Village of the climbers

Only elderly farmers are left in a deserted Himalayan hamlet of Sherpa mountaineers

Tsering Dorje Sherpa draws milk from his cow one early morning in Gautala. One of his sons, Phurtemba, was killed in an avalance on Mt Everest in 2014. All Photos: MONIKA DEUPALA

The rooster starts crowing even before the craggy horizon to the east is silhouetted by a new dawn. The forested flanks of this isolated Himalayan hamlet emerges from the darkness.

Wisps of blue smoke waft up from gaps in the corrugated roofs of houses, and there is a clatter of buckets as the villagers walk, coughing, to milk their cows. The frost on the grass shines briefly, to melt as the suns peers up from behind the ridgeline.

This is the little Sherpa village of Gautala in eastern Nepal. Its 14 households are composed mainly of elderly men and women. Most of the young men are high altitude guides, and are away preparing for the spring mountaineering expeditions on various Himalayan peaks.

Karchung Futi Sherpa, 64, takes off her gumboots and starts to prepare a breakfast of tsampa porridge. But before that, she lights a butter lamp in front of a photo of the Guru Rinpoche and bows to pray.

In the kitchen, the kettle is steaming and she pours the water to make suchya, the fortifying salty butter tea, for her husband, Tsering Dorje Sherpa, who walks in with a bucketful of milk. They plan on making sarkam, cottage cheese from the milk later in the day.

The two are alone. There is only a cat sitting under a sun beam slanting in through the window, licking its paw.

Karchung Futi and Tsering Dorje are one of the few people left in Gautala. Most of the houses here are locked up, with only grandparents like them remaining. There is no sound of children in the village, they are all away at schools in the city with their mothers, while their fathers are on expeditions.

The only primary school in the area is closed, and the building now houses the rural municipality office. The nearest school is two hours away, the local health post only has a nurse. The district capital of Khandbari is a 5-hour lurching jeep ride away. Unlike the Khumbu, Gautala is too remote to benefit from tourism income.

The prayers stone memorial dedicated to Phurtemba Sherpa, who was killed in an avalanche on the Khumbu Icefall in 2014.

At 85, Tsering Dorje’s father is the oldest man in the village, and had to be evacuated by helicopter last year for hospital treatment for asthma. He could only afford it because his grandson has a seasonal job with mountaineering expeditions.

But the same occupation has also brought tragedy to most families in Gautala. Phurtemba, one of Tsering Dorje’s sons was only 27 when he was killed in the avalanche on the Khumbu Icefall in 2014. He had climbed Mt Everest ten times, and also summited Manaslu, Kangchenjunga and Ama Dablam.

When Tsering Dorje heard the news, he rushed to Kathmandu, and was in such shock that he has only a faint memory of the helicopter  bringing his son in a body bag. Now, he and his wife fear for their eldest son who is preparing for another expedition this spring.

Almost every house in this village has at least one family member involved in mountaineering or trekking. And each of them has someone who has died on the job.

Now a traditional healer, Mingma Tashi used to be a trekking guide in his younger days, but after his son died in the Khumbi Ice Fall in 2019, he no longer wants to hear of the mountaineering business.

Mingma Tashi Sherpa, 63, recalls the last phone call he had with one of his two sons Pemba when he called from Everest Base Camp after summiting in 2019. “Pala, I just got back down, but I have to go up again guiding another group. I will call in four days when I return to Base Camp,” Mingma Tashi remembers his son telling him.

At 28, Pemba Tashi had already climbed Mt Everest three times, been on top of Lhotse and Manaslu and Himlung. But on the second ascent, he fell in the Khumbu Ice Fall, and his body was flown to Gautala for cremation two days later.

“I still cannot control my tears,” says Mingma Tashi, wiping his cheek. “It feels like just yesterday we were talking on the phone. But he is gone.”

Mingma Tashi himself used to be a trekking guide in his younger days, and is now an amchi traditional healer. “But I cannot find a treatment for my deep pain inside,” he says, eyes downcast. His son was a source not just of pride, but also status and money. He does not want to hear any more about the mountaineering business.

“The mountains might have given us good money, but nothing is greater than life. Can money buy life?” he asks.

