In Sanskrit, the mountain is called Dhaulagiri, the White Mountain, and it looks, Lin Murphy says, like "a white shark's tooth, glistening." The image is apt; the beauty of the Himalayas can be predatory, searing the spirit and lives of those who try them. This autumn, after the monsoon season and before the harsh winter weather, Murphy plans to test herself -- along with seven other women mountaineers -- against the summit.
Why would a 36-year-old lawyer with the IRS Exempt Organizations Branch chance her life among the icy winds of a summit seven other national expeditions have failed to scale?
"The stress and the challenge that you overcome is almost like a meditation," she says. "To work so hard with one thing in mind -- sometimes the only thing is to put one foot in front of another -- is a very simplified way of being in the world. It makes everytheing very black and white, very elemental.
"You spend your life with trivial things," Murphy says. "You rarely get the chance to confront a thing directly and to conquer it."
She is standing by the treadmill in the Justice Department gym, where she trains daily. Dark-haired, dark-eyed, small-boned, she will be climbing the sixth-highest mountain in the world, climbing the Pear Route up the northwest ridge, where there is little avalanche activity because it is too sheer for the snow to gain a foothold.
"In the frozen air, the whole mountain is taut; the silence rings," Peter Mathiessen wrote of the Himalayas in "The Snow Leopard." All is still, as if the arrangement of pale shapes held the world together . . . eternity is not remote, it is here beside us."
The eight-woman expedition leaves the West Coast in late July for Katmandu. There, if the weather holds and there are no food shortages or porter strikes or civil disorders or bureaucratic squalls, they will set out for Pokhara and the 100-mile trek through the Kali Gandaki River Valley, crossing two 17,000-foot passes to reach the base camp. Two guardians will guide their way -- on the left, the Dhaulagiri Range, and on the right, Annapurna, which claimed the lives of two women who were part of an expedition that reached the summit in 1978.
The two women fell to their deaths. "Some people think they were lucky they weren't killed by an avalanche, there were so many of them," Murphy says. What does she think? I think they died doing what they wanted to do. They were going for summit. They had taken their destinies in their own hands; they accepted the responsibility for their lives -- if you get killed doing something like that, you kind of had a say about your life. That's a lot more than most people can say about their lives."
It's better, says Murphy, than "being hit by a taxicab, crossing the street."
In fact, says Murphy, she has become more careful about crossing the street since she took up mountain climbing five years ago. "You think more about risks. I look both ways twice now before crossing." The risks she takes now, she takes on the mountain. She's been lucky so far. The only bad time was in Bolivia, where she slipped on the way down a mountain called Illampu. Her arm was badly bruised and her foot was sprained and she was three or four days from any medical treatment, loosely defined as a nun blessed with a beneficent supply of demerol. "It was amusing getting on the plane," she said. "I had a black eye and my arm was so bruised, they thought it was gangrene."
In the Himalayas, of course, the risks are much greater, the consequences are devastating, even when they fall short of those decribed by Maurice Herzog in "Annapurna." Herzog dictated the book because he had lost fingers and toes, hands and feet, to frostbite, lost them, that is, after he lost his gloves and the flesh fell from his hands as if it were wet tissue paper. "A discouraging book to read," says Murphy. "He describes Dhaulagiri as "impossible.'"
Each of the women has been in charge of one aspect of the preparation for the trip, and that, Murphy says, has been nearly as much of a challenge as the summit itself. There have only been a handful of all-women expeditions, Murphy says, and the women are using this one to gain experience in the planning and logistical problems that inevitably surface. The number of coed expeditions has been, she says, "extremely insignificant. I don't want to say anything sexist, "she says, but only about 10 percent of the serious mountaineers in this country are women, and there has been a reluctance among the members of male mountain-climbing expeditions to include any except the most experienced members of their avocation.
Murphy has been responsible for the shipping and transportation of 8,500 pounds of equipment, worrying about such problems as how to ship oxygen tanks and how best to remove the air from down clothing (vacuum cleaners proved the answer) and what to do about the bottom-of-the-hole problem, in which your equipment is at the bottom of the hold and there isn't an off-loader in Bangkok who is going to worry about it until all the other packages at all the other ports of call have been delivered. "It's more difficult because we're new at planning," Murphy says. "We need to know the names of things. Like barter agreement. It took me two months before I knew what to ask for."
Now she knows. The expedition has a barter agreement with Lufthansa Airlines (they mention the names, the airline picks up $2,500 worth of air freight), equipment supplied by Eddie Bauer, radios borrowed from G.E. and a need for $3,000 worth of air reconnaissance of the northwest ridge, so the women can get an idea of what's in store for them in the silent, swirling upper reaches of the White Moutain.
Murphy is taking books by Jung and Carl Sagan up the mountain, and has toyed with taking her recorder (a type of flute), "except that I don't want to run the risk of being ostracized." She carries with her hope as well, and a very Washingtonian hope at that. She wouldn't mind seeing a yeti, an abominable snowman. "I'd like to think there's something up there that's new and undiscovered," she says. "Something that's unregulated and isn't taxed."