Jennifer Keogh Armstrong
by Jennifer Keogh Armstrong
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First Edition Print V1.0 2012
ust outside of Namche Bazaar, Nepal
Sunita was breathing hard.
Not good. The air up here made one light-headed. Nepal had eight of the world's ten tallest mountain peaks, but right now, Sunita's thoughts were a lot higher.
“Oh Jesus!” she cried, as she kept moving along the narrow path. “Save me! Save me!”
Near breathless, she repeated it in her heart rather than out loud.
If the Maoist Army caught up with her, she could be executed for being an American spy. She should know. She used to be a Lance Corporal in the army. As for being an American spy, her only crime was to have been caught with a Rosary that one of her fellow officers had given her.
The Rosary, with its prayers and meditations, told the story of a man who had lived and then died . . . and then lived again. She had prayed through it several times. The little Rosary had now been lost in flight. Which was a shame because she didn’t know where to get another one.
At least there was one person she knew who could tell her more.
But her immediate objective was to survive.
“Hail Mary, full of grace!” she began the now familiar prayer. The Lord is with thee! Blessed are thou among women and blessed is the fruit of they womb Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen. Hail Mary, full of grace…”
“With awesome deeds you answer us with righteousness, God our salvation, the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.” Chris surveyed his congregation. They knew this scripture by heart. It was his signature scripture. “Who by his power formed the mountains and being armed with strength . . .”
There, now they could all relax. His sermon had included a reference to mountains. He continued reading Psalm 65, but even his own mind was wandering.
As a self-centred, outspoken 25-year-old, he had climbed Mount Everest.
Unfortunately, he wasn't the first person to do so, and even though the achievement was commendable compared to what most people did in their lifetimes, he wasn't exactly overwhelmed with offers from cereal companies to feature his face on their boxes of wheatie squares.
But a local church had approached him.
Would he be interested in sharing his experience with their youth group? No scripture references necessary. The youth pastor would have a few things to say about God and mountains and then Chris could go ahead and speak about Everest.
For lack of anything better to do, he had accepted.
That had been ten years ago. Since then, he had worked his way up from becoming a part-time assistant youth pastor, to a full-time assistant youth pastor, to a full-time youth pastor, and now, to a full-time assistant pastor.
And it was only a matter of time before he was the pastor.
Everyone thought of it as Chris's church. He always made sure to include a scriptural reference to mountains, an admonition to scale seemingly impossible problems with perseverance, and a few anecdotes about his own climb (granted, he often had to adjust them slightly to suit the message). In fact, out on the signboard of the community church was a mountain peak beside its name. That had been added when he had built up the youth program from an apathetic twenty teenagers to an enthusiastic two hundred, or so.
But it had become increasingly challenging to handle the youth group. They were easily inspired. They wanted to climb mountains. The greatest difficulty for Chris was to take it from the abstract to the concrete. Climb what mountain? He had never come up with a good answer. He had found it easier to talk to the adults. The adults, he found, didn't want to climb any mountains. Metaphorically, they seemed more inclined to seek out a bypass, to find the path of least exertion.
“The kids want to do a mission trip,” said Danny, coming into Chris’s office and sitting down. “All the big churches do it and we've got the youth for it.”
Chris nodded, only half-listening. He was scrolling through his emails.
Danny, the pastor, was an energetic man in his mid-fifties. He made no secret of the fact that his heart was with missions. In fact, that was why Chris was so sure that he would be the pastor in short time. Danny would probably turn into a full-time missionary in the near future. Chris wouldn't be surprised if he was just using the kids as an excuse for a trip to Bolivia, or some other mission field that he could lead them to.
“We're thinking of Nepal,” said Danny.
“Nepal?” Now Danny had Chris's attention. “It's not exactly friendly to the gospel.”
“That's why the kids want to do it,” said Danny. “A group of them approached me and said they think it's what God wants them to do.”
In his head, Chris disagreed. They had heard him speak more than once about his experience climbing Everest. Everest was in Nepal. It wasn't God. It was just a natural outcome of being part of a church that made a mountain its logo.
“Well,” said Chris, his eyes straying back to his computer screen; despite that most of the emails were spam. “All the best to them. I take it Randy will lead them.”
Randy was the youth pastor, an enthusiastic man in his late twenties, recently married.
Danny shook his head.
“Susan just found out she's pregnant.” Susan was Randy's new wife. “He won't be going anywhere for a while. Besides, the kids want you to lead it.” Chris’s eyes widened. Danny grinned. “I think some of them are hoping you'll lead them on a little side trip up Everest.”
“That would be easier than a mission trip,” said Chris. “I don't know much about the place. I mean, I spent more time in base camp than I did in Kathmandu, but I remember a lot of temples and prayer wheels and things. And guys going around in colourful robes and there were these poles people put up with scarves on them. One of the guides told me they were prayers and the wind blew the requests up to heaven. Or something like that. To be honest, I didn't really pay attention.”
“I've been doing a little reading on the topic, ever since the kids came to me,” said Danny. “From what I understand, the real difficulty is the Maoist army that runs the country. They came to power in 2008 and promised to establish a democratic republic. The country is predominantly Hindu, but the prayer wheels that you saw would have been part of the faith of the country's Buddhist minority, about 10%, as I recall. In any case, the Christians there face opposition from all sides.”
“Sounds fun,” said Chris grimly. “You avoid all that if you just go to climb the mountains.”
“I haven't told the kids this, but evangelism there is seriously frowned on. If the indigenous people do it, they could be fined or imprisoned. If foreigners do it, it's less severe, eviction from the country. But I think if some of the parents go online and start looking into it, they'll never let their kids out of the country.”
Chris was relieved.
This mission trip wouldn't get off the ground.
The kids' heads were swivelling.
Chris didn't blame them. It was a colourful, crowded street. They were in the marketplace where grocery stores consisted of hole-in-the-wall establishments that had shelves crowded with canned goods while large sacks with about twenty different kinds of beans and innumerable spices sat on the sidewalk outside. Produce both familiar and exotic was arranged in low baskets.
Some stalls featured clothing – both Western and Eastern, but notably more intensely hued than what one usually saw in the American shopping malls.
Electrical wires just stretched from poles to buildings, criss-crossing in no particular arrangement.
A deteriorating but busy cinema featured posters of Bollywood's finest productions.
Rickshaws, bicycles, mopeds and motorcycles mixed with small, dilapidated vehicles in the crowded streets.
The crowds were intense. Chris almost wanted to order his group to join hands, but he settled for shouting, “Stick together!”
One million people were packed into Nepal's capital city. They were already 1,400 metres above sea level, but he gathered from the conversations he overheard on the plane ride over that some of the teenagers wanted to go higher.
But the main purpose of this trip was to tell the Nepali people about Jesus.
Thankfully it wasn't essential that visitors learn Nepali to get by in this cosmopolitan city. English was understood. But Danny had insisted that all the kids learn some common Nepali phrases to demonstrate goodwill toward the people they wanted to witness to.
Chris was still unsure about the whole thing.
Danny should be here, he thought. Chris had no experience in this department. If he were honest, he'd have to admit that he didn't even want to be on a mission trip.
Still, he was and he was expected to do something. He had about thirty kids to lead, probably all the ones whose parents didn't have internet access to actually do some research on the current situation in Nepal.
And there was comfort in knowing that Danny would be praying for effective evangelism, as well as for their safe return.
“OK,” Chris said, as they paused in front of an ornate temple-looking building. Time to play the responsible adult and do a bit of guiding. “As you may know, the majority of people here are Hindu, with the minority being Buddhist.” He lowered his voice. “Less than 1% are Christian.”
“Praise God!” one of the youths called out. “More opportunities to win people to Christ!”
Many around him agreed.
They didn't feel the need to lower their voices. Chris sighed.
“But we have to be careful about the way we go about it.” He hadn't wanted to go into this back at the church. But now since he was the only adult here, he would have his say. “Let's go at it from the angle of friendship-evangelism. We're just here as tourists. If the topic of Jesus, comes up, great. If not, don't feel bad. This is a tough mission field.”
Some of the kids were looking at him with disapproval.
Quickly, he clarified. “It's a strategy Paul advocated,” he said. “When with the Jews, be like a Jew. When with the Greeks, be like a Greek.”
OK, they seemed with him on that. But he could tell some of them were just itching to start shaking hands with passers-by and to tell them about the life-changing experience they would have by making Jesus their saviour.
Before they did, he waved them along to follow him.
Chris had done some online research of his own. And read that a while back, a missionary in Nepal had been beaten to a pulp by six men who were angry that he had blasphemed against traditional gods. It was one thing to know that official government policy was to evict anyone who proselytized in the streets of Nepal and another thing to find out that private citizens also liked to take matters into their own hands.
More recently, Christians in Nepal had joined together in an organized march to protest that they weren't permitted a place to bury their dead. Although the government had reluctantly granted them a plot of land in nearby Shleshmantak Forest, since it was beside a Hindu temple, the locals hadn't permitted them to actually use the land. As if life isn't hard enough, thought Chris.
He wondered what the kids would say if he suggested they fulfill their missionary objectives by sipping bottled sodas in one of the many open-air eateries.
He would have been more comfortable if they had only been spending a day in Kathmandu before taking another flight to Lukla. That's what he had done ten years ago. From there he had trekked with his party to Namche Bazaar, their gear on yaks. Namche Bazaar was the Sherpa village where you got your guides to Everest. From there it was relatively easy to make it to Everest base camp.
Before he had even gotten on the plane, a plan had been forming in his mind. Maybe the mission trip could be morphed into a mountain trip. They could hike up to Everest base camp once the kids ran out of steam when their initial missionary efforts proved fruitless at best or attracted hostility at worst.
It was a route that even beginners could handle, but it was awesome to be surrounded by the largest peaks in the world.
It wouldn't be the same as doing Everest, but he felt pretty confident that the kids would be satisfied making it 18,000 feet above sea level and surveying the world from Kala Patthar. From there, they would be able to see the peak of Everest, something that wasn't even possible at base camp.
Of course, that would all take gear. A night or two at base camp would mean tents, the proper clothing, food . . . The kids had done a lot of fundraising for this trip and the church had made a generous contribution for the whole thing, but he would have to stay within budget.
In fact, he had already taken steps back in Joliet that would help with the financial end of things. Chris had quietly cancelled the hotel reservations that Danny had made online. Danny had selected The Everest Hotel. An excellent, safe – and expensive – choice. Celebrities and royalty stayed at The Everest.
Telling himself that it was good stewardship and that Danny's problem was that he didn't know the area, Chris had then booked them all into the guesthouse that he had stayed at ten years ago. Down a side alley, it wasn't known for its service and the rooms were the size of a closet, but it was the real Nepal. And Chris could always argue that how could the kids reach out to the people of Nepal if they were staying at a hotel filled with Westerners? Hopefully, the fact that his group filled the whole guesthouse and therefore there weren't too many other people to witness to, wouldn't come up.
The essential thing was that the guesthouse was one-tenth the price of the hotel. The difference would go a long way in funding their side expedition. And maybe the kids would be able to pitch in with some of their spending money . . .
According to his guidebook, they were now in Durbar Square. Fruit sellers were everywhere and each of the buildings looked like a temple. He paused to orient himself, his group milling around him.
“OK,” he said, pointing. “That's a temple.” He turned. “That's a temple.” He turned again. “That's another temple. And that's a . . . palace, I think.” He consulted his guidebook again. “Yep, a palace.”
One boy earnestly asked if there were any churches.
“No,” said Chris. “No churches.”
Several of the girls wanted to check out the long rows of souvenir sellers who had their wares displayed on blankets on the ground. Soon they were selecting bracelets and necklaces. Chris looked on. It would have been nice to have someone back home to buy things for, but all his relationships thus far had ended for one reason or another.
The girls took longer than he expected. Some of the boys were examining one of the shrines, a golden statue of a fierce-looking head with sharp teeth and blood red lips.
While he waited, Chris read his guidebook. This square was made up of five acres and contained temples and palaces. There were courtyards, ponds and shrines. Over at the Hanuman Dhoka Palace, the Nepalese kings and queens had been crowned right up until the monarchy had been abolished in 2008. Tourists could visit some of the Staterooms in the palace.
Another feature of the square was a golden cage called the Kumari Chowk. During religious festivals, it contained a young girl said to be an incarnation of Durba, a powerful Hindu goddess who was supposed to be able to save people in supremely distressful situations.
He closed the guidebook.
“Don't spend all your money here!” he called out. “You may need it later.”
For tents, he added to himself.
He couldn't shake the longing to just be a normal mountaineer, passing through Kathmandu, on his way to Everest. The people of Nepal were used to that. They were smiling and friendly when they knew that you had come to climb to the top of the world, turn around and go home. But he doubted they'd have the same geniality for him and his group when they started telling people that their ancestral gods were false and that they should embrace a Western religion instead.
His mind continued to work on the possibility of getting the kids to Everest. After all, some of the kids had already expressed an interest in Everest. They were here. It was once-in-a-lifetime chance for most, maybe all, of them. A trip to Everest would bring God's grandeur to life. All Chris's mountain scriptures could be employed to preach his finest sermon yet, one at the bottom of the top of the world.
Maybe then, when the kids all went home and talked to their parents, they'd be too busy telling them how awesome God and Everest were, that they wouldn't bother to mention that they hadn't won any converts to Christ.
I’ll do it, he decided.
Right now, the kids were announcing that they were hungry.
Again, economy was the most important factor in selecting an eatery. And again, the real Nepal won out over the trendy tourist cafés. He selected a place near their guesthouse, one that was popular with the trekkers, mountaineers and their Sherpa guides. Hopefully the kids wouldn't go home and report that most of the Nepalese clientele were smoking and drinking beer. But Chris could always fall back on the argument that who needed Christ more? The righteous or the sinners?
The dishes were authentic and Chris went ahead and ordered for all of them. Dal-bhat-tarkari. Dal was spicy lentil soup. Bhat was rice. Tarkari was vegetables. Each dish came with a side order of chutney. Chris warned the kids that when the food came, to take it slow and sample the chutney before liberally applying it to their plates. He had found out the hard way on his first trip that what looks like harmless pickle can turn someone into a fire-breathing dragon.
A few of the teens grumbled that they weren't getting a hamburger and fries, but for the most part, they accepted the situation without complaint.
Chris surveyed the group.
They were good kids. Sincere. He felt like a rotter for not laying it out clearly that this wasn't an easy mission field. It wasn't just a case of people not hearing the gospel, they didn't want to hear the gospel. They already had religion and most of them were fine with that. Some were even more than fine. Some were willing to kill, or at least maim, in order to defend their religion.
But it was hardly the fault of the kids. They had grown up being fed evangelical Christianity and the basic tenet of the faith was that you shared your faith. And the more dedicated shared their faith every opportunity they got.
The mountaineers in the small restaurant were ignoring his group. He realized with a sense of shame that they wouldn't recognize him as one of their own. At best, he was a tourist guide. At worst, although they didn't know it, he was an American missionary. But the locals were watching his group with interest. No surprise. They took up half the restaurant.
Just as the food came, one bold young man in Chris’s group smiled at an older guy with a millet beer in front of him.
“Namaskar,” he said to him. The young man’s name was Ian and the kid was born to be an evangelist. Of the two hundred people that now attended the youth group back in Joliet, he had brought in about fifty of them. Namaskar meant, “Hello. I bless the divine in you.” But Ian was like that. He could meet people where they were. Tall, slim with glasses, he wasn't overbearing, but he was determined.
The old man nodded and smiled.
The conversation could have died a natural death at that point, but Ian persisted.
“Kasto cha?” How are you?
“Thik cha,” said the man, cautiously. I am fine.
“Mero naam Ian ho.” My name is Ian.
Again, a nod, but no attempt on the part of the old man to move the conversation further along. Many of the patrons of the restaurant were watching this exchange with interest. Except for the trekkers. It was a matter of pride with them to mind their own business.
Chris was watching the whole thing with increasing nervousness. Hopefully Ian's Nepalese was limited.
“Khana khannu bhaiyo?” Ian's Nepalese was not limited. Chris wasn't sure but he thought Ian had said something along the lines of, “Have you eaten?”
The old man shook his head.
Ian offered his plate of food to the man.
The man smiled and shook his head. If possible, this was just getting more interesting to the native Nepali.
“Tapaiiko naam ke ho?” Ian asked. What is your name?
The man muttered something and then took refuge in his beer. His eyes were now entirely on his drink. Chris hoped Ian would take the hint and just concentrate on his meal. But Ian obviously felt that the encounter thus far hadn't been sufficient.
“Maile bhujhina,” he said. I don't understand.
The man mumbled something that sounded like, “Asim.” In Nepal, you got a bamboo straw with your beer and the speed of Asim’s slurping was increasing. Chris doubted that the man had anywhere to go after this and could have probably made the one drink last all afternoon.
Ian started eating, as did the other kids who had been watching his encounter with Asim. From the way Ian kept his eye on Asim, Chris knew it wasn't over as far as Ian was concerned.
Asim took his final gulp and stood up.
Ian opened his mouth and Chris braced himself for, “Jesus loves you, Asim!”
Asim was halfway to the door.
“Pheri bhetaunla!” Ian called after him. I hope we meet again.
A wide-eyed waitress went hurrying after Asim, but Asim had disappeared down the alley.
“He not pay for his drink!” she said, to Ian, clearly blaming him.
Ian opened his wallet and asked her much the beer had cost. She softened and told him the price. In American currency it was about a dollar.
Chris should have seen it coming but he didn't.
“I'm paying that man's bill because he can't,” Ian said. “In the same way, Jesus paid our bill.”
The waitress glanced at Chris. Evidently she thought he was Jesus since he was paying the bill for the group.
“For our sins,” Ian added.
The waitress was bewildered.
She had the money for Asim's drink, but she didn't know if she should just turn and go.
“And Jesus paid the price for your sins,” said Ian.
It was the bare-bones gospel message. The Nepali patrons were still watching but they didn't seem concerned. It probably meant very little to them.
However, some of the trekkers were looking their way. One of them called out to Chris.
“Hey! Take it easy over there, OK?”
Chris nodded. They didn't have to elaborate. This sort of thing made all Westerners look bad.
Ian realized his message was getting some negative feedback and paused. That gave the waitress time to escape to the kitchen.
With no one to witness to, everyone, including Ian, could return to his or her meal.
Chris found himself sweating. And it wasn't from the chutney.
rom now on, they would avoid the trekker hangouts.
Not easy. The trekkers didn't come to Nepal for German cheesecake; they came and ate in the local eateries.
Inspired by Ian, one of the kids tried to witness to the proprietor of their guesthouse, but she was too busy sorting towels to pay much attention to him. In fact, she handled it all by asking him if he needed another towel in his room.
The next day, the kids were ready to hit the ground running. Chris was alarmed. Instead of being discouraged by Ian's encounter with the older man, they were pumped up and ready to witness for Christ.
As they walked down the narrow alleyway, Chris cautiously peered into some of the small restaurants. For breakfast, he selected one that was empty of patrons. Not too much could happen.
The owner of the restaurant was obviously not used to having thirty people suddenly show up for breakfast. There was only one other employee, a cook, so he was kept busy serving drinks and taking orders. As it turned out though, he only had two things on the menu for breakfast – omelettes and potatoes.
They all drank tea while they waited. Tea was a popular drink in Nepal. Like neighbouring India and China, they grew their own tea leaves. The proprietor disappeared into the kitchen, no doubt to assist his cook.
After a while, plates of food started coming out of the kitchen. The omelettes were spicy – Chris tasted chilli – as were the potatoes. More tea was ordered all around.
Good, thought Chris. Let them drink tea. They'd all be too busy looking for a bathroom to do too much damage.
When they were done, he paid the bill. Again, it was a fraction of what it would have cost if they had eaten in a hotel restaurant. As they were leaving, some of the kids attempted to witness to the smiling and nodding proprietor.
“Jesus loves you,” said one boy, with a few of the others chorusing agreement.
“Dhanybhad,” said the proprietor, continuing to smile and nod. Thank you. “Come again,” he added, in heavily accented English.
The less astute kids counted that as a success, but Chris could see that Ian was more determined. There was tightness around his jaw. They were out of the alleyway now and on a main street. It was a low-rise neighbourhood. At street level, vendors already had blankets out with produce, clothing, flip-flops, pots and pans, jewellery. Some of the luckier ones had their wares on carts with what looked like bicycle wheels.
Early morning traffic was in full swing as mopeds and bicycles weaved in between ageing taxis.
Ian had two admirers who were usually within a foot of him. Now they were conferring with one another. Neither of them looked in Chris's direction.
Maybe Ian had caught on that Chris was a less-than-willing participant in this whole expedition. Ian was one of the few guys who had never mentioned the idea of a possible visit to Everest.
The other kids in the group were taking in all the scenes of the street, but Ian and his friends had finished conferencing and now Ian was going over to one of the vendors, a man with a blanket piled high with cucumbers, cauliflower and green onions. It was unlikely that Ian was interested in cauliflower.
Chris started moving forward, not sure whether he should intercept Ian or just be there to move the conversation along in a more neutral direction.
“Namaskar,” said Ian.
The man nodded his approval at Ian's knowledge and returned the greeting. He waved a hand over his produce.
“Ramro,” said Ian. Chris wasn't sure but it sounded like, “good.”
The man nodded again.
“Tapaiilai kaulee man parcha?” he asked. Do you like cauliflower?
Even if Ian didn't understand, he smiled and nodded. He crouched down at the man's level. Now something was coming out of his pocket. Chris groaned internally. It was a gospel tract. That was the sort of thing that could be confiscated and used against one. If it were just talk, Chris could claim that it was all a misunderstanding and that Ian hadn't tried to share any gospel message, he had just been practising his Nepalese.
Ian had opened up the tract to a picture of Jesus dying on the cross. Politely, the cauliflower seller was looking at both the tract and Ian. Now all the kids had caught on that something was happening. Some of them were watching Ian, but the bolder ones were now going up to other vendors.
Where had all these gospel tracts come from? Chris looked around in dismay. Ian and the others must have had their suitcases lined with them.
Ian's Nepalese had run its course and he was now explaining the gospel in simple English.
We are all sinners.
We all die.
The reason we die is because we sinned.
But we can live forever if we put our faith in Jesus.
There was a lot of pointing to pictures in the gospel tract to reinforce this idea. Now the cauliflower seller wasn't looking so congenial. It wasn't a religious issue. Ian and his two friends were blocking his blanket and buyers were selecting their produce from other sellers.
“Buy?” he said, holding up a cucumber.
Ian was astute enough to know that nothing would be gained by purchasing a cucumber. The man wasn't interested. Nonetheless, he tried to offer the man the gospel tract. The man shook his head and shooed him away.
Ian stood up and for one moment, his eyes met Chris's.
Chris forced himself to smile and give Ian a thumbs-up. After all, once they got out of Nepal and all went home, it was people like Ian's mother and father who paid his salary.
It was all relatively harmless, Chris decided.
The kids moved from vendor to vendor. Most of the vendors listened politely, until they realized that the kids weren't potential customers. Then they felt free to tell them to move along. Chris stayed back, overseeing it all and surveying for men in uniforms. A couple of men with the Nepalese Police Force passed by on the other side of the street, but they didn't seem to have anything more threatening than walkie-talkies. They seemed oblivious of the evangelizing going on among the street vendors. That was the advantage of being on a crowded street. Too much happening to focus on one thing. But then a Jeep drove by filled with more serious-looking men in blue and grey camouflage, all armed with rifles. Thankfully, they had somewhere more important to go than the marketplace and just kept on driving.
The most successful witnessing turned out to be the girls who bought some jewellery from a young woman watching over a tall pole that held bracelets and necklaces. The young woman was about the same age as the girls witnessing to her and the witnessing was done almost as an afterthought - like, oh yeah, I forgot, I'm supposed to tell you about Jesus. Jesus died to save you from your sins. Hey! Can I try that bracelet on too?
The young woman sold seven bracelets and three necklaces and ended up hearing the full gospel message. She nodded a lot and said she'd think about it. She didn't take a gospel tract, but Chris consoled the girls by saying she probably couldn't read anyway.
That was the morning.
In July in Nepal, you could expect hot and steamy days. It was another reason why Chris had been opposed to this whole trip. The best time to visit Nepal was in the spring or the autumn. But, of course, the youth group would all be in school then.
“OK guys,” he said, calling out to his group. Slowly, his group drifted back to him. “Good job everyone! Don't be discouraged! You may have planted some seeds today.”
They were milling around. Time to announce lunch and maybe a siesta.
“Let's go to the City Centre,” said Ian, to the whole group, not just Chris.
“Uh, this looks pretty city centre to me,” said Chris, looking around.
Ian shook his head.
“No, I mean the shopping mall.”
The mall? Chris didn't even know there was a shopping mall in Kathmandu.
“It's five stories with over a hundred stores, it's air-conditioned . . .”
A lot of the kids, especially the girls, liked the sound of that.
“Restaurants, a movie theatre,” Ian continued. “And lots of witnessing opportunities.”
Ian had sold the idea.
None of them were interested in eating in some hole-in-the-wall restaurant when they could have an air-conditioned food court.
Not surprisingly, the mall was located in the city centre. Chris was forced to get out his guidebook and navigate them all to the mall. But Ian was leading the way. He called back over his shoulder that tomorrow they could do the Kathmandu Mall. He had clearly done some online research because he also knew about the Star Mall, Sherpa Mall, Times Square Mall, Kantipur Mall and People's Mall. There was general agreement among the group that hanging out in malls was a great witnessing strategy.
Chris wasn't so sure.
All he knew was that this mission trip had been hijacked.
unch was the immediate priority.
Chris had to admit, it was a great antidote to culture shock to sit down in an air-conditioned food court and have a meal that actually resembled a hamburger and fries. Except that the hamburger was probably some kind of soy concoction, but nobody cared. The five-story mall itself could have been in any city in America, but again, there was just too much colour in the clothing both in the stores and on the shoppers to kid yourself that you were back home.
The mall also had some interesting features. When they finished eating, they explored. A small stage in the centre had a show in progress – traditional Nepalese dancing. They paused to watch. Then there was an over-sized trampoline that you could pay to use. Two large poles on either side held you in place with what looked like mountaineer gear. That way you could jump as high as you wanted without fear of bouncing right off. Some of the guys found that interesting. The girls wanted to go straight into the shops. But Ian kept them all focused.
Again, out came the gospel tracts.
“OK, guys,” said Chris, trying to sound as if they were all on the same side. “Let's be a bit low-key about this, OK? We don't want mall security getting wind of it.” And deporting them. Or, worse, beating him.
Even Ian nodded, but he started pairing them off, two by two, like Jesus sending out the disciples. Chris watched with alarm.
For one thing, it wasn't Ian's intention to stay in one spot. He was going to make them cover the mall in teams.
How was Chris supposed to keep track of it all?
Two girls were directed into a clothing shop. It was a Western-style store and Chris hoped they would be so distracted by the selection of clothing that they would only half-heartedly tell the salesclerks about Jesus.
Two guys were sent into an electronics shop. Same thing. Hopefully they would end up browsing the wall of DVDs.
Two more went into a china shop. Not so good. Two guys in a china shop were conspicuous. Two more guys volunteered to witness among the people who were in line for the trampoline. Good. They really wanted to use the trampoline and probably wouldn't bother saying anything.
Two girls hurried into a jewellery shop. No worries there.
That took care of level one. More teams were assigned to levels two and three. Ian said he and his partner would take level four. Ian had told them to all rendezvous on level five by the escalators in two hours, and then they would cover that floor.
