In the Annapurna region of the Himalaya there are shrines to an ancient mountain god. An archaic anthropomorphic deity, this gods presence predates both Buddhism and Hinduism in the area. It is a bestial god, both physically and in nature. Vengeful and demonic this metaphysical entity demands offerings and sacrifice. The keeper of fates in these high mountains, Mas-ta, is not known for mercy.
Peter Matthiessen, in his classic "The Snow Leopard", witnessed the people of this secluded mountain world paying homage to this pagan deity. At his shrines people place prayer stones, flowers, rams skulls and, commonly, cannabis.
Mas-ta is the fear and apprehension one has when entering the mountains. The projection of the negative emotions felt when confronted with the challenges of the elevated world. For all the joy and peace one can gain from the mountains Mas-ta is the opposing force; the suffering and helplessness.
I arrived at the trail-head for South Colony Lakes and the Crestone Basin late in the afternoon and was forced to wait until morning to begin my trek into the alpine. The sun rose over the Wet Mountains and I was making uphill progress by 8am. The gentle slopes of Marble Mountain and Humboldt Peak form the hall of South Colony Creek that was now mostly frozen over. It is as if you transcend the world as you go into these mountains. Progressing from the desert scrub on the lowlands to the juniper and pinion, lastly, the aspen before the alpine, devoid of trees.
One person had been snowshoeing here before me and had made some headway compacting the trail. They had only gone two miles though before giving up and turning away. From then on I was breaking the trail, at times through deep snow. It took six hours to get to the treeline and I fell short of my goal of the lakes. Exhausted from the days work, I set up camp for the evening.
Over breakfast, the following morning, I could see a very steep gully that led up into the hanging valley of South Colony Lakes and I decided it would be a good challenge to ascend. It was longer and steeper then anything I had yet climbed, maybe at 500ft and at an angle > 60 degrees. Using my piolet and crampons I front-pointed with the assist of a few self belays to ascend the gully. Halfway through I looked back and hesitated. The anxiety hit; Mas-ta. The runout was safe if I fell and just last week I was practicing my self arrest. Reassuring myself, I began upward progress again. From the top I was satisfied, the dynamic of positive and negative emotions swells inside. "Welcome back to life on the edge," I thought.
My view opened up and from my height atop the gully I could see upper and lower Colony Lakes, both frozen over. Luckily, I could also see where the trail was indicated giving me a safer route down back to camp. The basin is commanded by the presence of Crestone Needle between the two lakes. Crestone Needle, Crestone ridge and Broken Hand Peak have walls so steep little snow clings to their sides. In contrast Humboldt to the north, with its gentle slopes, is mostly wind blown and without snow. In summer this basin must seem like a paradise with the cool waters of the lakes and blooming alpine flowers; but there is an elegance and uniformity to winter. It is the flatness, the somber tones.
During my lunch break the wind picked up and I decided to head back for camp. I had climbed up the slopes of Humboldt to an elevation of 13,000ft when I began to descend. Just below me was a long, icy snow field of a generous angle and I thought it would be a good spot to glissade. In an instant I had slid down 300ft. It was exhilrating until I lost control of the glisade and had to preform a self-arrest.
Steaidly, the wind picked up and when I got back to camp I was unable to prime my stove for dinner. I had the option of digging a snow trench to block the wind but snow was being kicked up now. It felt like being in a sand storm. The sky patchy and clear, then white out conditions for moments.
By twilight it was clear that the wind was not a short phenomena, it was the voice of Mas-ta. Tiny ledges on the mountain faces that held snow released their loads onto the valley below. Hundreds of wind caused miniature avalanches, a snow twister erupted briefly.
Throughout the night my tent buckled and caved in the heavy wind. I slept little. To pass the time and to keep my mind off my growing concern and feelings of helplessness I cleaned up my living space. Organizing my clothes and gear into my backpack, I prepared for the worst case of a major failure to my tent. I built a plan to escape to a nearby grove of trees if needed.
My mind needed to stay occupied and in this state I recalled something. In the history of Buddhism there are many stories of a teacher entering a town and dispelling the old demons. Mostly these stories can be interpreted as how Buddhism began to replace the old cults and sects of eastern peoples. Mas-ta was one of these usurped demons. My growing concern pushed me mentally to reach out and, then, verbally speak out, "Om! Om Mani Padme Hum!". The ancient chant that has been echoed for centuries to center and evoke peace.
Mas-ta continued to assail me. I continued my rites. A moment of serenity arose. No longer was I afraid of the wind, no longer was there anxiety but only peace with the wind. This is the way of the mountain! To every day there is a night and to every meeting there is a parting. This is just another embrace of the mountain. An expression of her glory.
The morning brought with it a new placidity to complement my new understanding. Now the air passed gently. After my pack had been reassembled and my gear all stowed away I began the long trek back. As I descended through the changing woodland I paused for a moment to reflect on how calm it had become. A light breeze blew and broke a tuft of snow from the branch of a pine. In the sunlight a thousand rainbows glittered and I heard a voice on the wind. Mas-ta?
It said, I salute you, "Namas-te."