The last of the first

THOSE WERE THE DAYS: Kancha Sherpa (circled, above) in a group photo taken after the first successful ascent of Mt Everest in May 1953. Standing (5th, 6th, 7th from left) are Edmund Hillary, John Hunt and Tenzing Norgay.

In 1952, when a Swiss expedition camped out at Namche Bazar on its way to climb the world’s highest mountain, Kancha Sherpa was impressed with the climbers’ gear. They looked glamorous, and their Sherpa guides had swagger. It made a deep impression on the 19-year-old, who ran away from home to Darjeeling to join Tenzing Norgay, who was preparing for the 1953 John Hunt expedition.

As a teenager, Kancha Sherpa used to work as a porter, crossing Nangpa La to Tibet with loads of paper and bringing back up to 40kg of salt to barter for maize or rice. When he was offered Rs8 per day to join the Everest expedition, with a bonus for going above Camp 7, it felt like a windfall.

Read also: The season of summits, Lisa Choegyal

Despite having no previous climbing experience, Kancha was trained to use ropes and crampons and set out for the icefall with heavy loads of oxygen cylinders for the higher camps. Being better acclimatised than western climbers and used to carrying heavy loads, Kancha made a good impression on the ‘sahibs’.

Kancha Sherpa at 87, in his home in Namche Bazar this week. Photo: SHARAD OJHA

Kancha made it to the South Col at 8,100m with his load, and remembers Tenzing Norgay trying to lift the spirits of young Sherpas like him who were not used to the dangerous mountaineering on the steep ice of the Lhotse Face. Kancha portered for other expeditions in the Himalaya, but after his brother Jangbu died on the slopes and following a 1973 tragedy in which 11 Sherpas were killed in an avalanche, he was convinced by his wife to give up climbing.

She was right: one-third of deaths on Mt Everest alone have been among Sherpa guides, who are much more exposed to avalanches on the Khumbu Icefall because they go back and forth many more times than their employers. Kancha Sherpa openly admits he worked as a high altitude porter and later as a trekking guide for the money -- he had no real desire to reach the top.

Kancha Sherpa set up the Nirvana Lodge in Namche and did well thanks to the trekking boom of the 1980s onwards. He educated his two sons and two daughters, who are scattered in Kathmandu and Denmark. Grandson Tenzing Chogyal Sherpa is a climate scientist and part of a National Geographic expedition this season to study the impact of global warming on Mt Everest.

Just as Edmund Hillary returned after his 1953 first ascent to help the Sherpa people with schools and hospitals, Kancha set up a foundation to support fellow Sherpas pursuing higher education.

He has been featured in This is Home. The story is included in Google Earth Outreach’s StoryCycle, which has a new interface called Voyager featuring map-based stories from the Khumbu.

As the last living Sherpa of the first expedition to climb Mt Everest 66 years ago, Kancha Sherpa says he has no regrets, adding that the 1953 climb and changes to his homeland since then seem like a dream. He recalls: “It used to take two weeks to walk from Namche to Darjeeling; today I can take a helicopter to Kathmandu from a nearby helipad.”

Kancha Sherpa retains his respect and reverence for the mountains, and believes their sanctity should not be defiled. “They are gods, it is not good for anyone if they get angry. We should keep the mountains clean, and prevent the snows from melting.”