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regular-article-logo Friday, 21 June 2024

Tall things, Taller than Mt Everest

Tashi hasn’t climbed 'big mountains' since 2007 for it being too commercialised, though he does climb smaller peaks

Upala Sen Published 19.05.24, 05:56 AM
HEDUNNIT: Tashi has led climbing expeditions in Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, India, Pakistan, Africa, Burma, Antarctica and the Arctic

HEDUNNIT: Tashi has led climbing expeditions in Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, India, Pakistan, Africa, Burma, Antarctica and the Arctic Pics, courtesy Tashi

That day when we meet at a coffee shop in south Calcutta, Tashi Wangchuk Tenzing looks visibly tired. He is just back from a wildlife tour of Antarctica. Among other things, Tashi, who is grandson of the legendary Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, is a naturalist and celebrity tour guide. “We went down to South Georgia to see the 6,00,000 king
penguins and albatrosses...” his voice trails off.

That said, Tashi’s primary identity and the one he proudly wears on his social media pages is that of a Sherpa. He has written a book on the subject, Tenzing Norgay & the Sherpas of Everest. But I am hesitant that morning to have him climb summits, even if it is only in reminiscings. And so I talk about the only common ground I can think of. I tell him what my father said when I told him I was going to meet Tenzing’s grandson. He said, when he was a little boy, one vacation in Darjeeling, at tennis player D. Gupta’s house, he played with PemPem and Nima, Tenzing Norgay’s daughters.

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I tell the stark story without beginning or end and it is as if a thousand watts come on, all of it beaming out of Tashi’s eyes. He says, “PemPem… that’s my mother. Super lady.” He continues, “She was amazing. Mountaineering, adventure, our education, we owe all of it to her. She was very close to her father. He had taught his girls to be independent, put a lot of emphasis on education. When she was only 15 or 16 years old, my mother reached camp 3 of Cho Oyu, 8,211 metres and the sixth-highest mountain in the world. She lost three of her friends but she was a tough cookie...”

Tenzing might have been a Sherpa through and through, but it seems he didn’t want his girls to embrace that life.

So there were women Sherpas? “Oh yes. Even today,” says Tashi animatedly and launches into a story. “In the 1953 expedition, when my grandfather was the leader of the Sherpas, most of the gear the British took along to base camp was carried by Sherpanis. One of them gave birth at 5,300 metres. No one had realised she was pregnant,” says Tashi.

The way he uses the word “Sherpa”, I get confused. What is Sherpa? Is it a philosophy? Or is it a job description? Or is it a community? “Sherpas are basically an ethnic group,” says Tashi. He speaks well and evocatively. He goes on, “They come from the shadows of the Everest, on the east side of the Everest, from the Tibet side. The word Sherpa basically means people from the east.”

In many books and old newspaper reports, Sherpa and porter are used interchangeably. Tashi nods: “The word Sherpa became internationally known after my grandfather summited Everest. Now, in the 21st century, people recognise Sherpas as mountaineers. So there are native Sherpas and non-native Sherpas.”

But is there some sort of hierarchy based on training and/or aptitude before one can call himself or herself a Sherpa? Apparently there is — porter, assistant guide, guide, and then Sherpa.

This is how The New York Times carried the news of Norgay and Hillary’s achievement from 1953. The headline read: “2 of British team conquer Everest; Queen gets news as coronation gift”. The news report reads thus: “With 362 porters, twenty Sherpa guides and 10,000 pounds of baggage, the expedition left the Nepalese base of Kathmandu... it took eighty days from start to finish... Seven Sherpas died on the mountain in the 1922 expedition and many others have died since with later expeditions. But the supply of these good-humored, devoted and highly courageous men never fails (sic).”

According to Tashi, in his grandfather’s time, most Sherpas were called Bhutias, which basically meant people from Tibet. He talks about one Dr Alexander Kellas, a chemistry professor who went on the 1921 expedition with George Mallory. Tashi says, “The first expedition had employed porters from Darjeeling, from the Gymkhana Club and Planters Club. In Tibetan culture, there are very many ethnic groups. Kellas recognised that there was one particular ethnic group all the happy, hardworking natural born climbers seemed to belong to. They were the Sherpas. In a sense, Kellas discovered the Sherpas and their potential in realising the British dream of conquering Mt Everest.”

In his book Tashi writes, “They were the backbone of any mountaineering expedition... However, because of barriers of racial attitudes... Sherpas were never seen as central players on the Everest stage.”

Tashi tells the stories of Nawang Gombu, nephew of Tenzing and the first person to climb Everest twice; Apa Sherpa, who had the most number of summits; Babu Chhiri Sherpa, who has the record for the fastest ascent. He is proud of their achievements, honoured to be one of them.

Pride and respect there is in plenty within the community for each other, for shared histories. But there is also no shaking off what they know to be the hard realities of this way of life and work. Naturally, climbing Sherpas are not willing to let their children toe their line. “After all, it is a high-risk job,” says Tashi.

But is there such a thing as the inevitable pull of the mountains? Apparently there is, and some Sherpas are more susceptible than others. Tashi’s brother is a lawyer, his sister is a tea-taster, and there is Tashi with his university degree, and coffee plantations and whatnot, unable to resist the lure of the mountains.

He hasn’t climbed “big mountains” since 2007, though he does climb smaller peaks. “Big mountain climbing is too commercialised,” says Tashi. Commercialised, meaning? He replies, “It is big business. Some of these climbers don’t understand the people, the culture, the history, the philosophy of mountaineering. It is just something on some rich guy’s bucket list. They want luxury, and they want Everest, and they want hundreds of Sherpas to take them there.”...

Now that’s what we call a really tall order.

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