The White Fleece
I have few memories of the avalanche, of course, but I do remember wondering if this was how a sock felt in a tumble dryer. I was both crushed by the voluminous white mass and supported by it, as I fell down the side of Gurla Mandhata, in the Nalakankar Himalaya of Tibet. For the most part I saw nothing but white, but every now and again I caught a glimpse of a team member, a speck of color in this glaring white mill.
The peak was at 7,694 metres, and my four-man team, ably led by Josh Tennant, had already managed to climb almost all the tricky parts. The North Side ascent was notoriously hard, and that was why we were there – we wanted to conquer a hard mountain of more than 7,500 metres before starting the push for the 8K mountains, all fourteen of them. Gurla was to be our trial by fire, but it turned out to be a trial by snow.
The avalanche was initiated by Josh, as he guided our team in the thin air at 7,200 metres. We had made good time by using some ropes left by previous teams, and we all felt good and safe when we began the traverse of the summit glacier. Crevasses in the snow, a major threat on Everest and Annapurna, did not seem to exist here, and Josh sang a song as he methodically advanced up the snowy side of the mighty mountain. I was the last on the rope, and could see Andrew and Matt as they followed Josh in the sunlight.
But then Josh took one more step and his left foot went deep into the snow. There were crevasses after all, and he shouted us a warning. We could not do much with it, because at the same time we felt the top snow of the glacier slide loose off the ice, and we faced a one-way elevator ride down for about three kilometres. I could see first Andrew and Matt devoured by the white beast of the avalanche, and then Josh passed me by, trying to shout something which I couldn’t hear in the roar of the snow. Then the rope pulled me inside the snow, and I thought, at least I get to die on the high mountains.
When I came to, I was lying in the snow, half buried from waist down, and there was intense pain in my left leg. I tried to look behind me, and when I saw the sole of my own boot, I knew I had broken some major bones in the leg. “Josh! Andy!” I cried out, but could only hear my own echo in the glacier basin, shaped like a giant bowl. “Matt! Anybody! Help me!” I tried again, but all I could hear was “Matt… att.. …elp mee…” The pain in my leg was excruciating, but I tried to look around. I could see my rope on the surface of the snow for a few metres, but then it entered the snow, and I just knew my mates were dead inside the white mass. I thought I’d rather have died with them, but then I passed out and knew no more.
When I regained consciousness there were people around me. They were Tibetans, dressed in local garb, apparently a passing caravan. My leg was giving me excruciating pain, and as two of the strangers tried to dig me out of my predicament, every time they touched my leg I yelped. One of the others took the rope that was still attached to my waist and cut it, then followed the rope to where it went into the snow. I hoped he was going to dig to find Andy, Josh and Matt, but to my surprise, he pushed his hand into the snow as far as it would go, and with a knife, cut the rope inside the snow. My ropemates would be forever on the mountain. Just as well, they were all dead for certain.
When they had finally liberated me from the snow, I was laid to rest while they applied a crude splint for my leg. Then they hauled me onto a yak sledge, and the smelly beast was then herded to join the caravan. For some reason, all the eight Tibetans looked apprehensive and appeared to be in haste when the caravan started moving again. They cast glances all around, but I couldn’t see what for.
The slow lumbering of the beast that dragged my sledge on the other hand caused a rhythmic pain in my leg whenever I was thrown to the left, but on the other hand, the relief at being saved made me exhausted, and I was lulled to sleep. When I woke up, it was already near dark, and the caravan was entering a narrow passage between two steep mountains. I tried to recall their names, or figure out where we were in the first place, but couldn’t claim success.
As the caravan was halfway through the pass, there appeared a hole in the mountainside, and the lead yak was taken through it into a cave. Before my yak came to the opening, I was bound hand and feet and blindfolded, even if I tried to protest. I don’t think any of my rescuers spoke English anyway. The trek inside the cave took maybe half an hour. I could only hear the echoes of hooves and some low conversation in a language I had no clue of.
