Exhaustion met elation as my feet finally groped the flat at the top of Dolma La. Iona slithered off my back, her oxygen canister clamped tightly in her fist, and we both immediately collapsed supine on the barren earth. Though we floundered like fish on the sand in the thin air - it was, after all, 18,600 feet high - we could not prevent gargantuan, unstoppable grins spreading across our faces. This was Tibet, big country. Mountain ranges - the Himalaya to the south and west, Trans-Himalaya to the north and east - tickled every distant sky-line. But for the last five hours as I slowly carried Iona up the pass of Dolma, goddess of mercy (boy, did we need her) I had looked no further than the thin grim path beneath us. Now I blinked up through the prayer-flags which snapped loudly in the limpid blue sky, and thanked the spirit of the mountain for watching over the many tiny steps which had brought us this far.
The mountain was Kailash, the perpetually snow-capped mountain which protrudes, canine-like, from its mountain range in the far west of Tibet. The Tibetan name is Kang Rimpoche - jewel of the snows. The southern face is scored with a swastika - auspicious in the east and perfectly innocuous over here before Hitler hijacked it. Two lakes, shaped like the moon and the sun, lie at its foot. It is the watershed for four major rivers of Asia - the Brahmaputra, Karnali (a tributary of the Ganges), Sutlej and Indus. Geographically distinctive and religiously indiscriminate, it is equally sacred to Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Bon - Tibet’s pre-Buddhist shamanism. Hermits of all persuasions used to inhabit the caves surrounding both mountain and lakes, but in the fifties the Chinese Liberation Army flushed them out and into the work units of Communism. Now the pilgrims are just as likely to be westerners following some inner voice.
I had been dreading this day from the moment when, back in suburban England, I had first planned the trip. To take a six year-old to the far west of Tibet and then proceed to make her walk for four days around an isolated, snow-capped mountain may seem like pure folly, but to me it was the most natural thing in the world.
For a start, I had been to Kailash before. Twelve years ago I had walked there, illegally and alone. I had nearly drowned crossing the unbridged rivers, and on arrival at the mountain was arrested, but I had earned the experience of a lifetime. Subsequent marriage and the advent of three children had put me and my walking shoes on set-aside for a few years, but the only thing that got me through the toddler groups was the thought that one day I would return to Kailash - with my children.
Child, actually. In the event, I decided that the hardships of Kailash were a little too much to demand of a four or two year-old. Iona, at six, was a perfect travelling companion. As Dervla Murphy says in her introduction to Where the Indus is Young: ‘To me it seems that the five-to-seven-year-old stage is ideal for travelling rough with small children. Under-fives are not physically mature enough for exposure to the unavoidable health hazards, while over-sevens tend to me much less philosophical in their reactions to the inconveniences and strange customs of far-flungery.’
Very true. Iona had demonstrated sophisticated insouciance regarding everything from the toilets (very stinky pits) to the people. She drank chang (weak barley wine) with the Tibetans, and when they called her a big-nose, she called them squash-noses, and pursued them with balloons full of water. It endeared her to the Tibetans no end.
Nonetheless, as a mother I had worried about the altitude from the start. We actually went up into Tibet overland, brutally ascending and descending in one day four of the highest mountain passes in the world. Everest was on the horizon but Iona, a keen snapper, just lay on the back seat of the Landcruiser feebly requesting that I took a photograph for her to look at later. It was the worst day of my life.
I had spoken to the world’s leading authority on altitude sickness, Boudha Basnet, in Kathmandu, before departure. He was blunt: ‘Of course you realise that the worst-case scenario of altitude sickness is death.’ Yes, I know.
I am used to predictions of disaster. When I first decided to take Iona to India as a baby, neighbours were horrified: ‘What if she gets sick? What about injections?’. ‘Babies always get sick,’ I breezily replied, ‘I’d be worried if she didn’t’. The health visitor was more pragmatic, observing that babies ‘travel much better than a lot of adults’. Breast-feeding was Iona’s ready supply of sterile nourishment to go, and she didn’t need injections - immunity came through my milk. Indeed she got sick - for ten days in Ladakh my self-confidence deserted me. She revived, and we spent another three weeks walking gaily up and down arid mountainsides, visiting monasteries, making friends without words. Three months later we joined my husband in Hong Kong, where concrete paths flow over wild mountains of surprising beauty - perfect for pushchair-walking. We moved on, to China and Tibet. Iona’s younger sister by this time was gestating in my womb, but I continued prancing across the grasslands and up side-valleys with Iona on my back, emitting her universal declaration of friendship: an unconditional smile.
Iona’s hair had grown since then, but her smile was the same, and with it she crossed many frontiers. She once disappeared in the Jokhang temple in Lhasa. I discovered her in the throes of being lifted up by two monks, to flash her camera directly in the face of the Jowo, most sacred statue of Tibet. Iona’s walking boots grappled for a hold on the altar before him - sacrilege! The monks beamed, and she took a lovely photo.
