In order to see the Beyond, you must break with the ordinary. The ordinary is everywhere permeated by the Beyond; eventually you'll see the Beyond within the ordinary, once you've seen the Beyond as Itself.
For some, this Breaking Away is a sudden happening often catalyzed by an experience with Death. In ancient times, the sight of a dead man led the Buddha to abandon the protected life within his father's palace and to commence his quest for enlightenment. More recently, in my own lineage, Yogiraj Handiya Baba, the Guru of my Guru, had been inclined since childhood to a monastic life, but twice his relatives compelled him to marry. Both of his wives died soon after marriage. His second bride died while the plague was passing through his village and nobody was willing to help him perform the cremation. He carried her body to the Ganges and completed the rites by himself. But, at the height of his grief, he suddenly was overcome by a feeling of peace and tranquility. He realized the emptiness of the world; everything is a play of the Lord. Afterwards, he set out on a pilgrimage covering all of India, met his Guru and attained his realization. [Footnote 1] Sudden and total breaks are more the stuff of souls who already have exceptional spiritual tendencies. For most, true Breaking Away comes only as the culmination of a long series of small escapes and excursions into the unknown.
Even as a child, I could never see myself as a member of the adult society about me, but no alternative presented itself. I dutifully replied to my elders that I wanted to grow up to be this or that, but proceeded to take longer walks away from my grandfather's Catskill farm and longer rides on the New York City subways than my parents would have liked, or alternatively, to lose myself in the realm of abstract thought. As a teenager I began to take a bicycle tour at the end of every summer. The bulk of the summers had to be spent "productively", either studying or working. On these tours I was supposed to be staying in protected quarters at Youth Hostels, but they were too few and not always in the right places. Soon I was travelling here and there, disregarding the Youth Hostels. I learned how to spot those little patches of woods in densely populated regions and how to slip in, sleep and slip out without being noticed. In college I began taking winter camping trips into the Adirondacks and the White Mountains; towards the end, I took up rock climbing.
I did well at school with little effort. At college I saw a niche for myself as a professional mathematician. The late fifties and early sixties were years when competent mathematicians could find positions anywhere in the world on short notice. Mathematics seemed as if it might be a base from which I could explore the rest of existence. However, in graduate school, I was no longer able to excel without working. At first I exerted myself and passed the general examinations. Then I slacked off and began to get nowhere. After the second year, I took the summer off and visited the mountains of the West. For some reason, I returned to dissipate another year at graduate school, but the next summer I left for good. I lived in the western mountains with the climbing bums who were a non-academic but truly intellectual bunch, and who were seeking a wider truth in a variety of ways. With them, I took my first LSD and learned of the vast realm of possibilities lying within the mind. The break was far from clean. 1965 was still the time when anyone with a Master's in mathematics could drop by at most any school and find employment. I found a job doing some proofreading at Berkeley which required my presence for only a few days every other week. The rest of the time I spent in Yosemite and the Sierras. Still, while in Berkeley, I did read the mathematical journals and had thoughts of sometime finishing my Ph.D..
My break with my own culture was precipitated by the Vietnam War. I was among the first to be sent a draft notice but I took an easy way out, joining the Peace Corps and going to Nepal. For three years, I taught in a village far from Kathmandu and managed to avoid significant contact with the Peace Corps staff.
Like the other Peace Corps volunteers of my time, I went to Nepal prepared for something of an extended wilderness trip. However, the village where I lived, though three days walk from the nearest road, was in a well-populated region of the Himalayan foothills. The land was steep yet villages were everywhere and terraced fields covered the less precipitous slopes.
A month after I arrived, the term at the village school was over and I had five days off before the new term began. I shouldered my pack and set out to see what lay to the north of the village, between it and the lofty Himalayan peaks. Since I had too little time to reach the higher altitudes, I spent my time wandering in a citrus-growing region whose tangerine trees were laden with fruit. On the third day I looked back at my tracks and wrote,
As I walk through Nepal my crude lugged soles wipe out the dainty trace of naked feet.After this, my mountaineering boots went into storage, for use in the high Himalayas only; I walked in the neighborhood of the village with either rubber sandals or light cloth shoes, both purchased locally. I became a more integrated part of Nepali village society than I had ever been of my own, but my assimilation was far from complete. By the third year, I reached the point where I had to either commit myself fully, get land, build a house and marry into a local family or else leave. I chose to travel on.
I had picked Nepal to be in the mountains, but in truth, I was further from the mountains there than anywhere else I had lived. I had to walk only ten minutes from my residence to a little hilltop to behold the magnificence of the Himalayas but, because I was in a land without roads, it took a week of walking to reach them. Weekend climbing was out, but twice in October I managed a month's leave and went climbing with some of the other Peace Corps people. We attempted 23,000 foot peaks and failed, not because of climbing difficulties but because of lack of time and organization. None of us became properly acclimatized; I found myself acclimatizing more slowly than the others. In particular, I was troubled by heart palpitations. Then I discovered that I could calm my heart by tensing my legs and sending more blood back to it. This awakened me to the possibilities of controlling myself by myself. I became attentive to my breath as well and began to do better.
