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A Las Vegas Harpist Who Played It on the Mountain

July 21, 1985|DICK RORABACK | 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."

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