Altitude sickness causes the kidneys to work overtime. Dr Basnet recommended Diamox - a sulpha drug which is a diuretic - and plenty of water. Otherwise you end up with water on the lungs. ‘But to tell you the truth,’ he said, ‘I do not have much information about children at altitude. Perhaps you could call me when you return and let me know how you got on?’
The same happened when I asked Dr. Nancy Harris, who has a children’s nutrition project based in Lhasa, about the effect of altitude on children. She replied: ‘Well, actually I was going to ask you!’
Altitude sickness can affect anyone, young or old, and fitness is no measure of liability. I was warned by one trekking agent not to let Iona run around: ‘Children can exhaust themselves without realising it.’ Well there was no chance of that. How can I tell these doctors that actually I consult my intuition? Intuition dictated that it wasn’t going to be easy, but that she would rapidly revive, that the benefits would outweigh the discomforts. In fact, it was no more than common sense. But what feasibility study would sustain it for evidence? Dr. Dan Rainbow, who recently visited Kailash, and who is planning to take his sixteen-month old daughter to Tibet next year, says: ‘When I think about travelling with a child I don’t actually have my doctor’s cap on’. Nonetheless it is as well to be aware of the dangers, and nobody would recommend blind optimism.
Iona did in fact acclimatise rapidly once we were down to a reasonable altitude, and very soon was throwing snowballs with vigour. But by the time we reached Kailash, a couple of weeks later, we had ascended a few more thousand feet.
The mountain is protected by a close body-guard of smaller peaks, and it is traditional to walk around the cluster in a thirty five mile circuit known as kora. I had hoped to hire a horse, but the snow on Dolma La was prohibitive. Instead I did something new: hired a porter to carry our bag, so I would be free to carry Iona. It was the best plan.
For the first couple of days, Iona bowled along, merry as an escaped pancake. When I pointed out the great rock formation which Hindus believe represents Shiva’s vehicle, Nandi the bull, she could see it at once. Geomancy was no fancy but a fact carved in stone; as Walter de la Mare once said: ‘Between a child’s imagination and reality there looms no impassible abyss.’ Children appreciate the connection our forefathers made between landscape and legend, and you don’t have to travel to Tibet to discover that. Every year we go camping at Malham Cove, and I read the children The Waterbabies. They are convinced they see waterbabies in the tarn, can describe them to me down to their multi-coloured hair. For this reason, kids make great walking companions. Her horizons unravelled at a natural pace. When it was cold in the morning, we did prostrations to the mountain; when it was hot, we sat and watched a hundred wild antelope grazing impossibly on the near-vertical grassless scree slopes of the mountain, while our porter opened up his throat and sang.
By the evening of the second day we had ascended imperceptibly to another level. We stayed, the guests of the lama, at the monastery of the female yak horn cave. From the window of our hot little room we looked out at the icy northern face of Kailash: striated ice and granite, its skull-like visage stared hard back at us, fearfully inspiring. Iona whimpered, hating everything: the smell of the yak butter, the sweets the lama gave her ... And I hated myself. Of course, we could not go up Dolma La the next day. We’d have to return the way we had come. My dream of walking round Kailash once more evaporated in the face of my daughter’s distress.
It was then I dug out the oxygen. Soon Iona had revived enough to eat a bowl of noodles with dried tofu, which fuelled her for a balloon-fight with the lama. In fact, she was most put out that the lama asked for five balloons. ‘We’ve only got five balloons left, Mummy!’ she protested.
That’s the way it is with lamas - they test you. ‘If he asks for five balloons, we give him five balloons,’ I explained.
‘Not fair!’ she protested, but gave them to him anyway. They engaged in battle; the lama smacked Iona’s bum; she smacked his back again. Tit for tat: as you sow, so shall ye reap.
So it was with the mountain. Lama Govinda, in his book The Way of the White Clouds, attributes to Mount Kailash a personality. Once I was willing to give up Dolma La, the way was clear. The following morning, rather than returning west, we warmed up with prostrations and set off east, towards Dolma La. Soon Iona was on my back, sipping happily on her oxygen every couple of minutes. The thin air poured evenly in and out of my lungs, and every twenty yards I stopped for a breather. In some places the snow was too deep and the path too steep for safety, and Iona had to use her own little legs; uncomplaining and quietly confident, she scrambled up the piebald snow, back onto my back when the way cleared. Glaciers adorned the snowy shoulders of mountainous neighbours, mountain-tops lapped indifferently at the clear blue. And slow though we were, neither of us ever had any doubt that we would reach the top.
And here we were, just two souls crystallised in sunshot air so thin it was half-way to ether, caught in a celestial transit lounge between the expected and the unexpected. We hung up our prayer-flags, threw wind-horses - squares of coloured paper upon which prayers are written, offered to the winds - and began the descent. Past boulders ten times the size of her Iona scampered, and down a frozen river we skidded on our bottoms, down down down for hours upon end until, after two more days, we returned to the point of departure.
Versions of this piece have appeared in Trail magazine - June 2001 - and Frontiers (Haynes Publishing and E-map Active Ltd., 2004) - a book compiled of articles from Trail magazine