The Last Mountain

©Stephen McDonnell 2002

draft May 15. 2002

11. Kagebo/ Moirigkawagarbo

Kagebo/ Moirigkawagarbo

The little Tent City packed up and moved. We left the detritus of Mountaineer hangers on behind us - Sig had already set up the real base camp near the base of the mountain. They had been doing practicing climbs, and scouting of the routes. Some sherpas had started taking supplies even higher into the mountain, to a high camp. They had reported several large landslides caused by the rocket strikes. As we arrived, we witnessed an avalanche high up near the peak. A plume of white smoke seemed to grow out from the crest.

"Wow, that was the South East valley giving way." Chip radioed us from his observation post at photographer's out post. He had been exiled there after his incessant demands to start the climb now had finally got to Sig and Helmund.

"What the hell does that sign say, Lilly?" Zach asked pointing to a banner put up by the Chinese military contingent.

"Moirigkawagarbo, the Chinese name for our mountain." And then she translated the rest, a propaganda message about international friendship and Chinese mountain superiority.

"Hell, why can't we find one name for this piece of rock," he mused, not pleased that someone else had beaten him to the punch of putting up a sign, over his operations. Nominally the Chinese were in control of the climb, as time went on it seemed Lilly was not only the mouthpiece but in some ways running it. Since no one could understand Chinese, she was believed. Sometimes the local communist party leader came by, to gawk and gander at all the Western technology, and probably to get close to Lilly, but as she started to hang out with the climbers, even going on some of the stage, doing a couple of pitches on the lead rope. Everyone was happy with her presence, as she could explain the more technical stuff to the Chinese climb team.

They had been forced on us, a political move, same guys who we had met in Yunnan.

At this real Base camp, real climbers started to show up, even a reporter for one of the climbing magazine with a photographer. His name was Scott Barry, turned out to be friends with Jason, going back to climbs in the New Zealand Alps.

"Looks like there are a lot of pitches on rock and then you hit the ice field, will you go around it, or try ice climbing?"

"You know me, I hate ice, crampons give me the willies, since my accident." Jason was more loquacious with his buddy than with his team. He also was more open. We were sitting near a bon fire, a few days before the climb.

"What do you think of Diosa?" Scott was referring to Mary.

"As a woman or as a climber?" Jason smiled; everyone lusted after the Argentinean. "We have done some short climbs together, and she is getting used to the ropes. She is a free climber, so likes to be by herself."

"Are you going do it Alpine, or fully equipped?" rumors had gotten out to the climbing world, especially with the presence of Chip and Marie, two hotshots in sports climbing who liked to do solo climbs.

"Mixed, probably. Low weight, fast climb." He added, almost as an afterthought, " this might be my last mountain." Scott looked at his photographer, a strange look full of premonition.

"Going to retire, are you buddy?" Scott asked, thinking of how few old climbers he knew, and how many obituaries his magazine carried each month.

"Me, I will never retire, I want to climb till 80. I want to be killed by a jealous husband." Jason got off one last shot then begged off any more questions, wanting to rest in preparation for the climb.

But I had questions for Scott after Jason retired.

"Is this the Last Mountain for him? What does that mean? He can't cut it anymore?"

"Mr. Worth, everyone in the climbing world admires Jason and the other people on this team. The two Germans have climbed the Eger several times, if not a dozen other mountains around the world." Scott wanted to lecture me, having been told about my job. "Jason will go up the mountain, but will he come down, is the question? He has had several close calls; he had a climbing buddy fall on his head. They were doing an ice competition and they were wearing those wicked ice crampons, Jason has been in constant pain since."

Scott looked around the sleeping camp, under the high stars, and reflected.

