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High Holy Days
One part Everest, one part Mecca, Tibet's Mount Kailas is a Himalayan peak whose ancient, 19,500-foot-high (5,915-meter-high) Buddhist shrines can be visited only after circling the mountain 13 times. But in every 12th year a single circuit is enough, and pilgrims, swamis, and would-be wizards all converge for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to climb their way to enlightenment. By Ian Baker

Photo: Mount Kailas, viewed from the south.
Milarepa Stepped Here: Mount Kailas, viewed from the south. The objects in the foreground are chortens, Buddhist shrines believed to radiate healing energy.
For days, the holy mountain had remained hidden behind ominous clouds. But as I stood on the roof of Chiu Gompa, a monastery on the banks of Tibet's Lake Manasarovar, the skies finally cleared, revealing a sheer, symmetrical dome of rock and ice—which many consider to be a ladder linking heaven and Earth—rising abruptly above arid, snow-swept plains. Pilgrims of various faiths from throughout Asia have converged on Mount Kailas for millennia, seeking passage not by climbing it—the 22,028-foot (6,714-meter) peak is believed to never have been scaled—but by circling its base in an arduous journey held by the faithful to bring one closer to enlightenment. I had come to join them.

Khenpo, a Tibetan lama with whom I had traveled overland from my home in Kathmandu, poured handfuls of crushed juniper into a smoldering censer on the monastery roof. As ravens reeled through the smoke, Tibetans in thick sheepskin robes faced the mountain, prostrated themselves, and made offerings in a rooftop chapel in front of a gilded statue of Chakrasamvara, a multi-armed Tibetan Buddhist deity believed to emanate from the heart of Kailas. Gazing north toward the mountain, Khenpo invoked arcane spirits to guide us on the 32-mile (51-kilometer) circuit, or kora, around the sacred peak as well as on a more hazardous pilgrimage that we would undertake afterward to the highest point on the mountain to which human beings are permitted to climb.

We had come to Tibet during Ta-lo, or the Year of the Horse, when the merit of a single kora around Kailas multiplies exponentially and secures access to Serdung Chuksum—the Cave of the Thirteen Golden Chortens—a dizzying pilgrimage site nearly 20,000 feet (6,096 meters) high on Kailas's overhanging southern wall. These 13 shrines are filled with statues, scriptures, and the relics of Buddhist saints and represent stages on the path to enlightenment. They mark one of the oldest—and highest—pilgrimage destinations in the world. Long before Muslims circled the Kaaba in Mecca or Christians sought visions at Lourdes, Tibetans ascended to the precarious, rock-cut sanctuary seeking passage to other worlds.

Before leaving Kathmandu, I had consulted the few published references to Kailas's inner sanctum. In the Pilgrims Book House shop, I came across The Holy Mountain, an obscure account of a 1908 pilgrimage, published in India in 1934. The book includes a 30-page introduction by Irish poet William Butler Yeats, who compares Kailas to Dante's "Earthly Paradise" and refers to it as the "world's navel stone." Click to EnlargeEchoing early Tibetan pilgrimage guides, he writes of three "penitential rings" around the mountain: "an outer ring for all," an "inner and more perilous" route for the spiritually "gifted," and one that is "higher yet, inaccessible to human feet." To circle Kailas, Yeats concludes, is to "honour the Gods" and "join the sacred dance."

To summit Kailas would border on sacrilege, and Buddhist custom prohibits pilgrims from undertaking the "inner and more perilous" route until one has circled Kailas 13 times, a feat few non-Tibetans would undertake. But every 12 years, the Year of the Horse confers a sort of spiritual amnesty, and the faithful converge on Kailas by the thousands to maximize the merit of their ritual journey around the mountain. The few intrepid pilgrims who attempt afterward to climb to the 13 chortens endure a continuous rain of rock and ice that falls from Kailas's summit. The year of my journey, 2002, it had snowed heavily, and many Tibetans warned that no one could reach the coveted sanctuary.

While Khenpo continued his incantations, I spoke with an elderly Buddhist monk who was sweeping snow off the monastery's earthen roof. I pointed across the Barka plains toward Kailas—some 30 miles (48 kilometers) to the north—and asked him if he thought it would be possible to climb to the 13 chortens. "They are the treasures of Kailas," he said. "Whether you can reach them or not depends not on the snow, but on your karma."

Is your karma worthy? To find out, read the full story in the March issue of Adventure.

Online Extra
Photo Gallery: High Times in Tibet
For photos and insights from writer Ian Baker's high holy pilgrimage to Kailas, view our exclusive photo gallery. Enter gallery >>

From the print edition, March 2004

The Grand Canyon Tool Kit: Essential strategies for doing the canyon right
Hiking the Grand Canyon: Three ways to hoof the hole
Rafting the Grand Canyon: The best way to run the Colorado
Canyon Legends: Three unsolved mysteries
High Holy Days: Cleansing your karma on Tibet's Mount Kailas
The Adventures of Tim Cahill: Why a little bird is picking on a whale
Special Report: Wreck diving's deep frontier, on the S.S. Aleutian

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March 2004

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