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Sherpas and Sahibs
About five hundred years ago there was fighting in Kham, in eastern Tibet, and many refugees fled. A few families went to the region north of Mount Everest, and then over the Nangpa La, the high pass east of Everest, down into the valleys of Khumbu in Nepal. Those families were the first Sherpas.
Khumbu was three parallel glacial valleys. In the western valley, below the Nangpa La, the Sherpas built the village of Thame. The central valley came down from Cho Oyu, the ninth-highest mountain in the world, and there they founded the village of Phortse on a sloping slab of a hanging valley. In the eastern valley, below Mount Everest, they built the village of Pangboche on the Dudh Khosi, the "milk river," its water white from the melting glaciers. As the rivers flowed south, each valley narrowed to a deep gorge. High above the confluence of the three rivers they built the villages of Namche Bazaar, Khumjung, and Kunde.1 These villages were all at between 11,000 and 12,500 feet. Even in Tibet nobody, except a few hermits, lived above 13,000 feet year-round. The Sherpas grew barley and buckwheat, the traditional high-altitude crops of Tibet. In summer they took their yaks and naks (the females) to the high pastures in the upper valleys.
Over the next four hundred years many Sherpa families moved from Khumbu down through Pharak, the "middle place," to Solu in the south. At 6,500 to 10,000 feet, Solu is warmer and more fertile than Khumbu. The Sherpas in Solu could grow two crops a year and enjoy the luxury of wheat bread. Yaks and naks pined and died at this altitude, but cows and sheep thrived. Today there are about three thousand Sherpas in the north, in Khumbu, and seventeen thousand in the middle and the south. But the northerners in Khumbu are important for our story because so many of the early climbers came from there.
Khumbu was frontier territory. Sometimes the Sherpas effectively had independence, and sometimes they were controlled by Tibetan or Nepali government appointees. After the 1865 border war between Nepal and Tibet, Nepal became, and remained, the power in Khumbu.
There were never many people in Khumbu, perhaps fifteen hundred in 1900. The highest land was useless rock and ice. Below that was the glacial moraine, good pasture for yak in summer, but too high for any crops but hay. The terrain below the moraine was mostly made up of steep hillsides. But here and there, between 9,000 and 13,000 feet, the angle was flat enough that people could carve terraced fields out of the hillsides. Each field was like a step in a giant staircase. One stone wall at the bottom of the field held the earth in, and another wall at the top held in the field above. Flying low over the hills of Nepal you can see hundreds of miles of such terraces, spilling down the hills for 3,000 or 6,000 feet, monuments to human intelligence and labor. But steep Khumbu has few fields, and the landscape is not the intricate palette of lowland greens, but grays and browns and sparkling ice.
The Sherpas sold their yaks across the border to Tibet, to be slaughtered, and bought dried yak meat back from Tibetans. The Hindu Nepali government forbade cow slaughter. Buddhism also discouraged the killing of animals, though in Tibet even monks have always eaten meat. People could never live by farming grain alone on the high Tibetan plateau. Then some time around 1880 the potato arrived in Khumbu. A field with potatoes gave a yield, in calories, three or more times that of barley. Potatoes became the staple crop, and people grew richer.
Some families raised sterile crossbreeds, zopkyoks, with a yak father and a lowland cow as mother. They sold the zopkyoks to Tibet, where they were much in demand to pull plows, a job yaks refuse to do. In Khumbu itself almost everybody plowed with human labor until fifty years ago. Two men pulled the plow, one man drove it, and a woman walked behind sowing the seed.
In winter a Khumbu family stayed in a small, high stone house. There was a room downstairs for the animals, and a long room upstairs for people. The windows were narrow, with ornamental wooden frames and shutters. In spring some of the family stayed in the village to plant potatoes, while the others took the animals to the high pastures. There they stayed in small stone houses and huts. Sometimes, too, they had a few fields and a hut down by the river. From summer to fall people moved up and down the hills, with food and hay, treats and firewood, to make love and party, keeping the family together.
Always there was color. The houses were painted white or left bare stone, but the windows and roof were bright green or red or yellow. From the roof flew the five colors of the prayer flags. A family with a bit of money would have a small chapel upstairs, with gorgeous paintings of gods in black and red and orange. For everybody there were the paintings and statues in the small village monastery, and inside the covered gate that stood at the entrance to each village. In each house, on the wall opposite the fire were dozens of brass and copper bowls and plates, polished with love, the firelight playing on the uneven beaten metal among the dark red and brown shadows. Always, there was beauty. But life remained hard, and they still needed an income beyond potatoes and yaks. For most people, that meant carrying loads.
Khansa Sherpa was a climber in the old days, with Tenzing and the British on Everest in 1953, and with the Americans in 1963. He is sixty-five now and owns the Gompa Lodge in Namche. It is on the west side, up the hill, below the village chapel—a small monastery without a resident monk. Western trekkers pass through Namche on their way to Everest Base Camp and occasionally stay in Khansa's lodge. But most are exhausted by the time they get to the top of the long Namche hill and stay somewhere lower down in the village.
Khansa is a religious man now, although he was not in his youth. You didn't think about that much, he says. When you're fifty, you realize you might die. Then you get religious.
Sherpa people follow the Buddhist religion. Sometimes writers say their religion is "Tibetan Buddhism," but that's like saying somebody's religion is "American Lutheran" or "Bulgarian Orthodox," when they think of themselves as Christians. Devout Sherpas are proud of being part of one of the great world religions, and of sharing their faith with many Tamangs, Gurungs, and Newars in Nepal, and with Indians, Taiwanese, Japanese, Swiss, and Americans.