In the Nepali village, I was fully exposed to the rituals of Hinduism. I learned the art of showing up, along with the other teachers, just at the very end of a ceremony when the goodies were about to be served. My house was the place where the teachers and other young Brahmins could come to try alcohol, pork and other violations of their caste. Nevertheless, I did learn the language and the cultural context of yoga. I read the
After Nepal I spent two years travelling, first circling India, then going overland to Europe and wandering there. I didn't always know, or even care, where I was going but knew I was to go, to see, to discover and to assimilate. In Nepal, I was always with people and constantly had things to do. In Europe I was alone, travelling without constraint, without limit, with time to read, to reflect and to absorb my experience.
My experiences in the East led me to reassess the culture of the West. In Nepal, I, like most of the population, was involuntarily on an essentially vegetarian diet. I would eat meat at every opportunity but, because only a few animals were slaughtered in the locality each month, meat wasn't a major factor in my diet. On leaving Nepal, I looked forward to being where I could eat meat every day and expected to feel stronger for it. In Europe, I resumed my daily meat habit but my stomach and my general well-being seemed to slip. When I reached Scandinavia, I felt like living on rice and vegetables for a little while, just to give my stomach a rest. I spent July north of the Arctic Circle, cooking my own rice and beans, and gathering from the ample supply of berries and other wild edibles. After this, I stopped buying meat, though I still would eat it in company.
Even though I had read the newspapers and had met numerous Americans in Europe, including draft resistors and military defectors, I didn't realize the extent that the Vietnam War had rent American society until I returned in 1971, after a five year absence. The economy had slipped badly. It took me a while to realize that I could no longer find a job wherever and whenever I wanted. People without a steady work record were suspect. I cherished my freedom and stayed out. I drove to Berkeley, but didn't find a job. However, a weekly poker game and a little house painting kept me in the black.
Spiritually I went around in circles. I took some LSD but it wasn't any good. I read the same things over and over again in different books. Then the fellow who lived in the attic of one house where I stayed passed me down Ram Dass's book
Eventually, I joined a group that seemed purer than most and which certainly wasn't a commercial venture. I began by attending their free yoga exercise classes and soon learned that they offered more. I frequented their meditation sessions and their Sanskrit classes taught by a woman who was an excellent linguist. However, I discovered that the group's Indian affiliate was involved in unsavory politics and quit, but not before the Sanskrit teacher and I fell in love. By then, my life in Berkeley had run its course. I spent the summer climbing. The climbing scene had greatly changed during my absence from America. The number of climbers had multiplied tenfold. Routes of difficulty unheard of five years earlier were being ascended. I found myself doing harder climbs than ever but feeling a lack of the camaraderie that was before.
My car died in the Tetons; I finished my summer's climbing there. Its trunk had filled with books, a typewriter and in effect, too many things to hitch with. While I was wondering what to do with it all, someone came by who was driving a school bus to New York. I, my belongings and many other people went in, and we all had a jolly trip East. I stored my excess belongings in my parents' attic and was thinking of heading for Mexico, but then happened to see a notice for college math teachers and telephoned about it. The very next day, I began teaching part time in Brooklyn.
It was a strange year. The college where I taught was bad enough so the biggest thing I did for the students was to encourage the best to transfer. I set the example by leaving at the end of the year. I lived in three different communal houses, but didn't fit well in any of them. On weekends I went rock climbing at the Shawangunks and in mid-winter I spent two weeks alone in the Adirondacks. I practiced yoga as best I could within the confines of Brooklyn and began studying the Sanskrit-English editions of the
I thought that my departure from Berkeley had ended my relationship with the Sanskrit teacher, but she decided to see her Guru in India and stayed with me for a few days in New York on her way. We wrote to each other frequently. Once she sent me some political publications of the group in India; I was astonished that an intelligent, sensitive woman like her could remain with them; I began writing stronger letters against them. After a winter there, some incidents woke her; in the spring, she came flying back in a frightened state. We lived together in Brooklyn until my job ended in June. She wanted marriage; I wanted to move on in life.
That was a year I finished with many things. I finished with
That summer I spent in the Canadian Rockies where I had difficulty finding climbing partners. Unlike the popular climbing areas in the States where people would just come, hang out and meet other climbers, in the Canadian Rockies climbers arrived in parties which stuck together. I started to tackle serious routes on my own. Afterwards, I went to Yosemite, but stayed in the high country at Tuolome Meadows rather than in the Valley, until snow closed rock climbing in the high country. In the winter I headed south to Mexico and passed the bulk of the time in the roadless mountains of Oaxaca State, where I found the Mizteco and Zapoteco Indians more receptive than the rest of the country to a Gringo who neither drank nor smoked. Nevertheless, just travelling to travel was no longer enough. I carried Swami Sivananda's edition of the
In 1975, I set out again for India with nothing in particular to do or see and no constraint on time. After a leisurely trip overland from Europe, I reached the Golden Temple at Amritsar. Following a few days rest, I proceeded to the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, and wandered there, talking to every holy man I met. Still, I kept moving. I learned something from one and something else from the next, but never felt the presence of a man of realization, although upon reflection, I think I might have misjudged a few. I stopped at some large, well-known ashrams, but each time, after a few days, I travelled on.