As each team went off, Chris assessed the threat level. In the end, he decided the greatest danger to the group's wellbeing in Nepal was Ian himself. Ian wasn't distracted by fleshly pleasures. Wherever he went, he would witness.
Discreetly, Chris trailed along behind Ian and his partner.
They took an escalator up to the fourth level. The cinema was the big attraction on the fourth floor, with three large posters advertising their current selection. Ian and his partner, Scott, stopped to examine the movie posters. It wasn't idle surveillance. Ian was talking and gesturing in front of each one.
Much to Chris's surprise, Ian and Scott, joined the line. At first, Chris thought they were going to witness to the people waiting, but the line moved fast and soon they were at the front, purchasing tickets. Chris was too far back to hear what movie they requested, but it hardly mattered. He'd better join them. He got into line and quickly scanned the posters. Only one movie was actually starting in ten minutes. The others wouldn't begin for another forty minutes, or so. He couldn't read the Hindi script so he'd just have to ask for “Theatre 1.” It had some kind of a love story – a poster with a swooning Indian woman and a fierce-looking soldier holding her in his arms.
Once inside the lobby milling with people, Chris scanned for Ian and Scott. Had they already gone into the theatre? He was interested to note that there were snacks and popcorn available in the lobby, but the popcorn had a distinctively Eastern scent about it. If he hadn't been in such a hurry, he would have tried some.
He peered into one of the dim theatres. It was nearly impossible to see if Ian and Scott were there, the theatre was too full. Unless Ian was planning to become more familiar with the Nepalese culture, Chris doubted he'd be in there, anyhow.
But where were they?
He spotted them coming out the door of the men’s room. Had they really attempted to do some witnessing in there? He hoped not. Most people didn't appreciate strangers approaching them in a men’s room.
Outside of each theatre door was the movie poster of what was playing inside. After buying their snacks, people were going into the first door where the movie would be starting in minutes. But Scott and Ian were examining the poster outside the door of the second theatre. What on earth for? Were they going to go in while the movie was still playing and try to witness in the dark?
The poster on the second theatre seemed to feature a lot of Hindu gods and goddesses. The one in the centre appeared to be part elephant.
Chris knew nothing about Hindu gods and goddesses, except that there were thousands of them and one of them was Vishnu. Another was Kali, but he only knew that because he had seen a movie where a guy prayed to her, the goddess of destruction, and his whole life fell apart.
Glancing at his watch, there was only one minute left until the movie in the first theatre started. The line for snacks was still long, but as soon as people got their curried popcorn and their sodas, they were hurrying to make it for the beginning of the movie.
Chris stood just out of sight of Ian and Scott as they continued to wait by the doors of the second theatre. The line to buy snacks got gradually smaller until finally, the only people left were the few employees behind the counter and a guy sweeping the lobby.
Since the door to the second cinema was out of sight of the snack bar, Chris moved forward and bought himself a large popcorn and a bottle of something called Happy Orange. Discreetly, he peered around the corner. Scott and Ian were still there.
Thankfully, the employees, all young, didn't seem interested in Chris, Ian or Scott. They were talking among themselves. Even the guy who was supposed to be sweeping was chatting with one of the girls behind the counter.
Chris sighed. Maybe he should just go back out into the mall and try to round up the rest of the group. With Ian in the movie theatre, he might be able to take control of this situation and persuade them that there were other ways to bring the gospel to Nepal. Like forming friendships online, back in the safety of the US.
He was turning to go when the doors to Theatre 2 were opened by an usher. Ian and Scott shifted their position, one on each side of the door. The usher gave them a look, but evidently decided they were just early-comers for the next showing and walked away.
Then people started coming out. Ian went straight into action. Scott hesitated, but inspired by Ian, he started talking to people too.
Chris moved in to hear what Ian was saying.
“You just saw a movie about Ganesha, Isha of all living. But I would like to tell you about the real Isha of all living.
Chris groaned to himself. Ian was tackling religion head on. Didn't he realize people took their faith seriously in this country?
But the fact that people took their faith seriously worked in Ian's favour. Some people actually paused to listen to him.
“I would like to tell you about the creator of all living people,” continued Ian. “His name is Jesus and he is both the creator and the saviour . . .”
“Jesus was a good man,” someone interrupted. It was a young man and there was agreement among his friends.
Chris exhaled. Maybe this wouldn't go so badly after all.
“He lived in India after the Romans tried to kill him,” the man continued.
Chris stifled a laugh. Ian was momentarily speechless but then recovered.
“Yes,” he agreed. “Jesus was a good man.”
“Jesus told everyone to love,” the man continued. “He taught like Buddha.”
Now Chris was starting to feel sorry for Ian. But Ian kept going.
“Jesus came to save everyone,” he said. “All people need Jesus.”
“Jesus was a good teacher,” someone else called out. “All people should love.”
“He was the son of God,” said Ian.
“Yes,” agreed the young man. “He was a son of God.”
Chris caught the distinction. Not the son of God.
Most people were just pushing around the little crowd that was surrounding Ian. Scott hadn't been able to hold the attention of the person he had been talking to.
“Jesus came to save us from our sins.”
“Why do you talk about sin?” the young man demanded. “Jesus was a teacher who came to show people the way. Jesus taught us not to harm another living being. This is a Hindu teaching.”
“But Jesus taught that you can be born again . . .”
“Yes, yes,” the young man nodded. “This is karma. We are reborn again and again.”
Now Chris was feeling sorry for Ian. It was impressive that he knew that the elephant-headed god was Ganesha, but hadn't Danny or Randy prepared these kids for witnessing to Hindus? A disturbing thought occurred to him. Had they expected him to do it?
Didn't they know that he knew next-to-nothing about other religions? He had climbed a mountain. Period. And if he had had a chance to give his input on the subject, he would have told them he would rather lead an expedition up Everest than try to figure out what Hindus believe so that you could effectively witness to them.
No, he wouldn't have. He would have faked it and looked online for a pdf document to print out and distribute to the kids.
“Are those your sons?”
Chris was startled.
An older man, Nepali, had come up beside him. Upon thought, the question wasn't unusual. Chris was a Westerner. Ian and Scott were Westerners. Everybody else was either Indian or Nepali.
“Uh, I'm with them, yes,” he said. The man wasn't wearing a uniform. Hopefully he was harmless.
The man shook his head.
“It will not work,” he said.
“What do you mean?” asked Chris.
The man lowered his voice.
“You are trying to share about Jesus. You are Christian?”
Chris hesitated but then nodded.
“It will not work. Telling people about Jesus. Most people here believe that there are many ways to God and Jesus is just one of many.”
“I'm starting to realize that,” said Chris wryly.
“Do you want to know a better way?” asked the man, still speaking softly.
“Sure, why not?” he said. “What's a better way?”
“Love,” said the man, simply.
Chris was startled. He glanced over at Ian who was managing to hold his own in this theological discussion. At least people were still talking to him.
“What do you mean?” Chris asked the man.
“Love,” the man repeated. “It is the one thing that Christians have that other people do not. They love one another.”
“But isn't everyone over there talking about love?” he said, waving his hand in the direction of the small crowd.
The man shook his head.
“Talking, yes. Doing things, no. They say they will not harm anyone. That is good. Fine. But what about when there is a need? Will they meet the need?”
“I thought you had to be good to each other,” Chris was desperately trying to recall everything he had ever heard about the Hindu faith. “You know, for reincarnation. So you move up the ladder . . .”
The man seemed to understand.
“No, it is the other way around. You do not have to help someone who is, like you say, down the ladder. They deserve to be there for what they have done in a previous life.”
“Oh.” Chris thought about this.
“And then,” continued the man. “Christians come along and build a school for everyone. The lower down the ladder, the better.” He laughed. Chris smiled. “They have a hospital for everyone. They feed the hungry. Then, they tell about Jesus.”
“OK,” he said. “I get it. Preaching in the streets doesn't work. Doing good does.”
The man nodded.
“And Jesus tells us to love everyone. His followers take care of each other.”
“It sounds like you've given this a lot of thought,” said Chris.
“I have,” said the man. “I like to watch things and to think about them.”
“Are you, er, Hindu?” Chris asked.
The man shook his head and his voice dropped again.
“I am a Christian.”
eally?” said Chris.
The man nodded.
“Not too many of you here,” said Chris.
“That is right,” agreed the man.
“My name is Chris,” said Chris, holding out his hand.
“I am Dipesh,” said the man. He was speaking quietly. “I was not always Christian. I was born Hindu. My mother became very sick when I was a little boy. Nobody could help her. Her sister said that in India, there was a man, a man who could heal her. My father was desperate and we all made the journey.”
Chris had momentarily forgotten about Ian and Scott.
“When we got to the village, the man who we were looking for was a Catholic. My father was very angry. He said he did not want prayers to be said over my mother. He thought that we had come to see a doctor. While he went outside to think about what to do, this man, his name was Father Robert, prayed for my mother. My mother stood up. She was never sick again. She lives to this day.”
Chris was wide-eyed.
“We stayed in India to learn more about this Jesus who had healed my mother. In this village, there were many Christians. There was a small school and a huge garden. There was a whole corral of animals. All who had needs were taken care of. Then we returned to Nepal.”
“And your parents are both Christians?”
“Yes, but my father died many years ago. My mother, praise to Jesus, is healthy. She will live to be a hundred, I think.”
“My children have not become Christians, though,” said Dipesh, sadly. “I try to tell them about Jesus. But I do not think they understand.” Dipesh pulled a Rosary out of his pocket. “I pray for them. You have one of these?” he asked.
Chris shook his head.
“Different brand of Christianity, I’m afraid. Non-denominational.”
Dipesh looked puzzled but Chris’s mind was still on what Dipesh had said about the hospital or the school coming first. That was a good argument for turning around and going home. If a native Christian man couldn't effectively witness to his own children, how could anyone else expect to do it? Glancing at Ian, he had lost most of the crowd around him. Only the young man and his friends were still talking to him. Maybe they could all go home and Chris would tell the parents that he had consulted with local believers, OK, one local believer, who had recommended establishing some sort of a school or hospital before attempting to witness to anyone.
“I try to tell people about Jesus,” Dipesh continued. “But it is no good to do it unless you also want to share people's burdens.”
Well, that was it, wasn't it? Chris would return home and report that simply telling people about Jesus wasn't enough in this country. Since the kids couldn't settle down here and distribute livestock to potential converts, they might as well just take their side-trip to Everest and enjoy the rest of their stay in Nepal among the mountaineers and trekkers.
“Yes,” said Chris out-loud. “I think we're going about this the wrong way.”
He was gratified to see Dipesh nod.
“I was thinking that the kids might benefit from a trip to Everest,” he continued. “Base camp, anyway.”
“The head of the sky,” said Dipesh. It was the Nepali phrase to describe Everest.
“Fly to Lukla,” said Chris, already planning it. “Pick up some supplies. Hike to Namche Bazaar and get a Sherpa guide . . .”
Dipesh was also looking thoughtful.
“I am a guide,” he said. “Namche Bazaar is my village.”
“No kidding!” said Chris. Maybe God was looking out for him, after all. “Would you like to join us . . .?”
He hesitated. Maybe Dipesh had his reasons for coming to Kathmandu.
Dipesh nodded slowly.
“Yes. I can accompany you. I came here to try to visit my granddaughter, Sunita. We are worried about her.” Dipesh was deep in thought. “She is with the army. I do not know where she is, though.”
“Maybe they sent her out on a mission . . .”
“No,” said Dipesh, shaking his head. “My daughter received the news that Sunita had been discharged from the army. But we have heard nothing from her. Her mother is very worried and I told her that I would come here to find out more.”
“Did you find out anything?”
“No,” said Dipesh. “They will not talk to me except to confirm that she had been discharged. I have been to her apartment but no one will talk to me.”
“That's tough,” said Chris, sympathetically. “Was she a Christian?”
“Oh no!” said Dipesh. “She never wanted to hear anything about how her great-grandmother was healed in India. She told me those were old stories and that she had her own life to live.”
“That sounds like kids today,” said Chris.
“Not those ones,” said Dipesh, looking over at Ian and Scott.
“No, not those ones,” agreed Chris.
By now, Ian had realized that Chris was nearby. The lobby was filling up with people for the next showing of the movie about Ganesha. The young man's friends looked restless, like they were tiring of the exchange.
“There is nothing for me to do but to return home,” said Dipesh. “So I can be your guide. I only came here to the City Centre because one of her roommates said the cinema was her favourite place to go when she wasn't on duty.”
“I'm really sorry to hear that,” said Chris, sincerely. But inside he was thinking how it had all worked out. His mind was already racing ahead to what he would tell the kids. Starting with Ian.
“OK, guys,” he said moving toward them. The final few people had drifted off. “Great going! I was proud of you! You held your own and you made them think.”
Scott looked like he believed it. Ian wasn't so sure.
“I've got someone with me,” he said, taking each of them by an elbow. He lowered his voice. “A Christian. He wants to take us to his village, Namche Bazaar.” OK, that was stretching it a bit.
“Wow!” said Scott. “That was fast!” Clearly Scott thought Dipesh was an immediate convert who now wanted them to bring the gospel message to his village.
Ian was looking at Dipesh. Chris had a feeling that five minutes alone with the older men would cause the truth to come out. Fine. Let it. Then Ian could learn the hard truth that if you wanted to be a missionary in Nepal, you'd better get your medical doctorate first, come back, open a free clinic, fix people for a few years and then tell them about Jesus.
They still had an hour before they were all supposed to meet on the fifth floor, but they moved through the different levels, Chris calling back the pairs as they were spotted until finally, they had 28 out of the 30 people.
“Good enough,” sighed Chris as they all followed him up the elevators to wait for the last two. Dipesh had been walking alongside, wide-eyed at the number of people under Chris's care. He was even more surprised that they had all been on the same mission as Ian and Scott. Although Chris gathered that none of them had been successful. Some of the girls had bags with new clothing or jewellery. One guy had a new mp3 player. But no one reported any souls won for Christ.
On the fifth floor, they all gathered around a tree and Chris reported with enthusiasm that they had a Christian here, he was an Everest guide and they would all be heading out of Kathmandu as soon as they could get a flight to Lukla.
Thankfully they all took it in the right spirit, namely, that God was leading them. Even Ian seemed to accept this change of plans.
Chris glanced at his watch.
Only five more minutes and the last pair should arrive.
He did a head scan. The missing two were girls. Typical. They were probably trying on clothing and had lost track of time.
Turning to Dipesh, he asked him where he was staying. Like them, he was at a guesthouse. When he learnt where Chris was staying, he promised to come by there tomorrow, early in the morning, and they could discuss their plans.
The two men shook hands and Dipesh was off. Chris figured he wanted to do a little more searching for his granddaughter before he left Kathmundu.
Now Chris was getting impatient. He looked at his watch again. It was past the hour.
“Fan out,” he told the group. “See if you can see them.”
Some peered over the railings by the escalators, where you could see the different levels. A few people half-heartedly looked into some nearby stores. One thing Chris was certain of, the two girls weren't in the cinema.
A horrible thought occurred to him. What if something had happened to the girls? Did white slavery still exist? You always heard all sorts of horror stories about Asian brothels. He had once donated some money to a justice mission that rescued young girls from slavery.
Now, instead of being afraid of mall security, his head was swivelling to look for someone in a uniform.
But all he saw were women in saris, men in Western clothing, children in strollers . . .
What were the girls' names? He couldn't even remember. One of them was Amanda. Another was Sarah. But what were their last names? What did they even look like? Amanda was a tall, slim brunette, maybe fifteen. It would just be a guess to say she had brown eyes. And Sarah. Chris groaned to himself. Sarah was a petite blonde with blue eyes, so noticeable in a country of brown-haired, brown-eyed people. Just the type of girl to be targeted as an easy American.
Oh why, oh why hadn't he followed the girls instead of Ian? Ian was as tall as any man in this mall. He could have taken care of himself. Chris should have ordered all the girls to stick together and then followed them.
“OK guys,” he called out, trying not to sound panicky. “Everyone back together! I may just take a look around myself and try to find Amanda and Sarah . . . You can stay here, all together, and . . .”
Obviously he hadn't been able to keep the concern out of his voice because Ian spoke up.
“That's right,” said Chris, nodding. “And pray.”
It couldn't hurt.
hris moved fast.
Clothing stores and jewellery stores got his special attention, but the girls were not in sight. Sporting goods, electronics, all fifteen restaurants, the food court, even the supermarket all got hurriedly surveyed and with increasing dread. What would he say to their parents? If he didn't go home with those girls, he might as well not go home at all. Why hadn't they sent a female chaperone along on this wretched trip? She would have been responsible right now.
Of course, he knew why there was no female chaperone. He didn't have a wife.
Randy had a wife and she was back home with her own future kid to think about.
Finally, he sighted a couple of guys that looked like mall security. A little on the young side, but wearing uniforms. The upside to their age was that it was highly likely that if Amanda and Sarah had passed them, they would have noticed.
Chris hurried over and said he was a tourist from America and he had lost some members of his party, two females, about fifteen, one with long brown hair, the other with shorter blonde hair.
The guards looked at each other and grinned, nodding.
“Yes,” one of them said. By now, Chris was back to the first level. The guard pointed to the escalators and the second story. “There. In hairdresser.”
That was one place Chris hadn't bothered with. Who came to Nepal and got their hair cut?
But sure enough, when he took the escalator two steps at a time and charged into the hairdresser's like a bull in a china shop, there they were, Amanda and Sarah, sitting in the back at small tables while two Asian ladies worked on their nails.
“Oh hi, Chris,” said Amanda, looking over at him. “What time is it? Are we late?”
He suppressed his rage.
“Yep,” he said, hoping he sounded casual. “We're all going to head out now.”
“OK,” said Amanda, looking back down at her hands. It was a fancy job – very sparkly with decals on every other finger. She only had one more nail to be done. Chris could barely hide his impatience as the manicurist slowly applied the nail polish. Thankfully, this was one of the fingers that didn't require a decal.
Sarah, who hadn't even bothered to acknowledge Chris, was now looking at her finished nails with approval.
“Now, let dry,” said the lady to Amanda.
“No time,” said Chris. “They can dry as you go.” He didn't want to lose his other 28 kids while waiting for some paint to dry.
Amanda's manicurist, who had, no doubt, spent a considerable amount of time on the nails, was watching him with venom.
Amanda was in a quandary. Her nails were wet and she couldn't get her wallet out of her purse. Sarah had the same problem.
Chris ended up paying for both nail jobs. Unlike the alleys of Nepal, the shopping centres had prices that were comparable to American dollars. Both jobs cost him about $40 and that was before Amanda shyly pointed out that both women probably expected a tip.
Their return to the group was greeted with a few people saying, “Praise God!” Ian said, “Thank you, Jesus.”
Chris just wanted to get out of there.
They spent the next morning packing, with Chris making a phone call to one of the local airlines. Dipesh was booked on a flight along with kids, at no cost to himself. Having a Christian guide seemed to be an act of God and Chris didn't want to lose him.
In the afternoon, Dipesh took them to some of the nearby gear shops to get outfitted for the mountain weather.
“You must let me do the buying,” he said to Chris. “You look like a rich American. You will get ripped off.”
Chris smiled and they agreed that he would stay outside while Dipesh took all the kids into the store.
The crowded neighbourhood they were in had many gear shops, but Dipesh just shook his head at the displays and said, “Cheap junk.”
Dipesh selected one small store that didn't look much different from the others, but as Chris watched surreptitiously from outside, he could see that the kids were being outfitted with proper wind and cold-resistant gear.
The sights and smells out in the street almost made Chris nauseous while he waited.
Raw meat was being sold in a nearby butcher shop and the sight of people going in and selecting their cuts of meat was making him ill. He was thirsty, but he didn't want to buy a drink from a passing fruit juice seller who carried his wares in big plastic drums and used glasses that could be reused. Other places that offered bottled water had long lines since they were selling deep-fried, steaming bowls of some kind of popular snack.
Garbage was just put out in the street. Maybe someone came along and collected it. But in the meantime, it just sat in the summer sun, giving off a stench and attracting flies.
The scent of incense coming from the store beside the one with the trekker gear was making him dizzy.
Mopeds and bicycles had no fear of knocking over pedestrians. Chris had to stand with his back against the crumbling brick wall to keep from losing his toes. Other trekkers were out in the narrow streets, browsing the shop windows. Local Nepalese were hurrying home with their purchases.
He had been in this neighbourhood ten years ago, to pick up gear, but then it was a fast in-and-out, not all this waiting.
Dipesh and the kids had been in there almost an hour. How long could it take? It was the girls, he decided. They probably wanted all their accessories to match. But when Chris took another peek in, he saw that all the girls were sitting on a pile of gear. It was the boys checking out the mountaineer gadgets – compasses, headlamps, walkie-talkies. The more adventurous were looking at rope, pitons, seat harnesses, ice screws, locking carabiners . . . He resisted the temptation to burst in there and tell them they had probably overspent their budget already.
Now that the kids had their clothing, Dipesh was calmly selecting tents. A first-aid kit was already on another huge pile of supplies. Chris hoped there was something for him to wear in it all.
Once Dipesh and the proprietor had worked out a price, Chris was called in to produce a credit card. The proprietor gave Dipesh a rueful look and Dipesh looked triumphant.
It was still a crazy amount of money. The stuff was good quality and nobody was going to freeze at the foot of Everest, but Chris would probably have to forfeit his salary for a month so that the church could stay on budget.
Dipesh was smart. Each kid was self-sufficient - his or her gear and sleeping bag in a backpack. The tents and other extras were evenly distributed among them. Chris was left just carrying his own gear and the first-aid kit.
“You're a treasure, Dipesh,” said Chris gratefully.
Dipesh smiled and said he would like to return to his guesthouse now. There was much to pray about and discuss with God. But he would meet them all early the next day at the airport.
Chris didn't tell the kids that the Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla was considered the most dangerous landing in the world.
The single runway wasn't merciful. It was short, for one thing. And it sloped. The idea was that upon landing, you went up, to help slow down the plane. Upon taking off, you went down, to help speed things up.
Turbulence and uncertain weather were everyday occurrences. And if the pilot didn't get the landing or takeoff right the first time, he didn't get it at all. There was no room for a second chance. Takeoff was especially scary. If your plane didn't get off the ground by the time the airstrip ran out, well, you'd be flying one way or the other.
The planes that landed at Lukla were usually small, twin-engined ones, though you could see prop planes and helicopters on the airfield as well. Their whole group wouldn't fit onto one plane so they were booked for back-to-back flights. Dipesh was with the first group, while Chris stayed with a second group that included Ian and his associates.
Nearby Lukla was over 2,800 metres above sea level and a good place to rest and get used to the altitude before moving on to higher ground. It was also an excellent place to pick up any additional supplies that they would need for the trip to come. The whole town existed to service the trekkers and the mountaineers who were heading for Everest. From there it would be a two-day hike to Namche Bazaar where they could further acclimatize.
The redbrick modern Tribhuvan International Airport, where they had flown into Kathmandu, was a familiar world to the kids. But this time they went to the domestic terminal, rather than the international one.
The line-up to check-in was filled with trekkers and mountaineers. Very few suitcases were in sight. It was all backpacks loaded with camping and climbing gear.
They all checked in, although Chris and his crew would have to wait two hours for their flight, whereas Dipesh and his half would be taking off in thirty minutes.
Chris and Dipesh had worked out that he and his kids would pick up all the trail supplies while they waited, all the food and water they would need for the trek to Namche Bazaar.
Ian suggested that they pray for God's blessing on the flight, before the first plane took off. Dipesh looked shy about the suggestion, but Ian had already gathered the first group together and was leading them in a prayer requesting “journey mercies.”
The other trekkers looked on with interest, even amusement.
One guy called out that you needed divine assistance to land at Lukla. Another guy agreed and said he wished he were on the flight with the praying kids.
Chris braced himself. He expected Ian to go into missionary mode in the hour and a half that they had to wait. But Ian and his friends used the time to read their slim New Testaments and do some kind of an informal Bible-study together.
Afterwards, he overheard a prayer for the salvation of Nepal. Good. If they stuck to their Bibles and prayers, they couldn't do too much harm. Of course, if reading your Bible and praying could save Nepal, then they could have all just stayed home.
The first group had been on a twin-engined Dornier. The second group was in one of the older prop planes. The plane was so small that it had a tiny aisle with only one seat on either side.
Soon they were taxiing down the runway and lifting off above the haze of the city.
The one flight attendant came around and offered each of them hard candies and some cotton balls for their ears.
The advantage to these smaller planes was that everyone had a window seat and they could all fully enjoy the 40-minute flight. Kathmandu was left behind and soon it was green down below with farms and villages and forests. In the distance, Chris could see the mountains.
Chris felt himself relaxing. This was the challenge he was familiar with. Man versus the mountain. Not the heavy burden of having to hand out gospel tracts in shopping malls.
For a moment, he started to enjoy himself. The plane was filled with all their gear. Soon they would be trekking through some awesome mountain scenery. Didn't the Bible say that God's creation also showed His invisible attributes? Paul had said to the Romans that God could be plainly known by his creation, so men were without excuse. Why tell people the gospel when they could just look up at the mountains?
This serene thought was disturbed by a sudden bump. A sudden bump in midair was disconcerting. Chris took a deep breath. You had to expect a little turbulence. But it wasn't a little turbulence. It was a lot.
It occurred to Chris that Ian had only prayed for the protection of the people on the first flight. Since then, all he had done was pray for the salvation of Nepal. He glanced around at his kids. Some of them look concerned. He gave them what he hoped was a confident smile.
“No worries,” he said. “This is normal.”
Tell that to his stomach which was now somewhere up around his oesophagus.
There would be no soft drinks on this flight. He noticed the flight attendant was staying strapped into her seat. Not a good sign.
Were the wings supposed to dip like that?
Ian was praying out loud, but unlike Chris, his voice sounded calm.
“We will not fear, though the whole earth give way and the mountains fall into the sea,” Ian announced in a loud voice.
Hey! That was one of Chris's scriptures!
“ . . . though its waters roar and the mountains shake . . .” Ian continued.
Actually, it was the air that was shaking. Chris groaned internally. If this kept up, he'd be losing his breakfast.
“Even if the mountains shake and the earth is removed, your love for us is unshaken,” said Ian to God and whoever else was listening.
Now other kids were joining in. They praised God for His favour and protection and one girl in a trembling voice just said, “God! Save us!” That pretty much summed it up for Chris.
To make it worse, clouds had moved in, obscuring the ground. Did one really want to make an instrument landing on a narrow airstrip on the edge of a mountain that required all your senses for success?
This could end badly, thought Chris. The upside was that half the kids had probably landed safely in Lukla. The downside was that this half might not.
If this had been a Christian movie, the cloud cover would have opened up right over Lukla so they could make a safe landing. It didn't happen.
The Nepali pilot, obviously experienced in all sorts of near-death situations, came down cautiously but he met the runway with panache.
Everyone felt the wheels touch the ground with a jolt. Then the brakes were employed and there was a terrible screeching sound. If they had touched down at the start of the runway, they should be OK. But if they had come down somewhere in the middle, they would be plummeting over the edge soon.
He realized his eyes were shut tight. If death were to come, he didn't want to see it.
But then the plane slowed down and made a lazy turn. And everything was OK. God bless the pilot who had kept his wits about him and brought them all down to safety.
Legs still weak, he managed to stand up when the flight attendant started preparing the door for disembarkment.
