Your steadfast love, O LORD, extends to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mountains of God;
your judgments are like the great deep;
man and beast you save, O LORD.
We wake early, and already the sky holds promise, bright and full like a pool of liquid sapphire. I can see the mountain, the highest in Tongren, from our window and it looks so distant, and in a way, impossible with the brood of little legs that will be making the trek today. But as with most things that are formidable in life, I try not to think about all that it will require, just take the next step. So we head out to breakfast, stopping at a little hole in the wall fanguanr on the main street for our routine breakfast of doujiang and youtiao, a simple meal of fried dough sticks and soy milk. The kids eat this up like it’s Dunkin Donuts and the hot milk takes the edge off the chill in the air.
The Tibetan village halfway into the foothills where the trail for our climb begins is surrounded by terraced fields, shining in the morning light. The layers of barley and wheat cut into and carve up the mountainsides. Here and there a swath of rapeseed yellow as the sun sits like a smile against the curve of the hills.
Once again, like all ascents here it seems, the beginning is steep, curving through pastures where Yak graze and a cow is tethered to a small boy. Ryley is struggling with a twisted ankle from a few days previous. Sadie says her stomach hurts and she is reluctant from the get go, whimpering about not going on. We say a prayer, Josh and I, for the long day ahead and the sad shape we appear to be in already. I begin a long string of stories about hiking when I was a kid, and then some, trying to get the girl’s mind off her legs and lungs. It works for awhile, especially the ones about my trips and falls, or the time I stupidly failed to rope up when crossing a short ledge with a 2,000 foot drop at my side, or the time I was practically pulled up a mountain by my rock climbing friends when my skill failed to match anywhere close to theirs.
The benefit of such a steep climb is we gain height quickly, and the view is already breathtaking within minutes. I keep saying this to the kids, who are making small goals like the large boulder ahead, or that patch of grass by the Yak, and they are beginning to come around. We stop often for water and a quick bite of jerky or almonds and sometimes a few M&M’s. It is hard going, harder than any climb I would have been dragged on as a kid and though I am already so proud of their heartiness, I worry a little that we are killing any love they might have for the hills with such a challenge so young.
We go on like this for hours, until at noon we have reached the moraine just below the summit. It is still a good bit of steep climbing left and Ari is battling altitude symptoms—cramping stomach, headache, and fatigue. We decide that I will stay at the watering hole we have reached with Quinn and Ari so the rest can hopefully summit within the next hour or so. We watch the others fade into pin size specks on the horizon, slowly pushing for the top. Ari has a few tears, feeling disappointed and a little ashamed that he can’t go on. I tell more stories, Everest stories about the greatest climbers and the world's tallest mountain and all that they pour into it, and how sometimes their bodies or the weather just don’t allow them to succeed. He has already succeeded and he seems to see that.
Quinn throws rocks into the small, muddy pool where a small group of 3 Tibetan shepherds have brought their herd of goats to graze and drink. The two boys are easily pleased by these surroundings and I vary between helping Ari find good skipping stones and running up the hill to check on the group’s progress. An hour or so later, I can see them, the tiniest black points at the peak, and I am swelling with pride. It has been an arduous, if not beautiful climb and I can hardly believe these little ones have done it.
The way down is overcast, the clouds having moved in early in the afternoon. They grace us with their protection from the heat of the sun we had begun to suffer under. These mountains, they are rife with all the pictures of realities we know in our souls and speak with our lips but cannot see, stuck as we are with nothing other than skin and bones and rock and sky. These mountains, forcing us to respect their majesty, shining with beauty that both overwhelms and inspires us, taking us to heights that offer glimpses of glory that at once make us small and insignificant, but still transport us to the heavens on their back, these mountains are like the mountains of God. The clouds part for a moment and we all watch as the hills are transfigured.
Hours later, we reach the little village at trails end and Denise and I decide to run the paths that cut down through the the winding dirt paths of earthen homes and terrace fields to the main road leading into Tongren below. We take off, I am already weary but suddenly invigorated by this throw back to train running in the mountains during my college days. The path winds and cuts and we let our legs fly, praying no ankles twist or trip in the many cracks and divots. We make it safely to the bottom, knees a wreck and ankles sore, but with happy hearts like two young schoolgirls, laughing at our fun and the look of our flushed and sweaty faces.
The boys have all gone ahead long before, their goal to run from summit to Tongren all in one leg. I worry a little, my boys are only 8 and 9 and they are tagging after two who are 13 and 15. But these boys are kind and thoughtful, and everyone assures me this will be nothing short of epic. I try not to think about the possible twists and falls that could easily happen as I navigate the steep gravel trail myself. Boyhood badges of honor and all that.
We finally meet up with the rest of the group at the home of our friend’s former baomu, Ng’Zh Euch Mo Cu. The boys are there, all smiles and a few minor scrapes on their hands and knees. Ari’s eyes are shining. Mo Cu Jie serves us what she smiles and says apologetically, is only a simple meal of noodles, but to us it is a feast. She has made a mixture of diced lamb, carrots, mushroom, and green onion with a garlic sauce and vinegar and we pour it over the noodles in generous heaps. We eat 3 bowls apiece. It is the best meal I think I have ever had.