A Las Vegas Harpist Who Played It on the Mountain

Times Staff Writer

You spend a whole lot of time just staying alive. --Lisa Coffey

On the surface, the problem seemed insurmountable.

The surface was Las Vegas, where Lisa Coffey lives with fiance Randal Grandstaff.

The problem was spending a little quality time together. Randal, as is his wont, was about to leave on another business trip, this one lasting 3 1/2 months. Lisa thought it would be nice to join Randal for a month or so. Randal thought it would be nice too.

Pulling Strings

The problem, more specifically, was the couple's respective professions.

Randal is a mountaineer. Lisa is a harpist.

Randal's business, in the spring of 1985, was the ascent of Mt. Everest. Lisa, who plays Las Vegas dates, teaches at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and maintains the myth of harpist as wraith, could pull enough strings to arrange the time off to join Randal at his base camp, but could ill afford a moratorium on practice: A harpist must also maintain calluses, coordination, dexterity.

And sanity. A harmonica, sure, or a kazoo, but a harp ? On Mt. Everest ?

Of a sudden, no problem.

Lisa had heard that Lyon & Healy, a harp manufacturer, was developing a smaller model. Not a toy, but more of a teaching tool or a practice instrument, a genuine, scaled-down "Folk Harp" with a decidedly scaled-down price: $1,000, vs. a normal $20,000 or so.

It was Randal who made the connection. One does not become a master mountaineer by acclamation. Competent, imaginative, resourceful, Randal could sell crampons to the Bedouin. Lyon & Healy was a pushover. Lisa was on her way (and so, now is the Folk Harp, to the Smithsonian; Lisa will get her own model for her troubles).

For Lisa Coffey, 34, the excursion to Everest was at once more and less than she had expected.

More, in that "I'd read all the books and seen all the pictures, but I could not have imagined the beauty and majesty of the Himalayas."

Less, in that she worried, was "downright frightened," that she might not make it. Had she known that she would be leaping bottomless crevasses; that Randal would come down with cerebral edema before she was halfway to the base; that she would often awake in an entirely different location from which she had sacked out, due to the shifting of the glacier she was sleeping on--had she known all this, she might have reconsidered. Probably not. Harpists, it seems--like mountain climbers--are cut from a different canvas.

"We describe ourselves with a little doggerel," said Lisa: " 'A harpist must have lots of pluck / A black silk costume, and a truck.'

"Now I've updated it a little: 'A harpist on a bivouac / Needs thermal long johns and a yak.'

"But seriously, I was a little apprehensive, mainly over whether I would hold up physically, especially in that sort of altitude."

Lisa, you see, is not exactly the sort of Amazon you'd expect to see loping up a mountain with a loaded knapsack yodeling "The Happy Wanderer." A Soviet shot-putter she's not. At 5 foot 7 and 115 pounds, she looks more like--well, like a harpist. Who smokes.

Still, what's to worry? The harp weighed 22 pounds, 30 with special case, and her duffel bag was another 45 pounds, but there were Sherpas to help. (The harp was more often entrusted to the back of a yak, or, at lower altitudes, to a zopkiok, a sort of economy-size yak.)

All that's required, really, is flying to Katmandu, Nepal, then taking a local flight to the village of Lukla, at 9,000 feet. From Lukla to the base camp, it's a simple nine-day walk up another 9,000 feet, avoiding avalanches, side-stepping rock slides, jumping those crevasses, climbing 60-degree inclines with thousand-foot drops two feet away, and stopping now and then to strum a few bars.

Not to mention surviving for a month on a rock ledge, once you get there.

Lisa Coffey, harpist, did it. And loved it. And wants to go back.

Trained on a Fire Escape

"Even the first two days--a walk from Lukla to Namche Bazar--were enchanting, exhilarating" said Lisa, who trained for the trek by walking up and down the fire escape between shows at the Desert Inn.

"There was a time when a woman traveling alone in the Khumbu Valley was suspected of supernatural powers. Those days are past, but there were more than a few wide eyes when I unloaded my harp, to practice.

"The Sherpas had never seen one. They're great, rowdy, long-distance singers, like the Welsh, but outside of the few temples, there aren't many instruments about.