I decided to continue my search in Nepal. Since I was in no hurry, I visited the holy places along the way. One morning, I went for a bath at the sacred confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers; that afternoon, I was introduced to Swami Vishnudevanand, whose ashram was near-by. I didn't fall at his feet when I met him, but after hearing him talk of realization, and seeing that this realization was the whole of his unpretentious life, I knew he was my Guru. Many had declared to me that the inner soul is the Supreme Being, but he was a man who was living this truth. Over the next year and a half, he gave me his teaching. Like his other disciples, I would visit for a while and then go elsewhere. Visa problems sent me thrice to Nepal and once to Bangladesh; when I could, I roamed in India. He gave me a task, to translate his biography of his Guru into English; the essence of what he taught came in our discussions of that book. After the translation was printed, I spent less time at his ashram. Eventually, it came time to leave for America. During our last meeting before my departure, I asked if there were anything else I needed to know. Once again he repeated the core of his teaching, "
My Guru doesn't regulate the day to day life of his disciples. He gives the teaching but it's our responsibility to manage our own lives and to maintain our practice. In India there's an established tradition of yoga practice which is supported by society. My Guru did his intensive practice while living in a cave, dug into the steep banks of the Ganges only a few miles from a major city, where he was left to himself except by a few who would visit monthly to bring him food.
At first, I attempted to maintain practice without physically separating myself from American society. Since I was the person free to attend to family emergencies, twice I found myself in Florida caring for an ailing aunt. I visited Berkeley again and stayed at my old spot in the woods behind the University. However, the area had become crisscrossed with foot tracks and was no longer peaceful and secure. I saw my refuge would have to be the mountains and began to spend more of my time wandering among them.
I found my abode in Colorado just by chance. I had come to pay a visit in Boulder and then went off into the mountains further west. Up to this point, my trips to the mountains were moving trips. I would load up with supplies, go somewhere, stop a day or two and then move further. Except for food, I carried very little, a sleeping bag, a plastic tarp, clothes and a pot. I supplemented my food with wild edibles to extend the time I could stay without resupplying. Above tree line a tarp is too flimsy a shelter, so I generally look for caves. In this section of the Colorado mountains I just wasn't finding any habitable ones and made most of my camps just within the highest trees. >From one such tree-line camp, I went for a day of climbing. Some huge boulders on a grassy moraine caught my attention. I walked over to look for caves beneath them and found nothing suitable, but behind them some smaller boulders were propped up in such a way as to enclose a perfect little shelter. After marking the spot for the next day's camp I continued with the climb. In the late afternoon, when I returned to the tree-line camp, the mosquitoes were so bad that I packed my gear and went up to the cave that very evening. I stayed for a week and exhausted my provisions. I was perched looking into a beautiful cirque facing north, whose rim was 13,000 feet high. The atmosphere was calm and serene. I went down for more supplies, but instead of heading somewhere else, I bought enough to last the summer and returned to the very same place.
I had found my refuge; I had found my home. I named it
Since then I've been here every summer. However, I spent the next two winters tenting out in the Adirondacks. The first went smoothly but the second was rough. Cumulative equipment failure plagued me. My tent was chewed by an animal. Although I patched it, it had lost its strength. My boots cracked; my stove went sputtering. Every piece of clothing developed rips and tears. At times I seemed to be doing little but sewing. None of the individual problems were serious but their totality consumed my margin of safety. I was on a moving trip, but it was becoming a problem to move. The trip was intended to last three months, but a week early on a clear, warm day, I decided to get out.
The following two winters I spent in India; in other words, I bypassed winter. Both times I had good reason to go. Although bathing in the Ganges with millions at holy festivals was glorious, I wasn't penetrating further, into the Beyond, into the realm superseding experience. I had the opportunity to compare my knowledge with what others knew, but not to probe the truth beyond expression. What I did gain was renewed resolve, to seek, to ignore all established bounds, to penetrate the ultimate, to see the very nature of the individual soul and of the Supreme Being, and to realize the oneness of the two.
In the fall of 1982, I had no plans for the winter. After a summer in Colorado I was in the East and, after the setback in the Adirondacks two years earlier, I was reluctant to spend the winter in the open. A friend told me of a parcel of land for sale in Colorado, an old mining claim at 10,000 feet. It sounded like a reasonable place to build a cabin and to live the winter high in the mountains with protection from the elements; the friend liked the location. I returned to Colorado with the intent of purchasing it, but after looking it over, I decided it just wasn't right for me. I spent some time searching for other high-altitude property without finding anything suitable. Christmas passed; I still wasn't settled for the winter. One day, I loaded two weeks worth of food into my pack and set out for
I reached the cave where
I awoke at dawn. I needed to go out for my morning piss but the entrance to the tunnel was partially blocked by drifting snow. I cleared my way out, then returned inside to continue digging for
The great festival of
Society establishes itself as the protector of its members and promises dire consequences to those straying beyond its bounds. The peripheries of ancient maps were inhabited by monsters, waiting to devour the traveller who entered their domain. Disease and death are promised to deviators. Woe is to befall the American who fails to be covered by health insurance, and health insurance for the miscreant who doesn't have a straight job with a group coverage plan is prohibitively expensive. The Peace Corps had to maintain the illusion of the American medical shield. We were sent to Nepal with arms and butts sore from immunization. The Peace Corps doctors toured the country by copter to give periodic boosters. We were indoctrinated on the dangers of the local water and of many local foods. We were posted within six hours of walking from wireless stations so the doctors could fly out to save us in an emergency. We were supposed to notify headquarters if we ever left our posts. It didn't take long for many of us to see through the facade, to roam the country at will, to drink any water not visibly contaminated, and to enjoy fresh yogurt and other foods about which we had been forewarned. Yet each of us who did Break Away to live like the local people, had to overcome the onus of our stern indoctrination.
