Climb to the Top

Sherpas are to Mount Everest expeditions what pit crews are to Formula 1 racing. While the younger generation is looking for avenues beyond the mountains,it’s never done until they’ve summited the peak.

Written by AADITI JATHAR LAKADE | New Delhi | Published: September 14, 2012 5:15 am

Sherpas are to Mount Everest expeditions what pit crews are to Formula 1 racing. While the younger generation is looking for avenues beyond the mountains,it’s never done until they’ve summited the peak.

India has set new records this year in climbing Mount Everest. An eight-member team from Pune’s mountaineering institute,Giripremi,became India’s largest all-civilian group from one city to reach the mountain summit early this year. Soon after,another group of four members from Pimpri-based Sagarmatha Giryarohan Sanstha said that their summit was the first-ever,low-cost expedition by an Indian civilian group with a budget of Rs 15 lakh,for a person. (The cost is usually between Rs 20 lakh to Rs 25 lakh,for a person).

But this story isn’t about the teams that made it but about the many who helped them get there. With varying intents,teams reach Everest’s summit,yet were it not for the sherpas who accompany them from the base camp to the peak,few would survive bone-chilling winds and lung-debilitating altitudes. A story of the sherpas of Nepal cannot begin without a mention of Tenzing Norgay,the sherpa from Khumbu,who climbed the mountain with Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953. Ever since,generations of sherpas have helped climbers from all over the world reach the Everest peak.

“Everest is and will always be important for us,and for Nepal. But,situations have changed over the years,” says Wongchu Sherpa,president of Everest Summiteers Association,who was in Pune for a felicitation,organised by Giripremi. Wongchu began as a kitchen help with a mountaineering company at 16. In 1992,he started his own trekking,filming and tour company called Peak Promotion Private Limited. “All the men,among my friends and family,work in a travel company,or guide mountaineers up Everest. Only the nature of jobs differs — some are cooks,others manage the equipment,some do clerical work at the base camp,yet others,climb Everest with the mountaineers,” he says.

With better education and exposure,young sherpas have more avenues to explore. “Despite this,the first job of any young sherpa is with a mountaineering company. It is only after he climbs Everest once or twice,along with other peaks,that he moves on to other “safer” professions like working in private firms,in the government,the army,the police,or the media. Some migrate to foreign countries for other lucrative jobs,” says Wongchu.

Mingmar Dorji,a mountaineering guide and journalist with Nepal Television summited Everest as part of the ‘Saving Mount Everest 2011-2012’ campaign in 2011. Ever since,he has carved a niche as a photography expedition specialist in the Himalayan region,having worked with National Geographic,Universal Pictures and others.

Over 40,000 sherpas work as climbers and mountaineers. Climbers specialise in various kinds of climbing such as rock climbing or aid climbing. They are assigned the task of making routes on rocky patches or glaciers,while mountaineers combine a variety of climbing expertise to reach the peak. “Most sherpas have the stamina and are trained climbers,but what is important is that they are honest,disciplined and free from addictions. There are several checks before a person is inducted in this field. Only experienced and trusted sherpas are allowed to accompany mountaineers,” says Wongchu.

Pemba Sherpa,who is a trekking and climbing sherpa with Wongchu’s Peak Promotion Limited,says, “It is risky,but climbing and mountaineering is in our blood since we are born in these high altitudes and brought up on these mountains. An expedition for most of us is unaffordable,so we travel with foreign mountaineers. It’s probably the only way right now that we can summit Everest. We need them,as much as they need us,” he says. But they are happy meeting people from different countries,learning different languages,visiting friends in foreign countries and the income is decent,too.

Since the last couple of years,women too have entered this field,though few are trekking or climbing guides. Over 20-25 women work as accountants,sales assistants,and marketing managers in various mountaineering companies. In the last decade,the number of people going to Everest has increased multifold,leading to congestion on the route. “There have been cases where mountaineers have died waiting to reach the peak. We have been talking to the Nepal government to allow us to put more ropes on the route to ease the traffic,” says Wongchu.

For the sherpas,though,mountaineering’s good business. “If more people are willing to risk their lives and take on the adventure,then why not?” says Pemba. But they are committed to the environment as well. Everest cleanliness campaigns that happen periodically. The Nepal government has made it mandatory for mountaineers to bring back all the waste,otherwise the deposit money is not returned. Sherpas clear the paths of plastic and other waste,besides bringing down dead bodies.

Captain Mohan Singh Kohli,an Indian navy officer,says,“Over the years,equipment has become lighter,routes are ready with ropes and bridges are in place. But the dependance on sherpas and the mental endurance required to reach the peak is a constant.” Kohli,had successfully led India’s first expedition to Mount Everest in 1965,after two unsuccessful attempts in 1960 and 1962. He also wrote a book,Sherpas: The Himalayan Legends. He recalls that they paid Rs 7 a day,to a sherpa in 1960,Rs 9 a day in 1962 and Rs 15 a day in 1965. Today,it is about Rs 500-Rs 700 a day. “It is clear that it was never about money for them,but the love for the mountains. Thankfully,the same attitude continues among the younger generation too,” says Kohli,who is currently the co-founder and chairman of the Himalayan Environment Trust,founded by Sir Edmund Hillary and others.

The only tragedy,Wongchu feels and most sherpas agree,is that Nepal had failed to optimally use the community of climbers and mountaineers as trainers in mountaineering schools or given them any recognition for their talent through awards. This could be a reason many migrate to the US and the UK. New York is considered second home to acclaimed sherpas with around 2,500 sherpas settled there. For some,it means a better quality of life; for others,improved business opportunities and better education for their children.

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