Overcoming Mt Everest and Covid-19
For 39-year-old Jangbu Sherpa, 2021 was supposed to be like every other climbing season for the past two decades. He would train his clients and help them climb the highest mountain in the world.
He was with the Bahrain Royal Guard expedition that was the only foreign group in autumn 2020 in Nepal, climbing Lobuje and Manaslu to acclimatise for this year’s Everest ascent.
As the Bahraini team arrived in late February, new coronavirus cases had started appearing in Kathmandu as well. But this did not dampen Jangbu’s enthusiasm: he was looking forward to being on top of Everest for the 17th time.
The expedition flew out to Lukla after the Bahrainis quarantine on 4 April. Once there, Jangbu got busy setting things up and training his charges. Soon after, he started feeling a bit under the weather, with a persistent cold and body ache.
"I did not think it was corona. I thought it was just a common cold. So, I took some meds and went about my day,” Jangbu recalls. He felt fine as long as the effect of the medicines lasted, but got sick soon.
Then his chest started hurting, his body hurt and mouth went dry. He still did not think it was Covid-19, and went about his base camp chores.
“On the day I had to take my clients up to the Icefall, the symptoms intensified. My chest hurt, I felt lethargic, and I had an intense body ache. I couldn’t go on,” says Jangbu. That is when the usually unfluttered Sherpa started getting alarmed.
He informed the team leader and hopped on the next available helicopter to Kathmandu. There was an ambulance to take him to hospital where a swab test came back positive for Covid-19.
“I was shocked and a little nervous,” Jangbu says. “I didn’t know much about it and had only heard bad rumours about corona.”
The doctors told him he had to be isolated for 14 days, but all he could think about was the mountain and the clients he had left at base camp. He was determined to go back as soon as he recovered.
Born in Khumbu, Jangbu grew up around the world’s highest mountains, and hearing climbing stories from his mountaineer father, Pemba Tharki Sherpa. When his father came home after every season of climbing, and put up his clothes and harness to dry, Jangbu would try out the gear.
His father once took him along as a helper to Camp 1 on Ama Dablam. Since he was too young to go beyond Camp 1, Jangbu stayed in his tent while his father and the team went up to Camp 2 then onto the summit.
When his father was not up in the mountains, he would be meditating in the monastery. This meant that as the eldest son, it was up to Jangbu to take care of the family.
“Because I started working at a young age, my studies were affected, which is why I want my own two boys to have a better chance at education,” says Jangbu, who is involved in social work, helping schools in remote districts with supplies. “I followed my father’s footsteps but I don’t want my children to do the same. This is a very difficult job with more danger than recognition.”
By the time he was 16, Jangbu was joining expeditions working as a helper in the kitchen tent. He saved some money and came to Kathmandu to take climbing courses. In 2003, after finishing his training, he returned to Everest and at age 21 stood on top of Mt Everest for the first time.
“It was surreal. People talk about heaven, but looking down at the world from up there I finally understood what heaven meant,” says Jangbu. “All the other peaks below looked so small, it was out of this world.”
When he conquered the world’s tallest mountain, Jangbu’s father Pemba, was on Pumori, just eight kilometers west of Mt Everest. When he heard that his son had made it to the top, he was very happy and proud. Unfortunately, while there Pemba fell sick and had to be hospitalized. That was his last expedition. A few years later, he passed away.
Since 2003, Jangbu has been on Everest every year (except 2020 because of the pandemic) sometimes with his own clients through his company Into the Himalaya Treks and Expeditions, and sometimes helping bigger groups. Over the years, he has seen many changes: modern climbing gear is lighter and easier to use. But more importantly, Everest itself has changed.
“The mountain used to be white, it was difficult to climb. But now, much of the snow has melted,” he says. The first expeditions nearly 20 years ago needed to secure nine or ten ladders along the Khumbu Icefall, these days two or three are enough. "After the 2015 earthquake, the Hillary Step near the summit collapsed, and it is easier to climb over it."
What has not changed, though, is the way the world views ‘Sherpas’ who form the backbone of expeditions, and without whom most international climbers would not be able to get to the top.
“Yet, Sherpas still do not get the recognition they deserve,” he says, citing all the Everest films over the years which gloss over the contribution of Sherpas to expeditions.
Tired of being in the shadows and wanting to document what it is like to climb the mountain, he co-produced and starred in his own documentary, Mission Everest: The Legend of Sherpa Jangbu, chronicling his 16th summit in 2019. Besides Everest, Jangbu has been on top of Cho Oyu, Shishapangma, Manaslu, Baruntse, Ama Dablam and Island Peak.https://youtu.be/gJPN_iMc8nU
Earlier this month, after a week in hospital and another week in isolation at home, he tested negative for Covid-19. Despite his doctor’s warning not to overexert himself on Everest, he was back at base camp.
He still had chest pain, but he pushed on despite feeling that he did not have his usual energy. “I felt lethargic, my chest felt heavy. I usually love taking photographs but this time I did not even have the energy to do that,” says Jangbu. His head torch malfunctioned at Camp 4 and his oxygen mask on the Balcony, but he pressed on along the familiar route to the South Summit.
“I knew the Hillary Step was right ahead, and then there was no stopping,” says Jangbu. “The joy that you feel on summit no matter how many times you have been there is the same. And this time I had overcome not just the mountain, but also corona.”
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