by John All
A Sherpa Puja is a Buddhist ceremony where a monk blesses climbers and our equipment and we all collectively ask the mountain not to kill us as we climb. No Sherpa and no experienced Westerner will begin climbing until after the puja.
This year our puja was delayed and it has been bothering me. April 17 is a very auspicious day for a puja (the Sherpa calendar reminds me of the Catholic calendar where everyday day has some obscure meaning and perhaps Saint and some days are more ‘auspicious’ than others) and traditionally April 17 is the beginning of the Everest climbing season as all parties have pujas on this day so they can begin hauling loads on the 18th.
But the 18th is now a day of remembrance for those who died in 2014.
We had hurried to arrive in Base Camp on April 16th in the evening so that we could make the puja. But when we arrived, we found no puja preparations going on - neither in our camp or anywhere.
On April 18, 2014 when so many Sherpas had died - including my team mate Asman Tamang - it messed up the puja cycle and I didn’t know until I arrived. Now there are pujas on the 18th - to show respect for the dead - and on many difference days afterwards.
When we arrived there was only Nepali support staff. No climbing Sherpas had arrived and only a few of the nine climbers had arrived. I really wanted a puja to mourn Asman on the 18th, but it didn’t make sense without the others being here.
And so we waited until April 22nd. Not an auspicious day but not a bad one either. Unfortunately there were three Brazilians coming to climb with us who were leaving from Lobuche (a 4.5 hour hike) that day. We wanted to wait for them, and so our perfect sunny morning 11am puja became a heavy snow shower 1pm puja by the the time they arrived.
By mid-morning we had all faced the bracing 20 deg F cold and ‘showered’ and ‘cleaned/purified’ ourselves with the bucket of hot water that counts as personal hygiene here - so that we were ready for the puja. But we watched the clouds grow to the south and slowly darken as we waited and prepared the last few things.
The puja ritually blesses our gear so we bring out our possessions that ritualistically tie us to the mountain and each other. These include boots, gloves, crampons, and harnesses. As the expedition leader I also included our satellite phone and med kit and some science gear.
The puja is an interesting ceremony. The monk begins chanting while reading from a prayer book. Assistants beat the drum and light the juniper and Rhododendron branches that act as incense. There are small cookie dough sculptures that are blessed and then fed to the ravens.
As he chants and rings the chimes and the drum beats, the Sherpa climbers mount a flag staff into the pure white granite structure that we created over the past few days.
We tie down and anchor the pole - I had to muscle over a huge rock from out of the glacier stream to act as one of the supports. It was so huge that even I could barely carry it.
Once the pole is in place, we tie three lines of prayer flags to it and run these across our camp to include all of the tents so that everyone is covered by the blessing that the flags deliver each time that wind moves across them.
Finally, the chanting ends and we all throw flour to the winds and use the thick flour to cover the cheeks of our friends and climbing partners to bless each other.
We wrap a ‘gift’ of about $20 for the lama into a silk scarf and give it to him. He takes out the money and then blesses the scarf and returns it to us by hanging it around our necks in benediction.
Once everyone has individually been blessed, then ceremonial snacks (in the picture below it is crackers, popcorn and Tibetan bread in the big metal pot), Coke’s and Sprites, Everest beer, and a cap full of Kukuri rum is shared around. We hug each other and reaffirm our friendships and commitments to each other and to team safety.
Normally, we would sit around joking and laughing - Sherpa and Westerner alike. But by this time the snow had been pounding down for quite a while and we were all cold and wet and shivering. We all grabbed our now blessed climbing gear and stowed it in the tents.
Sadly, we then each went our own ways and the Nepalis and Westerners went to our own dining tents and turned on the propane heaters and drank small sips of beer and Chang (a Tibetan fermented milk drink with quite an alcoholic kick) and rockshi (Nepali moonshine) and tried to keep the warm, happy glow going. Slowly people peeled away for an afternoon nap under our warm sleeping bags to shake off the alcohol and the cold.
Tonight the climbing begins for real as the Nepali begin to carry loads through the Icefall and we begin planning our rotations up to higher camps and back to basecamp. And planning our data collection of course.
This was a great day and a hard one. The puja was not the most auspicious, but I reaffirmed my partnerships with my close friends as we head up the mountain soon. I feel surprising good and hopeful about things after this wonderful ceremony.