Before I went to Nepal to be the assistant leader on the first Mount Everest clean-up expedition, I read everything I could get my hands on about Nepal and Tibet.
I was fascinated with Tibet, which at the time, was closed the foreigners. This was 1967. One book by Alexandra David-Neel fascinated me the most. In Magic and Mystery in Tibet, she wrote about watching Tibetan Llamas lung-gom-pa running across the plateau. Reading her words I could envision the monks traveling across the Tibetan plateau. At the time I wanted the visceral experience of leaping through space. I completely forgot about her book and description of the monks.
Years later I set out to hike Mount Sopris in the moonlight. As always, my plan was to go unseen, never telling anyone, making my way through the mountains alone.
I refined my practice of wilderness survival expeditions over the years. Like a wounded animal, when the pain becomes unbearable, I seek refuge in the comfort of the lone wilderness, my secret, sacred home.
I escape in nature to find myself, my essence. The wild backcountry keeps me alive, not the grazed pastures of a ranch, or the tamed grasses of a golf course. I devour the savage vistas of jagged mountains, high alpine meadows, untouched forests, and free-running rivers. I love real nature, not the out of doors that have been sculpted and molded by man.
Nature’s wildness soothes my soul as I explore deeper into the unknown, as far away from mankind as possible. My goal is to distance myself from the craziness and brutality of people. I trust nature and wild animals; I don’t trust people and animals influenced by man.
Each solo adventure is progressively more challenging. I push and test my boundaries. Do I know how to read nature well enough to survive? Do I know how to tune in with the wild animals to safely camp unprotected in the darkness?
My list for solos:
· Arrange my work schedule so no one will miss me, even if I’m gone a few extra days.
· Never tell anyone I’m going into the wilderness.
· Never sign the forest service register.
· Never enter the trailhead where I park my car. Hike up the road a few miles and then enter the wilderness.
· Never follow a trail. Always pick my way through the wilds.
· Hide if I see or hear people.
· No tent, just a tarp.
On each outing I up my survival tests. On this adventure, I add to the list — no map, no compass, no mirror (to signal for help) and no flashlight. Can I make it out in one piece, unscathed?
This solo is a moonlight climb of Mt. Sopris down the valley from Aspen, Colorado, where I live. Part of the Elk Range, Mt. Sopris boasts unusual colors, milky light gray coarse-grained granite boulders, and purplish-red crumbling sedimentary rocks.
After trekking through backcountry for a few miles I break one of my main rules. I hear someone crying. The sobs guide me to a terrified little girl clutching her knees rocking back and forth in a field of wildflowers.
She is part of a Girl Scout Troup’s overnight campout. She meandered away from the group, panicked and kept moving further into the unknown. After comforting her, the girl and I set out to find her group.
Chaos runs rampant at the Girl Scout’s campsite. Mismatched poles poke out the wrong tent loops, tent flies are on backward, and haphazard cooking gear covers the splintered wood picnic table. Never missed, the leader brushes the girl aside. I watch trauma etch into the little girl’s nervous system.
Again I leave the trail, find a place to stash my backpack and begin to forge my way up the mountain. My progress is slow. Razor-sharp jagged granite slabs the size of chairs teeter in a delicate balance. Massive fallen trees are interspersed with unsteady shifting boulders. I’m sure there is a trail around the rubble at the edge of the forest, but I’m too stubborn to take the easy route.
At dusk, the slice of time between day and night, the earth releases her pungent heat. The air shifts, opening to the engulfing darkness while inching my way up the slope. I press onward creeping towards the scree slope leading up to the first false summit on the East Ridge of Mt. Sopris. The sloping heap of weathered rocks at the foot of the cliff known as scree will be easier maneuvering than the knifelike tipsy granite boulders.
Ominous clouds block the moonlight. Heightened senses listen for changes in the wind. I feel the moisture ready to burst. My plan to reach the summit dashed. The gloom expands, the wind whips sending a chill up my spine. It is time to descend the mountain.
I stand and glance up at the clouds. An altered state envelops my consciousness and instead of taking a step, I leap. The earth relaxes her gravity grip. I glide over slippery slopes, pointed edges, and tipping rocks. Every step vaults over huge fallen trees, barely touching the ground from one upsurge to the next.
What the hell am I doing? Thoughts creep into my brain. What if I fall and break my leg? I could be up here for days before anyone would even miss me. The fear of serious trouble takes over. I stop, sit down, and breathe deeply. Mountain pine wafts as my butt crushes dried tree bark. Fear slides down my body and out my feet; in exchange, the earth fills me with safety and love. My heart opens, drinking in unfettered wildness.
Relaxed, I rise and search for the moon. Within seconds my body shifts into this altered state and I take a step, or rather a hop into space, transformed into another time and place, into another dimension.
Over craggy edges, sharp broken branches, I glide lightly touching the earth, bounding down the mountain. Prancing in a distinct rhythm, my feet almost rebound from one sharp unstable rock to the next. Tipsy boulders, drunk on nature’s elixir, teeter on the brink of collapse. Razor sharp rocks slice the darkness.
I become very light. I bound up in an arc and land fifteen to twenty feet down the rough slope covered with huge fallen trees and sharp granite rocks sticking straight up. Leaping, soaring, flying down the slope, jumping over the leg-breaking terrain. Voluptuous dark rain clouds black out the full moon.
What if I gash my leg on a sharp rock? How will I ever find my backpack in the dark? All the landmarks I carefully noticed are obscured. Again, fear creeps in and cascades through my body. I stop, sit, and talk to myself. Just slide your butt along the rocks and eventually you’ll be off the slope. You're wearing your old jeans; it doesn’t matter if they rip.
I flash back to a book about Tibet. Of the thirty-five books I devoured before leaving for Nepal, a part of one book always stood out. I can’t remember the correct name, but the vision of Tibetan monks leaping across the Tibetan plateau holds firm. So, that is what is happening. I try to relive the details but they are lost.
The wind moans sending shivers down my back. The clouds intensify. I gaze up and a small radiant line exposes the edge of the moon. Again I shift into an altered state transported beyond third-dimensional reality, into another world known in the past but blurred out in the present.
Instinctively I keep my focus on the luminous edge. I rise up and soar, touching down on unstable rocks and round tree trunks with branches poking out. I am free, unshackled, gliding down the mountain with ease and grace.
And then I come to an abrupt halt. I turn left and walk deep into the woods and again come to a stop. To my right, my backpack rests next to a tree.
In 1924 Alexandra David-Neel was the first European woman to reach Lhasa, Tibet’s remote and forbidden capital. She was also the first, and perhaps the only, Westerner to observe a running lung-gom-pa. In Magic and Mystery in Tibet David-Neel wrote, “By that time he had nearly reached us; I could clearly see his perfectly calm impassive face and wide-open eyes with their gaze fixed on some invisible far-distant object situated somewhere high up in space. The man did not run. He seemed to lift himself from the ground, proceeding by leaps. It looked as if he had been endowed with the elasticity of a ball and rebounded each time his feet touched the ground. His steps had the regularity of a pendulum.”
From my perspective, ancient memories were activated that night. I experienced another time and reality, a dimension encoded in my DNA.
This is an excerpt from Unseen Connections: A Memoir from Pain and Violence to Joy.