Here in the summer, wild plants form a considerable portion of my diet; people, especially doctors, ask if I've encountered any poisonous species. For them, anything not certified is a threat. Wouldn't it be nicer to be asked if I've found any interesting medicinal plants? The people most likely to inquire about poisonous wild plants are, on the whole, the people least likely to question the safety of the additives in processed foods, an ever-increasing number of which are being shown to be carcinogenic. Most have qualms about trying the plants I eat. If I point to a plant I use, before they taste it, they want to know what it's called. Often, I don't know the names of the plants I consume. If I cannot give a plant a name, even if I say that I've lived on it for years and swallow a healthy portion to set an example, they're uneasy about eating it. If I do name a plant, they're more likely to try it, even if I abstain from ingesting it in their presence. Naming the plant gives it a measure of social approval which makes eating it acceptable.
To walk out through the open door, you must view it as no more dangerous on the outside than on the inside. You must abandon the fear of being alone. This extends to walking alone in the cities late at night. If you take a dimly lit route where only a few people go, there's danger of being assaulted, but if you choose a route that nobody uses, a robber is unlikely to be lying in wait. The danger that exists, lies on the fringe of society and rarely affects someone who has completely broken free.
Breaking Away is the hardest part of the journey. I must make five trips to bring up my supplies for a winter. I'm on National Forest land; I must go in and out without making myself conspicuous. Although camping alone in winter is, as far as I know, not against regulations, if the Forest Service knew that I was living alone for such an extended time, they would probably use their general authority over National Forest lands to restrict me. I must also Break Away from people who think I'm walking to Death. Before my first full winter at
The time preceding the break is one of intense planning and labor. I must check all my equipment thoroughly for signs of wear and other defects, and make repairs as necessary. In the course of six months at
I don't maintain that my staying here is without risk, but that the risk is not extraordinary. Most of the risk is in getting settled; driving a notorious stretch of mountain road to reach the trailhead is not the least of it. I do exhaust myself carrying loads and run some risk then. When exhausted, I'm more likely to make a foolish slip. Bringing everything in would be easier if I didn't have to be secretive about it. Once the cave is sealed with snow and I've moved inside, I'm exposed to little risk. Ways for me to kill myself, such as dropping my mittens at the wrong place and time, abound but with constant attentiveness to detail I'm safe. I don't venture out of my cave unless I wish to; I remain inside if the weather is so bad that I cannot reasonably maintain myself outside. I do make an occasional slip when running about the steep snow slopes, but the self-arrest maneuver with the ice axe is as automatic a reflex as applying the brakes of an automobile. The time that I'm exposed to risk beyond my control is during the first storms, when I must stay in my tent outside of the cave. It's the only time I must go out to shovel snow whether I feel like it or not; an exceptional storm could put me in trouble. Hazards abound but once I'm settled in, I'm safe from automobiles, stray bullets, contagious diseases and other perils of the world below.
Society has means other than the danger signs to dissuade us from walking through the open door. We're besieged with cries for help from those inside. We're trained to think that our ordained role is to improve things inside for those inside, and then to draw those who aren't quite inside into the wonderful inside we've created. The pleas to me to remain within are of several sorts. First come appeals to my professional training which say that with my education and ability, I should find a job doing brilliant mathematical work of benefit to all. However, there's no shortage of mathematicians. My taking a job would put someone else out of one, and the social benefits of delving deeper into the intricacies of infinite dimensional spaces, my mathematical specialty, are far from clear. Then come appeals from social and political movements, which beg me to help change society and remove its evils. Once more, it's doubtful that the next social order will be any less tainted than the present one. Indeed, the walls society builds about itself are a cause of the misery within it. While sojourning within, I lend support to appropriate causes, but when the time comes, I again walk out. Finally come direct appeals for help from people in need. While I'm around I answer them as I can but, more often than not, those who scream the most for help merely like the fact of being helped and dread a state of self-sufficiency in which they would rarely need help. Waiting around to answer their cries does nothing but create dependencies.
If I have any role for the sake of humanity, it's to pass through the open door, to show the few who can perceive the door that the way isn't fraught with danger and that the dangers there are can be met and overcome. People within can truly be helped only by those who pass freely in and out. Large numbers won't follow me. Thus, when I'm asked the social benefit of my life, I say with a smile, though it's largely true, that my role is to act out the fantasies of others. People of all sorts think of themselves as, some day, heading off into the mountains or as, some day, entering the profoundest meditative state, but alas, for most, the day is always in the future. They create their worldly goals and responsibilities to occupy the eternal present; the most they ever seem to manage is a weekend in the mountains or an occasional hour of meditation. They enjoy hearing about the exploits of mountaineers and yogis; books on mountaineering, yoga and combinations thereof have steady sales. The object of the journey is never the book, for the book could have been researched with much less trouble, but the state Beyond. In that state there's no distinction between within and without and no door, for these are only concepts imposed by society upon the world to bind us to it.