“We're here!” he announced, stating the obvious to hide his shaky nerves.
Some of the kids looked as if they were still recovering. Many of them thanked the smiling pilot as they got off, Chris included.
They were in a valley, surrounded by mountains that today were obscured by fog. Once everyone had strapped on their backpacks, the first thing to do was to get back with the rest of the group.
The airport had a strong military presence, with armed soldiers patrolling the perimeters. Chris decided to ignore them. As long as Ian behaved himself, they had nothing to fear.
Chris surveyed the small town of white buildings with faded red or blue roofs. If they followed the only path into town, they should spot their group. Small hotels and restaurants were close to the airport, offering “Western-style” accommodation. Chris remembered his room ten years ago. One wall had been covered with pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses and in the corner had been some kind of a shrine with a candle he could light if he wanted to. Probably to appease the god of the mountain.
They found Dipesh negotiating with a local man about the hire of some yaks. He had used his time efficiently and now had all their food supplies sitting on the ground just waiting to be loaded onto the pack animals.
Chris's group compared notes with Dipesh's group. Turned out, Dipesh's group had had journey mercies and had touched down with not a cloud in sight. The clouds had rolled in when they were in the store stocking up on gorp, dried soups, instant cereal, tea and powdered milk.
Once the deal was made, the yaks could be loaded up. The kids still had to carry their backpacks, but at least the food and the tents wouldn't be an additional burden.
Dipesh was ready to head out right away. That was fine with Chris. The less time lingering, the better. And there was no fear of being caught in the dark when you had your camping gear with you. Even without camping gear, a trekker could set out confident that he would encounter a guest lodge before nightfall.
It would take two days to get to Namche Bazaar, with a stop at Phakding for a further chance to acclimatize.
Despite it being summer, some of the kids were already digging out their coats. The mountain peaks were all glaciated.
Dipesh ignored the Buddhist stupa at the beginning of the trail. In addition, there were prayer scarves on lines, presumably put there by other travellers requesting journey mercies.
Their journey started by going down, deeper into the valley where one could look up and see homes tucked into the hills. A river of glacial water ran through the valley. Chris paused to take a few photos of the trail of kids and yaks for the church folks back home. He really should have snapped a few shots of them witnessing in the Kathmandu streets too.
He had taken up the rear to make sure he didn't lose any of them. The yaks and their owner were behind him, the idea being that any poop would then not be stepped on by the entire troupe. Dipesh was in the lead. Ian, who had been somewhere in the middle, dropped back to talk to Chris.
“So far, so good,” he said.
“A nice beautiful trail,” Chris agreed. “I think we'll all draw closer to God out here . . .”
“We have to be prepared,” replied Ian.
“Prepared?” said Chris. “Prepared for what?” He knew the usual possibilities – altitude sickness, freak snowstorms, food poisoning if you stopped at one of the lodges and ordered the wrong thing.
“For opportunities,” said Ian.
“Well,” said Chris, carefully. “I think we can just let that go for a bit and enjoy the scenery.”
Ian looked at him strangely.
“Do you see the shrines?” he asked.
Chris nodded. They were hard to miss. Something about being close to the highest peak on earth seemed to inspire some people to think this was holy ground. Not only were there monasteries in the hills, there were small temples at ground level. Even rocks had been covered with holy incantations. The prayer scarves continued along the way, strung out on poles that had been erected.
“People pray at the shrines,” Ian said. “But no one hears their prayers.”
“Yeah, you're right,” he said.
“It makes me think of Elijah on Mount Carmel, challenging the prophets of Baal to a contest,” continued Ian. “Which God can hear your prayers?”
The kid made a good point.
“I guess it would be a good idea to tell them about a God who hears their prayers,” said Chris.
“Well,” said Chris slowly. “My plan was just to pose as trekkers. But maybe we can share Jesus as the opportunity arises.”
“We have to make opportunities,” said Ian. “We're only going to pass this way once.”
Chris nodded. What else could he do? He didn't want to point out to Ian that despite that they were only going to pass this way once, the locals could do a lot of bodily damage to them if they didn't like the gospel being preached in their village.
“So we'll tell them about Jesus,” Ian concluded.
“Sounds like a good plan,” said Chris, forcing enthusiasm into his voice.
Ian nodded, satisfied and then moved back to the middle.
They were travelling a well-established path, although it was not always a straight path and it had ups and downs. Some of the dips were so low that suspension bridges provided a quick way across a deep valley. The bridges looked safe enough, made of steel with sturdy chain link siding, but Chris called out for everyone to hold onto the low railing as they crossed.
Teahouses were built at regular intervals along the path. When some of the kids started complaining about their sore feet, Dipesh obligingly turned in to one.
This one was a stone building with a cheerful blue roof. As well as the main tearoom, it had rooms for travellers. Some of the kids took outdoor tables while others went straight inside to use the bathrooms first.
A friendly Nepali woman came to take their order. Chris ordered tea all around and then asked Dipesh what he recommended. He was expecting that Dipesh would request something like cookies. Instead, he was surprised when he ordered dal-bhat-tarkari for everyone.
“It is cheap to eat here,” explained Dipesh. “We save our supplies for higher up where it will become more costly.”
OK. That sounded reasonable.
Other trekkers shared the tearoom with them. Chris kept a close eye on Ian in case he attempted any witnessing, but like everyone else, he looked too tired to do much but rest and eat. The altitude took a bit of getting used to.
It wasn't long after the teahouse stop that they arrived in Phakding.
Again, Dipesh suggested a teahouse for the night.
The rooms were only a couple of dollars a night. Chris clued into the basic strategy of the guide. Use the tents and supplies only if necessary. Otherwise, let someone else do the work.
It wasn't the worst of philosophies and it seemed to work for the other trekkers. Chris didn't see any tents around Phakding.
But the sleeping bags came in handy. Everyone was either three or four to a room and each room had two simple wooden bunkbeds with foam mattresses and only one thin sheet. Even toilet paper had to be purchased from the proprietor if you didn't bring your own. But like Dipesh said, the food was cheap - and plentiful.
Chris marvelled at the kids' ability to sit down for another meal even though it had only been two hours since their last one. They met in the tearoom with its wooden tables and benches and Dipesh ordered them all noodles and potatoes and momo. Momos were dumplings. Chris didn't tell the kids they were probably filled with yak meat.
Some of the kids complained that the menu offered pizza but Chris pointed out that it was four times the cost of what Dipesh had ordered and if they wanted pizza they could pay for it themselves.
They still had most of the afternoon when they finished eating.
Some of the kids wanted to look around Phakding.
“You should rest,” said Chris. “It's quite the hike to Namche Bazaar.”
“But Chris!” complained one of guys. “We're only in Nepal once!”
Chris looked at Dipesh and Dipesh shrugged.
“It is safe here,” he said. “People are nice.”
“Well, OK,” said Chris, looking out the open window of the teahouse. The town was small. It would take them, maybe, half an hour to wander around. “Stick together and then come back here and rest, OK?”
Word spread that Chris had given them permission to look around Phakding and soon chairs and benches were scraping back as everyone started heading out.
“Travel in pairs!” Chris called out. “Remember, rest when you get back!”
Who was listening? It was only Chris and Dipesh who wanted to rest.
Chris and Dipesh were left in the tearoom.
“What harm can they come to?” said Chris to Dipesh. It was a rhetorical question, to reassure himself that he was doing an OK job as chaperone.
“Only two things here,” he said. “Yeti and the monastery.”
“The Yeti is just a myth, right?”
Chris decided that he wasn't going to worry about it. After all, people went to the Pacific Northwest without worrying about meeting the Sasquatch.
So that just left the monastery.
Monks were harmless, Chris decided, standing up.
Then a thought occurred to him. Monks were harmless, unless someone like Ian stirred them up.
Ian wouldn't dream of taking the gospel to a Buddhist monastery. Would he?
He turned back to look out the window. He could see the kids, down below him, exiting out into the street.
“Uh, where is the monastery?” Chris asked.
There was no answer. Dipesh had already left. A lady was clearing away all their plates. He directed his question to her.
“Monastery?” she said in halting English.
“Monks. Long robes. Holy men.”
She came over to the window and pointed up. There, on one of the hills, were more stone buildings. Chris thanked her and stared thoughtfully up at the small complex.
It was a bit of hike.
After all the walking they had done, he doubted the kids would have energy for an uphill walk like that.
hris woke up in a fog. For one disconcerting moment, he had no idea where he was. Then he remembered. In a teahouse in Phakding, Nepal. And responsible for thirty kids.
He glanced at his watch. It was already six o'clock. Jet lag must have caught up with him. He had slept for over four hours. Rubbing his eyes, he got off of his low wooden bed. When he had lain down he hadn't bothered to climb into his sleeping bag and now he felt chilly.
Going through his backpack, he pulled out and put on a wool sweater that Dipesh had included in his supplies.
Better get out there and check everyone. Probably time for another meal, too.
Some of the kids were in the tearoom, sipping bottled pop. A few had bought themselves pizza, Nepali style. The cheese probably came from buffalo milk. He did a head count. Only fourteen were in the main room.
Asking around, he could account for thirteen more, said to be sleeping back in their shared rooms. One of the kids told him that Dipesh had been in the tearoom earlier, telling them to spread the word that their dinner would be at seven.
Chris nodded, absently. He was doing the math in his head. Fourteen plus thirteen made twenty-seven. Were three still wandering around Phakding, four hours later?
Again, he did a survey of the kids. Who was missing? A rising concern caused him to get specific and ask the kids at the tables if anyone had anyone seen Ian or Scott or Todd, the third guy who generally hung with Ian.
As he had suspected, no one had seen them since they had all had their lunch in this room. And since the three guys were sharing a room, no one could confirm whether or not they were in their room.
Well that was a hopeful thought. Maybe they were all just having a nap. He would knock on their door on the pretext of telling them dinner would be served at seven.
But there was no answer.
Great, just great.
That could only mean one thing. They had made the trip up the mountain to the monastery, and knowing Ian, it wasn't to take a photo of the panoramic view. Chris wouldn't have blamed the monks if they bound the guys in rope and offered them on an altar to their gods.
As he was hurrying down the steps to ground level, he encountered Dipesh.
“Dinner at seven,” said Dipesh.
“Uh, yeah, I know,” said Chris, pausing. “Have you seen Ian and Scott and a third guy, Todd . . . ?”
“The young men at the cinema?”
“I saw them going up the hill,” said Dipesh casually.
“Why didn't you stop them?” was what he wanted to cry out. Instead he said, “They must still be up there.”
“It is a long hike up and there is much to see at the top.”
Then Dipesh continued on upstairs, unconcerned.
“Wait a minute!” Chris called out. Dipesh turned.
“What if they, you know, tell the monks about Jesus?”
“I am sure the monks already know about Jesus.”
“But, I mean, will we be run out of town?”
“We are only staying one day.”
Chris sighed as Dipesh continued on his way up.
Now he had two choices. Let the guys make it back on their own, or start walking up the hill and bring them down himself. And miss dinner.
A path had been cut through the forest. Evidently, many people liked to take this route up the hill. It didn't take him long to climb the hill because he didn't stop at any point to survey the scenery. He passed a few trekkers coming down, no doubt to a nice hot meal in their teahouse.
The first thing that he encountered was a long row of copper-coloured prayer wheels.
The monastery itself still had some visitors, one woman posing for the camera in front of a large colourful prayer wheel, another couple examining a long stone prayer wall.
A few monks in their saffron and red robes moved around, ignoring the visitors. Chris didn't feel like approaching them to ask if any Christian missionaries had visited the monastery today.
He looked down in the valley at Phakding with its fields and blue corrugated iron rooftops.
Turning back to the monastery itself, he wasn't sure if he was allowed to go inside. The few visitors were now leaving and soon he would be alone.
Surreptitiously, he took a quick peek in the main building.
The whole room was a kaleidoscope of colour. Some walls were painted with designs and murals, others had vibrant wall hangings. There were some highly colourful statues of Buddha and a few other unidentified important people. Maybe they were different versions of Buddha. Then there were rows and rows of stair-like shelves with silver bowls. Some candles were lit.
Around the room were framed photos of people, including monks. It seemed to be a place of prayer and remembrance.
But there was no sign of Ian and his gang.
The prayer scarves were hanging everywhere outside. The monks did a lot of praying evidently. Maybe he should do a bit of praying himself.
The wonder of prayer wasn't his thing. That was more Danny's department, who liked to give messages about the power of praying in Jesus's name. Chris had never been able to approach prayer with the same enthusiasm as Danny. He did it, and he did it everyday, but there was always a sense that if he asked for anything, the answer would probably be no.
Even now, he figured Ian's prayers were probably overriding his own and if Ian had prayed for a chance to effectively witness to the monks, it was probably being answered in the affirmative.
But if it was, it was in some back room because there was no sign of him out here.
Chris sighed and looked at his watch. Ten minutes past seven. If he hurried down the hill, he might get a plate of cold dal-bhat-tarkari.
Taking the path back down to the village, he worried about the Ian situation. He had expected to find them in the process of being tarred-and-feathered at the monastery. That he wouldn't find them up there hadn't crossed his mind.
The possibility that he had lost them was real. If the three had truly disappeared, he'd probably have to call in the Maoist Army to scour the whole area.
Arriving at the teahouse, he took the steps two at a time. The sooner he let Dipesh know what was going on, the sooner they could organize some kind of a search-and-rescue. In two hours it would be dark.
He heard the noise of talking and eating before he entered the tearoom. Surveying the room, he saw Dipesh eating at a table with . . . Ian, Scott and Todd. He just stared before hurrying over.
“Where have you guys been?” he demanded.
They all looked surprised, even Dipesh.
“Here,” said Todd, who could be a smart aleck.
“I can see that,” said Chris, taking a seat beside Dipesh.
“We were buying souvenirs,” said Ian quietly.
“But I thought you were at the monastery,” said Chris. The obliging proprietor had observed his arrival and brought him over a plate of steaming rice and vegetables and some kind of meat.
“We were,” said Ian. “But then we came down and bought some souvenirs.”
This was bewildering. Should he push it?
Yes, he decided. He had a right to know.
“Did you convert any monks?”
Scott and Todd laughed, but Ian looked serious.
“We discussed, faith, yes,” he said earnestly. “But not with the monks. With some visitors from Kathmandu. They told me that a lot of people from the West come here looking for answers. I asked if they wanted to pray with us.”
“What did they say?”
“They said sure.”
“And you all prayed together?” asked Chris.
“We prayed to Jesus. They prayed more to Buddha,” said Ian.
“Well,” said Chris, picking up his fork. Forks were for foreigners. Nepali usually used their fingers. “That doesn't sound too bad.”
“Maybe we planted seeds,” Ian agreed.
Fog covered the whole valley. The mountains were only vague outlines in the morning mist.
They were eating an early breakfast of milky tea and fried bread. The kids had been instructed to be ready to set out right after breakfast for the long hike to Namche Bazaar.
Chris was looking forward to a day of trekking.
No worries about Ian witnessing. On the trails of Nepal, you were always passing trekkers, as well as porters carrying heavy loads from village to village, but apart from a smile and a hello, everyone just kept going.
A day of only the mountains and the scenery, that is, if the fog would lift.
It took fifteen minutes for everyone to adjust to the weather, either pulling out extra layers to put on or putting away extra layers that weren't needed. Then they were off.
Starting along the river, they came to a suspension bridge. Prayer scarves had been tied all along the railings and were blowing in the breeze. Chris didn't know whether to take it as a bad omen that so many people felt the need to offer up a prayer at this point in their journey. But all of them, yaks included, got across the bridge safely.
After that, it was two hours of pleasant walking until they reached the entrance building of the Sagarmatha National Park. A fee was required. Chris had passed this way ten years earlier but the brick building with wood trim was new.
Some of the kids were looking around for a souvenir stand to commemorate this event, the national park that housed Everest, but Dipesh called out that the next stop would be Jorsale, for lunch.
Earlier travellers must have considered this point in their journey significant though, because as they descended down a steep path, the stones were covered with Hindi script. At the bottom of the incline was another river and another bridge.
Once across, it was necessary to keep one's eyes on the ground to avoid tripping over loose stones. But with the midday sun, some of the fog had cleared and everyone wanted to walk with their head in the air, gaping up at the immense peaks around them. And these weren't even the bigger one.
The path took them along the river until they came to the small village of Jorsale. Dipesh waved them into a teahouse and ordered the same thing for all of them – noodles and vegetables. By now, the kids had learnt not to complain. And besides, everyone was famished.
When they were back out in the sun and clouds, Dipesh warned them that the final portion of their journey would be the hardest. The path was almost straight up to Namche Bazaar.
“So don't whine and be like babies!” he called out, which made them all laugh. But it turned out to be necessary advice.
There were points in the ascent when Chris wanted to whine like a baby. Ten years ago he had been more fit.
At the top of the mountain, a large town awaited. Namche Bazaar was a trekker's hangout - with hotels, guesthouses, a thriving market, cafés and teahouses. This town built on the hillside was Dipesh's home, but he said he'd get them settled in before visiting his daughter.
He took them to a guesthouse that was run by a friend of his, who he guaranteed would not overcharge them. It didn't offer meals, but eateries were plentiful in the narrow stone streets of Namche Bazaar.
Before he left them, he pointed out the army barracks.
“No photographs,” he said to the kids. “Otherwise, they get mad.”
The kids nodded.
Then he pointed in a slightly different direction.
“The headquarters of the Sagarmatha National Park is there. We will hike up tomorrow and see the museum. From there, we can also get our first look at Everest, Lhotse, Thamserku and Ama Dablam.”
The kids looked at each other with excitement.
Dipesh turned to Chris.
“I will be back in the morning,” he said.
“Listen,” said Chris, awkwardly. “If there's anything I can do . . .”
“Thank you, brother,” he said.
And then he was off.
The word played again and again in his mind. Dipesh was their guide and a good one. But it was true, he was also a brother.
Dipesh had booked ten rooms for them, but it was up to Chris to get the kids all assigned to each one. Each room had four beds and Chris decided it would be a good idea to have Ian, Scott and Todd in his room.
If they had a problem with that, they didn't let it show. Everyone went straight to their room after Chris said they would meet back in the foyer in two hours for an evening meal. Yes, they could go exploring. But not alone.
For his own part, he would be doing whatever Ian, Scott and Todd did. He didn't like the look of those army barracks and the warning not to photograph them. They probably didn't go for Western missionaries either.
Ian and his friends ignored him while they dropped their backpacks on their beds. The backpacks were opened and light jackets retrieved. Despite it being the middle of summer, the day was cool as long as the clouds were out.
Then they started heading out.
“Uh, guys?” Chris said.
“Can I join you?”
“Sure,” said Ian.
Might as well be open about this rather than trying to surreptitiously follow them.
“Gonna check out the monastery?” Chris asked, grinning, as they stepped outside. On the hill, en route to the headquarters of the Sagarmatha National Park, was another Buddhist monastery. He could tell by all the prayer scarves waving in the breeze and the line of copper prayer wheels on one side of the building.
Ian looked thoughtfully in the direction of the red stone building with its colourful window frames and flapping curtains.
He was serious. Chris regretted his flippant remark.
“No,” he said. “Maybe we should just look around and pick out a restaurant for tonight.”
“Sure,” said Ian, though his tone was indifferent. He was scanning the small street - more of an alley, really - that they were standing in. The narrow white buildings all had colourful roofs – some red, others blue or green. In this neighbourhood, shops and tearooms abounded. Despite that everything had to be flown in, the shops were packed with mountaineer gear. Other types of stores included ones dedicated to prayer scarves, groceries and yak-related products.
Chris started walking.
“We could get some pizza tonight,” Scott said, hopefully, stopping in front of an internet café that featured Western cuisine – and Western prices. Ian glanced in. Everyone was European.
“No,” he said. “Let's eat the local food.”
He probably figured the Europeans had had enough exposure to the gospel.
They walked along until they came to a teahouse that Ian approved of, probably because it was full of Sherpas and there wasn't a Caucasian man in sight. The menu, on a chalkboard, was written in Nepalese.
They wandered up and down the streets - literally, since the town was built on the side of a hill - until there was nothing left to see. Chris could feel a headache coming on and hoped it wasn't the beginning of Acute Mountain Sickness. So far, they'd been mercifully spared that ordeal.
Early warning signs were headache, loss of appetite, dizziness and fatigue. But from what he could see, all the kids looked healthy. The only thing to do if someone showed signs would be to stay in one place until the symptoms cleared up. If they didn't, then the one affected just had to go back down to lower altitudes.
“Should we head back?” said Chris, looking at his watch. Only an hour had passed. The town was an oasis of civilization, but it only had about 1,000 residents. The trekkers made it feel bigger.
“No, I really want to look around,” said Ian. Scott and Todd nodded.
“OK,” he sighed. “But I'm going back to rest.” He couldn't blame them for wanting to take it all in. This was his second time around. “Just be careful, OK?”
He didn't want to outright say, “No witnessing.” But he hoped they'd pick up on the double meaning of his cautionary warning.
Feeling tired, he headed back to the guesthouse. Along the way, he weakly waved to some of his kids. The place seemed safe enough. The streets were bright and the trekkers were all out browsing the shops and having a tea or coffee.
This tiredness was a bad sign too. It wasn't like him to need afternoon naps.
He went inside the guesthouse. The foyer was quiet and he made his way down the narrow hallway to his room.
Where was his key?
In a pocket?
He felt around, not remembering where he'd put the stupid thing. Maybe he'd never got one. Maybe he'd just given keys to the guys . . . No, wait, here it was. Right where he'd put it so he wouldn't lose it. In the breast pocket of his shirt. The one with the button.
Key in the lock. Fiddle a bit. Open the door. Head for the bed to lie down . . .
But there was a woman on his bed.
he first thing Chris noticed was that the woman was beautiful. The second thing he noticed was that Dipesh was sitting on Todd's bed.
Dipesh jumped to his feet when Chris came in. Chris momentarily forgot that he was tired and had a headache.
“I am sorry,” said Dipesh apologetically. “I have booked Sunita into a room, but we were waiting to talk to you.”
“How did you get in?” asked Chris, sitting down on Ian's bed and looking over at Sunita. She was younger than him, but not drastically so. Definitely Nepali. Big eyes, but worried.
“All keys and locks are the same here.”
Chris shook his head at this lack of security.
“This is a very bad place for you to be,” said Dipesh turning to Sunita. “I must get you somewhere else . . .”
“I don't understand,” said Chris, looking first at Dipesh and then at Sunita.
“Sunita is the granddaughter I was looking for,” said Dipesh. “While I was in Kathmandu, she managed to sneak back here under the, what is the American expression? Noses? Of the Maoist Army. But it is not safe for her to be with her mother. They will find her eventually.”
Chris was bewildered. What had this woman done that the Maoist Army was so angry with her?
“I regret to involve you in this,” said Dipesh, “but no other idea occurred to me. I booked her a room with your party. I needed to tell you this so that you would understand why you have eleven rooms now.”
“But . . .” said Chris. “I don't understand why anyone is after, er, Sunita.” He glanced quickly at the woman. Her long dark hair was pulled back into a ponytail and she was dressed to fit in with the villagers, but with her looks, she would have trouble blending in anywhere.
“She is a convert to Christianity,” said Dipesh simply.
“Oh,” said Chris, surprised. He was at a loss for words for a minute. This was the granddaughter who had no interest in Dipesh’s religion. Something must have changed. “Is that really a crime?” he asked.
“Some people in the government want it to be.” Sunita spoke for the first time. “Though the Maoist Army abolished Hindu as the state religion, religion plays a large role in the lives of everyday people.” Her voice was melodious. She spoke clear English and though she spoke softly, it was with assurance. “The Maoist Army wants civil order and are more interested in power than they are in religious freedom.”
“Makes sense,” said Chris. “But I mean, surely one conversion here or there can just slip in under the radar . . .”
Sunita glanced at her grandfather.
“My grandfather is relatively safe. I am not. I shared the ideals of the Maoist Army and it is a betrayal to become a Christian.”
Chris was silent, thinking. This mission trip made no sense to him. Why come to a country to tell people about Jesus when it would only ruin their lives?
“Can I ask you a personal question?” he asked, turning to Sunita.
Sunita nodded slightly.
“Why did you become a Christian?” he asked.
Sunita didn't hesitate.
“Because I needed Jesus.”
Again, Chris was quiet. And then it was agreed that Sunita would join their party. If anyone asked, she would be the Nepali-born, American female chaperone. For that though, she would need a bit of a wardrobe change. Thankfully, in a town devoted to trekking, it was easy enough for Dipesh and Chris to go back out in the streets and pick her up some gear to join their party.
“I am sorry to involve you,” said Dipesh, again.
“Don't worry about it,” said Chris generously. “I'm happy to be able to do this for a fellow-Christian.” But in his heart, he questioned his motives for accepting Sunita into the group.
“You are the only brother I know,” said Dipesh, as they turned in to a small shop that sold the genuine gear, not cheap knockoffs.
Soon they had a wardrobe for Sunita. Keeping his voice low, Dipesh told Chris that Sunita had been forced to leave behind all her clothing and personal items in Kathmandu. Coming home, her mother had clothed her in native dress in an effort to keep her from standing out. But, of course, if she stayed at home she would be spotted by one of the neighbours. So far the Maoist Army hadn't tracked her to her hometown, but with army barracks right outside Namche Bazaar, it was only a matter of time before someone thought to look for her at her grandfather and mother's house.
“Won't they lose interest in her after a while?” Chris asked, when they were back in the cobblestone street with two large bags each.
“Maybe,” said Dipesh, shrugging. “Maybe not.” They were walking fast now. It was time to go back and meet the kids for dinner. Chris had forgotten all about his plan to take a nap. “The problem is, it is not just her. It is who first told her about Jesus. They want to know if there are others in the Maoist Army.”
Chris felt a shiver. Hopefully Ian and the kids weren't out somewhere preaching right now. Things were bad enough with a fugitive in their midst.
Arriving back at the guesthouse, Dipesh said he would spend the evening with Sunita and bring her some food. Chris nodded.
“Tomorrow, we go to the museum,” said Dipesh. “I have not forgotten.”
Chris nodded again.
He didn't ask if Sunita would join them. They would have to pass the army barracks and when he looked up, he saw soldiers and automatic rifles and barbed wire - all things he'd rather not encounter.
Most of the kids were waiting in the foyer when they returned, including Ian, Scott and Todd. Chris gave his two bags to Dipesh and casually said, “See you tomorrow.”
The group headed for the restaurant that Chris, Ian, Scott and Todd had selected earlier that day. Again, they filled up most of the room. A few Sherpas looked at them and then turned back to their meals. Foreigners were nothing to get excited about.
To keep Ian from proselytizing, Chris put him in charge of ordering dinner.
Ian took the task seriously. He couldn't understand the writing, but he did try a few Nepali phrases on the waiter.
They all ended up with plates of potato pancakes and large bowls of noodle soup. It seemed to be what all the natives were eating, so Chris gave his approval to Ian's choice.
Though his headache – and fears of Acute Mountain Sickness – had subsided, Chris was still tired. Some of the kids would have liked to linger in the easygoing, almost party-like, environment created by the trekkers and mountaineers, but he insisted on an early night for them all.
“Tomorrow's a big day, up a big hill,” he said. “It'll be your first look at Everest. Might as well be awake for it.”
Some grumbled, but there was general agreement.
Chris unlocked their door almost expecting to see Sunita there again. But all that greeted him and the guys were four empty beds.