Khansa walks a full circuit of Namche now, twice a day, morning and afternoon, turning his prayer wheel and praying quietly. The 120 houses of Namche and the surrounding fields sit in a horseshoe-shaped bowl, like a giant amphitheater. Khansa walks up past the gompa behind his house and across the ridge at the top of the village. Then he picks his way down the steep path on the east, the one that energetic teenagers race up on their way to school. That takes him down to the one-street bazaar, and the ceremonial arch where the path enters the village. Beside the arch is the chorten, a white pyramid decorated with the giant eyes of Buddha. The chorten is very old, dating from the time when there were only six houses in Namche and men went to fetch water together because they feared the bears. Namche people say they built the chorten then, and people from Thame claim they built it. Khansa walks clockwise around Namche, in the Buddhist fashion, and passes many places of great sanctity. Every time his prayer wheel turns, the prayer written on the paper inside goes to heaven. Khansa hopes his walks will prolong his life or help him in the next one. In any case, three hours of exercise a day keeps him fit.
At birth all Sherpas are given the name of the day on which they were born. Nima means Sunday, Dawa is Monday, Mingma is Tuesday, Lhakpa is Wednesday, Phurbu is Thursday, Pasang is Friday, and Pemba is Saturday. This is the basic naming system. Then other names are added.
Ang means young. If there is already a Pasang in the family, the new baby will be called Ang Pasang. This remains his or her name for life.
Other names are often given as a child gets older, often religious names such as Ongdi (blessed), Tawa (junior monk), Dorjee (thunderbolt), Tenzing (pious), or Norbu (wealthy).
If an earlier child in the family died, the young person is often given an inauspicious name to distract the attention of malevolent forces. So a child may be called Pasang Ki (dog), Pasang Kikuli (puppy), or Pasang Kami. The Kamis are the traditionally low-status Nepali caste of blacksmiths. The child keeps this name for life, with no loss of status.
People are also given various nicknames. Pasang Bhutia, for instance, means Pasang the Tibetan. Pasang Picture worked as a photographer's assistant. Pasang Tawa means Pasang the Monk and could be used for a man who had been a monk but left the monastery. Other children, though, may be called Tawa or Lama because their parents liked the name.
Names also get shortened. Anu of Namche's full name was once Ang Nima Norbu, although hardly anyone but Anu himself now remembers that. Dawa is often shortened to Da, and Thundoop to Thundu.
There is no distinction between men and women in names. The two Ang Tserings I know best are a man of ninety-six in Darjeeling and a girl of three in Namche.
Tibetan names are similar to Sherpa ones, but not identical.
European climbers often spelled names in several ways, and so did many Sherpas using English. So Ang Tsering's name also turns up as Ang Tshering and Angtsering. Da Thundu is also Dawa Thundu and Dawa Thundoop.
I sit with Lhakpa, Khansa's wife, on an unusually warm afternoon in winter. We are on the stone forecourt outside the Gompa Lodge, enjoying the sun, waiting for Khansa to come back from his walk. I tell her about my divorce, many years ago. She is fascinated and scandalized, and I am proud of my new ability to speak Sherpa badly. "There's Khansa," Lhakpa says. She points at a tiny figure far below, absorbed in his prayers as he walks. All the love in the world is in her voice.
He was not always pious and perfect, Khansa lets me know when he gets home. We speak English—he learned it climbing, and his English is much better than my Sherpa. Khansa has been at funerals the last two days. There were two deaths in Namche on the same day, of two people born in the same year, something that has never happened before. A man and a woman in their seventies; both had cancer and went to Kathmandu for treatment. When they knew there was no hope, both insisted on coming home to die.
At the funerals each body was sat up in his or her house, as a person would sit in life, and the neighbors paid their respects. A monk from the big monastery in Tengboche, on the path to Everest, read to the corpse from a holy book that gave advice on how to find the way through the land of the dead. Other monks blew on their six-foot, thin, curved brass horns, and the deep tones reverberated across the village. Yesterday, on the last day of the funerals, they burned the dead on stone platforms, hidden away in the rocks above the village. Out walking, I saw one funeral pyre across the hill in the late-afternoon light. Four men stood, their shoulders slumped, their dark, bulky shapes outlined in front of the gray-white smoke, the five colors of the prayer flags whipping in the wind above their heads.
We talk about Everest in 1953, Khansa's first climbing job. He was eighteen. Thinking about it now reminds him that almost all the men he worked with then are dead. Drink killed most of them, he says. They got a little money, things got a little easier, and they spent the money on rakshi—homemade liquor. People had always drunk a lot of chang, the home-brewed beer. Chang keeps you warm, particularly when mixed with porridge on a bitter winter morning. Rakshi was stronger. Khansa himself could have gone that way, too, and nearly did. Then he stopped drinking. He's still alive and they're dead. Khansa misses them, and he's scared.
Several other men Khansa's age have stopped drinking, too. He belongs to a circle of friends who take turns holding parties in their houses after New Year. In the old days these parties were raucous, with heavy drinking. Happy and sloppy, men would sway together in one line and women in another, one person leading the singing and all stamping out the dance steps. Between songs, people would needle each other with sharp teasing until anger erupted into shouting fights. There was always anger beneath the surface, as in every village in the world. In Namche anger usually grew from grievances over land and sex. Perhaps two brothers had never really agreed how to divide their parents' fields, or one neighbor had encroached on another's field by a few inches every year. Perhaps long ago a man went away to work and on his return found his wife had been with another man. The other man paid compensation, and there was a party to make peace. Sherpas try to be forgiving people, and to be tolerant in sexual matters. But they feel jealousy, too, and thirty or forty years later bitterness can leak out of a drunken mouth. Now that Khansa and many of his friends don't drink, other people say their New Year parties are more civilized, but also more boring.
I asked Khansa how he came to climbing work.
When he was a child, he would gather wood for his father's house, then play, play, play. He had one particular friend, who lived just down the hill, in a poor family like Khansa's. He smiles at a memory. Khansa and his special friend would go off with their baskets to gather wood and spend a long day playing dice in secret. The stakes were lunch, each boy with a little pile of popcorn or bits of potato. Many times Khansa lost his whole lunch, and his friend would not give it back. Hours later they would return home and Papa would be furious: "Where were you? What did you do?"