My exploits here don't always fulfill the fantasies of others. Armchair mountaineers are disappointed to learn that I don't spend all my time hanging by my teeth from icicles, but spend most of it sitting securely within my cave where the greatest excitement is chasing shrews and catching mice. Closet yogis are dismayed to hear that I don't meditate seated upon the snow, clad with only a loin cloth, but protect my body with tent, sleeping bag and carefully sewn garments. I can best satisfy these fantasies by saying little more than that I spend my winters in a mountain cave and letting the imagination supply the details. I can support these fantasies by showing some photos I've taken of myself clinging to a frozen waterfall, with the camera pointed so the comfortable ledge a few feet down is hidden from view, or doing the head stand on the snow on one of the rare warm, sunny days. Although I may sometimes act to nurture people's fantasies, the true role of the yogi is to destroy the illusions of others and to reveal the truth to those who are ready. The key to Breaking Away, is giving up all expectations. The Beyond is an inconceivable state whose appearance is blocked by any conceptualization of It. A book on yoga is at best a clever hoax, an interesting scenario that meshes with the fantasies of yoga practice, but in which nothing happens in the expected way, or ultimately nothing happens, thus frustrating the notions of what yoga should be to the point where the practice may begin.
After being isolated for up to six months, my mind sometimes wanders to think of whether or not the rest of the world will still be there when I get down. If the nuclear war did go off, even here I would know about it. Although I'm far enough west of Denver, Colorado Springs and other targets so I probably wouldn't be killed by the initial blasts, I, like all higher life forms on earth, would soon die from its effects. Society might undergo some drastic change. If a German had retreated into the Alps from October, 1932 until April, 1933, he would have returned to a world of "
People often ask me why I don't bring a little radio with me. Indeed, it would be nice to have advance warning of major storms. First of all, the time I would be most willing to listen to the radio would be when I'm sitting inside my cave, but there, under my rock roof, I have no chance of reception. I could try running an antenna outside, or listening outside in the vicinity of the cave, but in this cirque of steep rock walls which blocks the sun's rays for two months out of the year, it would take a powerful radio to get anything. Even then, I would more likely pick up some local station from western Colorado than one of the more cosmopolitan stations from Denver. Every once in a while, I do climb to the rim of the cirque. From there I should have wonderful reception, but on those rare beautiful days that I climb high, the last thing I would want to do is to fiddle with the dial. I'm satisfied to learn of the storms when they hit and to hear the news of the world when I descend to it. [Footnote 7]
I do receive a continuous stream of evidence that the outside world does still exist, namely, the planes overhead. Sometimes, if an unusual rush of Air Force jets roar by, I wonder if it's all over, but then some benign single-engine craft come buzzing around to inform me that the world continues to function. Except perhaps for the Antarctic, little of the world is clear of aviation noise. When I first arrived in Nepal, the village where I stayed was still free from overhead aircraft; the few times that a plane passed over during the first two years I was there, students and teachers alike rushed out of the classrooms to see the sight. Then a landing strip was built ten miles to the east; soon passing planes were greeted with indifference. Here I would gladly forego the Air Force hot rods, but a little extra buzzing of private planes does nothing more than remind me that it's a weekend.
But, will all that's down there move up after me? My brother disciple and poet, Swami Govindanand, once wrote me the following about
"... Also I was thinking (as I am wont to do at times) that
There'll be Cable Cars and All Night Bars and Trusts and aAlthough I enjoy Swami Govindanand's wit, I don't believe that
DharmanathFund and Beggars and Feasts and Corrupted Priests but there won't be Paramanand and There'll be 10,000 bells and Tourist Hotels and men selling Prasad. [Footnote 10] and photos of you and Dharmanathtoo but I bet there won't be GOD." [Footnote 11]
Outside the caves, I leave little sign of my presence. I've built rock walls to reduce the drafts inside my caves, but after building a wall, I toss rocks at it from above so it looks natural, as if it were the debris of a slide. I take care in my walking not to wear any paths. A few places, like the areas around my springs, are well-trampled by the end of a summer, but the grass grows back the following year. The only places which show signs of wear that don't vanish in a season are the spot where I do yoga exercises in the summer, and the tent site I use before moving into the cave for the winter. The tent site gets injured when I strike ground with the shovel. I would like to give it a rest, but I have no reasonable alternative. Once I stop coming here, I expect it to recuperate within a year or two. Although the vegetation at these two spots has taken a beating, the soil beneath hasn't begun to erode, so the vegetation will recover. I've seen the few other visitors do worse damage in a single day. Below the cirque is a steep, grassy slope that's studded with rocks, but with a little care you can go up and down without kicking many loose or slipping and sliding yourself. However, I've gone to this slope after others have been on it and have found it scarred by rolling rocks. The horses that people let loose on the meadows at tree line leave wounds on the ground that last for years. Of course, when I return here in the summer I find a mess of my own. No matter how careful I try to be, I always lose a number of burnt match sticks and plastic bag tie wires in the snow. After the thaw they litter the ground but I clean up as quickly as I can.
Man has come here many times before. The earliest sign of his presence is the two leg bones of a large, hoofed animal that lie in a cave in which snow lasts into the summer. The bones are from an animal that inhabits the forest below; the fact that the two bones are well-preserved and no others are present makes it unlikely that the animal strayed up and died. The absence of tooth marks together with the absence here of both prey this size and predators big enough to drag such prey makes it unlikely that an animal dragged the bones into this cave. Probably a hunter killed an animal in the forest and decided to store a leg here in the cool of the snow-filled cave, but never returned to pick up his meat. Unless I bring down a chip for isotope analysis, I have no way of knowing how old these bones are, and can only wonder whether the hunter was prospector or Indian.
Finally, let me warn against trying to seek
I spent the first night in the cave, but a dust of powder snow was already starting to filter in. The next day, I erected my tent on the same spot as the previous year. I did modify the tent before returning with it. The tent originally had two sets of poles, in front and in back. I put a third set of poles in the middle to help control its sagging and to strengthen it. The extra poles eliminated the need for pulling out the sides and made for fewer lines running from the tent on which to trip or snag my shovel.
