A team effort delivers blessings to a dangerous high mountain spot
by Gussie Fauntleroy
On a chilly, windy day in mid-September, four hikers heading up the trail toward Willow Lake in the mountains above Crestone met at least two-dozen people coming down. The lovely Indian summer had evaporated, and by the time the four were halfway to the lake they were hiking through rain, sleet, hail and snow. When those they met descending the trail learned that two of the uphill-headed party were aiming for Challenger Point (14,081’), they shook their heads as if to say, “You guys are crazy.”
But the dates for this particular climb had been chosen well ahead of time, and were believed to be auspicious for the expedition’s goal: to appease the mountain spirits and help bless and protect future climbers. As it turned out, those propitious signs had been right—but not before the climbers experienced a couple of potentially serious close calls.
A dangerous spot
The reason behind the Sept. 19, 2011 climb was an observation and related request that took place several years earlier. In December 2007, Adzom Rinpoche, spiritual leader of the White Jewel Mountain Tibetan Buddhist community in Crestone, was touring the center’s foothills land accompanied by a group of students. Rinpoche was using his Tibetan feng shui training to ascertain the best sites on the land for future buildings. At one point he stopped for a few moments and gazed up toward the high peaks to the east. Pointing to the saddle that forms a deep V between flat-topped Challenger and Kit Carson Peak to its south, he leaned toward his interpreter, Eric Drew (nephew of Hanne Strong) and spoke.
That spot, Adzom Rinpoche said, collects negative energy and thus is dangerous and should be pacified. In Tibetan Buddhist understanding this means the spot is likely inhabited by “jealous” mountain gods whose angry territorial inclinations can cause confusion and deadly misfortune among those who pass through their area. Another way of seeing it is that the feng shui, or topographic configuration of landforms at that spot, were such that they were likely to result in the gathering of negative energy, he explained. What the Tibetan teacher didn’t know—but his students that day told him—was that the exact spot to which he was pointing has been the site of numerous climbing deaths over the years.
Almost every year, climbers attempting to make two 14-ers in one day come off Kit Carson Peak (14,165’) and then instead of descending the way they came up, see the area in question as a good shortcut, explains Jack Siddall, a longtime Tibetan Buddhist practitioner, Crestone area resident and leader of the team of hikers heading up the mountain on that mid-September day. But what appears to be an easy downhill slope quickly becomes an extremely steep grade, known as Kirk Couloir. Covered with scree (small loose rocks) and often sheathed in ice, the 1,500-foot, 45-degree slope requires snow and ice gear to be safely descended. Cold, tired and oxygen-deprived in the thin air, even experienced climbers have continued down the dangerous route without appropriate gear, slipped, and fallen to their deaths. As a member of the Saguache County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue team, Siddall has taken part in several body recoveries there.
Adzom Rinpoche’s instruction that December day was for someone to climb to the saddle, which he called the “fang of negative energy,” soothe the mountain spirits and neutralize the negative energy that has gathered there. This would be done by placing tsa tsas, or small, consecrated, stupa-shaped objects, around the site. Specifically they would be Vajrasattva tsa tsas, in honor of an enlightened being known for his aspiration to help other beings by means of purification and peace.
Leanna Bradbury, a student of Adzom Rinpoche who serves as land manager for White Jewel Mountain, responded to the request by creating about 25 of the tiny plaster-of-paris tsa tsas. Each miniature stupa is produced one at a time. During the process, the maker repeats a mantra and inserts a tiny scroll inside each tsa tsa. Each scroll, containing a sacred mantra, is wrapped around an incense stick and consecrated with saffron water, consecrated material and prayer before being placed inside. The tsa tsas also were consecrated by another spiritual leader, Thrangu Rinpoche, since Adzom Rinpoche was out of the country. Then they were kept for a time on the White Jewel Mountain shrine to receive more prayer. “It’s the aspirations and energy that practitioners put into the tsa tsa that makes it effective,” Leanna explains.
In planning the expedition dates, Jack Siddall turned to a Tibetan calendar indicating good and not-so-good days for sending prayer offerings to beings, called Nagas, which inhabit and guard certain areas of the earth, the waters and the sky. It is a rare occurrence to have two “positive Naga days” in a row, he explains, but this auspicious lineup was scheduled for mid-September, 2011.
Leanna sent out emails to the White Jewel Mountain community and Adzom Rinpoche’s students around the world, inviting them to participate through prayer or to take part in the climb. While a number of people, including local resident Peter May, wanted to climb, conflicting schedules and commitments whittled down the team to four: Jack Siddall and Jason Short would attempt the summit and delivery of the tsa tsas. Jason’s mother, Diane Wilson, and Jennifer Connolly, both Crestone area residents and longtime Tibetan Buddhist practitioners, would hike with Jack and Jason to Willow Lake. They would all camp above the lake and do pujas, prayerful ceremonial offerings to the mountain spirits. Then on the day of the summit the two women would remain at the lake, supporting the climbers through more pujas. “We did fire offerings, chanting, praises to clear away the obstacles, and clearly there needed to be some clearing away,” Diane relates.
In a pleasant surprise to the team, on summit day the weather was clear. “It was just a bluebird day,” Jack recalls. The slick mud from several days of moisture had dried, the ice had melted and the remaining snow was easier to walk through. And the earlier wintry weather had almost emptied the mountain of climbers. Jack and Jason were passed by one lone climber on the way up and saw no one else during the climb. It was a little windy, Jack remembers, but when the pair topped the summit ridge on Challenger, the wind stopped. They stood in the clear, still air with hundred-mile views and no one else around.
After placing some prayer flags on the summit of Challenger, Jack and Jason descended into the saddle. They found little natural grottos and niches in the rocks to place the tsa tsas so they would be out of the weather as much as possible and could quietly offer their blessings without being a visual distraction to other climbers. Jack walked on a little farther and when he returned, Jason had a problem. He had dropped his camera. It was only a few feet away, but those few feet were down a precipitous cliff face. One false move in trying to retrieve it would send him a thousand feet straight down. An experienced mountaineer, Jack carefully made his way toward it using small handholds and footholds. He retrieved the camera but wondered later whether it had been a wise move just for a camera.
A second tense moment took place a little later as Jack and Jason were descending the mountain. The two were sitting on rocks having a snack when the lone climber who had passed them earlier crossed the ridge above them. His feet dislodged some small rocks and Jason looked up to see a miniature rockslide heading straight toward him. He jumped to safety but rocks hit and broke one of his trekking poles and smashed the screen of the camera in his hip pocket, although fortunately the photos were not lost. As Jack puts it, laughing, “Those bad boys on top (angry mountain spirits) did not want those pictures to be part of posterity!”
But they are, and the two climbers were successful in their mission and made it safely back down. It had been a 14-hour, 12-mile day and was especially difficult for Jason, who had begun the expedition with a weak knee rehabilitating from an earlier injury. “We hiked out mostly in the dark,” Jack recounts. “Diane’s husband met us at the trailhead with beer and we were all very happy, exhausted and amazed that it was such a successful event.”
Reflecting on Adzom Rinpoche’s request to soothe the mountain spirits in that particular spot, Jack notes that in Tibetan Buddhist understanding these kinds of beings are very long-lived and have a strong memory of centuries of careless human activity on the land. “Humans, other than indigenous peoples, never think to ask permission of local spirits,” he says. “All layers of beings have to live in harmony, and we can start by acknowledging them.”