I asked Khansa if he was angry as a child.
It was a psychologist's question, and he gave me an economist's answer. Poverty made him angry. His clothes were thin, and he was cold. When he came home, there were only potatoes and turnips to eat. He grew to hate the diet. Khansa is a big man, and as he remembers, I can see the emotion fill his body and twist his face. But he contains it, keeping his voice low. I can see how the child contained his anger.
Who did you blame for the poverty? I ask.
"Nobody," Khansa says. "My father was poor, his father was poor, his grandfather was poor. They had no choices. I had no choice."
In his teenage years, Khansa began carrying loads with his father. They carried eighty pounds each through Thame over the Nangpa La to Tibet. It usually took seven days for the round-trip. They went in groups, sometimes fifteen households together. All but the richest four houses in Namche had to do carrying work. They mostly carried Nepali paper, made in Solu, light but bulky. Sometimes they carried buffalo leather, which was thicker than yak hide and much prized in Tibet because it made better boots.
A rich man would pay them five rupees each for the four-day carry. The five rupees went to buy an eighty-pound load of Tibetan salt. Khansa carried that home to Namche. On the Nangpa La, 18,800 feet at the top, there were always snow and crevasses in the ice. In his kitchen, the old man stands up to show me how he would jump across a crevasse. Khansa pulls his arms in to his body, bends his knees, looks down fearfully, takes a deep breath, and jumps across the kitchen with an imaginary eighty pounds on his back. He says he always made it across the crevasse. On the Nangpa La they were deep, but not that wide.
To keep their feet warm on the Nangpa La, Khansa and his father lined their knee-high yak-hide boots with grass. The boots were soft, and back home in Namche they stopped to mend the holes. After that rest, Khansa carried the salt down through Pharak, the middle place, two or three days' walk to Jubing in Solu. On that trip he carried only forty pounds because in Jubing he traded the forty pounds of salt for one hundred pounds of corn (maize). He took the corn to a miller down there, then carried the flour home. Corn tasted strong, Khansa says.
One year young Khansa did the round-trip to Tibet and Solu thirteen times. He is not exaggerating when he says he carried eighty pounds over the Nangpa La as a boy. In those days the traders weighed loads in seers—one seer equaled two pounds. Today they weigh loads in kilos—one kilo is 2.2 pounds—and porters carry even heavier loads than in Khansa's time.
The hills of Nepal still have few roads. The paths are not wilderness routes, as in an American national park. They are regular thoroughfares, carefully maintained, and they have been trade routes for centuries. Today hundreds of porters walk to Namche every week from the end of the bus road. It takes them seven days. They are small men, thin, muscular, and mostly young. They typically carry fifty to sixty kilos (110 to 132 pounds) in baskets on their backs. Some, stronger than the rest, carry 150 pounds. The path is mostly steeply uphill or steeply down. Each basket has a strap—the tumpline—that comes across the forehead and takes the weight. It requires practice to carry that way, and strong neck muscles, but they say it's easier on the back. Each man has a short, thick walking stick, shaped like a T. The stick helps with balance, particularly downhill. More important, on the uphills a porter stops every few minutes and thrusts the stick under his basket to take the weight. Then he stands silently, recovering his breath.
There are women porters on the trail to Namche, too, laughing and flirting, traveling in groups with the men. At Jubing, two and a half days from Namche, they join with porters who have walked up from the plains of Nepal and Bihar, ten or twelve days away.
Porters carry everything in those baskets these days, mostly things for the tourists—Coca—Cola, Fanta, Tuborg, San Miguel, live chickens, rice, lentils, cheese and tomatoes for pizzas, onions, Mars bars and Snickers—but also school notebooks, prayer flags, and plastic shoes. They carry wooden roof beams up the Namche Hill—one man teetering under a twenty-foot tree trunk, stripped of its branches, weighing perhaps two hundred pounds.
Porters work for trekking expeditions, too. The pay is sometimes better, but they have to cope with higher altitudes and worse cold. On a trek round Annapurna in 1995, I met four Dutch hikers camping with forty porters. One of their porters carried a cast-iron woodstove for a whole three weeks, well over a hundred pounds. He took it over the Thorung La, at 17,800 feet, and the snow was deep that year.
There is a word that people use a lot in Khumbu—dhukpaa. Dhukpaa means hardship, but also suffering. It means work that is unfair, and too hard. It also means the oppression of employers who hire people for that work, and who treat them unfairly, who make the poor suffer. Dhukpaa, dhukpaa, they say, and sigh, meaning: There it is, what can you do about it, you have to put up with it, but this is not how things should be.
Dhukaa is the related Nepali word. A porter from the lowlands, working for a trekking company, walks down the main path in Namche, his load enormous and unwieldy. A child comments to him on his strength, and he says, in Nepali, "Dhukaa, dhukaa"—hardship, oppression—as he pivots, trying not to slip on the ice and smash his knees on the stone path.
Above Namche, going toward Everest Base Camp, porters work for trekking companies at elevations of up to 18,000 feet without shoes or in thin canvas sneakers. Helicopters evacuate sick trekkers, whose insurance companies pay $4,000 each time. There is no evacuation for porters with pneumonia or altitude sickness. In the great storm of November 1977, the snow trapped trekking parties all over Nepal. Many foreigners were taken out by helicopters. They left the porters behind because nobody would pay for their rescue. Several of them died. When they found one man dead of exposure on a pass behind Lukla, near Namche, his pack was full of sleeping bags and down jackets for the trekkers.2 For carrying this he would have made $3 a day, better money than the men who carry Coca-Cola into Namche.
People use dhukaa and dhukpaa most when they talk about carrying. When they recall the old days, men always remember two things exactly. How much weight they carried, to the pound, and how much they were paid for it, to the anna (one-sixteenth of the old rupee).