When the blindfold finally was taken off my face, after I’d been carried on some stretcher-like contraption for a distance and up some stairs, I found myself in a large bedroom. I was made to lie down on the bed, and told by gestures to remove my clothes. I could take off my jacket and shirts, but the trousers were beyond me. One of the men who had brought me here produced a gurkha knife and cut open my pants, and removed them with just a little pain through movement to me. I smiled feebly to thank him, but he didn’t look at my face.
As I did so, a group of people entered the room, and at the same time I understood where I was. This was a Tibetan monastery, carved out of the mountainside, with most of it inside the Himalayan massif. Out of the small window I could see another huge mountain across a steep valley.
The leader of the band of people must have been the doctor of the monastery, and the others his assistants. Speaking fast but subdued, he issued commands on how to treat me. In short order my leg was properly adjusted and placed in a tight splint. When they adjusted the bones, it hurt like hell, but I bit my lip and tried to appear brave. After they had checked me all over for other damage, the doctor came to me, smiled briefly, and then pinched my arm. He shook his head, and the apparent second-in-command nodded. They all left.
I dressed myself as best I could, and retreated below the ornate quilts. It was warm and soft, and I slept as soon as I hit the pillow. When I woke up, it was dark – the Sun had descended below the opposite mountains. Since my backpack had not been carried to the monastery from the avalanche site, I had none of my stuff with me. I tried to see my watch, but that too had been removed from my wrist, and my clothes were nowhere to be seen. Instead I had some local garments waiting for me by the bedside, and I was happy there were no pants, but just a kaftan of sorts.
I wiggled it on with much discomfort whenever the leg moved. When I was done, someone entered the room with food. Food! All of a sudden I was so hungry I could have eaten half a yak, and luckily there was just about as much of food for me. Tasty, spicy, greasy; I ate like I’d not seen food for weeks. The man waited my meal through with a slight smile on his face, which never left his lips nor formed a true, friendly expression. It somewhat disturbed me.
“Great food!” I exclaimed, but he didn’t respond. I guessed he didn’t speak too many languages. Well, neither did I speak Tibetan. When I was fed to the hilt, he collected the tray and left. I heard the door being latched, and briefly wondered why. The softness of the bed made me want to rest a bit, and I slept again, for a long while.
I slept most of the following few days; the sleep was interrupted by regular deliveries of food, and the doctor came to see me once a day. Every time he rubbed some ointment on my leg, and the herbal scents soothed my mind as well as eased the pain in the calf. For entertainment I had a five-pin Tower of Hanoi puzzle, which I knew to be solvable but only by the most patient of men. When I felt somewhat better, I played the puzzle, but the call of the soft bed was often irresistible.
When the doctor visited me, I tried to make conversation. “When will you take me home?” I’d ask. He never answered. I looked at him and said, “Can I call my parents? To let them know I am alive?” The doctor just went about his business and spoke to his team in a low voice, with words I longed to understand but never could. When he was about to leave, I turned to him once more and said, “When will I go home?”
He stopped and said, “Tomoro.” He went away, and I was elated. However, the Tomoro didn’t mean tomorrow. At least nothing happened the next day. Nor the next, or all week. I sank back to my brooding solitude.
In a couple of weeks the herbal medicine and rest had made my leg somewhat better, and I tried to hobble around in the room. When the food bringer noticed this, I was given a crutch. I took to standing by the window, watching the sliver of sky visible at the top of the mountain opposite. In the daytime I watched the Sun traverse the sky high above the mountains, and in the night I marvelled at the starry sky, unbleached by the light pollution of civilization.
I took to calling the food bringer Chuck. For no particular reason; maybe he looked chucky. Somehow it felt better to have someone there I had a regular connection with, even if Chuck never said a thing. Until one day, when he brought the tray as I was by the window, scanning the desolate mountains. My sad expression must have told him what I said, when I thought aloud: “When will I go home?”
Chuck said, “Tomoro.”