"Climbing is the art of enduring pain. If you climb you will hurt, gravity guarantees you a fast fall and maybe death. Very few people climb, even as it becomes more popular, because it tests your endurance, strength and ability to stand pain, more than any other sport. No one is around applauding you, you are on your own, unless you are attached by a rope, and then you have this intimate relationship with you buddy. The French guy, Herzog, who climbed Annapurana only, was able to make it through the effort of his team. He lost his fingers and toes from frostbite, but if he had not been for Lachenel, the other guy on the summit, he would have probably not made it and probably lost his digits anyway."

"You mean, climbing brings people together?"

"Yes and no, Lachenel said it was an affaire du cordée, an affaire of the cord, that enabled them to get to the top. Herzog made it to the top because Lachenel would not leave him to die they almost die die on the way down, both loosing toes and fingers to frostbite. But from what I have read, they were not really friends, except for Lachenel and Terray. They were a cordée."


The photographer interjected, "The brother hood of the cord."

"Like Hillary and Tenzing."

"Yes, true heroes. Now we live in the time of narcissism, the me generation, no one wants to help the other, maybe that is why marriages fail, so the new sports climber wants all the glory for himself or her self as the case may be. It is about how fast you are, who you can beat, getting there at all costs."

I thought long and hard about that conversation that night and later too after reading books on different climbs and the controversies that followed. Lilly came to my tent that night, after the lamasery she had warmed up to me again as if seeking a safe harbor in the growing chaos of the preparations. I was glad she would be with me while they climbed, so that I could share my thoughts with her. We were forming Lachenel's "cordée" couple, and it felt good, like it would last beyond this moment.

Next morning Sigfriend gathered us around, with Zach playing elderly grandfather with his grandchildren, he looked like he could bounce us on his knees.

"We have the OK to go for the climb."

Chip asked the obvious question," but I thought we needed a Chinese climber? God, we can't go with one of those bumpkins, if they go I don't go, no way."

Michel the lawyer brought him up cold, "Listen up sonny boy."

Sig continued, " We will have the best Chinese climber, the Black Orchid will be joining us."

The stir that caused rippled amongst the group, smiles broke out, backs were slapped. Optimist replaced the growing gloom caused by the thought of the Chinese army brats, as they were called.

"So, where is she? We need to train together to form a team? There is not much time, with the monsoon season approaching.

"Why she is right here," Zachery smiled, acting like the wizard of Oz, his role was to give each of us something that we already had. He really had a surprise for us. I will let our Chinese guide explain.

Lillly stepped forward. "I am sorry but the Chinese are very secretive and not very trusting of foreigners. Question of history. But I have observed you for almost a month, now, and I think you will be the team to reach the top. It will be a great victory for mountaineering, almost a hundred years ago, the first people tried to climb this mountain. Many have tried, and many have died. It will not be simple and will require the highest effort and only those of extreme ability will make it."

They all nodded in ascent, their egos big enough to handle the reality behind the words. All of them were ready to go, but the Chinese problem hung over the climb.

"So the Chinese government has asked our best climber to come with you, to help and guide you. She grew up in this area, she knows the mountains like the back of her hand, she has even climbed several routes up half the mountain."

Murmurs of astonishment passed amongst them, while my own mind started to understand. I fashed back to the room in Leigiang, to Lilly's father, the botanist, who loved flowers so much he named her Lilly. But all climbers had nicknames. The Chinese took English names when they went west, leaving their Chinese names behind. Jason was smiling as well. The Germans were stoic as usual. Chip and his girl friend were bemused, too young to understand that life was not as simple as they wanted it to be. Marie was looking at Lilly with hate, her jaw trembling. Maybe Doc and I were the only two in the team, other than Zach, who knew what was coming.

"So, I am sorry to have had to put up this charade, but, yes I am called the black orchid." She finished and then looked away, everyone followed her gaze, expecting to see someone new appear, but she was only looking at the flags flying at the lama shrine.

"Lilly, you are the famous Chinese climber?" chip asked, stating the obvious, "Cool.'

