April 14: parting with the Pumori climbers

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April 14. . . it is the day when the trekkers are scheduled to head to Lobuche and begin working our way back to civilization. We will leave the five climbers to tackle Pumori.

We awake to a crystal clear, bitter cold morning. Everest has a halo of frozen cloud that appears stationary from our position, but we know from experience elsewhere that it means wind in the high mountains. We are in the shadow of Everest at Pumori base, and since Everest is to the east of us, we have to wait until the sun has risen fairly high in the sky before it warms our camp. We accumulate at the edge of camp in the first rays of sunlight. Anyone who steps in front and blocks our sunlight gets growled at.

After the sun hits camp, the Sherpas begin a prayer ceremony to bring blessings on the Pumori climb. Branches of juniper are lit, which infuse the camp with the sweet, incense smell of their burning. I am startled to see a collection of birds arrive just as the fire is lit; the goraks and Tibetan snowcocks sit attentive on the rocks just outside camp, watching the ceremony like parishioners sitting in the back of the church.

The Sherpas recite prayers and present offerings of food. Prayer flags are mounted on a pole and suspended above camp. Tea is poured to drink. The climbers pose in front of the prayer altar — and I am reminded of countless pictures I have seen in accounts of Himalayan climbs of just such a scene. I worry about their safety, and pray that this will not be the last picture I have of any one of them.

We exchange hugs and well-wishes. I get choked up as I hug John Leavens. It’s time for us to head down, and for them to head up.

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