Want to climb Mount Everest? It's not easy, but spiritual seekers have a head start.
While Sri Chinmoy’s students have run ultramarathons, swum the English Channel and broken world endurance records in numerous fields, one feat of endurance has so far eluded them: climbing Mount Everest. If one intrepid group has its way, however, this might be next on the list. Of course, it will be no small achievement. Though more people have climbed Everest over the past 50 years than have swum the Channel, the height of 8,850 metres (29,035 feet) still seems an almost mythical quest. One of the most experienced climbers on the team is New Yorker Anugata Bach, who has swum the Channel, completed several ultramarathon races, and run across the Sahara Desert. “I think the Channel gave me the confidence to climb mountains,” he says. Though he swam the Channel back in 1988, Mountain-climbing had intrigued him since his childhood, when he was watching National Geographic specials on TV. “I remember one in particular where they were climbing the Alps. I think it was Walker Spur. I remember being absolutely floored by watchin g it. I wasn’t saying at the time that I wanted to do that, but it really struck a chord inside of me.” Here, he reveals his techniques for what might yet be his greatest achievement – techniques which have their basis in his spiritual life. Play to your body’s strengths. Part of his interest in mountain-climbing, he says, is due to his body’s physical traits. “My physical body’s made for endurance, as opposed to high-intensity sports like sprinting or even high-level rock climbing.” Climb with friends who have the same Goal. These climbers were already long-time friends. “We’ve all been Sri Chinmoy’s meditation students for a very long time, on average about 25 years,” says Anugata, “so we were meditating and pursuing other sports well before the four of us ever started climbing. “We realised we had a similar goal: to climb a high mountain, and to really experience the atmosphere and the consciousness of the mountain. Especially the Himalayas, because it’s the traditional seat of meditation for yogis and travellers who meditate in caves. The combination of the sporting life and the spiritual life, in an environment like that, is really, really satisfying.” Meditate. Anugata meditates every day. “The actual act of meditation – sitting down and really silencing your mind, that real inner stillness – is not so easy. At least, not for long periods of time, given the intense activity of Western lifestyle. Sri Chinmoy has always used athletics to augment the meditative experience.” Anugata and his friends see mountain-climbing as a spiritual experience. Take their expedition of Mt Cho Oyu, which is near Everest. At 8,201 metres (26,906 feet), it is the world’s sixth highest peak. “We had a puja before we started. We meditated at base camp every day. We tried to make it a pilgrimage, not just an ‘attack’ on the mountain – a word that some people use. We were in Tibet, and we really wanted to feel our oneness with Tibet, with the villages and people, and just continue that feeling right up the mountain. We didn’t have any porters or any help climbing. It was just four of us – and our cooks, down at base camp. We all made it to the top. The consciousness up at the top, when you’re walking around without oxygen, is just not earthly. It’s more like being in an airliner, when you look out the window in the morning, except there’s no plane. Living in that environment for several weeks, it was really easy to meditate out there.” Build up to your Goal. The same advice applies to almost everything. Anugata has taken many years, with several sub-goals on his way to the main one. “If you’re mountaineering, it’s not a question of just bagging a peak, then going home and telling people what you did. That’s probably part of it, but you’ve got to pay your dues, just like anything in life. You have to decide this is a priority and go about it in a conscious way. If you want to climb higher altitudes, like the 8000-foot peaks, start at lower altitudes and work up. “I’d been climbing about 12 years at that point, maybe two or three trips a year. I was just practising in and around New York, or going to South America or China or Alaska. The four of us had done various things that led us to believe that we could handle this 8000-metre climb without oxygen. “First you learn how to handle the altitude and perhaps take care of yourself. You have to be prepared for what happens with the weather – unexpected storms and things like that. You have to be prepared for the incredible cold at 8000 metres. That cold is really due to the lack of oxygen. When you get up between 7000 metres and 8000 metres, there’s not much oxygen in your body. It’s not burning and producing a lot of heat, so you have these down suits and a lot of insulation. You have to be very careful to take care of your appendages – your hands, your nose, your toes. So that’s another aspect of being prepared. “There’s a little bit of technical climbing, and as you soon as you get high enough and start to do vertical rock climbing, it’s really a heavy-duty thing. It really comes from meditation… without letting any negative emotion get in there, and just for the moment, always being the best that you can be. That’s going to be, ultimately, your best achievement. “Half of mountaineering is taking care of yourself. You can’t really expect someone, even if it’s your guide, to come up to you at every moment and say, ‘How ya doing?’ They may say that, but you might not be able to tell them how it really is going. It’s really important to pay into the sport, but responsibly – I want to stress the word ‘responsibly’ – get to the point where you can climb at that level.” Make climbing part of your life-philosophy. “When you spend a long time in an activity, you tend to get inside the activity and inside yourself,” Anugata says. “You just have more time to let the higher experience happen.” However, this should happen naturally. The activity itself comes first. “It’s become a philosophy as I’ve gotten older, but I think philosophy starts as something you just do physically. The philosophy gets built around it. “In a zen sense, you get in to the actual activity. The travelling to remote places, the pure living out in the mountain drinking the glacier water, is just something that you feel satisfied doing. If you get to the summit of the peaks that you want to, that’s a plus.” Prepare yourself for the power of the mountain. “It’s easy to get a magazine about climbing and get some pictures of the people on Everest or one of the other 8000-metre peaks. You see people climbing, but what you don’t get is the tremendous vibration of the place, which is really soulful. In that area of the world – Tibet, Nepal and Pakistan – where the really high mountains are, you get this feeling of tremendous power in the atmosphere. It’s almost tangible. At the same time, you’re feeling this inner strength. But the physical body is really struggling. You look at photos of people climbing… but you don’t really get a feeling of what they’re experiencing.” When you follow in their footsteps, of course, it all becomes clear. “You see that you’re made up of various elements. You’re not just the body. Sri Chinmoy has always taught us that there’s the physical body, the vital energy, the mental energy, the heart power and the soul’s power, and you start to see that separation when you get into very difficult athletic situations. The great art of meditation helps to clarify what’s going on.” Do it with the greatest motives. This is an experience to be savoured – not just reaching the Goal, but every part of the activity. “If you don’t really enjoy it, there’s not a great chance that you’ll get to the top, because you’re talking about a couple of months of approach and climbing, and there’s definitely hardship involved.” But while the activity might be difficult, Anugata says, enjoying it is a simple task. “The Everest climb might not even be your highest moment. Personally, I’ve had many of my own greatest moments. Many of them are not on the top of the mountain. Some of them are side issues to the climb. You can never tell when that moment of grace is going to descend on you. You’re looking at the world with a new set of eyes. “Getting ready, and taking the responsible steps to climb in the Himalayas, is just part of that. It’s a whole path. We have a meditative path, and this is another path that is built around the meditative path. “It’s more about trying to see God within the world. Sri Chinmoy’s philosophy is that he tries to see God’s existence within the world. To get a glimpse of that is to get a foothold in that awareness. It requires us to try to silence ourselves, and get insight into what we are doing.”