Everest 2014: Ceremonies

Ceremonies mark life. Many come with a birth of a child, a union of a couple or upon death. For the Sherpa, they will not climb Everest without one such ceremony, a Puja.

Today’s Update

There is something strange going on with the communications systems for some teams at Everest Base Camp preventing the usual blog posts. Some emails and posts are getting through but speeds are extremely slow preventing attachments including pictures in many cases. Many, many teams are reporting this issue when they can get through. And it does not appear to be from the usual overload of so many people trying to connect.

Garrett Madison, of Madison Mountaineering posted this from the last village before Base Camp, Gorak Shep:

Tomorrow is the day we all have been dreaming of for months – base camp! It should only take us about 2.5 hours to get up there, just in time for lunch. Hopefully our state-of-the-art solar power and communications systems will allow us to maintain more frequent updates as we adjust to living at EBC!

However a lot depends on what system he will use the base camp as Altitude Junkies posted this today:

Unfortunately, the communications systems are not working well. The Immarsat BGAN as well as Ncell are not functioning as normally expected right now. Hopefully the problems are rectified soon so there will be more frequent dispatches.

Finally the Adventure Consultants team, safe and on schedule, made this update:

Dean has called in from the village of Lobuche at 4930m, where they have limited wifi so he was unable to post a dispatch today. He said everyone did well crossing over the Kongma La pass (and useful for acclimatisation at 5535m high) and they have met up with our other group at Lobuche and all are very much looking forward to arriving at Everest Base Camp tomorrow.

I know these blackouts create significant anxiety for friends and families back home but there is nothing we can do about it until people with the knowledge can get it fixed. Hopefully this will be soon. Remember, the standard mantra in climbing is no news is good news – even in this day of 24×7 communication, sometimes!

Otherwise, Everest Base Camp on the Nepal side is filling up with over 200 climbers arriving in the past few days. Those climbing from Tibet are on the move by road to their base camp.


Before any climber, or Sherpa, begins climbing, they must have a Puja. This is mandatory for the Sherpa and something they take extremely seriously. While westerners are invited to participate, and almost everyone does, if they choose not to, no big deal. But it is a special part of any Himalayan climb and, for me, something never to be missed.

The puja is a traditional ceremony lead by a Lama where the mountain Gods are asked permission for the climbers to climb and forgiveness for the damage caused by the climbing and for the safety of everyone involved. All the Sherpas, climbers, cooks  – anyone associated with the climb participates.

Many teams arrange multiple blessings: one in Kathmandu, and other during the trek in and the most important one at Base Camp which is also called a Puja.

The ceremony is always somewhat similar starting with the building of a large rock chorten that holds pictures of the Dali Lama and small models of the mountains made in barley paste.

RMI posted this today:

We had a wonderful ceremony today. The puja altar was just as beautiful as it gets. A wonderful day. Just a real, pretty ceremony. Everybody in attendance and we all had a good time. So we packed up a lot a loads. We have our whole Sherpa staff heading up the hill to carry all the necessary provisions to get a great Camp 1 established.

And IMG said:

Today the IMG sherpas celebrated their big puja at Base Camp, complete with three hours of chanting, juniper burning, chang drinking, rice throwing, tsampa face smearing, prayer flag raising, and the blessing of all the climbing gear by the Lama. In short… a big party!

Everyone brings harnesses to be blessed for safety and ice axes and crampons for forgiveness for the holes that will be put in the mountain snow and ice. Some people bring pictures of their families and placed them on the alter.

Inside a Puja

This was from my 2011 Everest climb:

The Lama was seated to the far left of the alter sitting on a blanket with another wrapped around his legs. He was Mingma Dorge Sherpa, a Lama from Pangyboche and has been conducting pujas for years. This was at least the third time I had seen him. To his right sat six Sherpa who assisted with the puja.

They all chanted in unison reading century old prayers from Tibetan prayer books. Climbers sat in rows behind the Lama and Sherpas and everyone else mingled around. Serious but not terminally so, camera shutters and video cams were in full action trying to capture the moment.

Sherpas poured milk tea, a sweet concoction of sugar, milk, and tea. The Lama and his Sherpas drank milk tea and chang, a potent rice wine. Food had been prepared the night before consisting of breads and other sweets.

Once the prayers were complete the puja pole was raised on top of the Alter. This held flags and served as the central point for strings of long prayer flags that covered our camp. The Sherpas moved with precision to erect the pole and raise the flags.

Now the energy really increased with more tea being poured. All stood up as another series of chants took place ending with everyone throwing rice into the air three times and cheering. This was followed by the tradition of spreading barley power on one another’s face. I took pride in spreading it on Kami and he on mine. It was really quite the mess!

As the Sherpas started to sing and line dance, I stepped off to the side. The icefall looked grand in full sun with no shadows. The 5 color prayer flags were held straight against their line by just a wisp of a wind. Everyone was smiling, laughing and simply having a good time.

But it occurred to me watching how the climbers interacted compared with the Sherpas, that this puja was more about the Sherpas. They shared food, embraced one another in the line dance with ease, smiled so easily and laughed sincerely. Yet, there was a seriousness and a conviction to their efforts that left the ceremony behind.

These Sherpas were affirming their dedication to one another on yet another dangerous climb of the highest mountain on earth. More Sherpas die on Everest than non-Sherpas. They know this all too well. This ceremony was certainly to honor and make request of the mountain Gods but it was also commit themselves to one another, to be there when needed, to support and be supported when the time came.

This spurred me to consider the Alzheimer’s community; the individuals, the family caregivers, the caregivers in facilities, the researchers, the academic and business element. Are we as committed to one another as these Sherpas? The stakes are higher. Are we willing to work together in search of improved ments, caregiver support and finding a cure?

These Sherpas know sacrifice like few in the climbing community. Away from families for months on end risking their lives all for a better future for their families.

Caregivers make sacrifices as well sometimes leaving jobs, making extreme financial sacrifices for only one purpose. Researchers spend their professional lives running theories as far as they can, or until they run out of money.

And the individuals with Alzheimer’s? They simply live as full of a life as the disease will allow at the time. Each moment is precious, each memory is fleeting.

As I climb Everest and the other 7 Summits, perhaps we can use this as an opportunity to bring the Alzheimer’s community together for the single goal of eliminating this disease.

Volunteer at a local nursing home or Alzheimer’s care facility to hold someone’s hand, listen to them talk about their memories before they are gone. Learn about Alzheimer’s. Talk to your aging parents about the disease. Make plans, be prepared if this sad reality impacts your family or a friend’s.

There is so much to do. And there is no reason to wait.

As I watched the Sherpas return to their tents and duties, they moved with unity and purpose.

Can we do the same?

Climb On!
Memories are Everything



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3 thoughts on “Everest 2014: Ceremonies

  1. I thought the Inside a Puja section of this post was wonderful. Reading it has left me feeling lighter inside.

    It also served as a grounding parallel to your Mom, and family who have lost so much… All the while keeping in mind the many others suffering with Alzheimer’s and their families.

    I hope you one day write a book full of vignette’s of you memories…

    Climb On! Memories are everything!

  2. Alan –
    Regarding “There is something strange going on with the communications systems …. “. I am certainly no expert, but if these are broadband type services, could it be possible the subscribers’ services are being ‘throttled’? Realizing all is pure speculation, if so, for what reason(s)?
    Thanks – Carolyn

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