Khansa would not have starved if he had not carried loads. His family had potatoes. But for everything else—clothes, maize, oil, tea, roof beams, prayer flags, meat—he had to carry.
When Khansa was seventeen, in 1952, two Swiss expeditions came to Khumbu in the spring and fall to attempt Everest. Tenzing Norgay was the sardar, the foreman for the porters, on both expeditions. That winter Khansa ran away to Darjeeling with two friends. He wanted work on the British expedition the next spring. Darjeeling was in Bengal, in the foothills of the Himalayas, a three-week walk east from Khumbu. When Khansa arrived, he and his friends went straight to Tenzing Norgay's house. He knew Tenzing had already been appointed sardar for the British expedition.
They stood on the porch of Tenzing's house in the dark and called out. Tenzing came to the window and asked who they were.
Khansa, son of so-and-so of Namche.
I remember your father, Tenzing said. I climbed with him on Everest in the thirties. Come on in.
He didn't know the other boys' fathers and told them to go away. Khansa stayed four months in Tenzing's house, working hard, scrubbing pots, trying to make his mark. He would walk down the Darjeeling ridge with another boy to gather firewood and carry enormous loads back up, staggering. He hoped to impress Tenzing with his diligence and show the sardar his strength.
After four months, Tenzing said, all right, you can come to Everest.
That spring Khansa was on the Icefall on the south side of Everest, climbing for the first time in his life. Walking on the ice in crampons was the hardest bit, trying not to spike his legs or tear his trousers with the sharp points. And walking in mountain boots, clumping and clumsy. He shows me, staggering like a confused drunk. The boots didn't fit either, because the British were cheap and didn't bring enough pairs. In 1963, ten years later, Khansa worked on an American expedition that had boots in every size, and far more pairs than they needed. But in 1953 Khansa had to take what he was given and hobble.
The Icefall was the first part of the Everest climb, and the most dangerous. It's a tangled frozen river, always moving slowly across the underlying rock. You can lie in a tent at Base Camp and listen to the Icefall grind and moan all night. The whole weight of the glacier above pushes it down, so it's full of avalanches, and sudden convulsions in the ice can swallow the path and any men on it.
Khansa was afraid the entire time in the Icefall. He said constantly, inside himself so nobody could hear, "Buddha save my life, Buddha save my life." The older Darjeeling men were kind and taught him what to do. In a week he could walk properly in crampons.
In all that time, he says, no matter how scared he was, and he had never been so scared in his life before or since, he was happy. He was earning five rupees each day, instead of for four days on the Nangpa La. He could take his new clothes and sleeping bag home at the end of the climb, and there was a bonus of three hundred rupees if he made it up to the South Col at 26,000 feet.
Never had he been so scared, he wants me to know, and never so happy at the same time.
Sherpas climbed for money.
To interview climbers in Khumbu, I drew up a list of questions. The one that really worked was "Why do foreigners climb mountains?" That was a hilarious question, partly because a foreigner was asking it. I used the usual Sherpa word for foreigner, which literally means "white eyes" and is not very polite. (Sherpas feel about foreigners much as people do everywhere else when they work in the tourist industry.)
But mainly the question was funny because it was a mystery, and everybody's livelihood depended on this lunatic mystery. Some of the men I asked had been thinking about this question for close to fifty years, and they still hadn't come up with a satisfactory answer.
Obviously, foreigners did it for the money, and to be famous. Sherpas climbed for money. Some Sherpas, and not others, also said they wanted a "big name." Ming girpu—big name—is not quite the same as Western celebrity or fame. It means recognition in your own village, and maybe the other villages of Khumbu. I told one friend, an older Sherpa climber, that I had mentioned his name in several villages, and in every case the person I was talking to had heard of him. My friend was a reserved and taciturn man. But now he sat there silently, smiling to himself, reflecting on what I had said. It made a lifetime's work worthwhile.
Four men from the forty houses in the neighborhood of Lower Thame have climbed Mount Everest a combined total of twenty-nine times. Lhakpa Rita has been up five times, and his brother, Kami Rita, four times. Two men in their early forties, Appa and Ang Rita, have each climbed Everest ten times.3 There is a bit of competition among them, but nobody comments on it much.
I sat eating dinner with a Sherpa friend in a cheap Tibetan restaurant in Kathmandu. We exchanged some pleasantries with a man at the next table—slightly built, fit, about forty, with a kind face. At the end of the meal my friend introduced us, saying this is Appa of Thame.
The Appa? I said. You're the man who climbed Everest ten times?
He nodded. I squeezed the hand I was shaking and gushed about how honored I was. His body twisted away from me, but his hand squeezed mine back and he turned his head so his eyes could smile at me. I saw that such open praise was rare for him, and he was pleased and made shy.
Reinhold Messner and Edmund Hillary deal with such adulation effortlessly. They're probably bored by it. If Appa and Ang Rita lived in America, they would be on the cover of Newsweek and People, bad-mouthing each other and making millions endorsing Nike and Pepsi. As it is, Appa is pleased to have a big name—the respect of a few thousand people.
It is extraordinary how little recognition most Sherpas get. Khansa Sherpa carried ninety pounds of oxygen to the South Col of Everest in 1953. He had no photos of the climb or the team. In the summer of 2000, I gave him a paperback copy of Sir John Hunt's 1954 book, The Ascent of Everest. The book contains a group photograph, and Khansa is in the group. He turned the book in his hands, not knowing quite what to say. He showed the picture to his wife, to the servant girl, and to the neighbors. After forty-seven years, he had something to show.
Sometimes there is a photo on the wall of a small lodge of the man of the house, in goggles and down jacket, standing on top of Everest. A ceremonial silk scarf surrounds the picture, to show respect and pride. But usually when a Sherpa summits, nobody takes a picture, or nobody gives him one. Luckily, the Nepali government issues a certificate for climbing Everest, a simple form with a passport-size photograph attached. So Sherpa climbers can put that on the wall, along with the ceremonial scarf.