Other reactions went from joy to bemusement. Mitigating circumstances, the team had come to understand the Chinese need for control and obfuscation in their dealings. My reaction was one of disbelief and abandonment. She was going away, Like the snow leopard, she was returning to her lair leaving me behind.

The woops of joy,"we are going, we are going." Rung in my ears, but my eyes were filled with tears as she was surrounded and hugged by her new family, the team had bonded leaving me out. I wandered off to where Scott and his photographer stood trying to contact their offices via satellite phone with the good news. A scoop for them.

Just in from our roaming reporter, after checking out the conditions in Katmandou, Scott was lucky enough to find out the big story of the day, Kagebo, the 100 year virgin mountain. A Sino intentional climbing team organized by Zachery Taylor Weatherspoon, will start the attack on mount Kagebo today, using a new climbing technique, spider cords, rocket supplies, the mixed team of men and women will include the famous Black Orchid, of Chinese climbing fame. On the anniversary of the first attempt, a hundred years ago, this last bastion of mountaineering will soon fall. We will carry the climb via Internet and when appropriate with live video feeds form helicopter and via mini video cameras on special climbing hats.

Around noon, The Llama arrived, to bless the climbers who now were roaring to go. My stance was noted by all and ignored, that my emotional relationship with Lilly, now the Black Orchid, had been the source of gossip ever since Leiging. No doubt they considered me another climbing widow, like the French girl Chanteloup. She was hugging and kissing Chip, her body entwined with his, making me want to envious. Lilly looked at me several times, her face was both sorry and joyful. Or that was what I thought I saw.

She came over to me, pressing a piece of paper into my hand. We did not kiss, but gave each other a hug. The Chinese way.

"Garry, my stone, you have to be stoic, and send me your strength."

Funny now I understood how she could do the sexual gymnastics, why under her soft skin I had felt the hardness of her muscles, how her flexibility had been there all along, and I had not seen it. Some of the others had, as they did practice climbs with her, saying she would be a good climber if she really tried; she kept her game under wraps even with them.

"Work on your book, if you get bored. I want to read it when I return." She promised.

After the blessing the Llama came over and we had a cordial conversation, him telling me how she had roamed the hills and mountains with her father, gathering botanical specimens. Later she had worked as a ranger, trying to cut down on the rustling of endangered plants and butterflies.

"What she does now, she does for all China. We would loose face if it were a foreign group who conquered our mountain. Do not worry, she is like Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess, wife of Vishnu. She will come back alive." Did the lama know something no one else knew, and what about the others? Why did the Chinese worship different gods? He told me that the "middle" kingdom meant they followed the middle way, embracing all, and keeping a balance between Yin and Yang.

He told me about his Song Zhangling Monastery.

This Large Yellow Hat (Gelupa) Tibent monastery has returned from the ashes and destruction that swept southeastern Tibet in the late 1950s and 1960s . Songsenlin was founded in the 17th century during the reign of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama , when the yellow Hat school came to full ascendancy in Tibet . It lies a few kilometers beyond the north end of town and welcomes visitors who behave respectfully.

The monastery once had as many as 1200 monks before and now claims many hundreds, though most of these stay at home and work with their families, only coming together as a single body on area festival occasions. In 1980 the second delegation sent by the Dalai Lama to investigate conditions in Tibet stayed in Zhongdian , and since then there has been steady reconstruction at this sacred site

He told me of the previous ill fated climbing expedition: On January 3, 1991, the Allied a mountaineering Team of China-Japan met with such an unexpectedly violent snow avalanche at night that the campsite vanished without any trace the next morning and all the 17 mountaineers died in the accident. This proves to be a tragedy rarely experienced by man in the mountaineering history.


98.6°E and 28.4°N

At 6740 meters above sea level, the winds are harsh, and cold; the summit waits, untouched, a sacred place. It waits patiently.

Climbers risk altitude sickness any time they venture above 8,000 feet (2,400 meters).

NEXT chapter