The snow came fast and hard. On the fourth night I was already buried, but the additional poles lessened the need to get out in the dark and remove the snow. Because the preceding year I had only a folding shovel which wasn't a match for the job, I brought along a full-size shovel. For carving blocks of snow, I brought a machete; the first task I completed with it was constructing an igloo over the spring. Everything went smoothly; I was glad to have made the improvements in my equipment.
I even had two sunny days on the eleventh and the thirteenth of October; I took baths on both of them. Having a source of water so close by was convenient, but alas, when I went for water on the fifteenth, the spring was dry. My experience of the year before had taught me that during the early snows, building block structures is much better than digging tunnels. I worked making snow walls to enclose the mouth of the cave. Soon, I had it closed well enough to be habitable in an emergency.
Then the storm became severe. For two days, it blew so hard that I couldn't do much work outside. I would shovel the snow from the area around the tent, but it would quickly drift back in. On the positive side, the wind was also clearing the snow and keeping it from piling too high. On the seventeenth, in the hour before dark I went out and cleared the snow as best I could. Afterwards, I sat for a few hours in the tent. The snow was mounting high up along the tent walls but, with the wind blowing strong, there didn't seem to be anything to do but to get some sleep.
When I awoke the air was stuffy. My tent was completely buried. I glanced at my watch and, to my surprise, it was only 11 P.M.. It seemed that I would have to go out and shovel. After dressing myself, I opened the tent door. With my folding shovel I tried to poke a hole through to the open on the downhill side. Although previous experience had taught me that only a short poke in that direction was needed to reach air, I poked the length of the handle, about twenty inches, and failed to reach the outside. I tried poking straight up but didn't break through. The snow was soft; the next thing I did was to create a hollow by packing the snow in front of the tent. Fresh snow is highly porous, so making this space sufficed to freshen the air.
Up to this point, I hadn't left the tent, but was working through the door. Because I had made the hollow as large as I could without leaving the tent, I debated what to do next. It wouldn't have been difficult to crawl out into the hollow and burrow my way to the outside, but I had to consider what might meet me once I was out. The buildup of snow had been extremely rapid; even through the snow, I could hear the wind. I was uncertain whether I would be able to clear the tent; an ineffectual effort to do so would leave me with packed snow around the tent instead of light powder. My position inside wasn't bad. The poles were bending but were holding the weight. The air supply was adequate. I decided that the best thing to do was to go back to sleep.
The next time I awoke it was 3 A.M.. The tent was still buried, but the wind was louder. The air inside the tent was good, but my bladder was full. Usually, I relieve myself right outside my tent, but I knew that if in these circumstances, I were to do so, I would make the air unbearably foul. I decided that urine in the body would be less uncomfortable than urine in the atmosphere, and held it in. I sat for a while but never became concentrated. Then the wind sounded much louder. I opened my eyes and noticed that the wind had cleared the snow from a little patch of the tent, just beneath the peak on the downhill side. Two hours remained before dawn. I resumed sitting but later felt the tent pressing against my head. I checked the poles; one of them had started to buckle. A bit more of the tent was clear; the first light of dawn was filtering through.
It was time to get out. I pushed towards the downhill side and easily broke into the open. The snow was piled deep on the uphill side of the tent and was putting great stress on the structure. I started shoveling as best I could, but blowing snow made it hard to see. I removed the mass that was weighing down the tent but saw I wouldn't be able to clear an area around my tent down to its base. I worked until tired and got back in the tent. Snow quickly drifted in upon the uphill side. I was concerned about the buckled pole. If the tent were to collapse upon me with a load of snow on top of it, I could have a tough time extricating myself. It was time to shift my residence to the cave.
In mid-morning I went outside. Conditions were unchanged. Most of what I had cleared earlier was already drifted in with snow. I slogged my way up to the cave. A lot of snow had drifted in, but not enough to have constituted a danger, had I been staying there. I shoveled the snow outside and then stamped myself a tent platform.
One of the other new pieces of equipment that I had brought was a second tent for use inside the cave. My self-made tent is part of my lifeline; it's a crucial piece of equipment for leaving here in winter. I need to have some sort of tent set up inside the cave; previously, I had used tent I had made inside as well as outside. Since rodents do come by and take nibbles out of tents, I decided that I would have greater tolerance for them if they were nibbling at some tent other than the one I had worked hard to make, and which is essential to my survival. In town, I saw a roomy two-person tent, made in Taiwan, with fly and self-standing frame on sale for fifty dollars, less than I would have to pay for the fabric alone. It had several glaring design defects and was by no means storm-worthy. Anyhow I bought it, reinforced its weakest points and had myself a tent good enough for use inside the cave and more spacious than my compact, low-profile, extra-sturdy mountain tent. I erected it inside the cave and transferred my gear from one tent to the other.
Conditions were still miserable; carrying my gear from the tent to the cave was a struggle. I considered whether I should try to extricate the tent outside, and decided that my time would better be spent closing the leaks at the mouth of the cave. In such weather digging down and recovering all the stakes would have taken several hours; I mightn't have been able to complete the task. I abandoned the tent, but with one pole buckled, I felt certain that it would collapse. I wasn't concerned about the loss of this one front pole since the poles were sectional. I could always move sections from the less essential middle poles to the front pole, and have a tent storm-worthy enough to use on the way out. That afternoon, I worked on the cave. The snow walls were almost finished, but I hadn't begun work on the entrance tunnel. I improved it as best I could, then closed myself in with snow blocks.
