A Report from the Clouds: Bob Raynolds and Ned Sterne in Tibet

Title: A Report from the Clouds: Bob Raynolds and Ned Sterne in Tibet

Author: Bob Raynolds

Publication: The Outcrop, April 2001, p. 1, 6-7

Some mountains are the highest, some the most challenging to climb, some the most distant. There is a beautiful mountain in Tibet, most remote and sacred, considered by Buddhists and Hindus to be the very navel of the universe. Kailas is the mythic mountain, the pyramidal apex of the Trans Himalayan Range, the source of Asia’s major rivers, the resting place of the Tibetan mystic Buddhist Milarepa the Scholar. Kailas the sacred spire! Kailas also is considered the alpha and omega of synorogenic conglomerates by students of plate tectonics and orogeny.

But could two geologists from far-away Denver actually consider making the trek?

“Rattle your dags!!” we shouted. “Do it!!” Pre-dawn training jaunts up the Front Range lugging sand-filled packs prepared us physically. A surprising few Internet clicks fixed the logistics. Then it was off to Nepal to stage ourselves just five days’ walk from the Tibetan frontier.

We flew to Simikot, a narrow terrace perched high above the Karnali River in northwestern Nepal. Snow-covered peaks loomed above us on all sides; travel was along footpaths carved into the walls of the deeply incised stream valleys. We had pictured ourselves picking routes across unmapped and trackless territory using satellite images and “unavailable” Russian military maps. Instead, we found ourselves walking trails polished smooth by the tread of hundreds of generations. Long before us, travelers had found the practical pathways.

Our route led west along the Karnali River, on the south flank of a broad massif that gradually reveals itself as a metamorphic core complex. How, we wondered, among thousands of kilometers of compressive terrain, can there be a core complex, typically associated with extreme extension?

In over a month of walking, we slowly gained elevation, saw vegetation become sparse, and became familiar with the habits of fellow travelers. Trade went on all around us. Merchants carried huge bundles of Chinese cloth and shoes south into Nepal. Zhobas (half yak, half cow) hauled wood north to Tibet. We discerned flow patterns: goats, salt, and scrap iron move south; videotapes and carved wooden bowls move north. We learned to say “Namaste” to those going north and “Tashi Dele” to those coming south.

We crossed an arid pass amidst salt convoys of south-moving goats, and peered for the first time into Tibet. All along our route, from the airport in Tokyo to the path out of Simikot, we had anticipated seeing the pyramidal peak reputed to be comprised of over 2000 meters of conglomerate. Here, with our first view of Tibet, we dared to believe that we would actually see and perhaps even reach Kailas. We passed through terraced heaps of Plio-Pleistocene conglomerates, stored up for a rainy day when they will be flushed down to the Indo-Gangetic plain. We marched onto a low pass of serpentine, pillow lava, and chert: ophiolites thrust out of the Tethys Ocean by the force of the continental collision.

And there, glowing in the far distance, gleaming like an ivory tusk on the distant horizon, was Kailas. We joyfully jettisoned our packs and gazed through the wind in reverence, marveling at the distance we had left to walk.

In front of us lay the huge lakes of the Barga Plain. Our route took us around the lakes in generally trackless territory sprinkled with yaks. We camped among nomads living a tough life with their herds. Their homes are tents easily packed up in a couple of hours. We are greeted with joyous hospitality although the only common language is our smiles.

The nomads have photovoltaic panels on the sides of their yak-hair tents and dream at night of high-speed Internet access and the bright lights of Lhasa. In our rip-stop nylon tent we dreamt of a vast wilderness without email, and of endless uninhabited lands watched over by the sacred pile of conglomerate.

Amidst a herd of grazing goats and sheep we crossed the suture between the Australian Plate (which carries with it India) and the Asian Plate. It was a small step for us, but a plate change that brought us to the foot of the Tran Himalayan Range and its towering crown, Kailas.

We followed Tibetan pilgrims on the clockwise circumambulation route, up a vast glacier-scoured valley, the spectacular conglomerate outcrops polished and striated by Pleistocene ice. Our route gained us spectacular views of each of Kailas’ pyramidal sides. The most sublime view is from the north, a view seen in textbooks, paintings, photographs, where the spire of conglomerate is framed by dark hills. We admired this view by full moon, with chattering teeth, engraving the sight meticulously in our minds.

We crossed our highest pass at 18,500 feet, together with a group of singing pilgrims. We shared food, laughs, and the joy of the successful ascent, but no spoken language. A huge sacred rock completely swathed in streamers of colorful prayer flags marks the top of the pass. We added names of friends and family to the tokens that decorate this shrine.

Our return took us around the east side of the holy Lake Manasarowar. A navigation error had us walking in our bare feet through an ice-encrusted swamp of black ooze. We confirmed through careful tactile analysis of this frozen mire the phenomenon of high accommodation here at the foot of the range. We lingered by burbling hot springs ideal for boiling instant Chinese noodles and headed back across the passes into Nepal. Our backs to the fading spire of ice, we walked through valleys straddling the frontier between Tibet and Nepal. Friendly villagers threshing wheat in communal enthusiasm invited us to pause for a while, a week, a decade? We resisted the temptation to linger and hastened south, propelled by ingrained habit to honor schedules, deadlines, and clocks. We crossed more passes and were back at the mountain airstrip fussing with excess baggage, overbooking, and the shock of reentry. A few plane rides later we were on the RTD bus in Denver where nothing had changed, except us.