“Hey! You spoke!” I exclaimed, delighted. His befuddled face told me in searing clarity that he was merely mimicking the doctor. He didn’t understand what I said, but maybe he could figure out that someone from the West could not stay at the monastery longer than was absolutely necessary. Everyone wants to go home from a place where he’s an alien, and that was what I was, a stranger in a strange land. And I was the only survivor – I had to get home to meet the families of my ropemates, and to tell them how they had died doing what they loved best, climbing a hard mountain. I watched Chuck walk out of the room and heard him latch the door.
Around this time I noticed the effect of yak fat on tissue. I had been pudgy as a kid, but decided to tone my muscles to the best of my abilities at fifteen. At twenty-five I was taking part in triathlons and then I found mountaineering. Now, I still had some of my taut muscles, but a layer of soft body fat had begun to form in my body. I decided to hold back some of the food, but the kitchen of the monastery made it hard. Every meal was different, some of the stuff they fed me made my nose sweat and my taste buds cry for mercy, but every plate and bowl was irresistibly good.
When my leg was feeling better and I could move about in the room, I was heavier than ever. I had no mirror, but the window gave me a pale reflection of my current self. Now I knew what it was like for Dorian Gray. All my features were hidden under an undulating mass of fat. My fingers were so thick I couldn’t have worn a ring, and my trusty Suunto wrist compass would have needed many more holes in the strap. I was annoyed at the transformation.
And yet… the next steaming plate was delivered to my room, and I’d sit down and eat, eat, and eat. The guy who cooked my food would have been rich in any city in the world with his Nepalese restaurant, but I guessed he’d not skip the monastery for culinary fame. Chuck watched me eat with a pleased expression on his wind-hardened face.
The curious thing was that every time the doctor came to see me, he pinched my cheek. Early on he couldn’t even get a grip on my steely jowl, so he pinched my arm instead and shook his head. But now, when the yak yoghurt and casseroles and soups and whatnot had worked me into this greaseball, he’d check out my cheek and every time smiled a bit more. When I was truly a lardass, he nodded to his team and they all smiled and nodded. I felt I was ten again and the last of the class to be picked for the softball team. “Tomoro!”, he said and left. I wondered if it really meant I was going home tomorrow.
It’s funny how it gets to you when you can’t speak with anyone. None of the people I met spoke English, or any other language I tried. Or then maybe they were told not to talk to me. I took to singing alone, but I soon ran out of songs I either remembered or liked well enough. I was dying for a newspaper, a cold beer, a cafe in Paris and the Web. The people who cared for me wouldn’t look me in the eye at all, and never answered, whatever I said.
One night I was seen to late in the evening, I had my cheeks pinched and an evening snack tray of goodies was delivered to me. When the last of the caretakers left, I heard the latch didn’t close properly. You learn to hear things like that when you’re held in captivity. It was not a clear clink. I held my breath as I heard the people shuffle down the corridor and I was alone. Maybe here was my chance to get out? I decided to wait until all movement ceased in the corridor.
Later I went to the door and peeked out. In the dim light of the wall torches I was able to see the latch, and the crack of the doorframe would allow me to lift it with a pin or something thin but rigid. I retreated and tried my utmost to locate anything suitable in the barren room, but to no avail.
Then I ducked under the bed to see if there were any splinters in the wooden frame for me to extract. Fumbling about in the dark, I found one and gently pried it further, until it snapped. Holding my victory whoops for later, I slithered out from under the bed and sneaked to the door. The splinter was just long and thin enough to lift up the latch. Hoping it’d not make noise when I pushed it, I let it go. One loud click was heard, then nothing.
I held my breath. No one ran to the door, so I had no guards. Wishing with all my strength the door wouldn’t creak, I pushed it open and entered the corridor. There were torches to the left and right, but both ends of the hallway were shrouded in darkness – the torches had died. I decided to go left.
I can’t really say what I was hoping to find, but having been captive so long, I yearned to find a way home. I peeked in a few rooms but saw nothing of use, but then I came to a doorway that was much higher than the others. It had no door. I could see it led to a huge hall.
One torch flickered in the far corner of the hall. This must be the place of worship, I thought as I entered it. Not daring to go across the room, I sneaked down with my back to the wall and again wondered what the heck I was trying to accomplish. That was when I felt the fleece with my hands.