Ian settled on his bed to do some Bible reading, Todd got out an mp3 player and Scott flipped through a magazine. Chris fell on his bed and went straight to sleep.
Chris didn't know how he would introduce Sunita, but Dipesh took care of it for him.
“This is Susan,” he said to the kids, the next day in the foyer. “She is a good guide and can be a friend to the girls.”
Sunita, now Susan, smiled at the girls and they returned the friendly gesture. Dressed in some khaki zip-leg pants, a red jacket with a hood that covered all her hair, and some hiking boots she looked like any other trekker. If she slipped on her sunglasses, Chris doubted her best friend would recognize her.
There was a stop at the closest teahouse for a breakfast of yak-cheese omelettes and fried bread before setting out on the path out of the village and up the hill to the headquarters of the Sagarmatha National Park. The headquarters was way too close to the army barracks for Chris's comfort, but he noticed “Susan” was relaxed, laughing and talking with two of the girls. Taking up the rear, he could hear that they were talking about who was cuter, Shia LeBeouf or Dev Patel. Chris had no idea who they were, but he gathered they had both been in movies that the girls had seen. And Sunita was fitting in just fine. Unlike him, she wasn't glancing nervously in the direction of the army barracks.
But as they got closer, some of the soldiers were looking their way. Guarding the barbed wire perimeters, a few of them were definitely checking out his group. Especially the girls.
“Namaste!” they called out. It was a more casual form of Namaskar. Hello!
Ian returned the greeting and for a moment, that got the soldiers’ eyes off of the girls. But only for a moment.
Chris didn't trust himself to look at Sunita. He fixed his attention on the top of the hill. Thankfully, Dipesh at the front suddenly went into tourist guide mode.
“Sagarmatha means Head of the Sky in Sanskrit,” he called out. “This is the highest national park in the world.”
The soldiers turned away, bored, as Dipesh called out for them to all notice the different plants covering the hillside, a result of the June rains. Chris glanced down just to try to look normal. Yes, there were flowers.
Dipesh continued with his talk telling them all about the birds and butterflies and insects in the area. Chris didn't know whether it was for the benefit of the soldiers or whether this was just his spiel. In any case, it was helping to contribute to their image of being just another bunch of trekkers.
Dipesh's talk turned to the various animals one might encounter here – wild yak, deer, red pandas, black bears, snow leopards . . . The animals were getting increasingly dangerous as the list went on. If Chris hadn't been so relieved to be past the army barracks, he might have gotten worried. Ten years ago, no one had told him about snow leopards.
At the top, a few things awaited them. A Sherpa museum, a teahouse and a view.
Dipesh was patient. He let the group look all around and snap their photos and told everyone who asked which peak was Everest so they could point their cameras in the right direction. It was a clear day and only the tops of the mountains were obscured by clouds.
Then he led them into the museum. It contained photos and information about the whole area and Dipesh took them around, stopping in front of each poster and adding his own knowledge to the displays.
If Sunita already knew all this, she did an admirable job of just going along with the group and pretending to take it all in.
Then the kids moved on to the teahouse, which offered a magnificent view while you ate. The tables were filling up fast.
Sunita already had two girls sitting on either side of her, but the seat across from her was available.
“Uh, mind if I join you?” Chris asked.
“Certainly,” said Sunita, giving him a welcoming smile. But her attention was immediately diverted to the girl beside her, Tammy, who wanted to tell her about the silver bracelet she had bought in Namche Bazaar and to ask her about the inscription on it.
“It is a dedication to Parvati,” said Sunita looking closely at it.
“Who's Parvati?” asked Tammy.
“She is important to Hindu women,” said Sunita. “She is the wife of Shiva and is said to bring a happy married life to those who pray to her. At least, that's my understanding.”
Tammy looked at her bracelet.
“Don't worry about it,” said Sunita quickly. “It does not mean that you worship Parvati. It's very pretty,” she added.
Tammy looked pleased and not too concerned about its association with false gods.
Since the kids were left to themselves to order their own food, many of them were already sipping orange sodas. But Chris noticed that the girls beside Sunita imitated her and ordered milk tea. He did the same.
“What do you recommend to eat?” he asked her.
“Susan” looked at the menu board.
“Have you tried Alu Tama?” she asked.
He shook his head.
“What is it?”
“Potato bamboo shoots,” she replied. “Very delicious if you like curry.”
“OK,” he said. “I'll give it a go.”
“Very brave of you,” she said, smiling.
“Oh no,” he said. “What have I gotten myself into?”
For the girls, “Susan” recommended Vegetable Thukpa, or egg noodles.
“Is it too late for me to change my mind?” he asked.
“Yep,” she said, grinning.
The waitress came, took their orders and then left. Dipesh was busy with the kids, telling them what it was like to grow up around here. Now that he had his granddaughter back, there was a sparkle in his eye. He was a leader, by nature, and bossy even, but the kids were warming up to him.
Chris had to be careful that he didn't say anything that might compromise Sunita's security with the group. He almost said something about how many times she must have seen this view, but stopped, in case she didn't want the kids to know she was from Namche Bazaar.
So he let the girls dominate the conversation with their banal thoughts on everything from the lack of warm showers at the guesthouse to the flip-flop sandals the porters wore.
What Chris would have really loved to know more about was what it was about the Christian faith that made Sunita willing to risk her career, her life even, to follow it. But, in the meantime, Dipesh's cheerful mood suggested that he thought she had made the right decision.
riginally, the plan was to stay in Namche Bazaar only long enough to acclimatize, before pushing onto Tengboche, and ultimately, Everest base camp. Chris didn't know if Sunita's addition to the group changed anything.
If anything, Dipesh was more eager to move on than ever. He wanted to get his granddaughter away from Namche Bazaar and the fact that no one in their group was showing any signs of Acute Mountain Sickness, was to him, an act of Divine Grace.
So the plan was to set out early the next morning.
Chris was half-expecting that the Maoist Army would burst through his door in the night, in search of Sunita, but the guesthouse remained unscathed.
After a quick breakfast at the closest teahouse, they were off again. They had different porters though, and different yaks. Dipesh must have hired them the night before.
Dipesh informed them that the walk itself would take them down into the valley, across the river, and then back up again. It didn't sound easy. But he assured them, if they went at a steady pace, they would all be at their destination by lunchtime.
Descending into the valley seemed like an exercise in futility when they would ultimately have to ascend even higher than Namche Bazaar.
When they stopped for breaks, there wasn't much talking. The kids just wanted to rest. When Dipesh said it was time to move on, they did, but with heavy sighs.
Everest was out of sight now, so it was just a matter of walking and trying to enjoy what scenery there was. The terrain had changed. Rocky and less green, though there were still the mountain flowers.
When the sun was overhead, they reached Tengboche. Everyone wanted lunch before settling in.
The town was substantially smaller and more open than Namche Bazaar. It didn't have narrow streets. Most of it was an expanse of dirt with some scrubby grass. The stone buildings were spread out.
Dipesh led them to the one place that seemed to be the centre of town – a Buddhist monastery. Why did that not surprise Chris?
The monastery was as colourful and as active as any they had encountered. An ornate archway greeted the visitors. A cobblestone path, where Buddhist monks and trekkers moved along in and out, led up the hill to the large main stone building. Smaller buildings were all around the compound, some white, some red, all with the ornate colourful trim that the Nepali people favoured. On one side was a large golden chorten with a huge white base. Everywhere, there were the ubiquitous prayer scarves.
But more important to the travellers were the bakery and a guesthouse. The aroma of fresh bread filled the air, especially appealing for hungry trekkers. Dipesh warned Chris, prices would be high compared to Namche Bazaar.
What the village lacked in amenities, it made up for with the view.
At the plastic chairs and tables set up outside the bakery, they could look right up and see Everest, Lhotse and Ama Dablam. For a moment or two, everyone forgot that they were tired. Most of the kids started snapping photos.
“We are blessed to have a clear day,” said Sunita to Chris. He was startled, not realizing she was standing beside him. He agreed.
“I will take care of our rooms,” said Dipesh heading for the guesthouse. “Susan, you go ahead and order lunch,” he called out over his shoulder.
Chris followed her into the bakery.
“Thought you might need some help,” he said.
She nodded her thanks.
“What do you recommend we eat today?” he asked.
“Pizza!” she said.
Sure enough, the bakery specialized in pizza. A closer look suggested that it would not be the same as pizza back home. The texture of the cheese looked different, as did the minced meat. There were some unidentifiable legumes and vegetables and it also had some hot chillies. The aroma suggested that other unusual spices had been added.
But it was the main thing going in Tengboche, so Chris ordered enough to go around and while they waited, he and Sunita discussed the nearby peaks, the number of travellers in Tengboche and whether or not base camp would be crowded this time of year.
Back outside, Dipesh was waiting and announced that they had their rooms, though they would be six to a room. Chris looked around. The plastic chairs outside the bakery and guesthouse were nearly all taken up by trekkers from around the world. It was the obvious stop for anyone heading for Everest base camp from this direction and was renowned for being the birthplace of Tenzing Norgay, Edmund Hillary's Sherpa guide. The two men had been the first to reach the summit of Everest in 1953.
Chris lost Sunita to a table full of giggling girls, so he joined Ian, Scott and Todd.
Dipesh sat down beside him. The guys were having an animated discussion about the monastery. Again, Chris was not surprised.
“Many people stop at the monastery to say prayers before climbing the Head of the Sky,” Dipesh said as the plates of pizza were being devoured. “But I think it is better to pray to the one who created the Head of the Sky.”
Ian, Scott and Todd paused their eating to nod solemnly.
“This country needs the good news of the creator,” Dipesh continued.
Don't encourage them, thought Chris, biting into his pizza.
“You have come here to tell the people of Nepal the good news,” said Dipesh. “I am glad. They need to hear about Jesus and how he can save them from their sins.”
Ian nodded vigorously.
“But first,” said Dipesh. “You must love.”
Good, thought Chris. That would take them a lifetime to learn. By then, they would have all left Nepal.
Most of the kids wanted to do some exploring after lunch. Chris groaned to himself. That could only mean one thing, the monastery.
But at least Tengboche was filled with visitors today. Ian could witness to the foreigners.
After the rooms were sorted out, everyone went off in groups. Chris looked around for Sunita but he couldn't see her. Probably being held captive by girls who wanted her to help them paint their nails, or something.
Probably the best thing to do would be to wander around the monastery and keep an eye on things.
Like most of his group, Ian, Scott and Todd were in the main building, in the prayer hall, looking up at the two-story stature of Buddha.
Who dusts the top of that thing?
He went back outside. The danger wasn't with the statue. The danger was if Ian started witnessing to live monks.
Much to his surprise, he found Sunita around the corner, sitting on the remains of a stone wall that must have at one time run the perimeters of the monastery. She was looking up at the three peaks.
“Pretty awesome, isn't it?” he said, sitting down beside her.
She nodded and smiled.
He was hoping to work it in that he had summited Everest a few years back. OK, ten years, but maybe he didn't have to make himself sound too much older than her.
“You'd never get tired of a view like this,” he said.
She nodded, but it was more a polite nod than an agreement.
Of course, she was a Sherpa. She had grown up with this.
“Kind of makes you think about life,” he said. He had thrown out the comment in a casual attempt to get the conversation off the ground. To his surprise, she responded as if he had said something profound.
“It is like life,” she said, nodding. “That is exactly what I was thinking! It is just like this journey we are on.”
He didn't want to throw away the advantage he had gained, of being on the same wavelength as her, but he really had no clue what she was talking about.
“Uh huh,” he said in a neutral voice.
“It is like this trip,” she continued. “We keep going. Why? To get to Everest base camp.”
“Uh huh,” he said, again.
“But what is that, really? For some, it is just a beginning and they keep going up. They go through all sorts of hardship to make it to the top. But what then?”
“I dunno,” said Chris, thinking about his own experience. “To say you've done it, I guess.”
“But what is that worth?”
OK, fine, maybe he wouldn't be telling her he did Everest.
“You stand on top of the world, you look around,” said Sunita.
That pretty much summed it up. And then you had to come back down.
“That was my life before Jesus,” said Sunita. “Always going forward. Always going higher. But in the end, for what? To stand there and look around?”
“Is that so bad?” He instantly regretted the comment.
“Grandfather used to try to explain it to me,” Sunita continued. “He said, fine, you have everything you want in this life. But what about the life to come? But at that time, I thought religion was for weak-minded people.”
“So what changed?” he asked.
“I heard the truth,” she said simply, standing up.
“Your grandfather says that it's not good for people like us to come into the country and just hand out gospel tracts,” said Chris. “We need to build hospitals and schools and things like that. Oh, and love. He mentioned love.”
They were walking now.
“That was his experience,” said Sunita, nodding. “But it was not mine. His mother needed a healing in her body. I needed a healing in my mind. When a friend gave me a Rosary, it talked to what was hurting in my mind.”
“So there is a place for standing around handing out gospel tracts?” said Chris.
“Maybe,” said Sunita. “But what happened to me was, my friend saw that I was hurting and she risked her place in the army, her life even, to share her faith with me. She is the one reason I do not want to be caught. If they do, they might force me to tell them how I first heard of Jesus.”
“Force you,” Chris repeated. He didn't like the sound of that.
Sunita turned around to look at the three peaks.
“People climb to the top of Everest,” she said. “I used to think it was an achievement. Now I think it is foolishness.”
He definitely wouldn't be telling her about his summit.
“All to stand on the highest peak. When they die, they lose it all.”
A hazy picture was forming in his mind. The Head of the Sky. The tallest peak on earth. The pursuit of eternal life. Metaphorical mountains that went higher than any peak on earth. It would make a good sermon. And it would make him sound humble to be able to say his achievement of standing on top of Everest was worth nothing compared to the achievement of everyone in the room – salvation through Jesus Christ. He could imagine himself scanning his audience at that point.
And yet, disturbing. Because he knew there was something missing in his own faith. Ian had it - a boldness, courage to do what was necessary.
The people who had the tallest peak in the world right in their own backyard were currently praying to an enormous statue that didn't have the power to bestow eternal life, never mind take them safely up and down the mountain.
nother dinner at the bakery. They were all seated at the plastic tables and chairs eating thick slices of fresh bread and spicy noodle soup.
Chris was glad Dipesh had insisted on taking advantage of the teahouses along the way. Now all their supplies could be used for base camp. When he had done this ten years ago, the Sherpas had handled everything to do with supplies. His mind had been too focused on the climb ahead of him to be thinking much about canned food.
He found his mind taken up with different thoughts this time around.
Sunita, of course. She was beautiful. He couldn't pretend he wasn't attracted to her.
But at the same time, he knew if he ever convinced her to come back to the States with him and she saw what he did for a living, she'd realize that his was not exactly a life-and-death profession. The congregation was comfortable. The mountains they climbed were fighting weight gain, increasing gas prices and whether or not to pave the church parking lot. (Danny wanted to put the money toward missions. His congregation wanted to protect their shoes every time it rained and the gravel parking lot became a mess of mud and puddles.)
They called it persecution when the town refused to let the church put up a new and bigger sign along the edge of the highway.
What would Sunita think of all that?
But there was an even more critical issue.
The salvation of the people of Nepal. His church had heard the gospel over and over. It was a matter of routine to invite people to pray with the pastors and receive Jesus as their saviour. Chris was ashamed to say it, but it had become almost trite.
But though the people of Nepal had heard of Jesus, they didn't seem to realize he was more than a good teacher, he was the way to eternal life. Who would tell them?
Just before they dragged her away to force her to tell them where she had first heard the gospel message?
He was an old man, easily dismissed as having a faith that had come about because of some childhood experience.
That really just left him and his group. And among his group he could really only depend on . . . Ian.
He glanced over at the table with Ian, Scott and Todd who were listening to Dipesh talk. Chris was at a table with some of the other guys who were talking about mountain-climbing, asking Chris questions that he answered absentmindedly. Sunita was with her girls.
After the monastery, he and Sunita had parted at the guesthouse. Chris had no way of telling whether she found him the slightest bit interesting. She was more animated when she was with the girls.
After dinner, Dipesh said that they could head out tomorrow, if Chris wanted. All the kids seemed to be handling the altitude fine.
“The key is to really take it slow and steady,” said Dipesh. “But they are all young and healthy. I've led groups of older people who took days of rest before they could move on . . .”
Chris nodded, distracted.
A thought was forming in his mind. A truly horrifying thought. Over and over again, it was playing in his mind.
He and Ian would have to witness to Nepal.
It was a ridiculous thought.
He and Ian, taking the gospel to Nepal.
Even more distressing, was the awareness that if he launched on such a mission, he would have to be prepared to give his life for it. Not Ian's, of course. In fact, if it came to it, Chris would have to sacrifice his life for Ian's.
Ian would have to make it home to the States. Chris might not.
Slowly, he headed to his room. He was sharing his with five other guys, including Ian, Todd and Scott.
Though there was some horsing around, Chris told them, “If you want to be in good shape for Everest, get some rest.” That was enough to settle everyone down.
Ian, on his bed, pulled out his Bible and began reading.
Hesitantly, Chris did the same. Although he had to dig around in the bottom of his backpack to find his.
It seemed like a message from God that everything his eyes fell upon seemed to involve mountains and heights and rocky places.
For the first twenty minutes when they set out from Tengboche, there was no talking. Everyone just concentrated on the steep descent.
Taking up the rear, Chris hoped that at some point in the walk, he would have a chance to talk to Sunita again. But when the ground levelled out and conversation became possible, she was well in the middle of the group, surrounded by admiring girls.
So all he could really do was . . . pray. It was something he hadn't done in a while. Maybe not ever. At least, not in the sense of really talking to God. There had been plenty of prayers at church, but they were mostly for the benefit of the audience. And there was his own anaemic private prayer life. Had he ever really been talking to God?
The struggle had ended last night. Now he was left with a dull resignation.
He would have to tell the people of Nepal about Jesus.
Never mind that he was now on a track that was taking him away from the populated areas. He was as certain about it as he had been ten years ago when he knew he had to climb the mountain that was towering above them.
Today, the three peaks of Lhotse, Everest and Ama Dablam were hidden by cloud.
The early morning air was significantly cooler. Despite it being July, they were wearing their winter gear. The upside to that was Sunita was even more covered up and there was no way anyone would casually recognize her.
For your steadfast love is great to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds.
It was something he had read last night. Psalm 57:17. It was something he had never used in a sermon because it didn't include a mountain reference, but on a day like today, looking up, it certainly fit.
Was it so bad that God wanted Chris to share His steadfast love with the people of Nepal?
But apart from the minor embarrassment that always went along with witnessing, the only bad part was that it was a life-threatening activity in this country.
At least the walk was relatively easy today. They were going up but the ascent was gradual. There were still trees but the whole area was green with moss and the landscape was covered with small boulders. The boulders suggested landslides, which was a bit disconcerting, but everything seemed calm today. Their destination was the village of Pheriche, close to the Tibetan border.
Dipesh had promised them that they would stay at a lodge that had hot showers, welcome news for a group that had been making do with tepid showers at best, if that. Since showers were extra at the accommodations they had been staying in, some of the kids were obviously just skipping them. Boys mostly. It was amazing how girls made an effort to stay clean and attractive even in these remote areas and rugged conditions. Some of them had been complaining to him that their curling irons weren't working and he had had to explain to them about adaptors for your electrical gizmos when travelling. He didn't bother mentioning that he had one for his electric razor. Selfish as it was, he didn't want to look like Grizzly Adams now that Sunita was around. He knew if he lent the adaptor to the kids, he'd never see it again.
They took a stop for tea in the valley village of Pangboche, a small community of white stone buildings and green roofs.
The kids were snapping pictures of everything and that gave him a chance to approach Sunita.
She smiled and said, “Good morning.”
“Good morning,” he replied. “It's a bit chilly, eh?”
“It will get cooler,” she said.
He wished he could think of something more profound to discuss than the temperature. He wanted to tell her that he thought God was calling him to tell the people of Nepal about Jesus and maybe she could give him some feedback as to how to go about it. But it wasn't really the type of thing to bring up while everyone was trooping into the teahouse for a warming cup of tea and a light morning snack.
Then, when they were finished and on the trail again, Dipesh was calling out to them that this was the area where yaks came from and giving them a little talk on how yaks differed from buffalo.
Despite the sun, wind was blowing in off the mountaintops. For the last portion of their walk, Chris had his hood on and his jacket zipped up to the chin.
It was a short walk today – they were in Pheriche by lunchtime – because Dipesh wanted to give them time to rest. It was important to acclimatize slowly if one wanted to avoid Acute Mountain Sickness.
Pheriche was the headquarters of the Himalayan Rescue Association, so the warnings of symptoms to look out for were prominently displayed for trekkers and mountaineers. In fact, Dipesh planned to take them all to the daily lecture provided by the Himalayan Rescue Association on travelling at high altitudes.
Dipesh booked them into a lodge that had the HRA building on one side and an internet café on the other. All the kids wanted to have lunch in the café so Dipesh just threw up his hands and said, “Whatever.”
Chris smiled. The kids would be sending emails from the top of the world. It wouldn't be a bad thing for them to let their parents know they were alive and travelling with a Christian guide.
The lodge also provided lunch and Chris joined Sunita and Dipesh in the bright sunroom for some garlic soup – good for combating Acute Mountain Sickness – and a generous plate of noodles and dumplings. Dipesh said the cuisine here was Tibetan, not Nepali, since many people here were from Tibet. It all tasted the same to Chris, but he didn't say anything. It was good whatever it was.
The lodge was filled with Western trekkers, from their accent, Chris would guess, American Midwest. They were older and seemed to be on one of those luxury adventure trips. The topic of discussion among them was how one of their members had come down with Acute Mountain Sickness and would now have to descend rather than carry on to base camp. They were agreeing among themselves that it wasn't the worst tragedy. At base camp you didn't get the view of Everest that you got here. In fact, it was probably all for the best . . .
Chris wished he could talk with Dipesh and Sunita. It was too public a place to discuss Christianity so they were sticking to neutral subjects – the health of Sunita's mother, the general economy of Namche Bazaar, the number of trekkers on the trail this time of year.
When the kids drifted back to the lodge, they were given a stern warning to take advantage of the hot showers and to rest up. Tomorrow there would be a hike up above the village in the morning to help them further acclimatize. Then there would be lunch and an afternoon lecture about altitude.
The talk was about high altitude sickness. Chris already knew the symptoms. Even if he didn't, he wouldn't have been able to concentrate because he had managed to snag a seat by Sunita. Surely she didn't need to be here, in this small room, sitting on a hard fold-up metal chair while a volunteer doctor from Wisconsin discussed what to do if you started feeling light-headed or nauseous. But to set an example, she had gamely come along. Of course, Chris had to set an example too and couldn't really use the time to communicate with her in any way.
After the talk, the kids had a lot of questions and the doctor seemed content to take them all one at a time. Then Dipesh directed them to a table of t-shirts where the kids could buy some souvenirs.
“The money goes to support the work they do here,” Dipesh explained.
Sunita was examining a small green t-shirt. Chris noticed that the doctor, a man in his early thirties and dressed casually in trekker gear, was watching her. Well, no wonder. She was something to look at. And she wasn't under all her layers so the doctor could really get a good look at her.
Then the doctor realized Chris was watching him. He came over.
“You guys from the States?” he asked.
“Illinois,” he replied.
The doctor nodded, like he had thought so.
“All of you?” He glanced at Sunita.
“Uh, yeah.” The question caught him off-guard. What had he and Dipesh worked out? Was Sunita posing as an American? For a moment, Chris's mind went blank.
The doctor nodded.
“It's funny,” he said. “The army was in here, two days ago, I think.” He was speaking quietly so none of the others would hear. “Showed me a photo of a woman and said they were looking for her. Sunita something-or-other.”
“Oh yeah?” Chris tried to sound casually interested.
“Looked an awful lot like her.” He nodded in Sunita's direction.
“Well, you know how it is,” said Chris. “They all look the same.” It was a racist statement, but his heart was beating too fast for his brain to work. The army was ahead of them!
“Not if you've been here awhile,” said the doctor.
Chris shrugged, hoping to seem indifferent.
“I love the mountains,” he said, “but this is a crazy country. Prayer wheels and guys with automatic weapons.”
The way the doctor was looking at him, he knew he wasn't making a good impression. But he didn't care. He just wanted to get his group – and Sunita – out of there.
It was a free afternoon for the kids. Tomorrow they would be setting out on a four-hour walk to Lobuche.
Sauntering out casually, he didn't look back at the doctor – who he suspected was still watching Sunita.
The first priority was to talk to Dipesh. The second priority was to get Sunita out of Pheriche. Was the doctor loyal to the army? Did the doctor even care? It didn't matter to Chris. The army was covering the area and that meant, sooner or later, someone would recognize Sunita.
The kids were already scattering. Pheriche didn't offer much more than the internet café but that was good enough for most of them. Ian could witness up and down the streets of Pheriche right now for all Chris cared. Trying to walk casually, Chris headed in the same direction as Dipesh who was returning to their lodge.
“I've got to talk to you,” said Chris when he caught up with him on the steps going to the door.
“Certainly,” said Dipesh. “Would you like to run through the itinerary . . .?”
“No, nothing like that.” Chris glanced into the sunroom. A few people were at tables, writing in journals. Trekkers liked to keep diaries. Two men were hunched over a map. One North American woman, wearing a lot of bangles and beads, was sipping tea and just staring at the landscape. “In my room,” said Chris.
“Sure,” said Dipesh.
Once in the privacy of his room, Chris told Dipesh what the doctor had said. Dipesh's eyes widened.
“Not good,” he said, shaking his head.
“What should we do?” Chris was already formulating a plan. Turn around, go back, take the first flight out to America, with Sunita beside him as his wife.
“We are a pretty big group,” said Dipesh, thoughtfully.
“I know,” said Chris. “Very conspicuous.”
“I think it would be better if I leave you and take Sunita . . .”
“I have a better idea,” interrupted Chris. “I told the doctor she was American. How 'bout I leave you and take Sunita? We could pose as an American couple . . .”
Dipesh was quiet, thinking it through.
“You would need a guide,” he said finally. “No one can journey here without a guide.”
“Fine,” said Chris. “A guide. And you would probably need someone else . . .”
Dipesh nodded slowly.
“You have good kids. I can lead them and they will help with the tents and such. But yes, at some point, they will need help.”
“They will,” he agreed.
“But you need to start fresh,” said Dipesh. “You must hire your own guide and not be associated with us.”
Chris nodded. Hiring a Sherpa guide was easy enough.
“I will talk to Sunita,” said Dipesh, heading for the door. “She will understand.”
don’t understand!” Sunita said. She looked furious. “I don’t understand this at all!”
Chris tried not to be insulted.
“We are running to where?” she asked.
“Well, to base camp, I guess,” said Chris.
They were now in Dipesh's room. Chris had gone down the road to a small restaurant frequented by the guides and hired an older man who he hoped wouldn't be too interested in the goings-on of the army and only marginally interested in the American couple he was leading.
“And then we will turn around and go back through all the same villages?” she said.
“Well, yeah,” said Chris. “But we'll be a couple. You know . . .” He turned red. “No one's going to think you're the girl the army's looking for.”
Sunita turned away, looking out the window while Dipesh and Chris sat on the bed.
“I need time to think,” she said.
“But there isn't time to think,” Chris said, glancing at his watch. “I told the guide we wanted to set out right away. If we leave in half an hour, we can be in Lobuche in three hours.”
