Book Review | 'Sherpa': Tales of trust, talent and treacherous Himalayan summits
In the book, 'Sherpa', Pradeep Bashyal and Ankit Babu Adhikari paint an intimate portrait of a few of these hardy men to highlight their contribution to the world of mountaineering
In 1930, the International Himalayan Expedition managed to climb four peaks of over 7,000 metres in Sikkim. However, they were unsuccessful in attaining their primary goal, that of making the first ascent of Kangchenjunga (8,586m) – the third highest mountain in the world.
Besides, there was a bigger tragedy that the team had to contend with by the end of the expedition. They had lost a teammate, Sherpa Chettan, who had been buried by an avalanche near Camp 3 on Kangchenjunga. British climber, Frank Smythe, who was witness to the accident, paid a heartening tribute to his climbing mate:
“We had lost not a porter, but a valued friend. We left him buried amid one of the grandest mountain cirques in the world. So died a genuine lover of the mountains, a real adventurer at heart, and one whom members of several Himalayan expeditions will mourn.”
The eulogy sums up the contribution of men like Chettan on some of the highest mountains in the world. Ever since climbing was considered a worthy enterprise by early explorers, the Sherpas were a constant presence by their side. And while climbing styles have evolved over time, as have the objectives, things aren’t much different today when it comes to the relationship that the Sherpas share with the mountains.
In the book, Sherpa, Pradeep Bashyal and Ankit Babu Adhikari paint an intimate portrait of a few of these hardy men to highlight their contribution to the world of mountaineering, and the many triumphs and tragedies that they’ve experienced over the last few decades.
The Sherpas originally hailed from Tibet and moved across the high passes to Nepal during the 1600s. Most of them settled around the Khumbu Valley in the shadow of Mt. Everest, before dispersing to similar regions perched high up in the mountains. Their geographical location meant that they remained isolated for a long period of time, engaged mostly in subsistence farming and tending to livestock.
All that changed when a few enterprising men from this community migrated to Darjeeling in search of work. By then, the Indian hill town was inhabited by the British, seeking cooler climes away from the hot plains lower down. During the early days, the Sherpas pulled hand rickshaws or ferried loads across town. But the nature of their work changed once the Himalaya and Karakoram ranges drew the attention of a few curious explorers.
The kingdom of Nepal was still out of bounds for foreigners at the time, which made Darjeeling the starting point for most expeditions. They would hop across the border to Tibet or travel to neighbouring Sikkim in order to approach mountains such as Everest and Kangchenjunga, respectively, which are frequently climbed from the Nepal side these days. Other teams would make the long haul to peaks that lie in Pakistan today.
The Sherpas would lug loads to the base camps of these large-scale expeditions before a few of them would continue higher up. Their comfort at altitude and their work ethic suited the job on hand. They would make gradual progress up the mountain to lay the foundations for a shot at the summit, mostly made by their foreign counterparts. Personal ambitions, if any, were put on the back burner, as employment took centrestage during those days.
The ability of the Sherpas in these inhospitable environs was proved time and again. On Nanga Parbat in 1934, Ang Tsering fought for survival for close to a week, descending the mountain in a storm until he finally received help. Then in 1950, Ang Tharkay’s team was instrumental in carrying the summiteers, Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal, off the mountain after their successful summit bid.
Yet, it was only once Everest was climbed in 1953 by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, that the Sherpas’ exploits were truly recognised by the rest of the world.
For instance, Norgay had been a part of the ill-fated expedition to Nanga Parbat in 1934 and also on Everest on previous occasions. But he drew the spotlight only after his successful Everest ascent, a national hero who continues to hold sway in Darjeeling as the authors discovered during their visit.
A number of other first-generation Sherpas whom they could speak with such as Kanchha Sherpa and Sirdar Mingma Chhiring Sherpa followed in Tenzing Norgay’s footsteps. And over time, they shaped the fortunes of the community back home that now started venturing beyond their bucolic existence.
But the identity of the Sherpas truly changed once commercial climbing picked up in the 90s. A number of personal stories that the book highlights come from this era.
During the early years, most expeditions were organised by foreign agencies, who would hire Sherpas to lead the climbs and accompany their clients. This experience of guiding, as well as handling logistics for big teams, gave them a good understanding of what it took to attain success at altitude.
A few Sherpas soon established their own agencies, building a reputation for themselves with every climb to the summit. Folks like Ang Tshering Sherpa, and the three Sherpa brothers from Seven Summit Treks – Mingma, Tashi Lhakpa and Chhang Dawa – today run some of the most successful companies in Nepal. These entrepreneurs laid down the path for other young men from their community, who like them, aspired to climb the ladder in the world of tourism.
Others like Kami Rita Sherpa and Mingma David Sherpa became climbing legends with many firsts to their names – Kami Rita has the most Everest climbs to his name today, while Mingma David is the youngest in the world to have climbed all the fourteen 8,000 metre mountains.
But given the risky business that is mountaineering, every success story has misfortune in equal measure. In the book, Mingma Sherpa recalls the accident from 2014 when 16 climbers perished in the Khumbu Icefall. And Doma, the widow of Namgyal Sherpa, reveals their rags to riches story, before her husband met with an untimely death on the upper slopes of Everest in 2013.
The authors also touch upon the physiological aspects of Sherpas that make them tick at altitude. And the impact of climate change on climbing in the time ahead.
The all-star Sherpa line-up makes for a good read for those unaware of their world. But for those in the know, the book just about skims the surface of a subject that could certainly have done with more depth, given the intriguing history of the Sherpas and all that they have accomplished over the years.
The author is a freelance writer from Mumbai who thrives on narrating a good story. Views expressed are personal.