I touched the softest material I had ever seen. The fur on it was silky to the touch and instantly warm; the strands of the fur were about three to four inches long, and it was thick, much thicker than a lambskin. As a kid I had one in my room, on the floor, and I napped on it until I grew out of it. But lambswool had nothing on this substance, which was like a summer cloud nailed to the wall.
I marvelled at the fur of the skin and saw it was white. The flickering torch was about to give up the ghost, so I decided to scan the room fast before it went out. Taking a few steps back I could see there were a total of ten such skins on the walls, each one whiter and finer than the one before. What these people can make out of a yak, I thought, that’s nothing like what you can produce in the West.
I felt I was risking it by staying out here. I had seen nothing I could use to escape, and it would not benefit me to be found out of my room. So, remembering my way back in the now dark corridors, I went to my room and closed the door. I managed to get the latch back about as far as it was when I had opened it.
Seven days later I was awakened by a godawful blast of horns. Cymbals crashed and a low murmur of bass horns accompanied a procession of people into my room. Led by a man I’d never seen, the whole party was dressed in purple and yellow robes, and they all had elaborate headgear. This had to be the head priest or someone of real power. The man walked to my bedside and proceeded to poke me in three places with his index finger, the left cheek, the left upper arm, and the left thigh. He rose to his full height and nodded to the rest of the dignitaries. With renewed ceremonial music, the party left, and I was more bewildered than ever.
Usually I was left alone in nighttime. Now, I was awakened by my caretakers. They issued me a new set of clothes, and I dressed in the torchlight. It was a warm set of clothes, and I was glad. Surely the day of my liberation had come? The head priest must have deemed I could now make it through the arduous journey that lay before me as they took me back to civilization. I wanted to jump with joy but thought it bad form.
At the door I was greeted by the entire population of the monastery, who all competed to see a glimpse of me. I never knew there were so many men in the place, they must have totalled three hundred. I smiled left and right and waved as I was taken through the intricately ornate door, and into the cold air. To my surprise, I was blindfolded the moment the door slammed shut behind me. I was lifted onto a yak and given a rope to hold on. The beast lumbered away from the monastery which had saved my life. I wanted to turn back and wave my thanks, but didn’t know if anyone would see me.
Two hours later I was lifted off the yak, and led through some kind of door into a cave. It had been chiselled with precision, and the floor was very smooth. It was very cold in the cave. I could feel myself led for quite a while. Just before I was made to stop, I stumbled on something and almost fell, but the men held me up. I thought I’d stepped on some firewood by the cracking sound I heard. Then I was placed against a wall. The men made me sit down, and one of them took my left hand.
I felt the cold iron shackle closed around my wrist. “Hey! What IS this!” I shouted, but no one answered. My feet were bound together with an iron chain. The cuffs felt like they burned into my flesh because there was no cloth between my skin and the iron. My right hand was placed in a cuff and locked together with my legs. In essence I was hanging from the wall by the chain that held my left arm. The men stripped my blindfold and I could see it was no firewood I stepped on.
It was a human thighbone.
And there were many skulls strewn on the floor, and other parts of skeletons, and ribcages ripped open with the bones snapped in half. Right next to me was a skull that had been bashed in. I could see teeth marks on it. I let out a sound of utter surprise and begged the men who brought me here to unlock my cuffs and set me free. The men all hurried away, not saying a word, as if they wanted to spend not a moment more in the cave than absolutely necessary. They left a torch stuck in a hole in the wall.
I sat there, huddled against the cold seeping from the walls, almost in tears. Why was I here? What possible reason could there be for being shackled among bones in a cave in the Himalayas? I cried out and yelled and bellowed until I lost my voice, and the cold made me shiver worse and worse. And then it hit me – a simple solution. What I’d seen in the hall of the monastery were not pelts of a Yak. The creature’s name began with a Y though. No laughter ever sounded more hollow than mine in that cave right then.
But oh, how I wished they hadn’t taken away the blindfold.