"They were in awe of the harp, hadn't any conception of what it was. But they sure weren't shy. I'd be playing it for a few minutes when the Sherpanis (female Sherpas) would physically remove my hands from the strings, then remove me so they could try it.

"They'd line up, and when it was their turn, they'd go 'twang' and 'twing' and just love it."

("They're remarkably good-natured people," Randal volunteered. "They'll drink chong (a fermented-rice beer) and sing and dance all night--complex, rhythmic dances with different tempos that last for hours. Come morning, they'll get a half-hour sleep, hoist their loads, and they're off again.")

During a day's rest at Namche Bazar--even seasoned Alpinists pause to acclimate their bodies to higher altitudes--Lisa got garbled word from a party on the way down that Randal, theoretically making the assault on Everest's peak, was in the hospital at Pheriche, a village 3,000 feet up the trail, suffering from cerebral edema.

"It's a serious disorder but one that affects every climber in time," said Randal. "Oh, there's no doubt it can kill you, but not if you descend immediately. It just needs rest.

'Just Kicking Back'

"Here Lisa's worried that I'm turning into a vegetable and I'm just kicking back, ready to leave. She boogied on up there a lot faster than one would have expected. . . ."

Lisa, meanwhile, was coping admirably, not only with the altitude but with the food, the likes of which has turned lesser women into overnight anoretics.

The antithesis of the Ugly American, Lisa is the sort who delights in the new, be it people, places, sounds, smells. Tibetan taste, though, came closest to taxing her natural good nature.

"At altitude," she explained, "you quickly learn to eat and drink more than regularly. You force yourself. I ate far more than I normally do, but even then I lost 10 pounds. You burn up calories just sitting and freezing.

"One of only two things I really missed--the other was a bathtub--was the pleasure of choice. I became acutely aware of what a luxurious thing it is to be in the habit of thinking about food in terms of what tastes you happen to be in the mood for.

Eating Yak Meat

"Not that Sherpa food, per se, is bad. The staple meal is boiled potatoes and dahl baht , a lentil-and-rice dish that's a total protein in combination. And we did eat yak meat on the way down. It's pretty rare, since it's against the Buddhist way to kill the beasts. Still, they do die, and when they do, they make a great dish. Wonderful!

"So it's not the food, it's the preparation. There's a certain sameness that we traced to necessity: When you get high enough where everything you have has to be carried on somebody's back, there's a tendency not to waste a thing.

"Unfortunately, one of the things the Sherpas have learned not to waste is cooking oil. They never throw it away. They use it over and over and over and over, so that everything you eat has this taste of oil that's turned rancid six months ago. It's not a taste, let's say, that I'm very fond of."

The Sherpa Nature

Nevertheless, Lisa found that it's a taste that complements the Sherpa nature.

When not tenting in the open, travelers to and from the base camp stay in village "teahouses," hardly the Hilton but sturdy buildings where one can sleep on planks for the equivalent of 25 cents and partake of local delicacies.

It is in the teahouses where one learns to adjust to another facet of the Sherpa psyche.

"They are remarkably--breathtakingly--happy and good-natured people," said Lisa, but their attitude toward cleanliness is cavalier at best, at least in Western eyes. To the Sherpas, Everest is close enough to Godliness. "It's a cultural thing," Lisa explained. "It's part necessity, but mainly because, well, it's OK to be dirty.

"Up at Pheriche and higher, where no trees grow, fuel is at a premium, and the Sherpas burn yak dung.

"In a teahouse, then, the woman in the kitchen--usually the owner, and consequently a woman of comparative great wealth--goes about her business with hands as black as a miner's. She picks up the yak dung and shoves it into the fire. Then she fixes you a cup of tea. . . ."

By the time she joined Randal in Pheriche, Lisa, understandably, had come to think of herself as "quite a hiker." She was wrong.

"I figured I could have gone all the way up to the camp from there--a three-day hike--alone if need be, and maybe I could have. But it was fortunate that Randal was with me.

"It was up the Khumbu Glacier. The first day was rigorous but not too bad. But the last day! I had to do about six things that I'd never done before, and that if I'd failed to do I might have gotten killed.

'Vanished Into Hell'

"Like I had to jump across a crevasse that you could see 30 feet down into and then it just vanished into Hell. I mean, you couldn't step across it; you had to back off, get some momentum and leap! Over this chasm!"