Kami Rita of Thame, the younger son of Mingma Chering, has climbed Everest four times. The best time was on a youth expedition organized and sponsored by the Nepali government as part of a year of celebrations that ended in a world youth congress in Havana. Kami Rita was one of the four young Nepalis who made the summit. That expedition was a relief, he says, because there were no foreigners. You could just make your tea in the morning and climb all day, without having to waste your time on carrying oxygen bottles and all that other stuff. Easy. And the government youth expedition gave him two commemorative flags, the Nepali green and red, and the Cuban red and blue. He takes them out of a cupboard and holds first one, then the other, stretched out before him, standing in the window to catch the morning light, proud. Kami Rita is the only Sherpa I have met who says his main reason for climbing is a big name, not the money. That is what he has to show for climbing Everest four times. And he's lucky, because most people don't have a flag.
I ask Kami Rita and his father, Mingma Chering, why foreigners climb mountains, and they laugh like everybody else. Then they sit and think about it, on a spring day in the high pastures, all of us relaxing on a pile of soft, dark, dried leaves, fodder for the yaks. Finally Mingma Chering says it had to be for the big name.
Yes, says Kami Rita, who climbs for the big name himself and has two flags to show for it. But then he thinks some more and says, why would anybody who already has that much money still climb?
And we sit and mull that over, and nobody has an answer.
I ask Khansa Sherpa, in English, why foreigners climb mountains. He laughs and says to his wife, Lhakpa, in Sherpa, "You know what he just asked me? Why do foreigners climb mountains?"
Lhakpa laughs, too.
Then Khansa tells me he's been reflecting on this matter since 1953. He's finally concluded that foreigners climb mountains because they like to. Unlikely as that seems, no other explanation makes sense.
There is nothing natural about climbing mountains. The people who lived in the Alps, the Andes, and the Himalayas never used to do it. The first great mountain to be climbed was Mont Blanc in the Alps, in 1786. In the nineteenth century, generations of British gentlemen pioneered Alpine routes with local villagers as guides. These gentlemen were the owners and heirs of the industrial revolution. They were the first class of men in human history who could imagine themselves as dominating nature, standing on top of her very peaks.
Sherpas and Tibetans went over the passes when they had to. As they neared the top of the pass, they were afraid, and with good reason. In Tibet, when you reach the top of a high pass on the road, you throw an offering of rice into the air to thank the gods and shout, "Tse tso, tse tso"—long life, long life. The Sherpa language does not even have a word for the high point of a mountain. Older climbers, speaking Sherpa, use the English word top, as in "top ki Chomolungma"—the top of Everest. Younger men speaking Sherpa use the English word summit, as in "summit ki K2"—the top of K2.
My first Sherpa language teacher, Nwang Dhoka Sherpa, was the daughter of one of the great climbers of the sixties, Pasang Kami Sherpa. There was no textbook for Sherpa in 1995, so we were making up our own lessons. (Now there's the excellent Sherpa Nepali English by Ang Phinjo Sherpa.) I wanted words for mountaineering, so Nwang began our sample conversation: "What is climbing Mount Everest like? Climbing Mount Everest is very dangerous." And that was the end of the lesson about climbing.
Nwang had spent her childhood waiting to see if her father would come back. He always did. But between 1953 and 1983, 116 men from Solu and Khumbu died working in the mountains. Fourteen were from Nwang's village, Namche Bazaar.4
Her father is Pasang Kami—everybody now calls him by his English nickname, PK. His father died when PK was little, and his mother eked out a living sewing and weaving in other people's houses. When her employers fed her, she used to hide bits of food in her clothes to take home to her little boy.
PK didn't tell me that. The men who were boys with him in Namche did. They all look at PK now with wonder and envy. How come he got so rich, they want to know, when we started out ahead of him? And then, hurriedly, they say that he is a decent man. Unlike many rich men, they say, he treats everybody the same, invites a poor man in to sit and drink tea.
PK and his wife, Namdu, married for love, despite her family's opposition. But they've come round long since. There is an old picture, taken by a trekker over thirty years ago, on a postcard that still sells in Kathmandu. It shows a beautiful young Sherpa woman, in traditional dress, leaning out of a carved wooden window, smiling. That's Namdu.
When they married, PK was not an important man, but he was strong; and above all, he was smart. He knew how to make friends of Europeans, how to help them and get them to help him. He was Chris Bonnington's sardar on the South Face of Annapurna in 1970, the first expedition to climb one of the great Himalayan walls. PK invested the money he earned and made friends with an American senator he met trekking, and with the owner of Northwest Airlines. In 1982 he guided Jimmy Carter to Everest Base Camp. He liked Carter, PK said, a nice man. Carter came with many Secret Service bodyguards, arrogant, burly men who dropped away on the trek, complaining about headaches, gasping for air, unable to keep up with old Jimmy. PK quietly enjoyed that.
He built one of the best tourist lodges in Namche, with a magnificent picture window looking out across the river to the south face of Kwangde. He is a partner in a trekking agency in Kathmandu and has traveled to America, New Zealand, and Europe. PK's daughter, Ngwang Dhoka, trained as a dental therapist in Canada, and his son, Pemba, went to the best school in Bengal and to university in Australia. Tenacious, with no schooling, PK finally taught himself to read Nepali in his fifties. He died in his early sixties, in the winter of 2000.
Namdu is the emotional heart of the family and the manager of her family lodge. Her children are very nice people. Sitting in the dining room of her family lodge in the spring of 2000, I ask Namdu if she ever quarreled with PK over the climbing.
Yes, she says. A little.
I ask if they fought physically. I know some wives tore at their husband's arms, hung on, begging, trying to stop them from going to the mountains. The husband had to push past his wife to leave home.
No, Namdu says. Just words. But sometimes it was bad.
