Everest Diary: Base Camp - Rum and rice to honour the mountain gods

EASTER Sunday, and I have spent all morning round an altar drinking fermented millet and rum and occasionally throwing grains of rice in offering to the mountain gods.

Instead of the smooth limestone walls of a church nave we were surrounded by the ice cliffs and shattered rock faces that ring Base Camp - a glorious setting for an open-air service.

The puja or blessing is an essential ritual of Himalayan mountaineering. Without a puja, our Sherpas would not set foot in the Khumbu Icefall which rears up only a couple of hundred metres from our tents and is the start of the real climbing on Everest.

We had planned to go through the jumble of teetering ice blocks and crevasses that make up the Icefall tomorrow, to spend a couple of nights at Camp One, 700 metres above our base here. However, there is a report of a storm on its way so perhaps we will have to be patient.

Whatever transpires, with today's puja we have made the necessary observances for our weeks on Everest. Any summit attempt is a probably a month away.

The service was already under way as I joined my companions on the Himalayan Kingdoms Everest expedition in the mess-tent for breakfast. Our Sherpas built a stone altar from the glacial debris several days ago - it is about a metre square and two metres high - and to their delight were able to find a puja pole to stand in the centre of the altar and support long lines of coloured prayer flags. Timber is in short supply in this basin of boulders and ice.

Perhaps the style of the proceedings was illustrative of a difference between the Sherpa Buddhist culture and our own. Church of England services in my own sporadic experience seem to dwell on what I've been doing wrong, on guilt and the need to reform. The congregation would be expected to sit still and listen to how we could be better.

While religion is important to the Sherpa people of the Khumbu, they wear it lightly. Their form of Buddhism has a strong flavour of the pre- Buddhist Bon religion of Tibet - only a kilometre or so away as the Himalayan griffon flies - which included the worship of ancestors and the gods of the mountains and streams. Pema, our sirdar (head Sherpa) explained to me how the prayers and offerings of the four- hour service would please the spirits of Chomolungma - Everest.

It was a heady brew. The 10 members of our team and as many Sherpas were seated on rocks around the altar. The sun was fierce but a chilly wind blew from the direction of the Icefall.

Scented, if slightly acrid, smoke blew over us from the juniper burning in a special fireplace, and all the while a lama wearing a fluorescent yellow bobble hat and grubby anorak over his robes chanted from small sheets of ancient Tibetan script.

No one, except the cross-legged lama, sat still for long. Sherpas kept refilling our cups, first with chang, a millet brew tasting slightly like a mix of scrumpy cider and sour milk, and then with rum and vodka; and tampsa, a barley flour, was daubed on our faces. This was good luck bestowed with good humour, the Sherpas laughingly uproariously as their chief, Pema, was liberally covered in flour.

But despite the chatter and laughter, the rituals were observed and great care was taken in stringing out the multi-coloured prayer flags on lines radiating 30 or 40 metres from the puja pole. The flags, and the charm strings we were all given to wear round our necks, have been blessed by the "big lama" in Kathmandu and again at the old monastery at Pangboche where we stopped on our walk-in.

A few more shots of that tasty Nepalese rum may be required later today when I clean up and treat the bloody slits which have developed on half my finger ends.

Cuts do not heal in the cold at altitude and hitting the computer keyboard, playing the cyber-climber, can get a little painful.

The treatment lies not with our doctor, Sundeep Dhillon, but in the expedition tool kit. All being well, my fingertips can be sealed up with Super Glue.

The doctor's medicine chest none the less has its uses. Nightly poker sessions in the mess tent lacked a certain something without any suitable "currency" for gambling.

Last night this was remedied. As a full moon illuminated Base Camp, The Independent hit a winning streak and ended the session counting a large pile of multi-vitamin tablets.