“OK, fine,” she said. “But we will all meet again at base camp?” She turned to Dipesh.
“This is just temporary,” he said. “As long as the army is looking for you, you must try to blend in with the trekkers. But, unfortunately, this doctor might mention to someone that he saw you in a large group . . .”
“I guess I'll just have to figure it out as I go along,” said Sunita. She left the room, shutting the door behind her.
Chris looked at Dipesh.
“She will get used to the idea,” said Dipesh. “It is only temporary, until God shows her where he wants her.”
Dipesh continued to stare at him. Chris was uncomfortable. He knew the look. It was a man-to-man intense stare.
“You don't have to worry,” Chris said. “I'll take care of Sunita and I'll make sure she's . . . alright.” He finished lamely. What should he say? That he would not force himself on her? He didn't know enough about Nepali culture to discreetly convey to Dipesh that Sunita would be safe with him.
“Guard her honour,” said Dipesh.
OK, that was blunt enough.
“I will, sir,” said Chris, momentarily forgetting that he was talking to his guide. He felt like a teenager showing up at the front door for his first date.
When Chris went out into the hardened dirt street, he found the guide, Kamal, with two yaks, one of which was already loaded with supplies. This was going to cost big-time. Although Chris had one of the tents and two sleeping bags, he was leaving all the food and other supplies for Dipesh and the kids.
“Susan will be along in a minute,” he told Kamal. “I'll be back in five.”
Kamal nodded, indifferent.
Chris hurried into the internet café to where most of the kids were. Even Ian and his gang were sharing a computer.
“OK, guys,” he said. “Gather round.”
Surprised, the kids convened with him in the corner. The only other patrons in the café were trekkers, and they didn't look too interested in this group huddle.
“A situation has come up,” he said. “It's going to take some faith.” He glanced at Ian. “But I'm helping a sister-in-need. I can't tell you more now, but I'll tell you guys everything back in the States, OK?” They nodded solemnly.
“You guys are going to carry on to Everest base camp with Dipesh. What I'm about to tell you is very important and very necessary.”
Eyes were wide.
“If anyone asks you about Susan, just look blank, OK?”
The kids were looking at one another.
“Is Susan in trouble?” whispered one of the girls.
“I don't want to say anymore. I want you to honestly be able to say you don't know anything.”
The kids were half-scared, half-thrilled.
And then Ian spoke up.
“Susan's a Christian, right?”
Chris didn't say anything at first and then he nodded slowly.
Talking in a low voice, Ian said to the group.
“Sometimes it's dangerous to be a Christian in this country. If anyone asks us if we know Susan, we'll say we don't. The Bible says it OK to do that. Lots of people hid people and lied to the people looking for them.”
The kids nodded. Stories like that were always cool.
“Don't worry,” said Ian, looking at Chris. “We'll protect Susan.”
God bless these kid.
“Thanks guys!” said Chris, patting the ones who were closest to him. “You guys are the best! And we'll meet up again. We just have to travel separately for a bit.”
All the kids nodded and slowly returned to their computer monitors.
“Uh, Ian?” said Chris. Ian was still standing there.
“Can you do me a big favour?”
“Sure,” said Ian.
“I will,” promised Ian.
Sunita seemed to be sulking.
They were walking along by a river on a fairly even path. If Kamal thought it unusual that his honeymooning couple wasn't talking to each other, he didn't show it.
It was cold enough that they were all bundled up beyond recognition.
Then after an hour, the walk turned into an ascent. The yaks didn't mind but it wasn't so easy on the people. After making it to the top, they were greeted by memorial stones for people who had died trying to summit Everest. Sunita still didn't know he was one of the relatively few who had successfully made it to the top. Would it make any difference?
Not talking didn't seem unusual for the last portion of their walk, which was over stony ground.
And then it was a teahouse in Lobuche. Taking separate rooms was out of the question since they were supposed to be a couple, but even in the room, Sunita wasn't talking to him. She was going through her backpack with her back to him.
Had he offended her in some way?
“Uh, Sunita?” he asked. “Would you like to . . .?”
She circled around, glaring at him.
All he was going to ask was would she like to go to dinner?
“What have I done?” he demanded. It just came out – part frustration, part bewilderment.
“You!” she said. It was an accusation.
“Me?” It almost came out a squeak. He coughed and cleared his throat. “Me?” he asked in a deeper voice.
“Yes!” she said. “And this whole arrangement.” She looked around.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
He saw two narrow beds (just as well they weren't really married), white walls, colourful framed pictures of Everest.
“You are supposed to be Christian!”
“Well, yeah.” He sat down on his bed. He had a feeling this might be awhile. She stayed standing.
“We are supposed to have faith. Not run!”
“You ran away from Kathmandu,” he pointed out.
“To find out more,” she said. She sat down too. “No, that's not true. I was scared. But mostly I was scared they would torture me and I would give away the name of the friend who told me about Jesus. You shouldn't have such a fear.”
“I'm not afraid!” There was that squeak again. Was it the high altitude? Again, he cleared his throat. “I'm just trying to keep you safe!”
“By running?” she asked.
“It was the only thing I could think of,” he said.
“You aren't here to tell Nepal about Jesus,” she said accusingly.
Where had this comment come from?
“What do you mean?”
“I have been talking to the children. They say you are afraid.”
“Afraid! I'm not afraid!” The more he had to say it, the more he felt like he was protesting too much.
Sunita just stared at him.
It was impossible to know what to say. This was why it was always so complicated with women. They expected you to know what to say and got mad when you didn't.
“They laugh at you.”
Now it was his turn to just stare.
“They wanted to come here to tell people about Jesus and all you say is, soon, later, not now.”
“But your grandfather said that Christians should build hospitals and schools and . . .”
“Oh, that's just Grandfather,” she said impatiently. “The Catholic Church has already done that. They are persecuted but they are allowed to stay because they do good. But is that your plan? To build a school? People need to hear about Jesus now! People are praying to gods who can't hear them!” She stood up and went over to their window. “Look at it, Chris!”
It was the first time she had used his name.
He got up and joined her.
“Look at the prayer scarves!”
It was true. They were strung up everywhere, creating a festive look, like a European village covered in flags to celebrate independence day.
“This is a very religious country,” continued Sunita. “But they need to talk to the right God!”
OK, he couldn't argue with that.
“But why are they going to listen to me?” he asked. Some yo-yo from the West. People came to the East to learn about religion, not the other way around.
“Why not? If what you say is true.”
That hit hard. He stood, silent for a moment.
“Yeah, OK,” he said. “I've been kind of going in that direction myself, anyhow. I just didn’t know how to actually do it.” Without getting beaten up, that is.
“You've made it to the top of Everest,” said Sunita. So she did know. One of the girls must have told her. “You're respected for that achievement. But what good is that achievement all on its own?”
Well, he had used that achievement to gain a place in a church – and make a pretty good living – but as far as he knew, he had never actually been the direct cause of an unbeliever becoming a believer. That had been Danny's department. Or Ian's.
“Sunita,” he said. This was hard. But it couldn't hurt to be honest. “I don't really know what I'm doing here. But I can't argue with anything you said.” He went back to his bed and sat down again. “I never wanted to do this mission trip. It was just because I had been to Nepal before.”
Sunita nodded as she returned to sit on her bed.
“Missions just aren't really my thing,” he said, staring at her backpack beside her. “But since coming here, I'm starting to see it a bit more the way you're putting it.”
Sunita nodded again. She had lost the hostility.
“But it's not exactly an easy place to tell people about Jesus . . .” He was thinking of that missionary who had gotten walloped by angry natives.
“But don't you see!” said Sunita, leaning forward. “That's why the Nepalese need to hear about Jesus! You can take risks that a Nepali believer can’t take. Here, it is illegal to share your Christian faith with someone. So where else are they going to hear about him?”
“Yeah, I know.” There wasn't exactly a Bible in every teahouse.
“You see,” said Sunita. This whole time she had had her eyes on him. Why was it so hard for him to look her in the eye? “I didn't have the answers when I needed them. I was lost and I didn't know what to do. I didn't want to hear about Grandfather's religion when my life was going the way I wanted it to. But when my life stopped being what I wanted it to be, I had nowhere to turn. My friend telling me about Jesus saved me.”
He didn't probe about how her life had fallen apart. From his years of pastoring, there were only so many scenarios. In Sunita's case, it could have been a job promotion that didn't come through. An important relationship could have fallen apart.
Of course, in America, there were billboards telling you everywhere that Jesus was the answer. Maybe, for the right people, it worked and they got themselves a Bible and started checking it out. But that wasn't an option in Nepal.
He took a deep breath and stood up. Again, he was at the small window.
There were the three peaks. Everest, serene and majestic. Lhotse, almost an extension of Everest. In fact, he had been on the northwest face of Lhotse when he summited Everest. But the south face was considered the steepest ascent of its size in the world. Then there was Ama Dablam. The people who summited Ama Dablam said aspects of it were even more challenging than Everest. Ama Dablam had two ridges that looked like arms shielding a child. The glacier in the centre looked like a dablam, the necklace worn by Sherpa mothers, a place to hold pictures of their gods and other important family items – hence the name of the mountain, Mother's Charm Box.
In some ways, it was a holier mountain to the people of Nepal than Everest.
Edmund Hillary had called it “impossible to climb” in his initial assessment. But since then, it had been summited, for the first time in 1961. Even Hillary had summited it in 1963. But it had been an illegal climb that had almost got him tossed into prison. Even now, you didn't just climb the mountain. You had to have an authorized guide, a liaison officer and a permit. It was also expected that you would have a team of Sherpas to handle supplies and prepare food.
Hillary had gone the easy way and just went straight up the south western ridge without permission.
It had given him a chance to meet the king though. Granted, the king had been angry that he had gone up the holy mountain without royal consent.
Ama Dablam was an ambitious ascent. He doubted too many people were attempting it this time of the year. The time to summit it was spring or autumn. If you went now, you faced mud and leeches. And despite the summer heat during the day, you had to have gear for the freezing nights. It was a crazy time of year to contemplate summiting Ama Dablam.
Then why was he?
He looked up at what some people called the most beautiful mountain in the world.
He wanted that mountain.
Yet, at the same time, he was scared. Yes, he was scared. But it was a different kind of fear than the one of witnessing in Nepal. This was raw fear. Potentially, the cost was death if one failed.
In Genesis, Jacob had run away from his angry brother, Esau. Jacob had tricked Esau out of his birthright and the guy hadn't been pleased. In fact, he had threatened to kill him. So Jacob fled to the land of his mother's family.
Along the way, he had dreamed about a ladder to heaven. Figuring this was the entrance to heaven, he had set up a pillar and covered it in oil. After that, he had made a vow to God – if you are with me and keep me in this way I'm going and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear so that I make it back to my father's house in peace, then Yahweh will be my God and this pillar I set here will be your house. And of all that you give me, I will give a tenth back to you.
That had been the vow.
The astounding thing was that God had honoured it.
Chris's eyes hadn't left Ama Dablam. But now he closed them. He didn't care what Sunita thought. In his mind, he said his own version of Jacob's prayer.
“Oh God, if you are with me and keep me alive and work it so that I have supplies – food and clothing and everything – so that I make it back to this place in one piece, then you will be my God and I'll tell these people about you.”
He opened his eyes.
It would take nothing less than a miracle to get an expedition going at this point. Kamal didn't look as if he could make it any further than base camp and Chris only had permission to be in the country, not to climb any mountains. Plus, it was something he would do alone or die trying to do. The kids would have to get home somehow without him.
He turned to Sunita.
“I'm going to summit Ama Dablam. Then I'm going to do the south face of Lhotse.”
Her eyes widened.
“And then, if I'm still alive, I'm going to tell everyone about Jesus.”
Her eyes couldn't get any wider at this point.
“Dipesh and the kids should show up here tomorrow,” he continued, reaching for his backpack and slinging it on. “I'll leave it up to him to get the kids back to Kathmandu if I die.”
He was gratified that a slight gasp came from Sunita.
“Or take too long,” he added.
And then he was out the door. There. Now she couldn't call him afraid.
But it really wasn't for her that he was doing this. It was for him. If he could walk out this door and summit Ama Dablam, then that would be God's sign that he was being called to a life of reckless adventure here in Nepal.
If he didn't summit Ama Dablam, he would go home, resign from the ministry and get in line at the nearest soup kitchen. He would have to. He would be using his life savings to fund this expedition.
He was fine for clothing and a tent and some of the food, but he had no climbing gear – proper boots, crampons, ice axe, ice screws, headlamp, batteries, rope, walking poles . . . the list went on. Sherpas had to be hired . . . Red tape to deal with . . .
Kamal looked sleepy when he answered his door. Chris shook his head. Without God, this was a hopeless venture.
He half-expected not to make it back alive.
e did what?”
Sunita had never seen her grandfather look so shocked.
Dipesh and the kids had arrived midmorning. Sunita had hurried to her grandfather's room to tell him everything.
She knew he had heard and understood what she said, he was just having a hard time believing it.
“He has left us in charge of the children,” continued Sunita. “We are to get them back to Kathmandu and on their flight home if he does not return.”
Dipesh was just shaking his head.
“But why?” he asked.
“He did it for God,” said Sunita, gently guiding her grandfather's shoulders to seat him on his bed.
“But why climb a mountain for God?” said Dipesh.
“I think he's climbing the mountains for himself,” said Sunita going over to the window. This one also had a view of Ama Dablam. She had covered the whole village this morning, but Chris and Kamal were gone. “When he climbs Ama Dablam and Lhotse, he will come back and tell everyone about Jesus.”
“He is crazy,” muttered her grandfather.
Sunita didn't think so, but she kept the thought to herself.
“Where do we go from here?”
“I think we should continue on to Everest base camp,” said Sunita, sitting down beside him. “That is where he will go when he has summited Ama Dablam.”
“If he summits Ama Dablam,” her grandfather corrected her. “He has no proper guide, no permit, only a few supplies . . .”
“He took a guide with him.”
“One guide, Sunita?” Her grandfather turned to her. “It will take an expedition to do what this man proposes.” He shook his head. “Who was the guide?” he asked, as an afterthought.
“An older man,” said Sunita. “Kamal.”
Her grandfather turned to her, eyes wide.
“Kamal? Did he wear a green hat and chew tobacco?”
Sunita though back to the guide. She had been too busy being upset with Chris to care about the guide at the time.
“Yes, he did. If you ask me, he looked half-asleep.”
Her grandfather groaned as he nodded.
“Yes, that is Kamal.”
“What's the matter?”
“Kamal's son-in-law is the general secretary of the Nepal Mountaineering Association. He can use his cell phone and have a permit for Chris by this afternoon.”
“His cell phone?” Sunita had not noticed any cell phone.
“He complains bitterly about it. His wife makes him carry it. She lives with their daughter in Namche Bazaar.”
“The daughter who's married to the general secretary of the Nepal Mountaineering Association?”
“Exactly,” said Dipesh. Now he had stood up to look out the window. “They're probably halfway up Ama Dablam by now. Kamal is always complaining that his wife and daughter will not let him have any fun. A silly American fool who wants to summit Ama Dablam and Lhotse on a whim would be just the kind of fun he would be looking for.”
“Is he a good guide?” asked Sunita, with concern.
“One of the best,” said Dipesh, still staring at Ama Dablam. “At least he was when he was younger.”
“Then Chris should be OK,” said Sunita. “Would you like to rest, Grandfather? I can take care of the children.”
“No, Sunita,” said her grandfather wearily. “You should not be out wandering when the army is looking for you. Stay here until we can figure out what to do.”
To Sunita, it was obvious that they must move on to Everest base camp. That was where Chris would end up. The Everest base camp could also be used as a starting point to summit Lhotse.
“If Chris can take on Ama Dablam, I can carry on with you guys,” said Sunita.
Her grandfather shook his head.
“It is something I have to face, sooner or later,” said Sunita heading for the door. “I cannot live in fear in a room. If Chris can have the faith to climb a mountain, I can have the faith to set foot out this door.”
She opened the door and was gone.
Dipesh stared at the empty doorway. Was it possible that his granddaughter found inspiration in this unbalanced American who called himself a Christian? Despite wanting to believe the best about Chris, Dipesh’s conclusion was that the man was clearly half-hearted about his faith, at best. The authorities did not need to worry about Christianity taking over Nepal if Chris had anything to do with it.
It was Sunita who told the kids about Chris's sudden departure to summit, not one, but two of the world's tallest peaks. They were milling around outside the stone teahouse, some seated on plastic chairs. Lobuche offered incredible scenery, being the last stop before Everest base camp, but it didn't hold too much in the way of culture and entertainment.
For the first time, she noticed a visible pride in their leader.
A few of the boys said, “All right!” The girls' eyes widened with admiration.
“So I will be with you until he returns,” Sunita continued. “Dipesh and I will escort you to Everest base camp where we will wait for Chris.”
“What if he, ummm . . .” One of the girls was trying to ask what would happen if Chris didn't return.
Ian jumped in.
“Have a bit of faith, Jessica!” Ian called out. “We'll pray for him.”
The kids agreed and Sunita was impressed with the way they rallied around Ian. He started leading them in prayer, requesting that God watch over Chris and take him safely up and down both mountains. Each kid was encouraged to make their own request to God, something they were obviously used to doing back in Illinois. Sunita watched in fascination. This was her first time seeing Christians do anything spiritual together.
Many of the passing Sherpas were also watching with interest. In the springtime, when most people summited Everest, Lobuche could be a crowded community of mountaineers and trekkers. But in the summer, it wasn't so active. Still, there were enough people around to find this large group of praying teenagers to be intriguing.
For a moment, Sunita was almost fearful that the scene would bring the army down on Lobuche, but then she reasoned with herself that no Nepali cared if a bunch of foreigners prayed among themselves.
In fact, Ian and his praying teens seemed to irk the American and European trekkers more than the Sherpas.
Sunita heard a backpacking couple remark about fanatics as they went into the teahouse. One American called out, “Show a little respect! You're not in Kansas anymore!”
Some of the teens were affected by it, looking embarrassed. But, for the most part, they continued praying. And when they were done, Sunita was confident that Chris was thoroughly covered in prayer and protection – if it worked that way. The only Bible she had access to was her grandfather's and it was such a long book she had only read portions.
She called out to the kids that lunch would be in the teahouse in fifteen minutes, before returning inside herself. Dipesh was already sipping tea in the tearoom.
“I have ordered their lunch,” he said, as she joined them.
“What's the matter, Grandfather?” she asked, sitting down beside him. An obliging proprietor brought her over her own tea.
Thank you,” she said, before turning back to the older man who seemed to be in moody and dismal thought. “Please, Grandfather. Don't be this way.”
“This is not right,” he said. “We are now responsible for the lives of these thirty children.”
“It is unusual,” she agreed. “But we are not endangering them in any way. They have done well so far and Chris will come back.”
Dipesh took a gulp of tea. Though summer, the temperature was cool at this altitude and the tea helped to warm one up. “I am not so sure,” he muttered.
“What do you mean?” she asked, about to take a sip of tea and momentarily pausing.
“It is not an easy summit.”
“But he has done Everest. Surely, Ama Dablam is not so difficult.”
“In some ways, it is,” said her grandfather. “I agree, climbing Everest will help him. You use all the same gear. But he is not in the same shape he was then.”
Sunita nodded slowly. Surely the children's prayers would help . . .
“Five years ago,” said Dipesh. “Six climbers died when a part of the dablam fell on their camp . . .”
The children came in at that point and soon the rough room was filled with talk about Chris's plans. The trekkers who had disapproved of public prayer pointedly ignored the large group, although Sunita was sure some of them must be listening in.
“The children have prayed for Chris,” said Sunita, in a low voice. They were still alone, having been at a table for two.
“He will need those prayers,” said Dipesh, equally as quiet. “The last avalanche destroyed the southwest ridge route. Kamal will have to take him across the glacial ice to avoid the avalanche areas. It makes it a much more difficult ascent.”
“They'll go the north ridge route?” said Sunita.
Her grandfather nodded.
Sunita couldn't help it. Her eyes went to one of the windows. For the next two weeks, every time she looked at Ama Dablam, she would be straining for a glimpse of Chris's orange-and-black jacket.
“I have to warn you, children,” said Dipesh. It was the next morning and they were all having their breakfast in the tearoom. They were fortunate to have this housing. During the peak season, all tearooms and lodges were filled and people had to camp all around the small village. “If we carry on to Everest base camp, we will be embarking on a dangerous journey.”
There was a murmur among the teenagers.
“I will not be upset if any one of you chooses not to make the journey,” Dipesh continued. “You may remain here at the teahouse. Susan will stay with you.”
Sunita was startled. This was the first time she had heard of this. She wanted to be at base camp when Chris returned from Ama Dablam.
“Before you decide,” said Dipesh. “I will tell you what is ahead of us. First, there is a three-hour walk to Gorakshep. Lobuche is a city compared to Gorakshep. The weather will feel colder and we might have to use our tents at night. The walk will be rocky. But for the adventurous, there will be a mountain to climb.”
Some of the boys looked at one another.
“All right!” said some of them, giving each other high fives.
“It is called Kala Phattar,” Dipesh continued. “And from its summit, you can see the top of Everest. This is worth attempting because you cannot see the top of Everest from base camp.”
Dipesh surveyed the group.
“If anyone decides to do this, please tell me today because we will hire some more guides. Not all will want to do it and so I must ensure that you are with a responsible adult at all times.”
Some of the kids were already discussing this among themselves and Sunita was confident that many of them would attempt to climb Kala Patthar, the Black Rock.
“After Gorakshep,” Dipesh went on. “It will be another difficult walk. Only three hours, but the air is lighter and it will feel longer and harder.”
The kids murmured.
“Finally,” said Dipesh. “We will come to the Khumbu Icefall. It is the only way to get to base camp and I will be honest with you. Crossing the Khumbu Icefall is, in some ways, the most dangerous part of the Everest summit.”
He paused to let that sink in. The looks on the children's faces told them that they got it.
“It is an unstable area,” Dipesh continued, “because it is where the glacier melts and so you must travel across moving ice. It can take six hours to make your journey across it. Anyone who attempts it will have their crampons on. Pickets are buried in the snow to hold ropes in place. We will clip and unclip our way across. We will cross bottomless crevasses on ordinary ladders.”
Again, it was a point to let sink in. Some of the girls gasped. Sunita was sure that she would be staying behind with them in Lobuche.
“At base camp, we will find no lodges. No more tea unless we make it ourselves. No more toilets. We clean up after ourselves and we carry our waste away with us.”
Eyes widened at the thought of this.
“And then we will have to turn around and come back. Give it some thought,” Dipesh said, in conclusion. “Pray about it. And let me know by dinner what you want to do. Do not be ashamed if you choose to stay here. All the guides will do their best to watch over you, but we are all in God's hands, yes?”
There was a murmur of agreement and the kids huddled together as Dipesh sat back down again with Sunita.
Since public prayer was frowned on by the patrons of this teahouse, led by Ian, the children left the tearoom to return to their dormitories to pray.
“I expect I'll be staying here,” said Sunita, taking her last sip of tea.
“And what would be so bad about that?” her grandfather demanded.
Sunita was quiet, but she couldn't hide her mood.
“You do not really want to follow that American cowboy to Everest base camp, do you?”
Sunita did not reply.
“Find his corpse there, more likely,” her grandfather continued, shaking his head. “That is, if they find it at all. Most just die on the mountain and the body is not found until the next unfortunate expedition stumbles on it . . .”
“Oh Grandfather!” Sunita burst out. “I know he is not here building a hospital!” She turned to him. “But he is doing this for God, whether you can see it, or not.”
“I do not,” said her grandfather.
Sunita grasped Chris's motives in a way that she would not have wanted to put into words to her grandfather. Chris was doing something that he believed would go beyond his current reserve of strength. Once he got past that, he would be at a new level. A new height, so to speak. Then maybe, he could do something even bigger for God.
Much to Sunita's surprise, once lunch came, all the teenagers announced they would continue on to Gorakshep. And they all wanted to go up Kala Patthar.
Dipesh nodded. Sunita could tell her grandfather was impressed with their bravery, while at the same time, uneasy at being responsible for the lives of thirty children.
“OK,” he said. “We are well-supplied for the expedition. But I will still get some more guides so that we can do this safely.”
Then he was gone, to find some Sherpas willing to escort them to Everest base camp. Sunita was left with the teenagers.
“Eat a good meal,” she advised them, since they all seemed to be looking at her. “Take it easy this afternoon. You don't have to take a nap because you want to get a good night’s sleep tonight, but maybe walk around a bit . . .” She sat down as the food came out of the kitchen. What did she know? Although raised in Namche Bazaar, she was not a Sherpa guide and had never travelled this close to Everest. Her dream had always been to go the other way, to Kathmandu.
And now it was looking as if she might never go back.
The army did not seem to be pursuing her in this direction. Maybe it was too much of a bother with the cold weather and the thin air. If so, this was what her future held. The small villages of Nepal instead of the dreams of the big city.
Her grandfather returned as lunch was wrapping up. He had three men with him, brothers, all young and seemingly appreciative for the off-season work.
He introduced them to Sunita as Adinath, Prasad and Harish. By their names, she could tell that their three new guides were Hindu.
Prasad and Harish were quiet, sitting together and digging into a late lunch that was brought out for them. But Adinath sat with Sunita and Dipesh and it was soon obvious to Sunita that he was more friendly than necessary for a Sherpa guide.
“And you are a guide?” he wanted to know, while he devoured a plate of noodles, potatoes and rice with small bits of yak meat.
Sunita shook her head.
“I'm more of a chaperone for the girls,” she said, nodding toward the teenagers.
Adinath glanced at them, but did not find them compelling. But the girls were finding him – and Prasad and Harish – intriguing. They were all attractive, with a casual ruggedness about them. By comparison, the American boys seemed pale and delicate.
“But you were born here?” he asked.
Dipesh's grandfather jumped in.
“All thirty children want to go up Kala Patthar. I think we need to take them in groups . . .”
That got them talking about the journey ahead. In addition to the supplies bought in Kathmandu, it was agreed that they would purchase some additional rice and noodles in Lobuche, just in case.
The kids were drifting off and Prasad and Harish stood up to see about more rice and noodles, but Adinath only seemed interested in talking to Sunita.
“Have you summited Everest?” she asked quickly.
The look of regret on his face showed he couldn’t answer yes. Instead, he said, “I have been to base camp many times.”
“Good,” she said. “The teenagers need an experienced guide.”
“Why are they travelling alone like this?” he asked.
Dipesh must not have told him much.
“Their chaperone is summiting Ama Dablam right now,” she said, satisfied by the impressed look on Adinath's face. “They, that is, we, are joining him at base camp.”
“And then, back to Kathmandu?” he jerked his finger in the direction they had come.
She shook her head.
“No, then he will summit Lhotse.” She couldn't help the pride in her voice. “He has already done Everest the last time he was here.”
Adinath nodded. Now there was a bit of respect for the group.
“But why bring the kids along?” he asked.
That was a tough one. She didn't want to say they were on a mission trip.
“Maybe they will summit Everest when they are older,” she said. “For now, they will do Kala Patthar.” And she would too. It would be a new experience for her, climbing a mountain, but if the teenagers could do it, so could she. If Chris could take on the toughest peaks, she would have to at least go up the one small mountain that even American trekkers could do.
Shaking off Adinath, she returned to the dormitory.
She had an overwhelming longing for something connected with Chris, something connected with her new faith.
