Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Puja Ceremony

I learned a few things today: I learned that Guatemalans think Francisco is largely crazy for going someplace so cold, I learned that Sherpas take the Puja Ceremony very seriously, and I learned that two beers at 17,500' do the same thing to me as a seven month deployment to Iraq.

This morning, we woke to absolutely beautiful weather- not a breath of wind, no clouds, mild temperatures. Last night, Willie told us, the low was -6 Celsius- or roughly 20 degrees... mild given the track record of the last few days. I woke sweating; Joe mentioned he did the same. Francisco told us that he was freezing all night. I asked Francisco what his friends back home said when he told them he was coming here, and he responded that most said "what, where!?" From what he told us, it reminded me of how Hawaiians respond to cold when they are in a perceived arctic environment like San Diego. We all laughed as Francisco told us about how he continued to bundle last night to the point where he had so many layers on that he thought he'd suffocate- and then had to start taking them off. In Spanish, Willie told Francisco something that would roughly translate into "this is just the beginning", to which Francisco said "yes, I know" and mentioned that he was going to start bringing his sleeping bag to dinner.

I had my own issues to deal with this morning. On a Mt Olympus speed climb last summer, Sgt Brent H had us all entertained with his suffering due to severe chafing. At one point, he stumbled into a stop nine miles from the trailhead and said "screw IED's, man! If those Insurgents invent a Chafing Gun, I'm surrendering!" Somewhere on the trail from Gorak Shep to Base Camp yesterday, an Insurgent shot me in the crotch with a Chafing Gun. So I was dealing with that fun stuff and thanking my lucky stars that we don't have to move for the next few days.

Fortunately, most of the activity was happening in the Mess Tent instead- Tendi and most of the cook staff were deep at work preparing for today's Puja Ceremony, a Buddhist tradition that Sherpas enact each and every time they conduct a climb. There isn't just one Puja Ceremony, there are several- each group conducting an expedition has to do it. Sherpas won't go through the Icefall without it, they take it that seriously.

At 09:30, the climb team pulled together miscellaneous pieces of gear that they wanted blessed in the ceremony. This could include one or two pieces of gear like an Ice Axe, Crampons, or a Harness. Tendi and Lama Jambu, both retired priests and now climbing Sherpa on our team, were the Puja Ceremony leaders along with an actively practicing priest who came just for the ceremony. As an outsider looking in, I have to say that this was quite a ceremony filled with tradition, and deeply devout followers. There were chants, rice throwing, and group participation events that everyone was involved in with great fanfare. But there were also some comical moments for me as well, such as when one bowl was passed around and there, placed ornately and precisely on top: Sour Patch Kids.

Before I left the States, I tried to contact Cadbury Schweppes about the popularity of Sour Patch Kids on the trail and elsewhere. Scott S, my SMR teammate and good friend relayed a story to me about one rescue where the rescuee was wishing Scott had Sour Patch Kids instead of Gummy Bears despite starving for close to three days in the wilderness. They are popular here too- I have handed out at least 4 lbs of them so far and knew that as soon as the Sherpas tried a few? -Poof- Gone. So it's moments like this where a Puja Ceremony central fixture happens to be Sour Patch Kids that make me think it's funny that Cadbury Schweppes decided to gaff off my email. Oh well.

The rest of the ceremony involved erecting prayer flags to cover our camp area, passing around of baked goods, candy, beer, and sodas. Great fanfare goes into setting the prayer flags and everyone participates, some lines extending for great distances.

After the beer is passed along, a platter of a flour-like substance is also handed out. At first, we Westerners were like "what's this for?" till Willie mentioned with a huge grin that this was for good luck, and then most of it ended up on our cheeks. Everyone went around smearing cheeks, throwing flour into the air and having a great time.

It was here at some point that I realized that two beers at altitude after not drinking for almost three weeks has the same effect on me as not drinking for seven months while on deployment. When I returned from Iraq after not drinking for seven months, it took two beers to make me smashed and sleep for eight hours. During the Puja Ceremony I had two beers and about the same thing happened only without the eight hour nap because I had rocks to move. Rocks.
Anyone looking for a comical scene, please watch a really buzzed, extremely winded and very sleepy guy throw around rocks on top of a slippery glacier. I'm sure the Sherpas were as entertained with this scene as I was with Sour Patch Kids being involved in a climbing ceremony.

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