I’m standing on a trail leading out of Nepal’s Khumbu Valley with Ama Dablam behind me. This mountain, like so many in the Khumbu Valley, is itself a monument and symbolic of a monumental journey. I’ll never forget crossing the bridge above the river, turning right and starting to trek up to Tengboche, when Ama Dablam came into full view for the first time. So picturesque, so unavoidable, it was the moment I felt I had truly arrived in the Himalayas.
On this trip to Nepal in 2005, I was shooting film and grossly underestimated just how many photos I would take — resorting to my rolls of black and white when I ran out of color film just after summiting Kala Patthar at 18,200 feet. But that’s a story for another time.
Monuments, big and small, are everywhere in the Khumbu Valley. Cairns — man-made stacks of rocks — mark the way to Kala Patthar where the trail emerges from the glacial path and starts climbing up the vast, barren slope that overlooks Mount Everest. Larger, more elaborate rock formations around the valley stand as monuments to famous Sherpas and climbers (like Babu Chiri Sherpa and Scott Fisher) who lost their lives climbing the world’s tallest mountain.
Buddhism thrives in the Khumbu Valley, with chortens and mani stones at nearly every turn. Sometimes dozens of mani stones are piled together along the trail or displayed at a particular viewpoint. These monuments are deftly chiseled with a sanskrit mantra, “om mani padme hum”, as well as Tibetan texts and prayers.
Near Namche Bazaar, at the heart of the Khumbu Valley, prayers paint the surface of a large rock outcropping turned mani stone. Like Ama Dablam, I’ll never forget seeing this for the first time either. It is a magnificent monument and a typographer’s dream — bold and graphic in its entire composition, and as beautiful stroke by stroke as the Khumbu Valley is step by step.