SINCE THE DAYS OF GEORGE MALLORY, Rongbuk Monastery has been part of the Everest experience. No one reaches the north side without passing the world’s highest monastery. Rongbuk is many climbers’ only brush with what remains of the Forbidden Kingdom.
Once upon a time, Rongbuk generously fed the hairy pilgrims in crampons (no matter that they were heretics). More recently, generous climbers fed Rongbuk, helping keep it alive. But over the last few years, our neighborly aid has quietly shut down. The monks and nuns are asking if it can please start again.
RONGBUK AND CLIMBING
Year in and year out, pre- or post-monsoon, the Everest drill remains the same. You drive in from Kathmandu or Lhasa. Your driver grinds some gears passing the shambles of Rongbuk. Twenty minutes later you land at basecamp and the season begins.
It’s become a tradition, during the first week, for climbers to hike down to Rongbuk to acclimatize and snag some medieval color for the slideshow back home. If you’re lucky, you catch the monks and nuns at prayers or sounding their horns. Maybe they offer you some butter tea (they know you’ll probably dodge it). Then you chug back up to your tent for a nap.
A few days later, some of those same monks pay a visit to basecamp. By now, steeped in Everest lore, every climber knows what that means. It’s puja time.
Out come the cameras. Up go the strings of prayer flags. After a bit of chanting and white smoke, your siege is blessed. The gods are with you. If you’re careful, those red puja threads around your wrist or neck will last for months beyond your goggle tan. Even once these cotton bonds fall off, though, we remain bound to Tibet. It will inhabit our dreams for the rest of our lives.
If this were a Jorge Luis Borges story, Everest would not exist without the monks who pray it into being, moment by moment. And the monks would not exist without the climbers who are lured by the monastic creation and feed them with their expedition supplies. In fact, at least until recently, that was exactly the way it worked.
Back in the 1990s, the monastery always got some of our leftovers. You could see hints of our abundance in their midst. Scratched ski poles, sections of climbing rope, sacks of rice and tent scraps peeked out from the ruins. Monks and nuns (an extraordinary co-ed arrangement following the destruction of the Rongbuk nunnery during the Cultural Revolution) wore stinky parkas and sweaters and sunglasses handed off by departing expeditions. It was the ultimate recycle program. They fed our souls, we fed their bodies. No longer.
On a visit to the monastery last summer, my sixth in 16 years, I couldn’t find one trace of the climbing tribe. For an hour, I snooped around for gear, food or garbage from the expeditions that had all departed a week before. Where was the loot? The spring of 2006 had been a banner season for ascents of Everest, with hundreds of summits and a Babel of expeditions. Surely the monks had scored some of the goodies.
They had gotten nothing, they said. Not one expedition had stopped on its descent. The trucks and Land Cruisers had blown right by. It has been this way for several years now, they told me.
I thought the dearth might have to do with more aggressive yak drivers or the little alley of tea and beer tents that has sprung up by basecamp. Maybe the Tibetans who were closest to the camp’s remains were quickest to plunder them. Then I wondered if the Chinese might have laid down some new law against giving to the monasteries. Or if the climbing community had suddenly become tight-fisted. But the monks said no, it was none of those things. The issue, they said, was the Sherpas from Nepal.
At the end of each season, the Chinese and/or Tibetan Mountaineering Association have first dibs on the big-ticket surplus like oxygen. The expedition Sherpas, who get trucked in from Nepal, inherit everything else, including food, clothing and gear. Parkas, sleeping bags and ice axes go to the trek shops in Kathmandu where tourists pay Western retail prices. The food, however, gets only as far as the border. There in Zhangmu (aka Khasa) the Sherpas sell off all of the remaining provisions to the local market. In short, the trickle-down to Rongbuk has shut off.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this system. The Sherpas sweat, bleed and die for their Everest earnings, and they have their own charities and monasteries back in Nepal. But the surplus food is yours to distribute, and I would like to make a case for giving some to the locals (who are even poorer than the Sherpas) among whom you climb.
In its heyday, Rongbuk housed some 500 monastics, male and female. Its library and mask dance were famed. Its founder (who fed the 1920s climbers) also built Rongbuk’s sister monastery, Tengboche, on the other side of Everest. Then came the Cultural Revolution. Today, 35 monks and 17 nuns live, work and pray in the ruins. They subsist on small donations from the villages down the valley. Those colorful basecamp pujas that have become a feature of every climbing season fetch the monks next to nothing: 100 to 200 yuan, or an average of $18.70 per ceremony.
While we climb, the monks pray. When we leave, they stay, guardians of the mountain. At 16,434 feet elevation, Rongbuk suffers bitterly cold winters. Within a half hour of vast Western wealth, satellite technology and cutting-edge gear, the monks and nuns must wear three layers of chubas, or robes, to stay warm. Millions of dollars flow past the monastery, and the monks and nuns want for rice, sugar and milk.
One could argue that after all these years of using Rongbuk as a photo-op, a gym for acclimatizing and an introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, the Everest club owes the monastery. But casting this as a tithe or tax misses the point. The real issue here is our social contract with Everest and its people. On the south side of Everest, those people are Sherpa, with whom the climbing community has forged an intimate friendship. On the north side, for a variety of reasons, the story has been different. That can change.
In fact, it already is changing. Not long ago, the village of Tashi Dzom—an hour or so below Rongbuk—was a gauntlet of hostility. Passing through, you could expect glares, muttered curses and even stones thrown at your vehicle. The reason was simple. The local Tibetans felt excluded in their own backyard. Like the monks, they saw vast fortunes speeding by. Now, thanks to a few trekking lodges in town and that chai alley up at basecamp, they’re feeling a little more included. But the “back side” of the Himalaya still has a long way to go before conditions come close to the economic miracle that Everest has brought to Solu Khumbu.
Win, lose or draw on the mountain, climbers come away from Everest connected to Tibet in ways we don’t connect to other countries. Tibet houses our mountains, but more than that, it houses us. Our mountain culture is enriched by its mountain culture. We drink its tea, wear its kata scarves, speak its greetings, fly its prayer flags. Year after year, the Rongbuk monks and nuns have been our next-door neighbors.
On your next Everest expedition, you can tell your sirdar and cook that you want half of any food left at the end of your climb to be delivered to Rongbuk. Consider it a form of international aid. The nice thing about spreading the benefits is that it’s free. You don’t have to spend one penny more than you’ve already shelled out for the climb.
Be polite with your staff, but be firm. This is your food. You paid for it and get to decide what happens with it. Check to make sure your donation goes to the monastery. Indeed, take it down yourself. You will receive their thanks in person.
The Sherpas are skilled specialists, and they earn and deserve our money, which has made a quantum difference in their community. More power to them. But in the last few years, your food has become one more perk of their job, and in this case the gain is the monastery’s loss.
Tibet needs our help now. Tibetan culture—especially inside Tibet—is an endangered species. There are few better ways to nurture that culture than by keeping alive the monasteries that traditionally served as temples, schools and museums. With Rongbuk, your support can help grow a flower in the lap of Everest.
Jeff Long’s novel The Ascent won the Boardman-Tasker Award and the American Alpine Club Literary Award. His latest climbing novel, The Wall, won the Banff Mountain Book and Film Festival Grand Prize. The prize money was used to start Wind Horse Power, a 501(c)(3) non-profit that is helping build an orphanage in Lhasa. For more information about the orphanage project, write firstname.lastname@example.org. For information about Tibet, contact International Campaign for Tibet, www.savetibet.org.