"It was only 5 or 6 feet," said Randal, laughing.

"No way," said Lisa. "And as you're walking up the glacier, it's going 'Boom! Crack!' You look up and you see avalanches! Rock slides!

"Then the trail is changing. Daily. Sometimes hourly. Sometimes previous climbers put up cairns to mark the new route, but even then, the trail might be here--or there. A pool one time, a frozen pond the next.

"I might just have been terrified, but with Randal--well, he's one of the world's best. This is his office; it's where he works."

Randal's current work was as a member of the climbing team of the all-American West Ridge Expedition, attacking what he calls the most arduous route to the peak of Everest. It has been climbed twice, both by international parties. Never by Americans. It remains elusive.

Because of sickness--and because of unauthorized persons using far more than their share of the precious oxygen--the team fell 800 feet short of the 29,028-foot summit: "About the length of a city block," sighed Randal, who also runs his own guide service appropriately called The Sky's the Limit.

"I wasn't climbing, of course," said Lisa, "but I'd go over to the ascent route and look up and wonder. The first time I saw it, I sat down on a boulder and cried. It was overwhelming. I had had no idea.

"You can say to yourself '29,000 feet,' sure, but most people don't have any idea what that means.

'You Can't Believe It'

"Then you look at the Khumbu Ice Fall, which is where the glacier comes down off Mt. Everest, and you can't believe it. Every 15 or 20 minutes, 'Boom! Boom!' There's this explosion and you look up and see something the size of a shopping center falling a thousand feet!"

With climbers irregularly leaving and arriving at the base camp--an ascent is more or less of a leapfrog affair--Lisa managed to keep busy. There was the harp to practice, of course--two or three hours a day, when temperatures permitted ("It's kind of hard to play in mittens").

At night, in the mess tent-cum-social hall, she would play for the mountaineers, who often were too tired to talk but not to listen. Over the month she spent at the camp, she became accepted, mainly by keeping her mouth shut in matters she only gradually came to understand.

As for the rest of her stay, "Well, you spend a whole lot of time just staying alive.

"Activities that would take maybe half an hour in Las Vegas become whole-day projects.

"One day you might decide to wash your hair. First you walk from your tent to the mess tent--at 18,000 feet not exactly a stroll in the park. Then you ask the Sherpa cook to boil you some water. That's quite a production right there: At altitude, water takes forever to warm up. (Once Lisa decided to make hash-browns; after three hours, they got a little yellow.)

"If you're lucky, you get a basin of water while the sun is still out. I got mine once just as a big cloud was coming over. I had dipped my head in, and when I pulled it out, my hair was frozen solid. It makes it tough to work the shampoo in."

An Everest base camp, obviously, is no place for vanity. "Before I left, my friends were asking me where I was going to plug in my electric curlers," Lisa said. "Curlers! Sure, I had 45 pounds in my duffel bag, but it was rain gear, down jacket, water bottles, wind jacket, a few books. . . . Your concern about makeup and hairdo you leave back in Katmandu. And you know, I never missed it.

'Present at the Creation'

"What I did most often, when I wasn't practicing, was sit for hours and just look, watching slides and avalanches and letting the overpowering beauty of the mountains wash over me. I was captivated by the geological activity, which never stopped. It was like being present at the Creation"--a sensation that was brought home almost daily.

Lisa and Randal shared a tent, with sleeping bags laid on more-or-less smooth rock. "You could hear the glacier cracking right under the tent," she said. "It'd go 'broomph' and 'moomph,' and the next morning the tent would be in another position and there'd be this rock sticking up that hadn't been there when you went to sleep."

Oh, and the harp: "It never even broke a string," Lisa said. "In temperatures that could swing 60 or 70 degrees over the course of a few hours, it held up beautifully."

So, indeed, did Lisa Coffey, sustained in large measure by the mystique of the Himalayas.

"I'm not much of a photographer," she confessed, "so I didn't take a camera, but when you look at those vistas, you say to yourself, 'Why bother to take a picture? Nobody would believe it anyway.'

"It's the sheer glory of the earth up there.

"I've been lucky enough to have traveled quite a bit, but you know, I had never imagined that on this planet was a place that beautiful."

A thought that perhaps should be set to music. Harp music.

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