What about the money? I say, gesturing at the lodge, all the guests, the pictures of her and PK by the sea in New Zealand, her daughter graduating from college in mortarboard and gown, her husband with Edmund Hillary and Jimmy Carter.
Forget the money, Namdu says. I wanted him alive.
During another evening in a tourist lodge in 1997, at three days' walk from Everest Base Camp, my partner Nancy and the two young boys of the house drew pictures for hours. The boys drew helicopters. When the other guests went to bed, our landlady finally got to sit down. She told us a story.
Her husband had been a climber for years. He'd been on twenty-eight expeditions and summited Everest twice. She was afraid all those years. But most expeditions paid $1,000 to $1,200 a season for work on Everest or Annapurna or the other big peaks. So her husband made $2,000 to $2,400 in an average year. They pay a bit better now, especially with the bonus for summiting Everest.
She kept telling her husband to quit. He said no, they needed to save a bit more, to build a tourist lodge, furnish it, and pay for the children's education in an English-medium school in Kathmandu, so the children would not have to scrabble for a living.
She said she'd rather have him alive. He said he had to work.
The last time her husband was on Everest, several expeditions were on the mountain at the same time. Three Sherpas from another expedition died in an accident. All three came from the village of Phortse. Looking out our landlady's bedroom window, we could see Phortse, a hanging valley, some eighty houses and small fields.
The sardar on the expedition came down the valley to Phortse to tell the wives of the three men what had happened. It was his duty, and he was a decent man.
When he reached Phortse, the sardar was too upset to speak. The women of Phortse knew from his face that somebody had died. But they could not make the sardar say who. So the wives of the porters went down to cross the river and up to Tengboche monastery on the hill. There the monks told them who had died.
Our landlady should have been relieved that her husband was all right, but actually she was suddenly frightened for him. She sent a message to him at Base Camp, saying that she was seriously ill, was being evacuated by helicopter to Kathmandu, and might die. It wasn't true. But she sent the message to get him off that mountain.
He got the message just as he was setting off up Everest from Base Camp. He turned around and ran for home. (She was proud as she told us—he made it home in five hours. His speed was a sign of his panic and love.)
Her husband came in, puffing, his chest heaving. "What's wrong?" he said.
"Nothing," she said happily.
He was enraged. She had made trouble with his job. And he had been so terrified for her.
"Now you know how I feel all the time," she said.
His anger ended, just like that.
Now he works as a guide for trekkers in Nepal. He gets a lot of work. The trekkers are proud to be with a Sherpa who has climbed Everest twice.
Khansa Sherpa was not the only one to run away to Darjeeling. Sherpas had been doing it for over fifty years. Tenzing Sherpa (pronounced Tensing ) was the most famous runaway.
Tenzing was born in Tibet in 1914, in the valley of Kharte, a little east of Everest, under Makalu.5 He was the eleventh of thirteen children, only four of whom lived to adulthood. When he was quite young, Tenzing's family left Kharte with what they could carry on their backs, crossed the Nangpa La, and settled in Thame.
Poor Tibetans had been migrating to Sherpa country for four hundred years. The Sherpa language was different, but they could more or less understand it, rather like Spanish and Italian speakers, or Danes and Norwegians. The incoming Tibetans would begin by working for established Sherpas as yak herders or farmhands, then make fields of their own and maybe marry a local girl or boy. In later generations, people would remember that so-and-so's grandparents were Tibetan. But for most daily purposes they were Sherpas.
The Nepali governing class called them all Bhotias anyway, their word for all the people in Nepal who spoke Tibetan dialects and practiced Buddhism. The Sherpas did not like being called Bhotias, because they knew what the word meant to the Nepali elite. Bhotia implied dirty, poor, and stupid. There is a rueful Khumbu legend about a Sherpa who was tricked by a Nepali long ago. The Nepali climbed a tree and hid in the branches. When the Sherpa came down the path, he heard a sound, looked up, and saw the stranger in the tree. The Sherpa was so surprised his mouth fell open, and the quick-witted Nepali spat down into it. And that is why, to this day, many high-caste Nepali Hindus treat Sherpas as stupid and polluted.
Understandably, Sherpas preferred to be called Sherpas, which meant "Easterners" in their language. Perhaps this referred to coming originally from the far east of Tibet, or perhaps it just meant a Bhotia in Nepal who lived east of Kathmandu.
But around 1920, when Tenzing's family arrived in Thame, there were no longer fields for the making. They had to work for other people. Tenzing says in his autobiography that even then he knew he was different. The other children played while he sat by himself and dreamed of adventures in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, of leading men in war. As he grew older, he dreamed of Kathmandu, and India, but always of money and a big name.
There were two roads to wealth in Khumbu in 1920—government official or trader. After the Nepali-Tibetan war of 1855, the Nepali government got a grip on affairs in Khumbu. They appointed tax farmers, called pembu, to collect taxes and remit part of the money or grain to the central government in Kathmandu. There were eight pembu in Khumbu, and each had supervision of many houses in several villages. This was because people moved, and the pembu controlled the man and the woman and their descendants, not the land. The pembu took 20 percent of the crop, and several times each year his taxpayers had to work on the pembu's land for free. More than the taxes, they resented having to labor for free.
The other route to wealth was trade. The Nepali government gave the merchants of Namche Bazaar the sole right to trade north with Tibet over the Nangpa La. Traders coming from the south had to sell their goods in Namche, and traders and porters from Tibet had to sell in Namche, too. There was not actually a bazaar in Namche—traders went from house to house hawking their goods, and there were only about fifty houses in 1940. Four of those houses got rich on the trade.
Most rich families had some combination of pembu rights and trade, and most of them also controlled large herds of yak and nak. Twenty head of cattle was, and is, a big herd for an ordinary family. But in the 1920s one pembu owned four hundred head. In the fall, when his yaks and naks left the high pastures, the noise that came down the main path in Pangboche was like thunder, and small boys ran alongside the herd in excitement, shouting, "The pembu is coming. The pembu is coming."
