Below Another Sky

One climber broke his back. One wandered in a daze. One tried, and failed, to save a friend. They all left behind a moment and a place that would haunt a dead mountaineer's daughter for decades. A pilgrimage in search of a lost father.

Dec 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

THE KONKA GOMPA monastery is perched on a small bench on an otherwise steep hillside overlooking the terminus of a large glacier that descends off the west side of Minya Konka (or Gongga Shan, as it's called in China), at 24,790 feet the highest peak in the Ta-hsüeh ("Great Snow") Mountains in China's Sichuan province, not far from eastern Tibet. On a clear day there is a stunning view of the mountain, but this afternoon the peak is shrouded in monsoon clouds. In the last light of day I stand beside Asia Wright, both of us leaning on the rail circling the second floor, looking at the prayer flags that hang like bunting under the eaves, and at the altar in the center of the courtyard, where a smoldering bough of juniper is sending a curl of smoke skyward. From the prayer room we hear the chanting of the senior monk, who is old enough to have lived and meditated in the original Tibetan Buddhist monastery before it was destroyed by the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution.

Most of the people in these mountains are ethnic Tibetans, and, pooling their resources, they have done an admirable job building this new monastery, but even so, I can see it doesn't match the standard of its predecessor. When I was last here, in October 1980, my friends and I camped just below the ruins of the old monastery. The Cultural Revolution had ended only four years earlier, and the Chinese had just opened their doors to foreign mountaineers; we were the first Westerners allowed into eastern Tibet in 50 years. We were here to climb Minya Konka. Our team, most of which worked for Exum Mountain Guides in Jackson Hole, included Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and climber Kim Schmitz. The ascent was being filmed for ABC, and the camera crew included photographers Edgar Boyles and Jonathan Wright, a close friend whose daughter, Asia, then a one-year-old toddler, was back in Aspen with his wife, Geri. I was on the climbing team and part of the film crew. After the climb, Jonathan and I planned to journey westward to Lhasa and then continue overland to Kathmandu and on to the Khumbu, the Sherpa homeland on the south side of Everest.

We had an assignment from National Geographic to do a story on the newly chartered Sagarmatha (Mount Everest) National Park, and for both of us, filming on Minya Konka followed by the Everest assignment was a dream come true; we had big plans to collaborate on articles in the future—river-running in Borneo, ski-adventuring in Antarctica.

After we set up our tents, Jonathan, Yvon, and I explored the debris of the desecrated monastery. We said nothing as we stepped over the shards of roof slate and chunks of plaster and pieces of smashed doors. Finally Jonathan called us over to the most intact section of what was left of the walls. They had been painted with frescoes depicting various Buddhas and bodhisattvas, and all had been smashed to pieces—all except one.

"It's interesting," Jonathan said, "that this is the one Buddha to survive." He was only 28, but this was Jonathan's sixth trip to the Himalayas, and he was an avid student of Buddhist culture.

"Who is it?"

"Maitreya," he said. "The Buddha of Things to Come."

"You think there's a message?" I asked.

"Yes," Jonathan said, turning to me with a faint smile. "It's to remember that the first fact of existence is impermanence."

Now, 19 years later, I've returned to Konka Gompa on a pilgrimage to Jonathan's grave, high on the side of Minya Konka, with my old friend's daughter, Asia, who has just turned 20. This night, I lie in bed propped against the headboard, writing by the light of a candle sitting on the bedpost. My bed is along one end of the room, Asia's is in the middle, and the monk who is sharing his room with us lies in a third bed on the opposite end, chanting a sotto-voce mantra as he arranges his belongings on his nightstand: prayer beads, a bell, and two portraits, each in a hand-carved wood frame, of lamas.

I look up, and the flame from my candle dimly shows the plastered rock walls, the slate roof supported by a lattice of twined poles, the small table made of hand-hewn lumber, Asia's bed a few feet from mine, her dark hair and the cone of light from her headlamp shining on the photocopied pages of her father's journal. I reflect on what I wrote in my own journal so many years ago.

October 14, 1980, Minya Konka Base Camp

I need to get this down while it's still fresh. It must have been 9:30 a.m. by the time we got out of Camp One yesterday, but we all agreed that there should still be enough time to climb the 1,500 vertical feet to the next campsite, cache our loads, and get back before dark. I drew the first lead, postholing up the slope above camp. Then Kim took over, then Yvon. At noon we stopped next to a crevasse for lunch. Yvon bit off a piece of cheese, then turned to Jonathan. "Whenever you're on a glaciated section," he said, "always stop at the edge of a crevasse when you take a break. That way you'll know you haven't stopped on top of a hidden one. Same for setting up camps."

"Thanks," Jonathan replied. He'd asked us to give him pointers whenever we thought of anything, and Yvon is always obliging to anyone who wants to learn.

We finished lunch and continued. Soon our options narrowed to a steep section of chest-deep snow. I led and Kim followed. To secure my footing I had to pack the snow first by pressing my whole body into the slope, then my knee, and finally my boot. No matter how careful I was, I still knocked snow down on Kim.

"Sonofabitch. I'm getting buried."

"Sorry, I can't help it."

Kim looked up and grinned. "I wasn't cursing you. Just this snow flying down my collar."

I took another step, and knocked down more snow.


I smiled to myself and kept going. In another hundred feet the snow firmed. In a clearing between clouds we could see just ahead an area of large seracs where the shifting glacier had cleaved into blocks. I stopped and studied our options.

"Two ways to go. Up the middle through the seracs, or off to the right."

"Looks a little better to the right," Yvon said.

While Kim took the lead, Jonathan stepped aside and took several photographs. I paid out rope, then followed Kim as he angled up the side of a serac that then turned into a long, steep slope. The heavy packs and thin air made the effort debilitating, but we maintained a steady pace. I tried not to look up but instead to focus on the steps in front of me, hoping I might achieve a kind of self-hypnosis.

"Heartbreak Hill," Yvon called out.

The rope on my waist went taut. I looked up and Kim had stopped to wait patiently while I caught up. It was all I could do to match his speed, and he was the one punching the steps. I was tempted to unrope and go at my own pace, but there were still crevasses in the area. We had roped up earlier in the morning when we crossed the first crevasses above Camp One. That was before we got into the soft snow, but footing had still been difficult, with about four inches of new snow. Several times my boot skidded on the interior layer, leaving a streak through the new snow. In the back of my mind I knew this was avalanche potential. I wondered what Yvon and Kim thought, but if they were concerned they would have said something...


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