Mingma Tashi and his wife, Dolma, have a few cows and a small vegetable patch. Their elder son makes occasional visits. The daughters live in Kathmandu, and want the parents to move to the city. But the elderly couple do not like the noise and pollution there.

Gautala's 14 households are composed mainly of elderly men and women. Most of the young men are high altitude guides, and are away preparing for the spring mountaineering expeditions on various Himalayan peaks.

Tse Chi Bhute, 63, and Pasang Tharke Sherpa, 54, live in one of the houses above the village. The couple has five children who are well-settled in Kathmandu. Some are married and others are with expeditions. Their younger son broke his leg last year after he fell into a crevasse below Mt Everest.

“I fainted after I got the news. I heard the choppers were trying to rescue him but failed multiple times. I calmed down a bit after I heard that he was airlifted to hospital,” says his mother Pasang Tharke.

After two surgeries in Kathmandu, the son can now walk on his own and tells his parents in video chats that he wants to be back in the mountains as soon as he is able to – a prospect that terrifies his mother.

One of the couple’s daughters works in Korea, and they sold their cows to buy a ticket to fly there to stay with her for two years. But they felt miserable, and returned.

“We like the air and water here, we may go for short visits to Kathmandu or abroad, but we always return,” Pasang Tharke says. “And thanks to mobile phones we can be in touch with our children.”

Nima Sherpa poses in traditional attire. Her husband and children live in Kathmandu, she has stayed behind to care for her yaks.

Nima Sherpa also lives alone, taking care of the family livestock. Her husband Mingma Tenzi Sherpa is a famous climber and he lives in Kathmandu with their daughter and son. She chose to stay back because someone had to take care of the in-laws and the yaks.

Nima is happy the children are attending good schools in Kathmandu, but misses them terribly. And she prays every climbing season for her husband’s health and safe return.

“I have asked my husband multiple times to leave the mountaineering job, but he says he will stop when he turns 60,” Nima says. “These days he has proper gear and training, so I am not as worried as before.”

It has been only 70 years since people from Khumbu migrated and settled in Gautala because of its better climate and possibility of farming.

Ang Norbu Sherpa remembers how he tagged along with his father and brothers from the nearest village of Dobatak to Gautala when he was a teenager.

“Our grandparents cleared the forest and settled here to raise sheep, cows, yaks, and dzo. They made a living selling the wool down the valley,” Ang Norbu says.

Villagers gather for a meeting about an upcoming hydropower plant. Mountain Dew is the beverage for special occassions like this.

Riku Dorje Sherpa is said to be the first person from Gautala to become a mountaineering guide, but he was killed in 1991 after climbing Kanchenjunga. His body was never found. His brother Prem Lakpa Sherpa is now 55, and he stopped climbing after he broke his arm during an expedition.

On the way to Dobatak there is a memorial mane wall with Buddhist mantra dedicated to Riku Dorje.

As dusk fell, Nimfuti Sherpa, 24, called out to her cattle grazing on the slopes above the village. A dzo and a cows hear her, and clamber down to the shed. Her mother helps set up the cowshed for the night.

While many young people have left the village for better opportunities, Nimfuti has stayed, serving also as an auxiliary health worker in Gautala.

“I really like it here, the air is pure, and I like living with my family, taking care of them and helping with their daily chores,” says Nimfuti, adding that her mother was also a health volunteer, and was her inspiration.

While many young people have left the village for better opportunities, Nimfuti Sherpa has stayed, serving also as an auxiliary health worker in Gautala.

“I grew up watching my mother on home visits and make the sick better with medicines,” she recalls. “I am happy to follow in her footsteps, treat patients, or refer them to Khandbari Hospital if they are in a more serious condition.”

Nimfuti now hopes to turn her temporary job into a permanent one, for which she has been preparing for exams. For her, the village has been a communal space that she never found in any other part of the country. She dreams of working for her village and her family.

Her father Furtemba Sherpa, 51, has also dedicated his life to the village. He lost his brother and father in a mountaineering  accident, after that he quit his own expedition job and settled in Gautala with the family.

He is helping Gautala build its own hydropower plant for electricity, and gets help to build and maintain trails and bridges.

“My job may not seem important or earn lots of money, but it is important for us younger people in the village to take such responsibilities,” he says, smiling.

Monika Deupala