Tenjen Sherpa, a tributeThe tragic end of Nepal’s remarkable record-holding mountaineering guide, Tenjen Sherpa
In his short 35-year life, only 10 years of which he spent guiding Himalayan mountaineering expeditions, Tenjen Sherpa was known for his stamina and humility.
Unlike most of Nepal’s famous Sherpa climbers, Tenjen was not from the Khumbu region below Mt Everest, but from the foothills of Mt Makalu, the world’s fifth highest mountain.
He herded yaks and farmed potatoes on the steep terraces of the village of Walung, where he was born in 1988, the seventh of eight brothers. He never went to school, but attended a monastery and was therefore known by the nickname ‘Mantare Lama’, after the lucky number seven.
Tenjen quickly mastered the methods of technical climbing at high altitude, and was much sought after by international expeditions to fix ropes to summits. For most Nepali climbing guides, this is a nameless and largely thankless job, while the foreigners they help to the summit get most of the attention and fame.
But that did not bother Tenjen too much. He was not the complaining type, and the expeditions earned him money. But Tenjen also represented a new breed of Nepalis for whom climbing was not just a job, but an adventure he enjoyed and excelled at.
Earlier this year, he completed climbs of 14 peaks above 8,000m in just 92 days helping Norwegian mountaineer Kristin Harila also accomplish the feat. They beat the previous 14-peak record set by Nepali-British climber Nims Purja for climbing the world’s highest peaks in the shortest time.
Perhaps even more remarkable than the record was the tale of Tenjen Sherpa’s struggle. He was married off when he was just 13. His father abandoned his family, and Tenjen had to help his mother take care of his siblings, as well as his wife and their own two sons.
Financial hardship forced Tenjen to leave the village and seek his fortune elsewhere. Because he lacked schooling, there were only two options: migrate to India or work as a porter for climbing expeditions.
Even as a child, Tenjen had seen expeditions to Makalu camp near his village and admired their climbing gear, flashy clothing and the money that some of his neighbours earned from being guides.
Tenjen was inspired by the famous Sherpa guides he worked with, and was determined to become a high-altitude guide himself. He knew it was a risky job, but it paid well.
Tenjen found a job with Seven Summit Treks, one of the new Nepali-run mountaineering outfitters that have been taking over the Himalayan climbing business from foreign companies in recent years. It is led by Mingma Sherpa, also from the Makalu region, and himself an accomplished mountaineer who has also climbed all 14 eight-thousanders.
Mingma sent Tenjen with an expedition to Makalu in 2014, and despite having no prior experience at high altitude he reached the South Summit. Tenjen learnt fast to fix ropes, wear crampons, use bottled oxygen, and belay fellow climbers on steep sections.
In 2016, Tenjen was sent as part of a rope-fixing team to Mt Dhaulagiri and reached the top of the world’s seventh-highest mountain. Tenjen never looked back after that, successfully summiting every peak he attempted.
By July 2023, he had climbed 35 of the world’s highest mountains, many of them multiple times. He had helped Harila become the first woman to summit all 14 eight-thousanders after climbing Cho Oyu in May this year.
After the monsoon, he was on Mt Shishapangma in China, guiding the American climber Gina Marie Rzucidlo who was competing with compatriot Anna Gutu to become the first female American to climb all 14 eight-thousanders, both had completed 13 peaks and had only one left. Rzucidlo had hired Tenjen at the last moment although he was not with her expedition company because he had proven to be a fast climber with Harila.
On 7 October, at around 12:30PM a slab of avalanche swept away Gutu and her guide Mingmar Sherpa at an altitude of 7,600 meters. A few hours later, Tenjen and Gina were also hit by an avalanche at 8,000m on the north face of Shishapangma. Their bodies were never found.
For Tenjen’s family, this was an added tragedy. Two of his brothers, Norbu and Phurba who were also climbers, had died earlier. Phurba died on Everest in the spring 2023, while Norbu died during the Covid-19 pandemic. Three of his other brothers had died at an early age.
Tenjen’s eldest brother is the only one remaining in Walung, farming the family terraces. The youngest brother, Pas Dawa also works as a climbing guide.
“I don't know whether to continue this job or quit," Pas Dawa told us in Kathmandu during a break between expeditions. "We cannot take care of our families if we do not work on the mountains, but it is a job that we could never return from."