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Non-Fiction Blog

New thinkers, mavericks and mavens

Wade Davis in Tibet

The Indigo Non-Fiction blog is pleased to present Wade Davis’ unedited comments about his time in Tibet researching his latest book, Into the Silence. Our Q&A with Dr. Davis can be found here and here. His reflection on his time in Tibet is a unique window into the world of today’s scholar-explorers.

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Indigo Non-Fiction Blog (INFB): Your use of the Tibetan monastic chronicles is a real eye-opener. Was there more of this that just didn’t make it into the book?

Wade Davis (WD): Yes, to be sure. I was very keen from the outset to tell the story from the Tibetan side as well as that of the British. There has been a great deal of fantasy reported about Everest, such as the notion that it is a sacred mountain and that its name Chomolungma translates as “goddess mother of the world.” This has no historic or ethnographic justification yet it is repeated in virtually every film and book about the mountain. People often speak of the iconic Rongbuk Monastery as if it had existed from the dawn of time. In fact it was only built in the first decade of the 20th century; its stupa only completed in 1919. The construction of Rongbuk and several other monasteries was funded by the surge of wealth created in Solu Khumbu in Nepal in the late 19th century after the introduction of the potato by the British. So I was quite keen to learn of the ethnographic history of the region, and naturally this resulted in far more information than could be used in this book.

But it prompted a second major phase of the research which entailed several return journeys to Nepal and Tibet. Having delved into the literature, I went back to Everest in 2000 with fresh eyes. Accompanying me was an extraordinarily insightful man and one of the greatest of Himalayan climbers, Dorjee Lhatoo, former head of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, the training ground of all great Indian climbers. Established in the immediate wake of the British conquest of Everest in 1953 by Jawaharlal Nehru, the father of Indian independence, the HMI from inception was inspired by new ways of thinking about mountaineering. Its formal mandate was to train young men and women “not only to climb Himalayan peaks, but also to create in them an urge to climb peaks of human endeavor.” Dorjee had been recruited to the HMI as an ideal candidate to realize Nehru’s dreams. He was married to Sonam Doma, niece of Tenzing Norgay, who first reached the summit of Everest with Hillary in 1953.

Born at Yatung in the Chumbi Valley, Dorjee had fled Tibet as a small boy with his widowed mother, economic refugees, and his anger for what the Chinese have done to his country was matched in its intensity by his disdain for what the Tibetan theocratic leadership had failed to provide for the Tibetan people before the Chinese invasion. “They offered us prayer wheels,” he would say, “when what we needed and wanted were real wheels.” A veteran of Everest, as well as Nanda Devi and Chomolhari, Dorjee had trained generations of Indian climbers, including Bachendri Pal, the first Indian woman to reach the summit of Everest.

For two months, Dorjee and I walked in the footsteps of the British Reconnaissance of 1921. We visited Tingri and Nyenyam, climbed to the summit of the ruined fortress at Shegar, retraced their approach to the Rongbuk monastery and went up the East Rongbuk glacier to the North Col, and later crossed from Kharta by way of the Samchung La and Chog La to the lower Kama Chu and the headwaters of the Arun. From below Sakeding we traversed the length of the Kama Valley to Pethang Ringmo and the Kangshung Face, before returning over the Langma La to explore the upper reaches of the Kharta Chu. Dorjee was an invaluable source of information not only on the challenges of Himalayan climbing, but on the ethnography and history of Kharta, where his wife’s family originated.

We did not by any means go everywhere the British went. A plan to reach the Jelep La, visit the village of Dorjee’s birth, and then follow the Chumbi Valley to Phari and beyond to Kampa Dzong, was stymied by Chinese officials who, having promised a permit to enter borderlands off limits to foreigners since the 1959 invasion, reneged at the last moment, stranding our party in Tibet, even as they pocketed the $25,000 fee. This setback aside, we covered in those weeks enough ground on foot to leave me only more astonished by what the British accomplished in a single season. Dorjee and I returned to this theme when I visited him in Darjeeling in 2002. We spent several days touring the town, as Dorjee introduced me to a new generation of Sherpa climbers, even as he pointed out what remained of the Darjeeling the British had known in 1921-24.

The longer I spent with Tibetans in the environs of Everest, the more interested I became in what the mountain meant to them, and how their great-grandparents might have viewed the arrival and activities of the British climbers, the first Europeans many of them would have known. A main point of interface, as we have seen, was Rongbuk monastery, headed by its charismatic Abbot, Ngawang Tenzin Norbu, or Dzatrul Rinpoche. Although several of the British climbers wrote of their impressions of Rongbuk, the only account of the British from a Tibetan perspective is based on a few excerpts from Dzatrul Rinpoche’s namthar, or spiritual autobiography. This is the encounter between Rinpoche and General Bruce widely quoted in the Everest literature. The autobiography, as far as I could tell, had never been translated in its entirety.

To learn more I turned to an old friend and brilliant anthropologist living in Nepal who was able to secure a copy of the namthar and have it translated by a revered Buddhist monk, Lama Urgyen. An extraordinary scholar, Lama Urgyen had worked on no fewer than 40 namthars. Thus he delivered not only a complete and accurate translation, but also great insights into the character of Dzatrul Rinpoche, the intensity of his devotion, and the reverence with which the people of the region embraced him. When in Kathmandu I met Tsering Tsamchu, a 90-year-old Buddhist nun who had studied with Dzatrul Rinpoche at Rongbuk, I asked her what he had looked like. She replied without hesitation, Shakyamuni, the Buddha.

When Dzatrul Rinpoche passed away in 1940, his spiritual heir Trulshig Rinpoche became Abbott of Rongbuk. In 1959 with the final Chinese conquest of Tibet, the monks and nuns of Rongbuk were forced to flee to Nepal, crossing the Nangpa La. After a time in solitary retreat, Trulshig Rinpoche saw to the construction of a new monastery at Thubten Chöling, which in every way replicated the devotional ambiance and ritual rigour of Rongbuk.

Thus in order to know what life was like at Rongbuk in 1924, I had only to travel to Solu Khumbu and Thubten Chöling, home today to some 800 Buddhist monks and nuns. To stay at the monastery and be in the presence of Trulshig Rinpoche was from the Tibetan perspective to return spiritually to Rongbuk and the radiance of Dzatrul Rinpoche. In terms of ritual activities this was quite literally true, for the esoteric rites and purifications delineated in such detail in Dzatrul Rinpoche’s namthar mark fixed points in a liturgical calendar that does not vary year to year. The “devil dances”, for example, that several of the climbers witnessed and John Noel filmed at the end of the 1922 expedition were elements of a celebration known as Mani Rimdu, an 18 day festival that I attended at Chiwong Monastery in 2005. More significantly our time at Thubten Chöling opened my mind to the power and wonder of the Buddhist path, a new awareness that unfolded with even greater insight during the month I later spent walking close to Everest with Matthieu Ricard, renowned scholar and monk, as we studied the Buddhist science of the mind.

Finally I needed to understand Tibetan notions of sacred geography. This led me to Hildegard Diemberger, a scholar and adventurer who had spent much of her life in the Himalaya. Her father was the renowned Himalayan climber Kurt Diemberger. It did not surprise me that the daughter of such a man would turn out to be one of the world authorities on Tibetan ideas of sacred landscape. I found her at the anthropology department at Cambridge University, where she welcomed me warmly even as she opened my mind to the real meaning of mountains. It was Hildegard who showed me that the entire time the British were scrambling across the flanks of Everest, they were walking in mystic space.

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We would like to express our thanks to Wade Davis, and Jessica Scott at Knopf, for making this blog possible.

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