The storm continued into the next day. I could stay out for only a few minutes at a time. I paid my poor tent a visit and expected to see it collapsed under the snow. Instead, I found it standing just as the previous day. The following day, conditions were better; I went to extricate it. I began by clearing the area in front and saw why it hadn't gone down. When one front pole had buckled, the other had pivoted. This tensed the line securing the fly at that corner, which in turn compressed the pole and formed a strong engineers' structure. Again I was thankful for having made the tent extra-strong and for having put ties and lines at all key places. One by one, I uncovered the stakes and dug the tent out without damaging it and without losing any of the well-frozen stakes.
September, 1985 was an unusual month. I began packing up loads just after Labor Day; the weather permitted me to carry without a break. Since the rose hips I had ordered arrived late, I made an extra trip up while waiting for them. At the end of September, I made my annual pilgrimage to the Temple of
On October 2,I started up for the winter in the late afternoon. Ice prevented the car I was in from reaching the end of the unpaved road. I walked until dusk and camped halfway up the first upgrade on a meadow cleared of snow by the wind. Since I had made that extra carry in September, I was traveling light; the snow made me glad of it. The next day I walked further, but several times I wore my snowshoes. Since the snow was no more than a foot and a half deep, I could have managed without them, but it was easier to wear the snowshoes and stay high than to probe the uneven ground with my boots. The afternoon was windy. I camped at the last trees and didn't arrive here until the morning of October 4.
The cave had already filled with snow which buried the food and equipment stored within. I began digging with my ice axe and soon reached the machete which had been left atop one of the food canisters with its handle projecting. With it I began cutting blocks of snow. Progress was rapid. As I cut, I stacked the blocks around the mouth of the cave to enclose it. I worked towards my shovel which was standing further back in the cave. Once I reached the shovel, I turned my attention to the tent site which was covered by several feet of snow. Since it's more pleasant to be camped on earth than on snow, I took my time clearing the site down to the ground. Then I resumed work at the cave.
The following two days were clear but windy. I cut blocks of snow inside the cave and built a substantial wall around its mouth. The previous years had taught me how important it is to get this done quickly. I didn't try to uncover the spring beside the cave. It was under eight feet of snow and would have required much work to reach. Besides, in the previous years, it had dried by mid-October. Instead, I immediately began using my second water source, the puddle down from the cave, and found it with a six-inch cover of ice, but blown clear of snow. I slept in the tent without using its fly. Without the fly the tent is quieter in the wind and I was able to enjoy a better view of the starry skies.
On October 6, I retired under a clear sky. When I went out before dawn to relieve myself, it was snowing lightly. I sat inside until daylight. Then I noticed that snow was building up around the edges of my tent and was sticking to the unprotected fabric and wetting it. I went out, draped the fly over the tent and secured it with its snap hooks but didn't bother to stake it out and pull it tight. After I returned inside the tent, the wind picked up. Within a few hours snow was halfway up the sides of the tent. I went out; the temperature was just below freezing and the wind was stronger. It was impossible to stay out without getting wet; snow packed onto my glasses and made it difficult to see. I did a perfunctory clearing of the snow, secured the fly a little better and got back inside as soon as I could. In the afternoon, I tried the outside once more. The rear of the tent was already buried. I uncovered it, but couldn't keep up with the driving snow. I went to sleep with everything damp from all the moisture I had brought in and with the tent sagging because of the sloppy way that I had rigged the fly. Fortunately, the storm let up by midnight; the next morning, I cleared the snow down to the ground and secured the fly properly.
I resumed working on the cave. Before the snow settles, it's impossible to seal the cave tightly. A wall reaching a ceiling eight feet high on one day will be six inches short of the ceiling on the next. The walls I had built didn't completely keep snow from drifting into the cave, but they did keep the cave from getting packed. The walls also served to catch blowing snow; on the outside, the snow was six to eight feet deep, and of excellent consistency for cutting blocks. I built thick walls extending above the lip of the cave and constructed the first section of entrance tunnel. On the ninth, it snowed moderately but didn't interrupt the work. On the tenth, it was clear and warm. I took time off to strip and to dump a few gallons of water over my head.
On the eleventh, it started snowing at dawn. During the morning, the wind picked up. I went out and started to shovel the snow accumulating by the tent but conditions were so bad that I soon went up to the cave and worked at sealing it from the inside. The cave was already secure enough so I could enjoy watching the snow blow by on the outside, but the gusts were becoming ferocious. After an hour, I decided that I had better take a look at the tent. Reaching it was struggle; I found it buried except for the tip. Snow was drifting so fast that there was nothing I could do to uncover the tent. All I could accomplish was to clear enough space in front to get inside. I thought of moving up to the cave, but put off the decision until after lunch.