Yet Khumbu was still the frontier, and government writ was weak. There was seldom any armed force to back up an oppressive official. In 1920, for instance, one pembu in Namche killed a man who challenged his authority. Suddenly neither the pembu nor anybody else in Namche knew what to do. Nobody could remember a previous murder. The pembu stayed in his house, not daring to come out, paralyzed by the disapproval of his neighbors. Eventually he slipped out and went to Tibet and never came back. Downhill or over the pass, the Nepali or Tibetan government would have sent troops to back their official. But in Khumbu, a rougher democracy prevailed. And if the forced labor and 20 percent tax were resented, it was not the third or the half of the crop that people owed to landlords and aristocrats in much of Nepal and Tibet.
Ordinary people were polite to the rich, but they did not crawl. Most people had their own land and would not starve to death if they crossed the local landlords. That gave them a basic independence. Later, in 1950, a democratic movement overthrew the Ranas, the feudal lords who had ruled Nepal for 150 years. When the Ranas fell, the pembus of Khumbu lost their power, too. The old pembu families are poorer now, and the new rich have made money from climbing and tourism. But men over fifty in Namche still drop their voices when they speak of the old rich. Sitting with an older man on the open hillside, just him and me and nobody for two hundred yards around, I hear his voice go almost to a whisper. It is an ingrained caution in the shadow of power.
The boy Tenzing must have known that there was no possibility of wealth for him in Khumbu. Success meant leaving. When he was a child, he was sent to the monastery, as so many boys were. He was naughty, like most boy monks. An older monk slapped his head hard, Tenzing said, and he ran away home.
British mountaineering expeditions came to the Tibetan side of Everest in 1921, 1922, and 1924, when Tenzing was between seven and ten. Men from Thame crossed the pass to work for them, and Tenzing began to dream of Everest. He was already working for richer families, herding yaks, and in the high pastures he would look at Everest.
When he was twelve, he ran away over the Nangpa La, back to Kharte where he was born. From Kharte, on a roundabout route, he walked to Kathmandu in two weeks. There Tenzing found food and shelter with some Buddhist monks at the great stupa of Bodhinath. He wandered around the city, drinking it in through his eyes, the lights at night, the women in red and gold saris, the urban forest of small temples. After two weeks Tenzing was homesick—he was twelve—and so he walked home. His parents hugged him and then beat him.
Tenzing then worked as a debt servant for a rich man in Khumjung village, above Namche. He does not speak of this in his autobiography. By then, after all the success, Tenzing was probably ashamed of the poverty of his youth.
Many Sherpa and incoming Tibetan families hired their teenage children out in debt service. For example, a rich man would give a poor man fifty rupees ($12) for his son of fourteen. The son would work for the rich man for five years, or until his father repaid the debt, whichever was first. The boy would tend the yaks, do heavy carrying and plowing, and whatever else he was told. Herding, in particular, was lonely.
A contemporary of Tenzing's, who was also a debt servant, says Tenzing's father mortgaged him over and over again. Such work varied enormously depending on how kind the employer was; some were kind and some were not. In either case, the servant was the lowest person in a house where all the other children were loved.
There was a solution to debt service—run away without telling your parents. Tenzing was eighteen when he ran away to Darjeeling, in a party with eleven other boys and girls. They hid food in the rocks for weeks beforehand. Tenzing left his parents to sort out the debt. After a year away, he missed them and walked back. When he arrived, they were getting ready for his funeral ceremony. This time it was all hugging and no beating. Tenzing worked around the family home in Thame for some months, then returned to Darjeeling. He had seen the world and wanted it.
Girls went to Darjeeling, too.
Galtsen, for instance, is eighty-four now, the second-oldest man in Namche, and the richest. He worked as a climber in the 1950s, then made good money as a trader in Tibet. But until he was almost forty, Galtsen never made more than a rupee a day, and he carried many loads.
As a young man he was working in debt service for a rich man in Namche, a kindly fat man. Only the few rich people had any chance of getting fat, and some of them had much success.
Galtsen's girlfriend came to him and said, I'm pregnant, what are you going to do about it?
Galtsen said he didn't know.
We have to run to Darjeeling, she said.
I don't know, he said, stalling.
She was always the intelligent one. They're still happily married now, over sixty years later, and she's kept her razor wit, cracking dirty jokes at New Year parties.
We have to go, she said. My father will make you pay a fine when he finds out, and where will you get the money for that?
I don't know, Galtsen said, and she got her way. They went to Darjeeling for several years and returned with children. Her father had to accept them, and that was that.
It wasn't just pregnancy that made girls go. Some of them ran away with a boy their parents disapproved of. But many went on their own, with friends, driven by the same sense of adventure as their brothers.
Darjeeling was something then.6 Mingma Chering arrived in 1954 and stayed with relatives. In 2000, speaking English, wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap, he tells me that when he first saw Darjeeling, he thought it was one of the great cities of the world. "You know how stupid I felt," he says, "when I got to Calcutta and Bombay?"
In 1934 most Sherpas in Darjeeling spoke several languages. Their mother tongue was Sherpa. Depending on your point of view, this is either a dialect of Tibetan or a language related to Tibetan. Sherpa is unwritten, so traditionally the education offered by the monks was in Tibetan, and many older men can read it. Most Darjeeling Sherpas also spoke it well enough.
Nepali is the national language of Nepal. In 1934 most Sherpas in Khumbu did not speak it, although now, like most other Nepalis, they are usually fluent. Nepali was, and is, also the predominant language in the Darjeeling district of India. So Sherpas who went to Darjeeling had to learn it quickly. Now many younger Sherpas in Darjeeling speak Nepali but don't know Sherpa.
