As climbers from around the world gathered at Everest Base Camp in the spring of 2021, Pradeep Bashyal and Ankit Babu Adhikari were in the villages that fall in the shadow of the mountain to meet the members of the Sherpa community who make it possible to climb Everest.
They were there for one purpose: to understand the lives of the people who had intrigued them since 2014. To pay tribute to these people, the two wrote a book called Sherpa and to make sure they didn’t miss a beat, the two traveled extensively in the Khumbu, Makalu and Rolwalling regions, meeting first generation climbers and modern climbers as they aimed to gain insight into their lives, the mountains and mountaineering.
“A lot has been written about them from a foreign perspective, but we both felt it didn’t do them justice. These guys are more than just climbers. All of them have different stories to tell and through the book we tried to showcase them all,” says Bashyal, who adds that the book is also a symbol of the friendship between the two that spans more than a century. ‘a decade.
And, they were able to do it. The book will be a great read for anyone who wants to learn more about these people who are more than just climbers. Sherpa takes you into the world of climbers like Tenzing Norgay, Kami Rita, Phurba Tashi and Mingma David who climbed mountains for their own reasons. It also gives you an idea of what life was like in Khumbu before it became a tourism hub and also touches on the dark side of mountaineering.
build the book
The seeds for the book were laid in 2014 and the two went on a reporting trip to the Khumbu region to cover the Everest Marathon. There they were impressed by the strength of the people.
“We met a guy from Phortse who ran the marathon and came third. He did this by stopping at one point and drinking chhyaang. He had been passed by so many people but he still managed to finish third. This realization baffled us then and continues to do so today,” says Adhikari.
Back in Kathmandu, the two were in constant conversation about doing something. They wanted to publish a magazine. Adhikari, who is also a singer, wanted to do a charity show to buy things for people in the community. But, other life commitments meant those plans never materialized until 2019, when the two decided to pitch the idea of a Sherpa book to international publishers.
“We worked on a proposal after pitching it to different publishers. Our idea was finally accepted and we started working on it in 2020,” says Adhikari.
Structure the stories
The book covers various topics. The beginning mainly focuses on life before the commercialization of Everest and how people from Khumbu came to Tibet crossing Nangpa La to get salt and going all the way to Darjeeling to sell it.
Writers have dwelt on life before Everest for people remote from the outside world given their geographical nature.
“They never knew about British Gurkhas and Nepalese kings and other rulers never really cared about them. Mountaineering changed their lives,” says Bashyal.
But, after commercialization, most climbers’ stories are the same as almost 90% of them start as porters and end up becoming climbing guides. Telling different stories of them was going to be a major challenge.
“We wanted to write something in each chapter,” says Bashyal.
And, they did. They have chapters on Phurba Tashi Sherpa, one of the most decorated climbers in the country who abruptly quit climbing. They address his career and why he chose to end his career when he was at the height of his powers.
The story of different eras
There is also a chapter on how to become a Sherpa and how times have changed. The book focuses on how many first generation Sherpas started climbing to find good gear and food and after that the focus shifted more to making money from it.
“Most of them continue to climb for money and only a few are now starting to climb for inheritance and record,” says Adhikari.
One of the first to climb for the inheritance was Jamling Norgay, the son of Tenzing Norgay. The writers traveled to Darjeeling to meet Jamling and visit Tenzing Norgay’s home to find out why his father climbed Everest.
“Tenzing climbed out of passion because the mountain kept pulling her. We could see how important he is to the Sherpa community to this day,” says Bashyal.
The chapter on Tenzing takes you to Darjeeling and how so many Sherpa followed in his footsteps to Darjeeling seeking a better life and settling around Toong Soong and Alubari. He tells the reader what a great man Tenzing was and how he helped anyone who came to his door. But, it also highlights how two questions, one regarding his nationality and the other regarding who climbed first have always plagued him.
A book about the Sherpas would be incomplete without mentioning the sacrifices made by the people. And, the book has different chapters that highlight the deaths on the mountain. It takes you back to 2014 when an avalanche on the icefall killed 16 Nepalese climbers from the Sherpa community. On this day many friends and their families lost as it remains one of the darkest days in climbing.
“Talking about death is the hardest thing for these people and it was a major challenge for us because we didn’t want to trigger the trauma these people went through,” Bashyal says.
But, they admit they were lucky because they got to talk to so many people. With the Covid lockdown in full swing, they had plenty of time to talk to even busy climbers like Mingma David and Tendi Sherpa.
These people recommended that they talk to others and that is how they found themselves in Rolwalling through which they were able to tell the story of a family of climbers with whom they spent two weeks.
“We’re also glad that many spoke to us out of their comfort zone, which helped us a lot in bringing out some interesting stories in the book. But we have been very patient with people because we know how reserved they are,” says Bashyal, adding that they spend hours with people to get information from them.
A story about Kushang Dorje Sherpa who lives in Darjeeling is particularly interesting as the writers delved into his past where he was sold in Bhutan to a contractor and how he escaped from the camp and became the only person to climb the ‘Everest from the south. , north and east faces. His story is about overcoming ultimate desperation to become King of Everest, something a shaman told him while trapped in Bhutan.
The book also contains stories of climbers-turned-businessmen like Ang Tsering Sherpa, owner of Asian Trekking, one of the oldest trekking and mountaineering companies, and Mingma, Chhang Dawa and Tashi Sherpa, who together run Seven Summit Treks, the nation’s most popular mountaineering company. changed the face of mountaineering in the country and provided employment opportunities for hundreds of Sherpas from their home region, Sankhuwasabha.
The final chapters of the book focus on the changing mountain. The Sherpas realize that the mountains are changing and that global warming presents them with different challenges. But, that said, most are sure things won’t change as it’s a major source of revenue not only for Nepalese climbers but also for the government.
The writers juxtaposed the mountain with the climbers in a beautiful way through which they tried to convey the message that although the climbers are getting stronger and better, the mountain, on the other hand, is not and this is mainly due to the global climate crisis.
The book is a must read for those who want to learn more about Nepalese climbers and how they have evolved over the years. It is a great history lesson for Nepalese and foreigners, most of whom do not know the challenges of climbing and why these people risk their lives.
While most mountaineering books focus on the mountains, this is not the case as they focus on the people who live in their shadows and that is what sets the book apart.