Touching the Crown of a Turquoise Goddess

"It's like setting foot on a god or goddess. You have to tread responsibly on this great, powerful being."

Jowan was talking about his recent ascent of Cho Oyu, which means "The Turquoise Goddess" in Tibetan. Rising 8,201 meters into the air between Nepal and Tibet, just 20 miles from Mt. Everest, it's the sixth highest mountain in the world.

The 24-year-old climber, accompanied by Anugata, 43, reached the summit on May 6 on his second attempt. Another member of their team, Udar, had made the summit two days earlier. All three are students of Sri Chinmoy.

"On our first try, we ran out of gas at 7,900 meters," Jowan said. "After hours and hours of walking uphill, with very little oxygen, I was starting to get dizzy and lose motor skills. One of the other guys had already turned back; the other two were going ahead. I sat there for a half hour eating candy bars, trying to decide what to do.

"Going back meant returning not to the interim camp we had set out from earlier that day, but all the way down to the base camp — almost a mile and a half below — because you can't recover at higher altitudes. So I wasn't jumping at the prospect of making this climb again.

"But it was already late afternoon, which would have meant returning from the summit in the dark, and I felt it would be unwise to continue. Also, I saw that Udar had barely moved the whole time I was sitting there; he was still close enough to talk to. So I decided to come down."

Anugata, a more experienced climber, turned back shortly afterwards. "I've been an athlete all my life and know my body well. You have to know when to say, 'If I don't turn around now, I won't have enough energy to get back.'

"It's like diving. You take a deep breath and look at the bottom so far down, and you know you won't have enough air to make it all the way down and back again.

"Some people are ambitious; they care only about making the summit. But that's only half the journey; not coming back means failing."

Udar, the third team member, also eventually decided to return.

After a few days at base camp, Udar and another climber struck out for the summit again along a different route. Jowan and Anugata left two days later.

"Each day we moved up to a higher temporary camp. While en route to camp 2, Udar radioed to us that he and his friend had made it. But we still had a long way to go," Jowan said.

"When we reached camp 3, around 4 p.m., I was not feeling well at all. I had stomach problems and was very weak. We had eight hours to rest before our midnight departure for the summit, and I spent almost the whole time boiling and drinking water.

"By midnight I was feeling a little better, but still was not in a good space. There was one dangerous section when we were going up a 60-degree slope of hard snow; it was like climbing a very steep roof.

"I had left my ice axe behind to save weight, so I had to focus all my attention on each step, moving one foot or ski pole at a time. It was a long way down and I couldn't make a mistake.

"But if I kept up my concentration and went slowly I knew I could maintain my balance and do fine."

Anugata also found the going difficult, particularly a section of loose rock that had to be traversed after this steep snow climb.

"With so little oxygen getting into the lungs because of the altitude, 20 yards can seem like a mile. It doesn't look like you have far to go, but the body isn't responding.

"And sometimes you find yourself having long daydreams; then you come out of it and remember, 'Oh yeah, I've got to keep going.'

"Climbing is 50 percent mental. When things look bad and I'm really exhausted, I try to stay in the moment — not allowing the mind to extrapolate into the future or think how far I have to go. I just burrow into the moment and deal with the present."

After about eight and a half hours of hard climbing, with the worst of it behind them, they found the slopes leading to the summit relatively easy. At the top, they took a few photos and briefly enjoyed the view.

"But after 10 minutes it was time to return to business — the business of getting back," Jowan said. "Most mountaineering accidents happen on the way down. So you can't start enjoying yourself or feeling complacent."

The descent to camp 3 took only three hours. "It was around noon, and I was feeling strong and wanted to continue on to camp 2, but Anugata was in no rush to get down. So I went on ahead, leaving him there. He joined up with me later," Jowan explained.

"Although we're members of a team, we go at our own pace and it's not unusual for one guy to go on alone. All the climbers are in such a weakened condition that you can't really expect help from the others; you have to be self-sufficient."

It wasn't until they were back at base camp that the excitement really set in. "I felt so powerful inside — not in the ego sense but in the sense that I was full," Jowan said. "I felt like I had gained the power and purity of the mountain. It was like having a thousand meditations."

For Anugata also, mountaineering is as much a spiritual journey as a physical one.

"You feel that your spirit goes out and makes contact. There's a tangible feeling that you are here, but also out there — in the whole expanse. It's like a fish who has just swum out of the fish bowl into the vast ocean.

"I feel that the mountains are entities, and it's a privilege to be in their presence. It's not scary, since they don't mind the presence of a human being if he has humility and if he appreciates them as living beings.

"But if someone is not aware of their inner reality and wants to conquer the mountain, then the mountain may show its displeasure."

Pausing for a moment, Anugata pointed at the sky. "When you're back at base camp, the summit is like that cloud. You look at this cloud in the sky and just can't believe you went all the way up there and back. It's like a miracle."

reprinted from Anahata Nada, newsletter of the Sri Chinmoy Centre