Nepali is part of the Indo-European family of languages that stretches from Gaelic in Ireland to Bengali in eastern India. So Nepali is more closely related to English than to Sherpa. Nepali shares many words with Hindi.
Hindi and Urdu are one language, like Serbo-Croat. The name of the language depends on who's talking. Hindus tend to say they speak Hindi, and Muslims to say they speak Urdu. But in 1934 the spoken form of Hindi-Urdu was called Hindustani. The language is a mixture of words from Sanskrit and Persian. It can be written in two ways. If you use a modified version of the Persian and Arabic scripts, it is called Urdu. If you use a modified version of the Sanskrit script, it's Hindi. There is also a very educated version of Hindi that uses many Sanskrit words, and a literary Urdu that uses many old Persian words.
In 1934 few Sherpas in Darjeeling spoke much English at all, although now many do.
The British East India Company annexed the Darjeeling district from Sikkim in 1835, hoping it would make a good place for a convalescent home for British soldiers. The sick soldiers grew lonely and depressed in the cold mists. One winter, fourteen of them committed suicide, one after the other, and the invalid home was closed.
But tea and tourists built Darjeeling. In much of the world, nobody has heard of Darjeeling town, but many have heard of Darjeeling tea. The hills below Darjeeling are wet, cool, and fertile. By 1900 many British tea plantations and peasant tea farms had cleared much of the forest. Most of the plantation workers and small farmers were immigrants from Nepal, and Nepali became the language of Darjeeling district.
The town of Darjeeling itself became a "hill station," a holiday resort. Under British rule, the provincial government of Bengal moved up there during the summer months to escape the un-English heat of the plains. The town was built along a high ridge. Below, the green, terraced fields of tea and the forests fall steeply away. And then, beyond the valleys, the massif of Kangchenjunga rises, the great peak and its outliers filling the northern horizon. At dawn, in the winter, Kangchenjunga seems to float above the clouds that fill the lowlands.
In his life, Tenzing saw Makalu, Cho Oyu, Nanda Devi, Nanga Parbat, Everest, the Rockies, Tibet, New Zealand, and the Alps. Of all the world's mountains, he said, Kangchenjunga was the most beautiful. When he grew rich in middle age, he built his new house so he could sit in the small chapel and watch Kangchenjunga out the window.
With the government in the summer months came more British tourists, up for two weeks, or if lucky, the wife and children could stay the whole summer. By 1923 there were cricket, hockey, gymnastics, polo, horse racing, golf, bioscope shows at the palace of varieties, dancing, an ice rink, flower shows, horse shows, dog shows, carnivals, and a visiting circus. The meetings of the Society for the Protection of Animals campaigned for maximum loads for donkeys.
In 1934, Darjeeling had a population of about thirty thousand, of whom several hundred were Sherpas. They lived mainly in Toong Soom Busti, a Tibetan and Sherpa shantytown, close to the mall and the tourist area, but on the back side of the ridge with no view of the mountains. The Sherpas lived and worked mixed in with the other "Bhotias" from Tibet, Sikkim, and Bhutan. The Tibetans, and therefore the Sherpas, had difficulty in getting the better paid and easier jobs as house servants and hotel workers. Tibetans with enough money to buy a horse could offer pony rides to tourists on the Mall, but few immigrants could start that way. They mostly specialized in the hard work of carrying loads and pulling rickshaws. According to a 1922 guidebook:
On arrival at Darjeeling the men mount ponies, and the ladies and children get into dandies and rickshaws … which carry them away to the several hotels and boarding establishments, to be followed shortly after by female porters … . The dandy is a chair with a well in front, not unlike that of carriages in the plains, which rises to the level of the seat, and is carried by four stalwart men, usually Bhutias, who place the horizontal cross-poles by which the dandy is supported on their shoulders and swing off with their fares up and down hill at a jog-trot, looking extremely well pleased if the occupants shew the slightest sign of nervousness.7
NORTH INDIA, NEPAL, CHINA, AND TIBET IN 1934
These were the men who got work as porters on the mountaineering expeditions.
Ang Tsering, the last man off Nanga Parbat alive in 1934, is ninety-six now. He lives in Toong Soom, which is still a Sherpa and Tibetan neighborhood, but no longer a shantytown. Ang Tsering has a neat wooden bungalow, bright blue, with a riot of geraniums and pansies outside. Three of his daughters, widows in their sixties, live with him, and so does one son, a retired army sergeant. They're all proud of their father, and tender. They bring out his photographs and medals and laugh fondly at his jokes. He talks in Nepali, and his son translates. Ang Tsering was born in Thame, but he has been in Darjeeling for seventy-six years. He has a medal from the Germans on his wall, for Nanga Parbat, and his "Tiger of the Snow" badge from the Himalayan Club is also on display. He is still a big man, lumbering around the house, making sure somebody makes me tea, looking for his old photo album.
Between 1924 and 1934 Ang Tsering worked on wheeled rickshaws, not dandies. One man would pull the rickshaw uphill, and two would push from behind. Downhill, one man led and two men held back the weight. The money was not that good—he took home about fifteen rupees a month. But sometimes parties at Government House lasted until the early hours of the morning, and the rickshaw men would wait outside, talking to each other and enjoying the music floating through the windows. That was a good part of the job.
Pasang Phutar, another climber, is ninety now. He came from Namche to Darjeeling and worked the rickshaws in the twenties and thirties. We speak Sherpa. He says it wasn't so much the weight of the British in the rickshaw he minded, it was the rain. The passenger seat had a cover, but Pasang Phutar could not afford a raincoat. He just drew his shoulders in and huddled between the poles. It rains a lot in Darjeeling, and at eight thousand feet it's cold. Climbing was warmer work.
Is that why you took climbing jobs? I ask.
Partly, he says. And partly—he flashes a conspiratorial smile—nobody ever got a big name pulling rickshaws.
TIGERS OF THE SNOW. Copyright © 2002 by Jonathan Neale. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.