Words by Donny O’Neill
Like spiritual guardians, they’re elusive, yet omnipresent in the mountains. They often reveal themselves just when they’re needed, strung above the door of a backcountry lodge at Red Mountain Resort, at the end of a slackcountry slog at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, or the top of Highland Bowl at Aspen Highlands, greeting you after a long journey. Venture to any resort town, ski community, or tiny mountain hamlet and you’re sure to find primary-coloured Tibetan prayer flags.
The strung-up cloth blesses its surrounding area, and carries themes of peace, compassion, strength and wisdom. The tradition of the prayer flags dates back to foundational concepts of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. In Tibetan, “Dar Cho” means prayer flag, with the translation being, “to increase life, fortune, health and wealth to all sentient beings.”
The phenomenal world is divided into five basic energies in Tibetan Buddhism, each represented by the five flag colours. Earth is yellow, water is green, red is fire, white is air (or wind), and blue is sky (or space). Traditionally, the flags will bear the image of the Lung-ta or wind horse, who will carry the blessings of good fortune and well- being with the wind, and as the flags weather over time, the blessings become a permanent element of the universe. Being strung up on mountain peaks and ridge lines provides a higher launching point for these blessings, of course.
Prayer flags are as common in the Himalayas as ambitious mountaineers with deep pockets. But the concepts and implementation of the flags has become widespread in the Western world, too. As mountaineers returned from expeditions to the highest peaks on Earth, they brought back the tradition of prayer flags to their own mountains. At least that’s how Wake Williams views it. Williams is the owner of the Yodel Inn, a small cabin on Red Mountain Resort in Rossland, British Columbia, located just off of Rino’s Run. Williams has made several trips to the Himalayas, and hangs prayer flags around the exterior of his cabin.
“It was just natural to put them up outside the Yodel Inn and to send the blessings out, not just for myself, but for the people passing by and for the mountain in general,” says Williams. “I just put them up as a signal to people actually. If the prayer flags are out and there’s smoke coming out the chimney, I’m home. Just tap on the door and come in for a glass of wine.” Williams also believes that the prayer flags help to harness the energy of the mountains and to remind us of the Buddhist focus on the here and now, and the belief that the energy of humanity is connected.
“It’s a Buddhist tradition, but it seems pretty easy to extend across to all people regardless of creed. The flags seem to suit the energy of the mountains. There is very much an energetic component to the mountains and forest,” describes Williams. “When I walk outside the cabin and I look up at the flags fluttering in the wind and sending out the ‘om mani padme hum’ prayer into the universe, it just all hangs together, somehow.”
You’ll find flags at many backcountry lodges, too, like the Mount Carlyle Lodge, north of Nelson. There, flags are also meant to inspire mindfulness, along with providing good luck to the visiting skiers.
“Prayer flags are for us a bit of a good luck charm, but in reality they are meant to send out prayers of peace, wisdom, and compassion on the wind, into our little zone around Carlyle,” says Brian Cross, owner of the lodge. “And it’s something to make folks stop and think about how we should appreciate what it is we have.”
A showering of blessings for good health, peace, strength, and wisdom; a welcoming invitation to share some conversation and a glass of wine; a reminder that we—humans, trees, mountains, the snow—are all connected and powered by a mutual energy; a good luck charm before descending a mountain. The reasons for the prayer flags are numerous, but they’re common intent is to bring us together and propel us forward.