This teahouse did not offer individual rooms, only a long stretch of bunk beds on either side of the large room. Their group took up half the room. Sunita found Ian on one top bed, his back against the wall, reading his Bible. She walked over to him.
He looked up. This was the first time she had talked to him directly.
“Uh, could you read me some of those passages?”
Ian smiled and nodded. He climbed down and they took seats on some bottom bunks. Things here were too communal for people to complain if someone sat on their bed.
“I will lift my eyes to the hills,” Ian read. “From where shall my help come? My help comes from Yahweh who made the heavens and the earth. He will not allow your foot to be moved. He who keeps you will not slumber. He will neither slumber nor sleep . . .”
dinath was showing the same proclivity to stick to Sunita as he had yesterday.
The day was starting early with a six-hour walk to Gorakshep ahead of them. Prasad and Harish were the practical ones and already had the yaks loaded with the supplies. Adinath was talkative despite the early hour.
The girls were sleepy, but keeping a close eye on the three brothers at breakfast.
But Adinath was entirely focused on Sunita.
“ . . . then I will go to Kathmandu,” he was saying over the milky tea. “The future is not here. There are enough guides and not enough climbers anymore. Have you been to Kathmandu?”
She did not want to discuss herself with him.
“Once,” she said. “What will you do in Kathmandu?” she asked quickly.
“Anything,” he said, looking around. “Anything would be better than this. Maybe I will join the military.”
That was disconcerting.
“But that would be my last choice,” he continued. “I want to make money . . .”
Thankfully, Dipesh interrupted to make an announcement.
“We will be going higher than we have before,” he said. “If you start to feel sick or have a headache, let me or Adinath or Prasad or Harish know. Expect to be tired, but do not keep it to yourself if you are feeling ill.”
The teenagers nodded.
To the amazement of Prasad, Harish and Adinath, Ian stood up and told Dipesh he would like to ask a prayer of protection over them. Dipesh barely had time to nod before Ian was praying out loud, asking God for journey mercies, for strength and for eyes to appreciate His creation.
“Do they always do this?” Adinath asked while the children were still saying “amen.”
“They're Christian,” she said.
“American,” said Adinath, nodding knowledgeably. “A lot of the Europeans like to pray to the local gods, though. What is the point of praying to the god of the Americans when you are not in America?”
Sunita did not have time to answer since Dipesh was hustling them out of the tearoom. There were a few last-minute visits to the toilet and then they were off on the rocky terrain that marked the glacial landscape.
The walk started off easy and gave Adinath a chance to try to start talking to Sunita again. But they were quickly joined by Amanda and Ashley, who usually wanted to be close to Sunita, but who had decided today that it would be nice to be close to Adinath too.
Adinath did not have a chance, Sunita though smiling. She slipped back to allow the two girls to be on either side of him. They were asking him all sorts of questions – What kind of music did he like? Did he like climbing mountains? What was his favourite movie? How long had he and his brothers been guides? Did he have a girlfriend?
The last question caused him to glance back at Sunita and say, “Not yet.”
But the terrain turned uneven and the uphill-downhill walk forced everyone to walk by himself or herself and just concentrate on breathing in the thinner air. The final portion of the journey was almost straight uphill.
When they arrived in the diminutive village of Gorakshep, they were out of breath, but all healthy. Despite Dipesh's warning that they might have to resort to tents, the lodges were only half-full and by dividing the group in two, they were all able to have rooms in two side-by-side establishments. Mercifully, the girls were in one lodge, so Sunita could escape Adinath. There was something disturbing about his prying interest.
Even more upsetting to Sunita than Adinath's addition to the group, was what her grandfather told her over a hearty lunch.
“Our permits do not cover an overnight stay at Everest base camp,” he said.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“The permits are very specific. We can visit base camp, but we cannot stay there. But I think we will end up in the tents anyhow. The money is low. I know the American will pay me, if he ever returns, but I think that we will be camping starting tomorrow night.”
Why had he not told them this sooner? Sunita shook her head. The kids could not be expected to cross the Khumba Icefall more than once and back. What were the odds that they would visit base camp on the same day that Chris descended from Ama Dablam?
She would not see Chris at base camp. And she would not have admitted it to her grandfather, but it was the one reason she was continuing on, in the hope of seeing him sooner, not later.
It was crazy, but in some way, she wanted to be a part of it, to be there in between the two summits. But now he would come off of Ama Dablam and go straight up Lhotse while his group was only three hours away, stuck at Gorakshep.
“But it is OK,” her grandfather continued. “There is plenty of room for our tents.”
Of course there was plenty of room. There was nothing else but room at Gorakshep. The name meant Dead Ravens and all it had was a vast plain of glacial rock.
Prasad, Harish and Adinath were off to have coffee with the other Sherpas after lunch. It was agreed that the kids should have time to acclimatize before taking on Kala Patthar. Now that Sunita knew this was where they would be waiting for weeks, maybe even a month, she felt numb with disappointment. At least at base camp, one could get regular updates of the various expeditions.
After lunch, the children were informed of the nature of their permits, but the disappointment from the news that they couldn't stay overnight at base camp was muted by the promise that tomorrow they would be tackling Kala Patthar where they would get a clear view - God and weather permitting - of the top of Everest.
The announcement that they would be using their tents tomorrow was well-received, especially by the guys. From the conversation among the young men, Sunita gathered that life in a lodge was more comfortable, but camping was more fun. The girls weren't grumbling, but they were solemnly discussing how they would have a harder time with their hair in the tents.
Sunita wanted to be alone.
She left the tearoom and went out into the sunshine. It was a beautiful day in the tiny village – blue sky, white clouds. A few people were already camping in bright green tents, all lined in a row. A lot of travel agencies specialized in adventure tours for the traveller who wanted to do something a little more risky than sit on a Caribbean beach.
She glanced up at Kala Patthar. It would not bring her any closer to Chris. He was not summiting Everest. But it would have to be done.
She jumped. It was Adinath.
“Just taking in the scenery and having a little time to myself,” she said.
She turned back to the scenery hoping he would realize she wanted to be alone. And if he realized it, to respect it.
He didn't take the hint.
Instead he nodded and said, “Those Americans.” He shook his head, as if the Americans were her reason for needing some personal space.
“They're fine,” she said abruptly and continued walking, hoping he'd go do something to earn his money instead of talking to her.
“They're brave,” he conceded. “But I don't think every kid is going to make it up Kala Patthar.”
“They've made it this far.”
She surveyed the small village. A couple of teahouses and a coffeehouse. This used to be Everest base camp. Her grandfather would know the history. Now it was just a remote outpost on the way to the highest summits in the world.
When she had turned to God, she hadn't expected to feel this restlessness.
All she knew was, she had been suffering and Jesus had come to her and shown her he was the way. But having journeyed home to learn more from her grandfather, she had encountered Chris and his fascinating little group. And now it seemed as if they might have the answers she was looking for.
Despite the risks, she wanted to somehow share the news of her faith with everyone who was willing to listen. She knew even better than Chris how much her country needed the hope that came from her new faith.
She turned to Adinath.
“So, you are Hindu?” she asked.
“What else?” he said.
“What do you think of the Christians?” she asked.
“They can think whatever they like,” he said.
It was hard to know where to go from there. He wasn't interested. He wasn't hurting. He wasn't in pain. He had big plans for the future. She knew what that was like. At this point, he would be impossible to reach.
The afternoon was spent pitching their tents. The kids were willing to do it all themselves, but Dipesh expected his helpers to be a part of creating a tidy line of tents, so Adinath and his brothers were busy giving the kids a hand.
Sunita was sharing a tent with one of the girls, Rachel. Rachel was quiet, liked to read her Bible, and - Sunita very quickly realized – had a huge crush on Ian.
She confessed to Sunita that she would love to be able to witness to people like Ian did, but was too shy.
“I'm shy too,” said Sunita.
Rachel was surprised.
“It's true,” said Sunita, nodding. She didn't want to terrify Rachel with stories of what the army would do to her if they caught her witnessing to someone about her faith, but she said, “It is not easy, sometimes, because not everyone wants to hear it. But someone was brave enough to tell me about Jesus and I owe her my life for that.”
Rachel nodded slowly.
“I never thought about it that way,” she said.
“Does Chris, uh, witness to people?” Sunita asked.
“I dunno,” was Rachel's honest reply. “I've never seen him do it. Mostly he talks about Everest.” She returned her attention to her Bible. No doubt, trying to get Ian's attention required extensive Biblical knowledge.
Sunita still didn't have a Bible of her own. It would have been nice to be able to read like Rachel was doing. Rachel sensed something and looked up.
“Uh, I don't have a Bible,” Sunita confessed.
“I can get you a Bible!” said Rachel immediately as she leaned forward to unzip the tent flap. “Sarah has one. She never reads it. She just came on this trip because she likes Scott.”
Sunita's head was swimming. Scott was a friend of Ian's. But Rachel was out of the tent before she could ask any more questions. Sarah? She went through all the girls in her mind. Blonde, blue eyes, gorgeous nails, she finally decided. Yes, she did keep her eyes on Scott. One of the few that didn't seem interested in their Sherpa guides.
Rachel was back in a minute with a pink Bible covered in glittery silver hearts.
“She says you can keep it,” Rachel reported. “She's going to tell Scott that she gave it to a real Nepal person. That's true, isn't it?”
Although she was grateful for the Bible, she wondered what kind of person would be so quick to give up a Bible, especially a person on a mission trip. Did Chris even bother to get to know the teenagers he was escorting through her country?
Still, Sarah's loss was her gain.
She opened the book and started at the beginning.
In fact, that's how it started. In the beginning.
It was very interesting reading, very straightforward. Certainly nothing like atheistic evolution. In her case, she had learnt the theory of evolution in school. But she was also aware of the beliefs of the older people in the country. Some Hindu students liked to argue that their faith was consistent with evolution because they believed the universe was millions of years old. It was also their belief that this wasn't the first universe and it wouldn't be the last. Brahma was the creator. Vishnu was the preserver. Shiva was the destroyer.
At first, when her life fell to pieces, a friend told her it was Lord Shiva and that she should embrace it. For some reason, the army did not mind that some of the female members of the army promoted Kali, the consort of Shiva, who was known for her dark, destructive nature. Worshipping her and praying to her did not bring the wrath of the army upon one.
Sunita tried to embrace the traditional faith, but it had been a feeble effort. It had not brought relief from the pain.
The pain had come as a result of love, or what felt like love at the time.
Although she had only been a Lance Corporal, she had caught the attention of a Captain. He had wined her and dined her and the achingly awful part of it all was that in every way, they seemed to understand one another. Even today, it made her hurt to think about it. There was just one thing he neglected to mention to her . . . that he was married.
Being older, she had picked up on the fact that there had been someone in his life. She assumed that he was a widower and that it was just too painful to talk about. In retrospect, he probably let her think that rather than tell her the true situation. It had been a jealous fellow-Lance Corporal who told her the truth. Her Captain had been seen with a woman in a Kathmandu restaurant, a woman closer to his age.
Not believing at first that it was his wife, she had questioned him about the report. He had lied and said the woman was his sister. Then he had admitted that the woman was his wife. Then he had said they were in the middle of a divorce. Then he had finally admitted, he would not be leaving his wife and never had any plans to do so.
To make it worse, not wanting to be on the receiving end of her wrath, he had used his authority to have her transferred to Lukla, where her main job would be supervising the privates who patrolled the perimeters of the airport, easily the most unstimulating post in the Nepalese army – and a death sentence for anyone desiring to move up in the army chain-of-command.
And silly her, she had thought that by dating a Captain she would automatically move up. If it had just been about using him for his rank, it would have been different. But she had genuinely fallen for the man and even in retrospect, the laughs they had shared were real. But apparently, it was far easier for him to walk away from it all than it was for her.
When she had accepted the message her Christian friend shared with her, it had ruined even her posting in Lukla. Sunita would not have been surprised if the jealous Lance Corporal had something to do with that, too. But in any case, it was her Captain who had ruined both her personal life and her career.
But whereas the Hindu pantheon was indifferent to her pain, Jesus had responded. How could she explain it to anyone? Even her grandfather insisted that Christianity must come in the form of hospitals, gardens and practical help. He had hardly seemed impressed that Jesus had come to heal her broken heart.
“Women are foolish,” he sniffed when she had told him the story, most of it anyway. Some details she preferred to keep to herself.
The only puzzling thing about this group of Christians that she had fallen into was that they did not seem to appreciate Jesus the way she did. Nor, with the exception of Ian and his small group of admirers, did they seem particularly concerned about sharing him beyond their clique.
She really wanted to know more about Jesus. She flipped ahead in the Bible. This was all new to her, but her grandfather had shown her in his Bible where the stories about Jesus were.
Today she started a book by someone named John.
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.
It sounded sort of like what she had been reading earlier.
He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made . . .
It took some reading for her to piece it together. John was saying that Jesus was also the creator of the world. Interesting.
Buddhists also believed that their faith was compatible with the evolution taught in schools. Christianity seemed to stand opposed to both Buddhism and Hinduism on the grounds of how everything got here. And many in her country said that both Buddhism and Hinduism were more peaceful faiths than Christianity, yet neither of them had brought peace to Nepal.
John's story of Jesus was so engaging that she ended up reading right through dinner. And it was easier than facing Adinath. After dinner, when the kids were returning to their tents, her grandfather called to her from outside, “Er, Susan, are you OK?”
“Perfectly, fine,” she called back, not bothering to unzip the tent flap. “Just needed some time to myself.”
“Well,” he said hesitantly. “Sleep well, then.”
“You too,” she said, trying to sound cheerful. No need to concern him. She felt moody, and again, restless. The book only made it worse. Jesus had suffered greatly. She could not compare her own suffering with his. Yet, his words! Never had she heard words like his! The Hindus liked to claim Jesus as just another avatar. The Buddhists liked to say their religion was the way to love and understanding for all people. Had they read this book, John? The Jesus in this book was not just a minor character. He was a central character. He expected to be hated for his beliefs. He expected his followers would be hated too. He said his followers wouldn't be able to do anything unless they stayed close to him. He said he was the way, the truth and the life.
His teachings staggered her. She wasn't even sure that her friend fully understood this Jesus. Or maybe her friend just didn't want to go into it all in the short time they had together.
This Jesus had a meal with his followers and then afterward, took off his outer robe and got down to wash the feet of his disciples. Like the lowest of servants. Then when he was done, he said, “You call me teacher and master and it is right because I am. I then, your teacher and master, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I do . . .”
Surely if anything could drive all thoughts of the Captain out of her mind, this sort of teaching would.
For some of the kids, this would be the biggest mountain they ever climbed. For Sunita, it was certainly the biggest mountain she had climbed in her life. It had none of the beauty of the mountains towering over them, being brown and uninspiring next to the snow-capped peaks around it. But it had the unique quality of providing a view of the tip of Everest. If you could not climb to the head of the sky, you could at least view it from Kala Patthar.
And in the end, humble Kala Patthar had been summited far more times than Everest ever would be – if one measured the worth of something by it's usefulness.
Adinath, Prasad and Harish were all outside, preparing for the climb. It wasn't Everest, but it did take some preparation. Each teenager had to have a full water bottle and a high-energy snack - in this case, American-style candy bars - somewhere in their pockets. In addition, the Sherpa brothers had thermoses with a hot sweet fruit juice for the summit.
All the kids were bundled up. The day was bright and sunny, perfect for seeing the summit of Everest, but it was also cold.
Like much of the terrain in Nepal, you had to go down before you could start climbing up. In this case, it was down to what was once a lake, now dry. Then it was a steep climb up.
The Sherpa brothers were busy with the girls who all seemed to need a hand going up the rocky incline.
Then the path levelled out and Dipesh stopped to make sure everyone was breathing evenly and able to carry on. Two of the girls and one of the boys were looking a little out-of-breath. Dipesh assigned Harith to take up the rear and stay with those who fell behind and if necessary, to return down to Gorakshep with anyone who couldn't go on.
“It happens,” Dipesh called out to all the teenagers. “Not everyone can make it to the summit. Do not be ashamed. Your health is more important than a view.”
But everyone wanted to carry on, so they continued up the east side of Kala Patthar which, even while they were climbing, gave them an excellent view, not only of Everest, but of Lhotse and Nuptse as well.
And in the end, all the teenagers reached the summit. Ian immediately led the group in a prayer of thanksgiving and then they were free to survey the scenery.
It was awesome, a panoramic view of some the highest peaks in the world. Cameras came out and kids started snapping pictures. Adinath, Prasad and Harish were busy distributing the hot juice to give them an energy lift and to warm them up. The winds were intense.
When the thermoses were put away, Adinath joined Sunita. On the walk up, he had managed to position himself in the middle of the group, right in front of Sunita. But a walk up Kala Patthar was not conducive to conversation. For people not used to climbing, it pushed one to his or her limits of fitness.
Sunita tried to ignore Adinath and concentrate on the scenery. In the distance, part of the continual chain of mountains, was Ama Dablam. From this far away, it looked empty of life.
“Always they pray,” said Adinath.
“They're not the only ones.” She waved toward the heavily-loaded strings of prayer scarves on the summit.
“But they don't respect our gods. Most people buy a scarf in Gorakshep to put up here.”
“They pray to a different god,” said Sunita.
“They should pray to the god of the mountain,” insisted Adinath. “Not bring their own god to this country.”
“I suppose they are praying to the God who made the mountains,” said Sunita.
Adinath looked at her sharply.
“You don't believe in any of it, do you?”
It was a moment of decision. Her life. Her faith. It would be easy enough to keep it hidden. There was no reason to share it with Adinath. He was not interested in becoming a Christian.
“Does it matter to you?” she asked out loud. “One god or another?”
There was a pause and then Adinath shrugged.
“Not really. It's just money to me.”
Last night, when she had finished John's stories about Jesus, she had read some of Matthew's stories about Jesus. Jesus had said that you shouldn't give dogs what was sacred or throw your pearls to pigs. If you did, they may trample them under their feet and then turn and tear you to pieces. It was a new insight into sharing one's faith.
Another feature of Kala Patthar was a clear view down to Everest base camp and the Khumbu Icefall that one had to cross to get to it. With typical teenage eagerness, some of the kids were surrounding Dipesh and asking him when they would be going there.
“In time, in time, children,” he said. “Let us enjoy today.”
They deferred to his wisdom, but a lot of them snapped photos of the base camp before turning their attention to other views. The view of the Khumbu glacier was spectacular. It was the location where year-round snow met the melting point. Years of avalanche had created a debris cover at base camp. Dipesh was pointing this out to anyone who was interested.
They weren't alone on Kala Patthar. A few other trekkers came and went in the time they were on the summit. One of them, a woman, commented to Sunita about the large number of people in her group.
“Are they a club of some sort?” the woman asked. She was slim, middle-aged and looked like the type of person who enjoyed outdoor activities. She sounded English.
“Of a sort,” said Sunita. “It's a Christian youth group.”
“Oh, I see,” said the woman, her tone suggesting she was not a Christian. But she remained friendly. “Did they come here all alone?”
Sunita shook her head.
“Their chaperone is an experienced climber. He did Everest many years back and now he's summiting Ama Dablam.”
“Really?” The woman turned to her partner. “I wonder if he's the crazy American?” Her male partner was busy doing a 360-degree turn with his camcorder to capture the dramatic panorama.
“Dunno,” he muttered, obviously not wanting to engage in conversation while he filmed.
“Crazy American?” said Sunita.
“Yes,” said the woman. “They were talking about some crazy American at base camp. We were there yesterday. He and some older Sherpa guide are going up Ama Dablam. I don't remember the details. Do you remember the details, dear?”
Her partner muttered something unintelligible.
“But he's alive?” said Sunita.
“Oh yes,” said the woman. “And he seems to be doing Ama Dablam in record time. I wish I'd paid more attention. I take it he is the children's chaperone?”
“Possibly,” said Sunita, not willing to reveal too much to a stranger. “The Sherpas like to tell stories.”
“Well, of course they do,” said the woman, perfectly willing to believe that the natives weren't entirely trustworthy.
The woman drifted off.
When the teenagers were finally done with their photos, it was time for the descent. One of the teens, a slight boy named Michael, complained that he was feeling dizzy and nauseous. He sat down on a rock and seemed unable to walk.
Dipesh, immediately concerned, asked him, “How long have you felt this way?”
Michael admitted that he had been feeling crummy since about halfway up.
“Why didn't you tell me?” demanded Dipesh.
Michael looked miserable. It was hard to tell whether it was the AMS or the rebuke. But the answer was obvious. He didn't want to miss out on the summit.
So Harith had to escort Michael down. The muscular Sherpa practically carried the slim teenager, he was so weak.
The others descended at various speeds. When they got down to the tents, Harith reported to Dipesh and Sunita that Michael was resting in his tent, though he had confessed to Harith that he hadn't been sleeping well for the last few nights.
Dipesh shook his head in frustration. Inability to sleep was another AMS symptom.
Negatively-inspired by Michael's collapse, each of the teens suddenly seemed to have at least one of the symptoms associated with Acute Mountain Sickness. A couple of girls were complaining that they had headaches. Most of the teens suddenly announced that they were very tired. A few even said they were nauseous.
Only Ian seemed unaffected by the outbreak. He sternly rebuked them all for not claiming their healing in the name of Jesus, and by his stripes they were healed, whatever that meant. Even Dipesh found it bewildering. But, in any case, it had no effect on the kids who all took to their tents, some of them moaning.
“I do not know what to make of it,” said Dipesh, quietly to the Sherpa brothers and Sunita. “It is just not possible to have thirty people suddenly become sick.”
Adinath, Prasad and Harish all agreed with this assessment.
“Still,” said Dipesh. “We cannot move on until this passes.”
Sunita groaned to herself. The trip to base camp would be put of indefinitely. At this rate it may never happen. Chris could be dead somewhere on Ama Dablam and how long would it take for the news to reach them here?
Dipesh warned the Sherpa brothers not to wander off too far since they would be needed to take care of the children.
Ian joined Sunita as she was heading back to the tent she shared with Rachel, one of the girls who had complained about a headache.
“What can we do for them?” he asked.
“Let them rest, I think,” she said. “If the symptoms persist, we'll have to take them to a lower altitude and possibly even get them some medical attention. But if it was just the ascent to Kala Patthar that triggered it off, they should get better with rest.”
“I think we should pray,” he said.
Sunita hesitated. Prayer was relatively new to her.
“Sure,” she said.
Ian just stood there.
“Right now?” she asked.
Sunita glanced over to where Adinath, Prasad and Harish were still standing. She couldn't pray in front of them. And she couldn't invite Ian back to her tent.
“Would you like to go to the teahouse?” she asked. “We could pray there . . .?”
But Ian was already walking to one end of the long line of tents. When he reached the first one, he called out, “Oh God, creator of all living!” That certainly got the attention of Adinath, Prasad and Harish. And Sunita had no choice but to join him. “We pray today for your people, sick in these tents!” He started walking. “Please send your awesome healing power to deliver us from this sickness!”
“Amen, brother!” someone called out from one of the tents. Sunita couldn't tell whether the voice was serious.
“Father, we came here to serve you!” Ian was striding now, and Sunita could see he was really getting into his prayer. Adinath, Prasad and Harish were watching in fascination. “We came to climb mountains for you! Not to lie sick in tents!”
There was a groan from one of the tents.
“We came to tell Nepal about you!” Ian continued. “How can we do this if we're too sick to move?”
Now Adinath, Prasad and Harish were looking at each other and Adinath was even glancing over at Sunita. This was the first time they'd heard that the children were here for anything other than climbing small mountains.
“Restore us to health!” Ian called out. He was almost at the final tent. “Restore us to health that we might serve you! Amen.”
“Amen,” whispered Sunita.
hether it was real or whether it was psychosomatic, the bout of Acute Mountain Sickness kept the kids close to their tents. Yet the symptoms remained mild and most of the kids had hearty appetites, which was a strong indication that they were not in need of medical attention.
“I think they are just tired,” Dipesh concluded to Sunita and the Sherpa brothers. “Tired physically and tired of travelling.” He shrugged. “So we stay here for some time. I do not even care if we miss base camp, but I figure when they've rested, they'll want to go on.”
Adinath, Prasad and Harish agreed. Even Michael was much better. He still complained that he was tired, but he could eat small meals and the dizziness and nausea were gone.
But what was most disturbing to Sunita was the way that Adinath looked at her. Something had changed at the point where Ian had prayed for the group and she had followed along behind. He no longer looked at her with interest, but with suspicion.
In any case, she spent most of her time now in her tent, with Rachel, reading Sarah's Bible. Rachel's headache had long-since receded. Her main interest was getting the attention of Ian. Rachel wasn't the prettiest of the girls on the trip, but Sunita could at least encourage her that it didn't look like Ian was interested in anyone else.
“I don't think he's ever had a girlfriend,” Rachel whispered to Sunita. Outside, it was easy to hear everything that was said in a tent. “He's very focused on God.”
“Well, that's excellent,” said Sunita, who didn't know what else to say. But, of course, it was no comfort to Rachel who generally went around looking glum - which didn't do much to help her looks.
Beauty had never been an issue for Sunita, especially with a career in the army. But she used some of their time in the tent to help Rachel rearrange her hair and apply some light lipstick.
“I look silly with lipstick,” said Rachel, looking at herself in a compact mirror. “I don't know if Ian will like it.”
“It has sunblock in it,” said Sunita. “It's very practical to have some protection for your lips.”
Rachel nodded at the wisdom of that.
“But stay in your Bible,” said Sunita. “I think that's really the way to win his heart.”
A few days later, Sunita passed by Adinath, Prasad and Harish, who were having coffee around the campfire.
Prasad called out a greeting to her and asked her if she wanted to join them. They had managed to obtain some plastic chairs from somewhere.
“Coffeehouse full today?” she asked.
Everest Trekker's Coffee was popular with both Sherpas and foreigners.
“We can't go there anymore,” he said.
“Why not?” she asked, accepting a mug of coffee from Prasad.
“Because of that crazy American,” Adinath burst out.
At first, she thought he was talking about Chris.
“He tells everyone about Jesus!” said Adinath. “We go to the coffeehouse and there he is, telling everyone about Jesus! Then everyone laughs at us!”
He must be talking about Ian, thought Sunita.
A few minutes of conversation resulted in Sunita finding out that the kids who had recovered quickly spent a lot of their spare time in the teahouse or at Everest Trekker's Coffee. Ian, who had never been sick, was a regular at the coffeehouse, telling people about the one and only way to have eternal life. The other Sherpas were amused, but the Western travellers were not. More than once, fellow-trekkers had told Ian to “take a hike.”
“Take a hike,” said Harish, shaking his head at the play on words. “It's funny.”
“No, it's not,” said Adinath. “We look stupid for bringing this crazy person here.” He glared at Sunita. At least, Prasad and Harish were a little more good-natured about it. Sunita gathered that they would have chosen to just ride out the ribbing at the coffeehouse if it hadn't been for Adinath.
The teahouse situation was just as bad, apparently. The kids drank tea and talked among themselves. But according to Adinath, they also liked to shyly share their faith with the girls who were supposed to be cleaning rooms, waiting on tables and washing dishes. The proprietor had complained to Adinath that productivity was down now that his employees had to politely listen to these customers who never bought much more than a cup of tea from him.
Sunita returned to her tent feeling uneasy.
She only had to see Adinath at meals but he was clearly not friendly anymore.
Rachel was lying back on her sleeping bag, looking miserable.
“What is it, dear?” Sunita asked, crouching down, concerned. “Is it AMS . . .?”
