Sherpas and the Truth about Mountain Climbing.


SA 021 (sanjay austa austa)

Vertical Limit, Kanchenjunga Expedition 2004, Nepal

The story first appeared in the Bangkok Post, Jun 2014

Fishermen and mountaineers it is said,  have a  natural flair for tall tales. But   the yarn is never so grand as that of the Everest climber.

There are hair-raising tales of the arduous climb, the avalanches, the frostbites, the cliff hanger precipices and how the brave climber  scraped though it all by the skin of his teeth. The truth, as is often the case, is more humbling.

Braving the mountain’s wrath are the Sherpas and not the mountaineers- many of whom are just backpackers masquerading as mountaineers.  Their over enthusiasm, bereft of experience or skill, only endangers the lives of Sherpas.  Mostly, the Sherpas  make up for the ineptness and pull it off, but  sometimes,  there is a disaster. (16 Sherpas lost their lives on  April 18, 2014,  in  Everest’s worst ever tragedy)

A fact conveniently omitted by all climbers in their fire-side tales,  is that they are   aided every step of the way- some of them virtually carried to the summit –by the Nepalese Sherpas.

Sherpas apply sunscreen before setting out on the climb. The Sherpas are the unglorified climbers in the Himalayas. Every successful expedition that returns home to applause conveniently forgets to mention that these Sherpas led their way including fixing ropes for them to the very top. Without them the climb is impossible. Only few great climbers like Reinhold Messner fixed his own ropes on his climbs. (sanjay austa austa)

Sherpas apply sunscreen before setting out on the climb, Kanchenjunga Mountain

The glamour of summiting  Nepal’s big mountains is so heady that rope fixing, tent pitching – the raison d’etre of mountaineering,  taught in every elementary mountaineering  school- is   dispensed with.  They are instead purchased on the climb.

And so it was  during the Indian Army’s Kanchenjunga expedition 2004 of which I was part. Almost every year the Indian Army dispatches an expedition to one of the big Himalayan peaks. The idea is to train the soldiers for high-altitude warfare but it’s usually a   race for glory and medals.

The Indian army paid more than 55 lakh rupees  to the Sherpas who fixed  ropes to the very summit of this dangerous and therefore rarely summited mountain. Sherpa Pempa Ringi who had summited Everest seven times lead the expedition and the soldiers merely followed in his wake.

Year after year, all manner of people, from the physically handicapped to the age defying – the  very old to   the very young- climb Everest and other big Himalayan peaks setting up new benchmarks and world records. The fact is,  the easier the Sherpas make the climb for the amateurs,  the more they risk their lives.

A Sherpa spreads prayer flags around Kanchenjunga for good luck. No Base Camp in the Himalayas is without these prayer flags because no Base Camp in the Himalayas is without the Sherpas. The Sherpas spread these prayer flags all over the camps after conducting their religious ceremony. (sanjay austa austa)

A Sherpa spreads prayer flags around Base Camp for good luck, Kanchenjunga 

In Everest, a special brand of Sherpas called ‘ice-doctors’ are sent forth between camp one and two to probe the dangerous Khumbu Ice-falls region for   potential avalanches. Its only after they have deemed them safe do the climbers begin their climb.  It was in this region that that the 16 Sherpas lost their lives on April 18.

The trouble is that   the Sherpas never complain. More work means more money. The Sherpas actually hate climbers who insist on fixing rope or pitching tents on their own. They do not hanker for fame. Their only complain is money.

“I think the money we get is very less compared to the hard work we put in”, said Tsering Domain, one of the Sherpas on the Kanchenjunga expedition

The Sherpas begin their careers as high altitude porters trudging up steep  slopes with loads upwards of 40 kilos. Once they qualify as high altitude Sherpas, they learn how to fix ropes and pitch camps and in a few years are ready to lead expeditions.

When not climbing the Sherpas are gambling- Ramche. Gambling is a serious activity among the Sherpas after climbing. For most of them its a good pass-time on the mountains when they have to wait for days for the right weather to make a climb. (sanjay austa austa)

When not climbing the Sherpas are gambling- Ramche, Kanchenjunga

Tibetan in origin, most of the  Sherpas hail from the  Solu Khumbu region of Nepal. They are all Buddhists and follow the Tibetan way of life. Few of them like Pempa Ringi live in the monasteries as monks before becoming climbers. Their first task after setting up Base Camp is to build a prayer alter and festoon the camp with Tibetan prayer flags.

Every expedition to the peak begins only after a religious ceremony is performed at the alter, which besides a lot of chanting, involves much singing, dancing and drinking.  Whisky finds pride of place at the alter and is the prasad (consecrated offering) given to all climbers.

The Sherpas originally made a living tilling the land as farmers and followed a nomadic life, herding sheep. It was the European climbers who first saw their potential as climbers and decided to harness them.

Today there are Sherpas who have not only climbed  Everest scores of time, but have scaled more than 10 different mountain peaks. Babu Chiri Sherpa climbed  Everest 10 times without oxygen, and in 1999, he created a sensation by remaining on the summit for 21 hours. Sherpas Pempa Dorji set a world recorded in 2004 for climbing the Everest in just eight hours. And on May 22, 2008, Appa Sherpa scaled Everest for the 18th time breaking his own record for the most successful ascents.

However, the glory and fame has always eluded the Sherpas. And they have no need for them either. They know these are fopperies of the West. They climb to make a living.

Base Camp at Night 5700 meters. Nights like days in the camp were misty but one evening after dinner at i saw the tents glow in the moonlight. It took quite a while to adjust my tripod on the slope and take this slow shutter shot. (sanjay austa austa)

Base Camp at Night 5700 meters, Kanchenjunga

Returning after a successful ascent. Sherpas and Indian Army return to the Base Camp most of them 10 kilos lighter due to the rigours of the climb. Hunger also dies out in those heights (sanjay austa austa)

Sherpas and Indian Army soldiers returning after a successful ascent, Kanchenjunga

Our camp at Ramche and the glacial lake. I took this pic on my trek on the mountain alongside our camp. The best way to accamatise to the high altitude is climb the mountains as high as you can and return to the base camp. This prepared you to make the final bid to the top. (sanjay austa austa)

Our camp at Ramche and the glacial lake, Kanchenjunga

Two sherpas i meet on the ridge on my walk exploring Ramche (sanjay austa austa)

Two sherpas i meet on the ridge on my walk exploring Ramche, Kanchenjunga

Pempa Sherpa the Sherpa who led the Kanchenjunga Expedition. (sanjay austa austa)

Pempa Sherpa the Sherpa who led the Kanchenjunga Expedition.

3 Responses to “Sherpas and the Truth about Mountain Climbing.”

  1. Lisa Beth Aronson says:

    were you a part of the army on that expedition? or a photographer?

  2. Manjunath Shenoy says:

    Very nicely written article and great images. Eye opener too

Leave a Reply