Before I was through eating, the space I had shoveled in front of the tent was full of drifting snow. The situation at the tent wasn't critical, but if the storm worsened, it could be dangerous. In the cave I would be secure; I chose to move. I put everything in the tent into my pack and opened the door, only to be confronted with a wall of snow. Instead of carefully clearing an exit route, I bulldozed my way through the snow and dragged the pack behind me, for the pile of snow that tumbled into the tent no longer mattered. The visibility was nil, but I knew exactly where to go. I set up my second tent inside the cave, and didn't attempt to dig out my good tent. In the late afternoon, the storm let up; I took a look at my tent outside. About six inches of the tip were showing. I wouldn't have been in difficulty had I remained in it, yet it was certainly more comfortable in the cave. By the next day, the wind had cleared enough snow so that two feet of the tent were visible. I dug it out, pulled the stakes and dragged it up to the cave. Two days later it was hanging up and drying in the sun. During the clear spell that followed, I thought about setting up outside once more, but the suddenness with which storms strike convinced me to forsake the beauty of the starry skies for the safety of the cave.
In 1986, at the beginning of September, I carried my loads between light snows but heavier storms at the end of the month left a blanket of snow which didn't melt and slowed me down on my final trip up. I left the road on October 8 but had to use snowshoes part of the way in, which delayed my arrival until the morning of October 9.
After the full moon on October 18, the weather changed. First came two days of cloud with light dustings of snow. On the morning of the twenty-first, the clouds thickened and occasional claps of thunder broke the silence. Then light flakes began to flutter through the air. Since I was expecting heavy snow at any time, I tightened the fortifications around the cave and made it ready for occupation. By evening only six inches of snow had fallen. Although it felt as if heavy snow were imminent, I wasn't afraid of a single night's deposit and opted to remain outside.
During the night, the snow intensified. When I awoke at 2 A.M., the tent was buried except for its tip. The full moon was not far past; the wind was moderate; I went out to shovel. What I beheld by the moonlight astounded me. A wave of snow was bearing down upon the tent. The rear of the tent was already under six feet of snow and a higher crest was following ten feet behind. First I relieved the tent of the weight upon it. Then I dug at the advancing colossus of snow. With the temperature in the upper twenties and the wind moderate, working outside was enjoyable. In time, the wave looked less foreboding; the work was hard and I was tiring. At 5, I went back in and took a nap.
At daybreak, I went out once more. The tent again was buried to its tip. The crest of snow was towering over the rear of the tent. After easing its burden, I plodded up to the cave. There too, weird undulations of snow confronted me. I spent a half hour uncovering the entrance. Once inside, I levelled the floor and erected the second tent. When I emerged, the snowfall had lightened. Despite the mild conditions, rather than spend the day cutting back the eight-foot walls of snow about the tent, I moved my gear from it to the cave. I had had my night of shoveling snow; the moon was waning and the early morning hours are for meditation. To reach the stakes on the uphill side of the tent, I dug little burrows into the vertical wall of snow and quickly recovered my tent in milder conditions than in any of the preceding years.
The seasons of heavy early snows do create problems, but I seem able to rise to meet them. What could really do me in is a year without snow in October. If I were forced to withstand a harsh, mid-November storm outside in my tent, with strong winds and temperatures in the teens instead of the twenties, I could be pinned down in my tent, unable to work outside, and could be in trouble.
In 1987 I thought I might be heading for such a year. After a dry summer which continued into September and made carrying in the first loads easy, a mid-September snow made bringing up the last two loads rough. Once they were in, dry weather resumed. Soon the mountains were bare again. Without snow, getting myself in quickly wasn't urgent; when I did arrive on October 12, the ground was parched and the permanent snow fields were shriveled to a point that I had never seen before. Both the springs and all the water courses were dry. The first evening I spotted some icicles and melted them on my stove for drinking.
Then a fog moved in which gave two days of drizzle and light snow but no significant accumulations. On October 15, a wind-driven snow, which left most of the ground bare, dumped a mound of snow in my cave and left a two-foot drift leading down from it. The following days were windy and dry. The snow pile inside the cave was only enough to start my fortifications; by the second day, it was gone. I started carving blocks from the drift below. Soon I was carting blocks uphill for fifty feet while gusts of wind would blow loose snow from the fresh-cut blocks into my face. At one place, the wall needs to be ten feet high. In previous years, there had always been enough snow covering the ground so I could reach that high but this time I had to climb my wall to place the upper blocks. Although I worked harder than in any of the previous years, all I managed to build was an emergency wall around the entrance which, after a few days of settling, hardly reached the roof. On October 25 came a repeat of the October 15 storm which left the same snow drift below the cave; the first walls kept snow from piling up inside it. With this second snow, I tightened the walls and built an entrance passage with a little toilet alcove to one side. The wind stopped and the temperature rose; I finally was able to collect enough melt water for a few baths and for washing my clothes.
On November 1, the skies grew overcast; before the next dawn, a heavy snow began. By 9 A.M., the rear of the tent was almost under. The cave was already habitable; I had been buried too often; before taking a look outside, I packed everything inside the tent. Outside it wasn't bad at all. The four-foot crest of snow that was moving toward my tent wouldn't have been hard to handle. But I knew what could come and moved up to the cave. November 3 was windy enough so I couldn't work outside. Had I been out in the tent I wouldn't have been buried, but I would have been confined all day. I felt thankful for the two brief October storms which left their lowly drifts and was glad that I labored to build a shelter out of their meager deposits.
1. Swami Vishnudevanand Saraswati,
3. W. Y. Evans-Wentz,
4. Ram Dass,
7. Two summers after my final winter at
9. Formerly, it took a long trek through the mountains to reach them. The recently constructed roads have brought bus loads of visitors and have changed the atmosphere. [Return]
10. Consecrated food. [Return]
11. Letter of May 15, 1983. [Return]
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