Rachel shook her head.
It was love, Sunita decided.
“I just found out something interesting!” said Sunita, suddenly. “I was talking to the guys, you know, Adinath, Prasad and Harish . . .”
Rachel nodded, not really interested.
“They say Ian is witnessing in the coffeehouse.”
Rachel sat up slightly, interested.
“I think it’s time you get out there and do something,” Sunita continued.
Rachel's eyes widened.
“You know your Bible,” said Sunita. “Go out there and share it!”
Rachel was giving this serious thought.
“Maybe I will . . .” she said.
“Go and do it now!” said Sunita. She could see the girl's distress. The time for preparation was over. This moment called for action.
“I will!” said Rachel, running fingers through her hair and starting to pat around her area for lipstick.
“Don't bother with that!” said Sunita. “You look fine, really!”
“Really?” said Rachel, looking as if she didn't believe it.
“Really,” said Sunita honestly. Ian would appreciate the girl's willingness to witness with him. Lipstick would hardly be noticed. “Go now!”
And Rachel did.
Alone in the tent, Sunita sighed and leaned back on her sleeping bag. If only she had someone older and wiser to tell her what to do.
Ian and Rachel were sitting together at dinner. It was only beans with some meat in it, but they were too busy talking to notice what they were eating. They looked like they had a lot to say to each other now.
Sunita smiled to herself. She sat with Dipesh and he remarked that although all the kids were looking healthier, he was going to postpone the base camp day-trip for another few days. Sunita nodded, now bereft of any hope of seeing Chris again any time soon.
Rachel returned to the tent late after dinner. When she did, she was bright-eyed with enthusiasm.
“Ian says we're going to take Nepal for Jesus!” she said, forgetting to whisper.
“Good,” she said.
“We're going back tomorrow,” Rachel continued, in a slightly quieter voice. “Some of the Sherpas want to hear more. They like the story of Jesus. A lot of them have heard of him, but they didn't know much about him . . .”
Sunita half-listened to the girl relate the events at the coffeehouse. That was love for you. Rachel wouldn't have marched inside that coffeehouse all by herself to tell the Sherpas about Jesus, but with Ian there, she would have braved a den of lions.
That was the story Sunita was reading tonight. Daniel in the den of lions. Sunita had finished all of the stories about Jesus and all the letters written to the early Church. Now she was halfway through what was called the Old Testament. One good thing was coming out this enforced stay at Gorakshep. By the time she saw Chris again, if she ever did, she would be able to say she had read the entire Bible.
The next day over a breakfast of rehydrated eggs and biscuits, Adinath started asking her questions.
Sunita tried to be polite but Adinath did not return the courtesy. He wanted to know more about her. Was she an American? Was she a Christian? Was she a qualified guide?
The questions were so blunt there was no way to be evasive. So she was honest.
No. Yes. No.
Then Rachel hurried up to excitedly tell Sunita that she and Ian were now off to the coffeehouse to continue where they had left off yesterday.
“Bye!” she called out, as she hurried to join Ian.
“See what happens!” said Adinath, waving an angry hand at them. “They ruin it for us! There is nothing to do here but go there or there . . .” He pointed at the coffeehouse and then the teahouse. “And they ruin it for us at both!”
“Maybe it's time to take a trip to base camp,” said Sunita, suddenly hit with inspiration. If the three brothers encouraged Dipesh, he might decide that the kids were ready to move on.
“Yes, I think we should,” grumbled Adinath.
Sunita returned to her empty tent to read her Bible. She noticed that Rachel and Ian didn't make it to lunch. But, of course, a coffeehouse was a good place to get a bite to eat if you didn't want to take a break from your preaching. Adinath and his brothers were all around Dipesh at lunch and it looked as if they were trying to persuade him of something. Her grandfather was nodding slowly.
At dinner around the campfire, Dipesh announced that anyone who was feeling up to it could join the group for a day-trip to base camp tomorrow. A murmur of excitement ran through the group. None of the kids looked sick now. But Dipesh was quick to add that if anyone preferred to stay at Gorakshep, someone would stay behind with them.
That would be me, thought Sunita.
But the next morning, all of the kids were lined up, including Rachel and Ian, for the trek to Everest base camp.
Dipesh and his team had ordered sandwiches from the teahouse and each teenager was given one, along with a candy bar, for the walk. Hot thermoses filled with tea were also coming along.
The walk started along the dirty brown trail that matched the landscape of Kala Patthar. The kids were excited. Though Everest base camp was only the beginning for the mountaineer, it was the ultimate experience for the trekker, the end of the journey. Adinath, however, was looking edgy. As they left Gorakshep behind, she noticed him looking over his shoulder several times. He was ahead of her, near the front of the group. As their group snaked along the trail, the front half disappeared when the path suddenly dipped. Sunita, who was in the rear, glanced back at Gorakshep and froze.
Army uniforms. Entering Gorakshep. Was that what Adinath had been looking for? What did it mean?
It was possible there had been a report of some sort of illegal behaviour. Everest, and all the mountains surrounding, were regarded as sacred. Travellers weren't allowed to litter and even human waste had to be carried off the mountain. An unruly group of mountaineers would definitely merit the arrival of the army. But Gorakshep had been calm. In a few hours, she would know if Everest base camp was calm as well.
Her mind was racing.
She was barely able to take in the scenery, though her legs were aware that it was a difficult walk. The kids all stopped to gawk at the wreckage of helicopters that had crashed due to the thin air.
For a while, Nuptse blocked their view of Everest.
The soil and rock soon turned to ice and the walking was more cautious. As her grandfather had warned the children, the area was unstable. This was the point at which melting occurred and it was a journey across moving ice. Everyone had their crampons and their walking poles, thanks to the foresight of Dipesh back in Kathmandu.
The colourful tents of base camp were now in sight.
Ian and Rachel must have sent up a prayer or two about the day’s journey because today, although there were plenty of ups and downs due to the uneven terrain, the children didn't need to cross any crevasses dropping to a dark unknown. For that matter, they barely needed to use the ropes held in place by pickets. On a bad day, trekkers would have to clip and unclip their way across the treacherous terrain.
It was but a small mercy for Sunita who couldn't stop thinking about the troops back at Gorakshep. The base camp looked quiet, with only a few expeditions, which probably meant that the army hadn't been called in to handle anything here.
Which could only mean that they were . . . looking for her.
Was it possible they would come this far?
Sunita caught Adinath watching her. Yes it was, she decided. Especially if one particular Sherpa guide decided that he didn't like Christians. Gorakshep wasn't so cut off from the world that it didn't have electricity and cellphone service.
Oh God! What was she going to do?
She looked up at the towering peaks. It was true. At base camp, you couldn't see the summit of Everest. But it was a majestic view, nonetheless.
Now Dipesh and the three brothers were talking to the Sherpas who were manning base camp. There was laughing and chatting since they knew some of them. Sunita stayed back with the kids.
Then the hot tea was distributed and the kids shyly came forward to talk to the other Sherpas, as well as a couple of members of an expedition from Chile. Everyone was interested in thirty teenagers suddenly arriving at base camp. They weren't the typical older trekkers that usually came for a quick visit.
The latest was that there had been a small avalanche that morning. A Sherpa pointed it out to them and the kids started taking pictures.
Sunita didn't want to push forward and ask if there had been any news of Chris and Kamal. It was a man's world here and if she joined the Sherpa guides and asked for information they would immediately be able to discern a special interest on her part. Hopefully one of the kids would ask about Chris.
Scanning the group for Ian, she thought he would be the logical one to ask someone.
As she did, she caught a glimpse of something orange. It was an orange-and-black jacket emerging from a tent. A yawning man stepped out. Was it possible?
For one moment, she disbelieved. It was too good to be true and all hope of seeing Chris at base camp had been abandoned at Gorakshep.
But it was! As she stood and stared, it was definitely Chris.
Chris looked over at the group and even at a distance, Sunita could see his eyes widen.
She laughed. She couldn't help it. Everything in her had to be ordered to stand still or else she would have just started running toward him.
Now the kids had spotted him and they were hurrying over to surround him and he was the one laughing and fielding their questions.
Yes, he had summited Ama Dablam.
Yes, he still had one more mountain to go.
What had they been up to?
Had they done Kala Patthar?
The kids were hugging him and he was hugging them.
Chris had changed.
There was warmth in his eyes. And he kept glancing over at Sunita.
She couldn’t stop smiling.
“You did it,” she said moving closer.
His grin for her was even wider.
“Only half done,” he said.
Now he had managed to make it out of the centre of the group and was in front of her.
“And you?” he said. “Is everything going OK?”
She hesitated and then nodded.
What could he do to help her? He was only one man and a foreigner, at that. If the army showed up at base camp, they would haul her away and there would be nothing Chris could do about it.
Kamal appeared from somewhere. He was beaming. Soon he and Dipesh were talking and Sunita gathered that Kamal was having the time of his life.
“He climbs like a madman,” said Kamal loudly. “I like him!”
Adinath and his brothers, however, were staring at Chris with disapproval.
“Madmen get people killed,” Sunita heard one of them mutter.
Normally, a visit to base camp was short. Today, Chris catching up with his kids prolonged it. Sunita watched.
Yes, Chris had changed. He was different than the man she had last seen in Lobuche. He was open and relaxed.
But when it was time to say goodbye to everyone, he was watching her with concern.
“Sunita,” he said softly. “What's going on?”
She glanced over at Adinath. He was at the front of the group, seemingly eager to get back to Gorakshep.
“It's nothing, Chris,” she said.
Chris shook his head.
“I know what that means,” he said. “When a woman says it's nothing, it usually means it's earth-shattering.”
She smiled at this insight.
“I don't want to bother you,” she said. At the same time, it was slowly dawning on her that she might never see him again. If the men at Gorakshep were really there waiting for her, then it would be prison and perhaps, death.
“Go ahead and bother me,” he said.
Hesitantly, she told him what she had seen just as they left Gorakshep. As he stood there, looking grim, she added that she was pretty sure it had something to do with Adinath and related about his interest in her that had turned sour, as well as his hostility toward Christians. Chris looked over at Adinath who was now visibly impatient and ready to move out.
“OK,” said Chris, taking a deep breath. “Wait here.”
Sunita watched him walk away. He headed for Dipesh and was soon talking to her grandfather. Dipesh looked surprised and then hesitant and then, finally, he nodded.
The kids were all ready to go, thanks to the Sherpa brothers edging them away from Chris. Dipesh nodded to Adinath and waved at him to start escorting them back. Adinath nodded, stared at Sunita and then began leading the group.
Whatever she expected, Chris took her completely by surprise when he returned to her side. He grabbed her arm and pulled her down behind the nearest tent.
“What are you doing?” she gasped.
He put a finger to her lips. Wide-eyed, she just stared at him. Dipesh was hurrying to join the teenagers as they crossed back over the ice.
“What are you doing?” she said again, this time whispering.
“Dipesh agrees with me,” he said. “Adinath has been asking him a lot of questions about you. Who are you, where did you come from, that sort of thing. He asked Dipesh if he realized that you’re a Christian. If you saw the army arrive in Gorakshep, it was probably because of him.”
Sunita didn't realize it at first, but she was clutching Chris's hand.
“What am I going to do?” she whispered.
Chris peered around the corner of the tent.
The kids were disappearing out of sight, through a pass of ice, hidden by a frozen waterfall.
“You're staying with me,” he said standing up and gently pulling her to her feet. He was grinning. “Congratulations! You're going up Lhotse!”
ow are your mountain-climbing skills?”
Sunita just stared at him.
“You're a Sherpa so you must be pretty good,” said Chris. It was so great to see her again. He had thought that tackling Ama Dablam might drive her out of his thoughts, but it had been just the opposite. She had become his reason for doing this. Not to get her attention by showing off, but more to prove to himself that he was worthy of her.
Now that it was confirmed that the army was still after her, he knew a future with her would be a risky one, an edgy one, serving God in a dangerous situation rather than in the comfort of a small American church. That is, if he had ever been serving God back in Illinois.
Sunita was indignant.
“Just because I'm a Sherpa you think I can summit any mountain I want to!”
“No,” he said. “I'm just hoping it won't be too hard on you, that's all. As soon as that Adinath character gets back, he's going to put two-and-two together and figure out that you stayed here.”
Chris started walking for a small group of tents.
“So we have to set out right away,” he said over his shoulder. “The army might have enough moxie to follow you to base camp, but they're certainly not going to follow you up Lhotse.”
Sunita, right behind him, couldn't decide which of her fifty questions to ask first. But Chris started answering some of them.
“Our cook packed up and left yesterday. His wife is having a baby and he didn't want to miss it. Kamal is complaining that we’ll starve. I keep trying to tell him that it takes no skill to open a package of tea but he won't listen to me. I don't expect you to take the cook’s place. My only point is, we have some extra gear.” He was unzipping his tent flap. “I can't pretend it'll be easy, but if you're willing, I'm more than happy to make this work.”
She was dazed.
“Yes,” she said, finally. “Yes, I am.”
Sleepy-looking Kamal seemed to accept Sunita as a natural part of the expedition, as if it had been something planned all along. The honeymooning couple would summit Lhotse together.
The tent was now being emptied.
Fifteen minutes later, everything was stowed in their backpacks. Sunita was carrying the load that the cook would have handled.
Kamal gleefully pointed out that the very first successful summit of Lhotse had required 200 Sherpa porters.
Chris grinned at Sunita.
“He likes to tell me these interesting tidbits to keep up my morale.”
“Maybe we'll break a record,” said Sunita, grimly. The full impact of what she was doing was hitting her. Army training had prepared her for the heavy load she was carrying, but it had never covered summiting the highest peaks in Nepal.
“Oh, I think all records have been broken as far as Lhotse goes,” said Chis. “About four hundred people have made it to the top so far.”
“Oldest person to summit it was 72-years-old and youngest person to summit it was 17,” said Kamal.
Chris, obviously in an upbeat mood said, “So we won't win any prizes there.”
They were leaving Everest base camp behind.
“I've already climbed Lhotse Face,” said Chris, conversationally. “When I was doing Everest. It's pure ice.”
Sunita nodded numbly. Any Sherpa knew that the western side of Lhotse was the first part of the South Col on Everest. But she wasn't any Sherpa. She was one who had moved to Kathmandu to join the army rather than spend her life among the mountaineers and trekkers.
“Anyway, we're going up the south face,” he said. “So we may end up breaking some records there.”
Sunita nodded again.
“The steepest side,” she said. Why should she expect that they would take the easy route? And easy was a relative word here.
“Steepest face in the whole world,” agreed Kamal. “Lots of fatalities.”
Sunita was pretty certain that Kamal could also provide them with the statistics of how many people had died trying to summit Lhotse and its various faces.
“How many successful summits of the south face?” she asked.
“Not too many,” Kamal said vaguely. “Most of them unverified.”
“That'll be us,” she said.
“I'm not doing this for the glory,” he said.
“I know,” she said. “You're doing it for God.” Back in Lobuche, it had sounded noble. Back in Gorakshep, she had longed to be with him. So why was she so sulky now? It wasn't the fear of death. Anything was better than the army catching up with her. It wasn't even the discomfort. Army training had provided her with plenty of that.
It was the absurdity of it all. It was fine for Chris to want to prove himself by climbing a mountain, but she had already proven herself by accepting Jesus as her saviour in a country where that was practically forbidden.
Chris was quiet now, the comfortable silence that fell among mountaineers who shared the overall experience while at the same time, being intensely focused on the personal challenges of the climb.
But maybe this wasn't about proving herself, Sunita decided.
Maybe this was just the next step in her faith. After all, what else did she have planned? She was in Nepal. Might as well climb the steepest slope of one of the highest mountains.
She glanced up at Chris who was beside her. The icy path was still wide enough for two. He looked light-hearted despite the dangers ahead. He looked down at her and grinned. In that moment, Sunita felt all her emotional weight evaporate into the thin mountain air. She still had the heavy pack and she anticipated a lot of achy muscles in the near future, but it would be one-day-at-a-time with this new God of hers.
Her peevishness a thing of the past, she returned the grin, now feeling as light-hearted as him.
o what makes us think we'll be successful?” Sunita asked that night, after they had set up their camp and were sipping tea. She had to give Chris full points. He pitched in and helped set up camp and prepare the evening meal. Many mountaineers just liked to concentrate on the climbing, leaving everything else to the Sherpas.
Sunita's question wasn't hostile, just curious and Chris nodded, like he considered it a valid question.
“For one thing,” he said. “From what I've read, the previous attempts have been in the winter. Maybe a summer expedition will give us an edge. Blizzards and high winds have kept people from summiting Lhotse in the past.”
The sun was going down. They had climbed until they were comfortably tired, leaving themselves enough energy to set up camp. Chris said they were roughly following the route of a Japanese expedition that had summited the south face in the winter. They were at base camp 1, about 6000 metres above sea level.
But the base camps at Everest were more established and recognizable as you went up the mountain. Lhotse was something you more-or-less had to decide for yourself.
They were on a small ledge that Sunita was hoping was made of rock, or at least, ice solid enough not to crack in the night under their weight.
“The fact that we're a small group is not against us,” Chris continued. “One of the best summits so far has been by a Polish climber who soloed the south face.”
“And fell into a crevasse to his death on the way down,” said Kamal.
“Thanks for that cheery thought, Kamal,” said Chris. He turned to Sunita. “But seriously, you don't have to summit this mountain if you don’t want to. This is my thing. We can get you settled in at base camp 4 and you can wait for us there.”
Chris had had time to think. It had seemed like a good idea down at Everest base camp, bringing her up here. And so far, she had done amazingly well. But she didn't have the training he had and even more important, didn't have the burning desire he did to summit a mountain once he set his mind to it.
Sunita nodded slowly. It was true. The mountain wasn't her thing. The whole point of her joining this expedition was to avoid the army. Base camp 4 on Lhotse would certainly achieve that.
“Thanks, Chris,” she said. “I might do that.”
One of the more awkward aspects of the arrangement was that Kamal took them to be a married couple. He had been willing to share his two-man tent with the cook, but he certainly would have found it strange to share with Chris and let Sunita sleep alone. So that night, Chris and Sunita wiggled into their two-man tent. They each had their sleeping bags, but that didn't change the fact that their bodies were pressed against each other. And the night was cold. Chris gave her a quick smile before rolling over to his side, back to her, and going to sleep.
Or at least, pretending to go to sleep. He groaned to himself. Sunita beside him was a huge distraction. They should have just come clean with Kamal. He wouldn't have cared. He was old and a rebel. But there was always the danger that if he told his wife or daughter who Sunita really was, they would immediately report it to the proper authorities. According to Kamal, they were frighteningly law-abiding and didn't like to take risks. The only reason his son-in-law had issued them the permits was because in Nepali culture, the younger ones were expected to respect their elders.
And so, here he was, trying to sleep beside her. It made him dizzy just being so close to her. Talking to her was out of the question. So instead, he lay still, concentrating on his breathing until he had a steady rhythm that almost felt like sleep. Except that he was awake.
What a blessing to just be able to drop off like that, thought Sunita. The surface was hard and cold. Then she tried sleeping on her back and felt every rock on the ground. She returned to her original position, her back to Chris, but she wasn't used to sleeping on her left side. But rolling onto her right side meant facing Chris . . . and the scent of whatever cologne he wore, or soap he used, or whatever it was that made him smell so good.
She tried her right side for five minutes and found it hard to breathe against Chris's back. Back to the left side. Then there was the added stress of worrying that she might wake him up. And it was cold. So cold. It was hard to sleep in the cold. She found herself moving her back as close as she could to Chris. The irony was that Kamal was probably envying them, imagining them in one sleeping bag sharing body heat.
Finally, after an hour of restlessness, she drifted off. When she awoke, she and Chris were face-to-face. She started. It woke him and he grinned.
“Good morning,” he said. It was a good morning. No matter how this had come about, it was the best morning he could recall, waking up and seeing her.
She nodded and immediately sat up.
“Yes, it is,” she said, crisply. It was unnerving, waking up together. It made her ache. She refused to let herself dwell on it.
Breakfast was a quick tea and some biscuits and dried fruit.
Despite growing up in the shadow of these mountains, Sunita knew next-to-nothing about climbing. She hoped she wasn't too much of a liability to Chris. He seemed to be doing most of the work for her. Kamal affixed the ropes. Chris called out calm instructions to her. There was a lot of clipping and unclipping. They were doing an almost vertical ascent and she didn't want to think too much about it. Chris was right beside her, showing her where to put her axe. The crampons on her boots belonged to her, but the axe was the Sherpa cook's, who in his anxiousness to get back to his wife had left it behind. Thankfully, the handle was a comfortable fit for her small hand. Otherwise the ascent would have been impossible.
When they got to the top, Chris assured her that this was likely the hardest part of the day.
She nodded. The whole way up, she had been praying. No fear, no fear, no fear. At one time it would have been a mantra. Now it was a request. The peace she was experiencing was evidence that the request had been heard and answered.
They would only be going 200 metres higher than last night, Chris told her.
“Normally, a group would hike up to base camp 2 but then return to base camp 1 to sleep,” said Chris. “But I'm feeling good and I'd just as soon sleep at camp 2 tonight and maybe rest tomorrow.”
Sunita nodded her agreement. A larger group would have taken it slowly, so that all members could adjust to the higher altitude. Not needing to acclimatize was one advantage of her Sherpa heritage.
That was the extent of their talking for the day. Though not as steep, the ice still required full concentration.
The higher they went, the less energy they had. They had to make sure they reserved enough to set up camp.
“So you said that most people would not go straight from base camp 1 to base camp 2,” said Sunita, over tea that night. It was the only thing she could think of saying. All she had looked at all day was ice and snow. Her mind felt as blank as the whiteness.
It was Kamal who answered.
“Yes,” he said. “When I was younger, the group would climb up to base camp 2, then return to base camp 1 to sleep. Then they might do a little more climbing the next day. But back to base camp 1 to sleep. Then, maybe, two days of rest. And then back up to base camp 2, to spend the night . . .”
“And then repeat it all over again with base camps 2 and 3,” said Chris, shaking his head.
“It's a slow way to go up the mountain,” said Sunita.
They all agreed and that was their conversation for the evening.
More tired tonight, it wasn't as hard getting to sleep. Chris and Sunita automatically started off back-to-back, but at some point in the night twisted around. Sunita was horrified to wake up with her head buried in his neck. How long had she been leaning on him like that?
But there was that grin again.
At some point in the night, Chris had realized that Sunita was nestled up against him. Climbing Lhotse was certainly going to be unforgettable with Sunita as a tent-mate. Usually he was alone in his tent. Chris had climbed many smaller mountains before tackling Everest. You didn't just take on the highest mountain in the world without a solid portfolio of smaller peaks behind you. Otherwise, any decent expedition wouldn't let you come aboard. He had been all over North America – Mount Whitney in California, Mount Elbert in Colorado, Mount Rainier in Washington, Mount McKinley in Alaska, Mount Logan in the Yukon, Pico de Orizabo in Mexico, not to mention many of the other smaller peaks. He had been climbing seriously since he was twelve. But Everest had left him with the sense that all the highest peaks had been summited and there wasn't anything left for him.
Until that day he had been standing in Lobuche and Ama Dablam had called out to him, challenging him to do it once again. To demonstrate that he could do it, but even more this time - to establish that he was up to whatever challenges were still ahead of him.
The day of rest at base camp started off leisurely, but they still needed to put in some climbing.
Trying not to seem like a show-off, Chris demonstrated to Sunita some more effective ways of moving up a wall of ice. Kamal wasn't so interested in preserving her dignity.
“C'mon girl!” he yelled at her. “You don't fool me! You are a Sherpa but you look like a turtle! Move like a Sherpa. Go up it like a panther.”
Sunita was huffing and puffing.
“If I have any energy left in me after this is over,” she said to Chris through gritted teeth. “I will kill him.”
“Don't listen to him,” said Chris. “You're doing fine.”
Turtle or panther, they all made it to the top.
And one thing was clear, Kamal had not fallen for the story that she was an American. Maybe he figured she was born in Nepal.
The following day, they did a climb to see where the next base camp should be. They would be going up approximately 900 meters, a huge adjustment for the body. Even Chris wanted to return down to base camp 2 to sleep that night.
“There was still some shelter from the wind up there,” said Chris, when they were having a meal of rehydrated soup. “I'm thinking that that might be the best place for you to wait for us.”
“Why?” Sunita asked. “I thought I would be going up to base camp 4 with you.”
“That's what I thought at first,” said Chris. “But camp 4 is going to put us at about 8000 metres which could mean some pretty bad winds. Not a nice place to hang-out.”
“Maybe I'll summit Lhotse with you.”
That had raised his eyebrows.
It was an idle statement, not thought out. But the more Sunita thought about it that night when, despite exhaustion, she was having trouble falling asleep, the more the idea appealed to her. It wasn't easy what they were doing, but she was getting the hang of it. What if she and Chris did have a future together? Would she always want to be left behind just short of the summit? Or did she want to be there right beside him every time?
The next day was much the same. Straight climbs up ice. No looking down, only up. Getting to the top and rappelling down to do it all over again. Practise. Practise. Practise. This was the South Face of Lhotse. Over dinner, Kamal discussed the route that most people took up the West Face.
“The path is practically cut into the mountain,” he said scornfully. “Easy. For baby Sherpas.”
“If you call it easy going along in thigh-deep snow and cutting winds. And they have their ice walls.”
“Only three-storeys high,” said Kamal, with a tone of voice that said it required no further discussion.
Chris grinned at Sunita. Chris and Kamal had a natural rapport as a result of their time on Ama Dablam, but the sense of being a team was shifting to him and Sunita. Chris liked the way it was going, the way they could share a look of understanding behind the older man's back. Kamal was grumpy, certain that the whole world was out-of-step and that he was the only one who saw things correctly.
After one more day at base camp 2, they were all eager to move on. Climbing with equipment was different than climbing without. Most of it had to be pulled up rock and ice faces by ropes and pulleys and it was slow going. So slow that they didn't make it all the way up to their anticipated base camp and ended up camping midway. The next morning was an early start and by afternoon they were setting up base camp 3.
“Whew!” said Chris, almost out of breath, as he and Sunita rested in their tent. It was the first time they had done this, taken an afternoon nap. They could hear Kamal already snoring in his tent.
“I couldn't agree with you more,” said Sunita, her eyes closed, so tired she didn't care that they were lying side-by-side in such a close space.
Exhaustion. It was an interesting sensation, thought Chris. It dominated everything, even his sex drive. But it was still a great feeling to have Sunita beside him. Just to be able to share the experience of being utterly worn out with exertion.
None of them woke up for dinner.
“Three days here,” said Kamal as they drank coffee and ate dried biscuits the next morning.
Chris, who still wasn't feeling normal, nodded. Sunita seemed well rested, suffering no ill effects from the high altitude.
“What about the kids?” she asked, after Kamal stood up to do a reconnaissance of the area. “Will you make it back in time to get them home?”
“They have about two weeks to go,” he said. “To be honest, I've lost track of time. But Dipesh will get them back to Kathmandu if I can't.”
“Will your church mind if you don’t come home on the same flight with them?” asked Sunita.
Chris took a deep breath that had nothing to do with the thin air.
“I'm not sure I want to go home right away,” he said slowly.
Her eyes widened.
“I just can't imagine going home and returning to the same old pulpit and quoting a bunch of mountain scriptures to inspire people to tackle their problems at work or with their families.”
“Is that what you did?”
He nodded. “More or less.”
