresh juniper twigs, dhoopi, invoking the attention of the gods and deliver the prayers with the smoke. We too gather under the fragrant smoke and sit down at the stupa with our backs to Makalu, still radiating its grandeur, remote and unattainable. But with this ceremoni we hope to be received in audience - without being injured. An altruistic affection is washing over us; an impressive and dramatic landscape, and being the passive participants in a strange Buddhist ceremoni, gives room to thoughts of our impending project.
Shere Tamang, our cook, emerges from the kitchen tent with a dish of Nepalese cookies, a homemade cake decorated with chillies together with our contribution to the sacrifice: Karen Volf cookies and Oxford's Fruit & Energy biscuits. But time is not due yet - at first the 'maypole' has to be erected from the stupa. By united efforts, Sonam, Nima and Shere erect the 25 ft. tall pole, carried all the way from Yangle Kharka, more than two stages from here. In Kathmandu we have bought the characteristic double-jagged Nepalese flag as well as lines of prayer flags of several hundred feet. Our Nepalese team had given a contribution to the prayer flags themselves, and the flags were all covered with prayers. The Buddhist religion is in many ways very pragmatic; instead of perpetually chanting prayers, the prayers are printed on the flags. And as the wind blows, the prayers are carried to the gods. With some difficulty, Sonam manage to tie a few juniper twigs to the pole, then follows the Nepalese flag, then the Dannebrog, then a McKinley banner with "Follow Your Instinct", and at last, rows of prayer flags in red, green, yellow, blue and white, fanning out to all corners of the earth. Truly a riot of colours hovering over our camp in this grey desert of moraine.
This time K. Gurung, the kitchen boy, emerges from the kitchen tent. On a big bamboo dish, covered with a cloth, he brings cups of sherpa tea and a bottle of rakshi, a local brandy. The cups with tea are distributed, and Sonam begins the proper puja. In a chanting voice, he recites rows of prayers, in which he explains to the gods why we are here, what our objective is, and that we wish for protection and escaping accidents and bad luck etc. In between the prayers, Sonam or Nima takes some flour, rice or a splash of rakshi and throws it in either direction. And from time to time, the dish with our offerings is passed on to all those present; we are sharing the offerings with the gods! Especially the homemade cake (at an altitude of 17.400 ft.) was delicious to share. In the middle of the ceremoni we are having visitors, it turns out to be the local lama and his sons, who have been visiting the Australian camp about 600 ft. higher to bless it, but in turn came to visit our camp too at Sonam's request. But at first we have to welcome them with cookies, chewing gum, tea and biscuits!
After a while the lama sits down in front of the stupa and starts chanting a long row of prayers, simultaneously moving his prayer chain up and down between his fingers. All of a sudden he stops and looks up. Obviously he has arrived at a conclusion. Sonam explains that the lama reads from the prayer chain, that we will succeed with our project - and all the sherpas are smiling, happy and contented. We Westerners may be a little more sceptical, but still pleased with the good news. Together we all drink a toast by hand from the rakshi, which now is passed on. The puja is over, and the camp and all its inhabitants are blessed. But to keep the blessing we have to burn a few juniper twigs every morning, but on the other hand we are not allowed to burn our waste while we are living in the camp. It will bring bad karma, and that would be very unfortune!