On Sacredness in Climbing
After 35 years of shinnying up steep rock and ice and two walks through the Himalayas, I am coming around to the view that climbers should not clamber and touch everything on the planet. This may not be a popular view. As climbers, we prefer to have unlimited access to everything within our grasp: buildings, boulders, cliffs, walls, waterfalls, mountains and their summits. To walk at the base of a wall or in a valley below a mountain is good, but touching them is better. Who has not felt compelled to reach between the wires of a fence and touch the flanks of a horse, or between the “bars” of an iron or glass cage and feel the coiled strength of a tiger? But naturally, we do not.
This idea of keeping some things of f l imits to tour ists and climbers is not new to the Anangu people of Australia. When people ascend Uluru, the world’s largest monolith i n central Australia, they of fend the Anangu people. For them Uluru is not just so much stone but a palpable life force connected to ancient abor iginal knowledge known as The wisdom of
is understood by the Anangu to exist at the base of the mountain and is known through the trees, stones and dirt found there. Their power and knowledge is not on Uluru’s summit, so for the Anangu, there is no reason to climb. People are infor med of the cultural sensitivities before their ascent, both by sig ns and the Anangu themselves, but the sacred gatecrashing goes on. Is it any wonder that in the local Pitjantjatjana language they refer to climbers ascending Uluru as or ants.
Tse’Bit’a’i is the Navajo name for Shiprock, the volcanic plug in the American southwest that resembles a bird with folded wings. First climbed in 1939 by four Americans, Shiprock has been closed to climbers since the 1970s after a fata l accident. The nearby Spider Rock and Totem Pole have been closed since 1962. The prohibition of climbing on Navajo lands is infor med by the sacredness of the landscape and the taboos that are created when there are climbing accidents. Despite this, many clandestine ascents continue to be made.
The Himalayas have the greatest densit y of peaks that are of f limits to climbers. We may gaze, but we may not touch. In 1994 Bhutan banned all climbing above 6,000 metres, and then in 2003, in deference to spir itual customs related to Mahayana Buddhism, al l climbing was stopped. In wester n Tibet, the 6,714- metre peak of Mount Kailash is regarded as the home of Shiva, the Hindu god of destr uction and regeneration. Tibetan Buddhists believe that Milarepa f lew to the summit in the 12th centur y and resides there in per petual and supreme bliss. They believe that to touch Kailash is sacr ileg ious and any attempt to climb it would be fata l. Instead, Hindus, Buddhists, Jainists and Bon pilgr ims walk or prostrate themselves around the 32- kilometre base of the mountain. It is believed that Kailash is the pil lar of the ear th and the epicentre of the world’s mandala.
My most intimate experience of a sacred mountain with a “no touch” philosophy is the shapely Khumbi Yul Lha, which towers aiguil le-like above the Sher pa vil lages of Khumjung and Khunde in eastern Nepal. Although it is dwarfed by other Himalayan peaks on the hor izon such as Everest, it is astonishingly beautiful and complex as it looms over the maze of stone lined walls and stone houses below.
Taschi Lama, a student of Buddhism, helped me to understand the signif icance of the peak for the Sher pa people. He explained that Khumbi Yul Lha is home to their protective deit y Khumbila Terzen Gelbu who r ides a white horse, while his wife Thamserku lives atop a peak across the Khumbu val ley. In July, Sher pas celebrate Khumbila at the Dumji festival in the nearby vil lage of Pangboche with dancing, singing and r ituals.
The fang-like peak of Tabuche, 6,495 metres, is a lso celebrated with the Tabuche dance and is cur rently being petitioned by loca l Sher pa residents to be of f limits to a l l climbing scrambling or touching.
In Ontario, there are str ict policies about what can be climbed on the 700 - kilometre long Niagara Escar pment. For instance, at the ver y tip of the escar pment, in Bruce National Park, only boulder ing is per mitted on the limestone boulders near the shoreline. Roped climbing is neither encouraged nor tolerated. In par t, climbing is not per mitted because the geography is a sacred sanctuar y for the easter n white cedar, some of which are reputed to be 1,600 years old.
In general, climbing on the escar pment is viewed as a “non-confor ming” activit y but is cur rently tolerated in popular areas such as Lion’s Head. A 2015 Niagara Escarpment Commission plan review is suggesting that new route activit y be limited to spor t-routes 5.10 and harder, which tend to fol low walls with less damage to frag ile f lora. They would also like to see per manent anchors used to limit damage to the rock and clif f edge.
I enjoy exploring a world knowing that not ever ything is commodif ied, for lease or rent or for sale. We may boast about adding value to a ser vice or a product before cranking up the price, but perhaps not letting climbers ascend a certain ver y few cliffs and peaks around the world is a way of adding value by doing simply nothing. It is a pleasure to know that some mountains are free of via ferrates, trails, bolt ladders, chalk dust, f ixed ropes and porta-ledges.
In Nepal this spr ing, while sitting on a ver y cold wooden f loor and after listening to the morning chanting and praying in the Tengboche Monaster y, Taschi Lama reassured me that Khumbi Yul Lha has never been climbed and never will be. To him, this knowledge was as clear and concrete as the mountain soar ing behind him into the cer ulean blue Himalayan sky.
As I stood with Taschi shar ing a cup of sweet tea below his sacred Sher pa mountain, I thought to myself, “No mindless ants on Khumbi Yul Lha.”