“So . . . then . . .” she said. “If not back to the States, where would you like to be?”
“Here,” he said simply, looking around. “Not on the mountain, but here where people need to hear about Jesus. People in my church know about him already. They get caught up in the cares of the world, but when the world lets them down, they'll know where to look. You convinced me back in Lobuche that people here don't even know where to look.”
“But it's a big step, Chris. It's not an easy road that you're choosing.”
“Like climbing the South Face of Lhotse is?”
They both laughed.
And Sunita knew for certain that she would have to summit this mountain too.
ow that Sunita knew she was going to summit the mountain, she spent the next three days in active training.
Chris sensed that something had changed in her. There was a determination now, rather than a passive acceptance of the situation.
The South Face of Lhotse wasn't just about meeting the challenges of high altitude climbing, but of physical effort under extreme conditions. They had some oxygen, and would probably end up using it, but so far they had relied on resting after each bout of exertion. Sunita wanted to learn everything Chris could teach her and, to his chagrin, he was able to do so in three days. Either he didn't know as much as he thought, or else she was just a natural climber.
In fact, the more she climbed, the more Sunita could understand why people bothered with the mountains. It wasn't the Nepali people who had first summited these heights; it was the foreigners who had come and looked at the peaks and decided that they had to stand at the top of them. But once the Sherpas had started their careers as guides to these crazy outsiders, they had proven themselves adept at summiting their own mountains.
Now she was feeling it. A new ability - to face a wall of ice and go up it – had been discovered and surged through her, almost like a sensation. It was an ability she never knew she had.
And she was beginning to understand why Chris needed to do this before facing a future telling the Nepali people about Jesus. Army training was similar. You pushed yourself as far as you could and then when the day of real combat came, you could handle it. Maybe it was even a little easier than you expected.
Each day, she and Chris were pushing themselves to the limit. On the fourth day, they moved up to base camp 4. Now they were at 8000 metres. The summit was only 500 metres above them.
Their exhaustion wasn't as intense as the day they had arrived at base camp 3, and Kamal took the time over a dinner of dried meat, more biscuits and coffee to reminisce about some of the larger expeditions he had been on when he was younger.
“Heated dining tents,” he was saying, as they all sat out in the cold, windy night air. “Food that Westerners like. All sitting on chairs with tables . . .”
Chris grinned at Sunita. Their chairs were small squares of tarp, arranged on blocks of ice. Despite their pants with insulation, the chill still made it through.
“Coffee without all these grinds,” said Kamal, looking into his mug.
“Hey!” said Chris who had made the coffee. “Besides, I thought you liked adventure!”
“I don't mind a bit of comfort too,” said Kamal. “But you don't have comfort unless you have yaks and you were too cheap to hire yaks.”
Chris laughed and protested that he hadn't vetoed yaks. He had left it all in Kamal's hands. And Kamal had only hired the yaks as far as Everest base camp. Kamal replied that he should have specified what they needed . . . Sunita listened as the two men bantered back and forth.
Kamal did concede on one point. The larger expeditions required a longer stay on the mountain because everybody had to have a fair chance to summit. He had often sat in base camp 4 for weeks at a time while everyone acclimatized and/or tried to summit.
That night, as they lay side-by-side, Chris and Sunita discussed the next day. Sleeping in the same tent had almost lost its awkwardness. Chris said they could attempt a summit, if they wanted to.
“I will, if you do.”
He grinned in the darkness.
“So you are going to do it?”
“Of course,” she said.
He nodded even if she couldn’t see it.
“Glad to hear it. My suggestion for tomorrow is that we don't attempt a summit, we just go up halfway.”
“Is that what you would do if you were alone?” she asked.
It was a fair question and he didn't want to shield her from the truth. If they were going to have a relationship, he never wanted to lie to her.
“No, if I were alone, I'd be a fool and try to go up. But,” he added quickly, “that doesn't mean we should do it tomorrow. Climbing with a partner is always different than climbing solo and we need to both be up to it in order to make it to the top.”
“OK,” she said, taking a deep breath, not easy at this altitude. “I can see the wisdom of that.”
She found herself yawning, even if it was hard to get to sleep. The yawning was probably the attempt of her body to get more oxygen into it. She was already higher than she had ever been and tomorrow she would almost be touching the sky.
But, in the meantime, the ground was hard and despite all their efforts, they never could seem to find a flat surface. It was a wonderland of ice formations but it wasn't a world designed for comfort.
Sleep was what she needed, though. Did Jesus answer prayers about small things like that?
There was only one way to find out.
“Jesus, I need to sleep. I need strength for what lies ahead. Amen.”
“Amen,” mumbled Chris, half-asleep.
Had she prayed out loud? That was the altitude for you. It made you less astute, kind of like having too many drinks at a party.
But, in any case, Jesus must have heard because soon she was drifting off – and she didn't care that her head was leaning on Chris' back.
A cloud cover rolled in during the night, creating the sense that they were camping in heaven itself.
Now that they were at base camp 4, Kamal was done. He didn't care about summiting.
So it was just Chris and Sunita who set out, straight up and into the clouds.
Crampons and ice axe. That pretty much summed up the day's climb.
“We didn't even see the peak,” said Chris ruefully when they had returned. “Too many clouds.”
“We could only see a foot or two ahead of us,” Sunita agreed. “But it was still exhilarating.”
Chris grinned at her, glad that she appreciated it like he did.
“Consider yourselves lucky to be alive.” Sunita observed that Kamal had erected a small pole and had hung some prayer scarves from it.
Chris had also noticed.
“Did you say some prayers for us?” he asked.
“Mostly for myself,” Kamal grumbled. “This might be my last climb. I want to make it down alive.”
Chris was just watching the older man. Sunita had a feeling this would be his first opportunity to reach out to a Nepali person.
“Your life is in God's hands,” he said, at last.
“Which God?” said Kamal. “I like to cover all the bases.”
“I know of only one God,” said Chris.
“Then you are a fool,” said Kamal. “One God.” He snorted.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” said Sunita suddenly.
“What?” said Kamal.
“One God,” said Sunita. “One God created the heavens and the earth.”
Kamal shook his head at suddenly finding himself in the presence of lunatics, but Sunita noticed that after that initial response, he looked thoughtful.
“He would be a very powerful God then,” said Kamal, finally.
They both nodded.
Though it was dark now, Kamal looked up toward the summit.
“Is that one God going to get you to the top?”
“Going to the top of Lhotse was my idea. But while I've been here, I've been doing a lot of thinking about doing things His way in the future.”
“That might be easier,” said Kamal nodding with the wisdom of age. “If there is one God,” he added.
The cloud still covered the summit of Lhotse and both Chris and Sunita agreed that they didn't want to summit on a day when they couldn't even see the view from the top. But they still did some climbing in the morning before returning to base camp for an easy afternoon.
Kamal was resting in his tent so Chris started up the tiny stove for some soup.
As they sipped their soup, they talked.
“When we go back,” said Chris. “We'll have to take a different route.” He was speaking low.
“Once we get to Everest base camp, you mean,” she said, softly.
It was a reasonable thought that there might be a soldier or two at Gorakshep waiting for her.
And now was a good time to discuss it. A summit could take a few weeks, but a descent was much faster because the need to acclimatize was gone. If they summited tomorrow, they could be back at Everest base camp in a few days.
“Unfortunately,” said Sunita thoughtfully, “it's hard to avoid Gorakshep. From there we could go to Thugla or Pheriche . . .”
“Silly girl,” a voice called out. Sunita and Chris started. Kamal had been awake the whole time and their voices had carried.
The tent flap was unzipped and out came Kamal.
“We do not have to go back through Gorakshep,” said Kamal, joining them and helping himself to some soup. “That crazy Adinath is there, isn't he? Let me guess, he fell in love with you?”
Sunita's eyes widened.
“And you,” said Kamal, turning to Chris, “would have to kill him as a matter of honour.” Kamal's eyes sparkled. Whether the older man was joking was hard to tell. “And you do not want to end up in prison, so you do not want to pass through Gorakshep.”
“Something like that,” said Chris grinning.
Kamal shook his head.
“That noodle-brain Adinath. He is always falling in love with someone. Usually it is a foreigner. He proposes to a woman on every expedition he is on.”
A laugh burst forth from Sunita. It didn't solve the problem of soldiers in Gorakshep, but it was a relief to know that Adinath’s feelings for her weren’t too personal.
“We will go back to Ama Dablam,” Kamal continued. “Then we can follow a path I know to Dzongla. From there, you can make your way back to Kathmandu without meeting that crazy lovesick yak.”
“Well, I'm glad we sorted that out.”
The next day was ideal weather for a summit. The sky was clear and blue, the sun was bright and the wind was moderate.
“You won't get a better day than this,” said Kamal.
Chris agreed. The day he summited Everest, the sky was overcast and the wind had been a killer. He had stood on top of the world as the wind cut through him and clouds obscured the view. It was something he had never shared with the church - that victory on that day had been uncomfortable and uninspiring. Ama Dablam had been different. It had been more than just the good weather. It had been exhilarating. He had done it, despite the odds against a solo summit on the spur of the moment. And it hadn't exactly been solo. He had felt God's presence up there with him on the top of Ama Dablam.
Today, God willing, he would be summiting Lhotse with Sunita. That would be a first too.
They started off strong, but halfway up something went wrong. Sunita started to have difficulty breathing.
Chris kicked himself for being such a fool and not bringing along oxygen. He had been sure that Sunita wouldn't need it, being used to the high altitudes and he didn't want to strap on a mask if she could summit without it.
She was gulping and trying to get a deep breath into her lungs.
“C'mon, Sunita,” he said. “Let's go back down.”
She shook her head. They were halfway up a wall of ice with another one hundred metres to the summit.
“You go up,” she said, between gasps. “You . . . might . . . not . . . have another chance.”
“Maybe not,” he said. “But I'm not doing it without you.” He was a little out-of-breath himself. This final exertion of summiting was best if one did not stop for conversation.
But Sunita held up a gloved finger as if to say, “Wait.” She took in a mouthful of air, this time catching her breath.
“Let's do this,” she said. And before he could say anything, she was moving up again.
Chris watched in admiration. He had to admit, she didn't look like a turtle going up anymore. More like a panther.
They reached the top of the ice wall and stood on a small platform. Only another fifty metres to go.
The wind was bracing, but bearable. Fifty metres was a walk in the park if you were rock climbing at ground level, but up here, it was a feat of determination to make it that last little bit.
Kamal had made them a small thermos of sweet tea for the summit but Chris pulled it out and poured some into the cup. They shared it, silently conserving their breath, and then continued upward.
Rock, ice, snow. Sunita wasn't sure if she was muttering it or just thinking it. The snow-covered rock in front of her entirely consumed her. That and making it to the top.
Chris, just slightly below her, wanted to keep positive but right now he was struggling with a bad case of, as Solomon put it, “with much knowledge, comes much sorrow.” For years he had subscribed to the major mountaineering magazines. It was a kick to sometimes see his name in a list of people who had successfully summited Everest, or some of the other major peaks of the world. But today, in this final push to summit Lhotse, he was recalling an article he had read about three Polish climbers who had attempted the South Face. Kamal had mentioned one of them. But the other two had also died on the expedition. By Chris's calculations, one of them had died at about the point they were at now – about 8000 metres, just short of the summit. He had lost his footing and dropped two straight kilometres down to his death. Or was it three kilometres?
Chris's mind began to fixate on this question. Was it two or three kilometres? Maybe a person could survive a two-kilometre drop. He knew he was being absurd. Trying to switch his mind to something more cheerful, he ended up dwelling on the third person who had died. He had been the expedition's doctor. An avalanche had fallen on him near base camp 1. Base camp 1. Base camp 1. It kept playing over and over in his mind. Base camp 1. Base camp 1. What a crazy place to die. Base camp 1. Even base camp 2 would be ridiculous. Now, base camp 4, you didn't mind so much. Base camp 3. He couldn't decide about base camp 3. Did he want to die at base camp 3?
Rock, ice, snow, thought Sunita. She felt like her whole life had been spent staring at rock, ice and snow and that her whole life would continue to be spent staring at rock, ice and snow.
Yes, thought Chris. Base camp 3 would be a respectable place to die.
Rock, ice, snow.
Not base camp 2, though.
Rock, ice, snow.
Maybe not even base camp 3.
Rock, ice, snow.
No, base camp 3 would be OK.
Rock, ice, snow.
Definitely base camp 4. Maybe base camp 3.
Rock, ice, snow.
Definitely NOT base camp 2 . . .
And suddenly, they were at the top. Sunita pulled herself up over the ledge and could hardly believe that there wasn't another wall to climb. And then Chris was beside her. And there were tears in her eyes. It was a good thing her face was entirely covered and her glasses shielded her from the cold or else the tears would have frozen.
Then Chris was hugging her and she was hugging him. And they both felt surprisingly strong and clear-headed for two people who only moments earlier had felt weak and incoherent.
“Thank you, God,” Chris whispered.
“Thank you, Jesus,” said Sunita, looking around. She had never seen Nepal from this perspective. Her country was blessed to have such a high point to view the world from.
Chris pulled a slim digital camera from one of his pockets and started snapping photos, including several of Sunita. He put his arm around her and then held the camera out to get a few shots of them together, on top of the world.
And then it was time to go back down.
“Carefully,” he said. It wasn't easy to speak, but he didn't want her to be reckless. It would be all too easy to think that, with the summit over, that the hardest part was behind them. But it wasn't over until they were safely back at base camp.
The summit had cleared his head. As they carefully made their way down the rocky ice wall, he wasn't thinking about base camp 1, 2 or 3. Or even base camp 4.
Strengthened by truth, was now the thought running through his head.
All his life, he had been feeding his church in Illinois with fables of his legendary climb. How had it strengthened them? One could only be strengthened by truth.
Strengthened by truth. Strengthened by truth. Not by stories of other people's quasi-heroics.
Sunita was well aware of the dangers of descent. Every season, growing up, there had been the stories of the mountains. As many died on descents as they did ascents. Of course, it was usually the foreigners. That was sad, of course.
Strengthened by truth, thought Chris. Not fantasies, fairy tales.
But what was always talked about in hushed tones were the Sherpa deaths. The men who had acted as guides to the foreigners.
America thrived on fairy tales. Strengthened by truth. Strengthened by truth.
A grieving widow, usually some small children left behind. No insurance plan, of course. A risky profession with no insurance plan.
Movies, stories. Stories about people like me, except that when you walk away, what are you left with? What do I have to offer anyone?
Living on the edge even when the man was alive.
I don't have anything.
Everyone did what they could to help. But there was so little to begin with. Who had the answer? Who had the solution? The army didn't.
But Jesus does.
hey rested on the same ledge they had stopped at on the way up. There, Chris and Sunita finished the tea, now not so warm, but nonetheless, refreshingly sweet.
And then they were back at base camp 4, with Kamal shaking each of their hands, and hugging them, like a proud father. There was a quick meal prepared by Kamal and then straight to sleep. Together, but too tired to even congratulate each other.
This was the first night on Lhotse that Sunita didn't feel the hard ground. Just sweet sleep and sweet satisfaction.
The next morning was still time for celebration. Sunita got a hearty hug from Chris, which she returned.
“Any more mountains to climb in the future?” she asked him, only half-joking.
“Not in the near future, anyhow,” he said. “But who knows?”
They packed up their tiny base camp.
Chris was half-expecting something horrible to happen – a foot slipping and a fall into a crevasse; a monster-size chunk of ice falling on their heads; a storm blowing in and disorienting them.
Sunita's mind was already at ground level. What if the army was waiting for her there? What if they weren’t content to wait for her in Gorakshep?
People who died on a mountain like Everest or Lhotse were just left behind, it was inhumane. Chris couldn't imagine leaving Sunita behind.
And Chris wouldn't be able to do anything to help her. He was an American. They would put him on a plane and send him home and they would put her in prison. He could write some letters to his Congressperson. Maybe even raise some awareness among Christian groups. But in the end, she'd be lucky if he could write to her in prison.
By evening, they had made it down to base camp 2 and after setting up their tents and a dinner of rehydrated soup, they leaned back against a wall of ice and relaxed with a mug of coffee.
“Well,” said Chris, conversationally. “We made it.”
But the summit felt like history now. Chris was fighting the feeling that an avalanche would fall on them at Everest base camp. Where had his faith gone? He felt like he had left it on the summit.
“We did,” said Sunita absently. They had summited. What good would it do her when the army picked her up and carried her back to Kathmandu and put her in a dark cell? Would summiting Lhotse give her the courage to face her interrogators?
“So what's with you two?” Kamal said, nodding toward them both.
“What do you mean?” asked Chris.
“Long faces. You're happy. You're crazy. First you . . .” He pointed at Chris. “. . . climb a mountain all by yourself. Then you do it together.” He looked at Sunita. “You are both alive. But you sit there like the world is about to end.”
“That's how I feel.” They said it at the same time.
Then they looked at each other.
“Why, Sunita?” He took her hand. It was the first time he had used her name. He forgot that she was supposed to be Susan.
“So you are Sunita!” Kamal slapped his thigh. “Dipesh's little granddaughter! I remember you when you were little, but then you went away . . .”
“Then why this Susan business?”
Chris was watching Sunita, without letting go of her hand.
She sighed and took a deep breath. This could cost her her life.
“I became a Christian,” she said. “I had joined the army and the army likes to keep up the pretence that we are all of one mind on the topic of faith, so they went after me.”
Kamal shook his head.
“Stupid people,” he said. “City people.”
Sunita shook her head.
“Not just city people. Adinath found out and called the army, I think.”
Kamal hadn't stopped shaking his head.
“No, he is just like that. He can take it, being scorned by the foreigners. But to be scorned by one of his own hurt. If he called the army, it wasn't because he cared about your crazy new religion.”
Sunita had her doubts about that, but Kamal's outlook was comforting.
“So now you are with him?” Kamal said, nodding toward Chris.
Chris and Sunita looked at each other. Chris's hand tightened around hers.
“Yes,” she said. “I am.”
“That is not a bad thing,” said Kamal, glancing at Chris. “He is American. So you will go to America?”
They were looking at each other again. Chris cleared his throat.
“Uh, I would prefer to stay here,” he said.
“You are crazy,” said Kamal. “I already know this, but now I know this more. Why would you want to stay here?”
They were both silent and Sunita found herself sliding closer to Chris. His arm went around her shoulders.
“Well sir, I think people need to hear about Jesus.”
Kamal snorted. But then he gave it some thought and slowly, he smiled.
“Yes, this is the talk of a crazy man.” Then he laughed. “What kind of work do you do back in America?” he asked.
“I'm a pastor,” said Chris.
Kamal looked puzzled.
“You know, I work for a church, giving messages each week . . .”
Kamal didn't look too impressed.
“What good does that do you here? How will you make a living?” He turned to Sunita. “And you, girl. What did you learn in the army? How to tote a gun? What can you do?”
It was a sobering thought. Neither of them were really qualified to do anything in Nepal.
“I guess they have enough teahouses in this country,” said Chris, ruefully. “But we were sort of thinking of the village life, rather than the city life.”
“Good plan,” said Kamal. “Crazy army men don't bother too much with the villages.”
Despite that in the course of the conversation they had agreed that they wanted to share the future together, Kamal's questions had left both Chris and Sunita with very little hope for it. But Kamal didn't look down. In fact, he looked cheerful.
“So we start a business,” he said, matter-of-factly. “You are both good climbers. We take people off the beaten track. Isn't that what Americans want? To go off the beaten track?”
“Well, yes, they do.”
“So you know people in America. Climbers, people like that,” said Kamal. “We take them to the parts of Nepal they haven't seen and while we are in the small villages, you tell anyone you like about Jesus, and then we move on.”
They both just stared at Kamal and then Chris turned to Sunita.
“It could work,” she said, slowly.
“Of course it could work,” said Kamal. “With my connections here and your connections there, we will be rich in five years, yes?”
He wasn't so sure about his own connections, but a few well-placed ads in the climbing magazines would go a long way in promoting their new business, not to mention all the possibilities on the internet. Summit the Peaks no one else has: See the Other Side of Nepal.
“I'm not so sure about the climbing . . .” Sunita started to say.
“Sherpa girl, you were born to climb,” said Kamal.
It was true, though Chris doubted that she would have believed it coming from him. So he was glad that Kamal announced it in a way that said, no further discussion.
Sunita shrugged and accepted her fate, that of a natural born climber.
“It's a step of faith,” said Chris, turning to Sunita and taking both her hands. “But I'm willing if you are.”
“Will you marry me?”
Kamal's eyes widened.
“You're not married already?”
Despite the significance of the moment, Sunita had to smile and shake her head.
“Then . . .” spluttered Kamal. “The tent!” He pointed. “Every night! And I thought . . .”
“We didn't do anything but sleep,” Chris assured him.
“Really!” Chris insisted.
It took a little doing, but they managed to convince him that he had not been condoning anything immoral.
“But tonight,” he jabbed a finger in Chris's shoulder. “You are in my tent!”
Chris groaned, but it was good-natured.
“Well, girl,” said Kamal, turning to Sunita. “What about it? Will you marry him?”
“Of course I will,” she said.
Kamal averted his eyes as Chris leaned down to kiss her.
“OK, enough, enough,” he said after a few seconds. “Save your breath.”
That night, the ground was still hard, but Sunita felt as if she were sleeping on air. She was alone, but she was now officially engaged to Chris. She could hardly believe it had happened. In the nearby tent, she could hear Kamal's enthusiastic plans for their new company. Chris had come up with the name for it, Summit the Peaks, but Kamal had the ideas and he was sharing them all with Chris.
Sunita smiled to herself as she listened to Chris's sleepy agreement to all of Kamal's suggestions. They could work it all out together later, including how they would tell the people of Nepal about Jesus.
As she drifted off to sleep, it seemed that the best way would be one person at a time. That's how it had worked for her. Just one courageous person willing to share her faith.
ipesh, true to his word, had gotten all of the kids back to Kathmandu on time and to the airport for their flight.
“Man, I wish Chris were here,” he heard one of the kids say.
“Hope he didn't die on the mountain,” said another.
Their flight left in forty minutes and Dipesh was glancing at his watch every two minutes. This was the biggest thing he had done in his life – more-or-less, single-handedly guiding thirty children through Nepal. Once they were on their plane, he planned to return to Namche Bazaar and take a weeklong nap. Maybe after he had woken up from that, he would hear some news about his granddaughter and Chris.
Ian, the most mature one of the bunch, had given him their church address in America, along with the address of the church website, and told him to write them anytime and, of course, to let them know if Chris was OK. Now Ian was leading them all in a prayer for “journey mercies” and when he was done, Dipesh added his own “Amen.”
“Chris!” one of the kids shouted.
Dipesh turned to see Chris, his granddaughter, and even more surprising, Kamal, moving their way through the crowds.
“There you are!” Chris called out, still a distance away. The kids swarmed him as he got closer and he and Sunita were soon surrounded. Sunita smiled at Dipesh from the centre of the group.
“You made it just in time!” said Ian.
“I've got some big news for you,” said Chris, grinning and tousling the boy's hair. “I'm staying in Nepal.”
That got their attention.
“Sunita and I are getting married.” He grinned at his bride-to-be. “As soon as we can find a priest.”
Jaws dropped, including Dipesh's. Kamal beamed like a proud father.
“And we're going to stay in Nepal and tell people about Jesus,” Chris concluded.
Some of the kids cheered. Others beamed. The girls looked thrilled and some of them hugged Sunita.
Dipesh had been watching Kamal's face when Chris said they were going to be telling Nepal about Jesus. But he didn't look shocked.
What was going on? Why was Kamal just standing there grinning?
Then Dipesh understood. Kamal was a rebel at heart, and a bored one at that. If he liked the idea of Chris climbing a mountain on the spur of the moment, he probably enjoyed Sunita running from the army.
And that's when Dipesh knew his granddaughter was safe. She had Chris, an American husband who wouldn't just stand idly by if she ended up in prison and Kamal, a new friend who would give his son-in-law and everyone else whose ear he could capture no end of grief if anything happened to Sunita.
“God bless you both,” Dipesh said, warmly, shaking Chris's hand and then hugging his granddaughter. Then they were all laughing and the kids were calling out to Chris, “Will you come back, ever?” and “What should we tell everyone?”
“The truth,” he said to the last question. “Maybe,” he said about coming back. “I sure would like Sunita to see Joliet sometime. And when I do,” he added, “we'll be visiting you all at church.”
The kids were still asking questions when the announcement came that “Flight 979 to Chicago is now boarding.” Chris was trying to hug them all at once. There were promises to email.
When all the kids had disappeared down the tunnel, Chris took Sunita's hand.
“Let's pray for them,” he said.
Dipesh noticed that he didn't make a show of it, but he definitely didn't hide it either. The man had changed since he had first arrived in Nepal.
“Father in heaven,” said Chris. “Please take those children safely home. My place is here so I give them to you, to protect them and watch over them as you have been doing ever since we left. I pray you'll give their parents a forgiving heart for what I've done. And I pray that Sunita and I will be your effective servants here in Nepal. Amen.”
“Amen!” It was Kamal who said it the loudest. Dipesh glanced sharply at him.
Chris and Sunita led the way out of the bustling airport, as Dipesh and Kamal followed.
“Is it possible,” said Dipesh, turning to his fellow Sherpa, “that you have become a Christian?”
“Shhh!” said Kamal. He lowered his voice. “I might be. But do not tell the children up there. I do not want them to know. They will think it is as easy as going around telling people that Jesus saves them from their sins, and suddenly everyone will say, yes and become a Christian. I don't want them to think it is that easy.”
“You are a Christian!”
“Of course I am,” hissed Kamal. “One God is enough for me. But be quiet! I want them to think it takes years to convert someone. Otherwise they will become big-headed with success . . .” He hurried to catch up with Chris. “Hey Chris! I have an idea! We should hire some of those for Summit the Peaks!” He pointed to some airport advertising. “We could have posters made up. People will get off the plane and say, 'Hey! I want to do that instead . . . '”
Dipesh was left to walk alone and think about this new development. Kamal. A Christian. Kamal, of all people.
Ahead of him, Chris took Sunita’s hand and looked down at his wife-to-be. His wife. He still couldn’t believe she had agreed to marry him. He was happier than he’d ever been.
And it all made sense to Chris now.
He couldn’t offer Nepal a hospital, a school, food distribution. But whether it was Dipesh’s experience in India or Sunita’s experience in Kathmandu, it was all the same. Behind both were people willing to give up everything for the sake of the good news.
The message offered life whether it came with chickens or a gospel tract or a healing or a Rosary.
In his case, right now, about all he could offer Nepal was a smile to go along with the message. But he had a feeling there would be other ways he could show God’s love to the people of Nepal, ways he hadn’t even thought of. That was just the kind of God he served.
Other novels by Jennifer Keogh Armstrong
The Society for the Betterment of Mankind
Revolution in C Minor
Somewhere between Longview and Miami
Last King of Damascus
The Unlikely Association of Meg and Harry
Death Among the Dinosaurs
A Good Man
Among the Sons of Seth
The Kent family adventures
The Treasure of Tadmor
The Strange Sketch of Sutton
The Hunt for the Cave of Moravia
The Search for the Sword of Goliath
The Buried Gold of Shechem
The Cache of Baghdad
The Walls of Jerusalem
The Missionary’s Diary
Non-fiction by Jennifer Keogh Armstrong
Some of my Best Friends are Going to Hell
(And it Makes me Want to Weep)