Out of the ashes

The Pathibhara helicopter crash was a repeat of the tragedy in Ghunsa in 2006

A memorial in Taplejung dedicated to Nepal's top conservationists and officers who lost their lives in the 2006 Ghunsa crash. Photo: KUNDA DIXIT

Those of us concerned with conservation in Nepal remember exactly where we were on 23 September 2006 when news hit about the missing helicopter that disappeared into the clouds above Ghunsa.

I was at my desk overlooking a deceptively calm and normal Kathmandu Valley, my stomach churning as the fearful facts unfolded. Details of the disaster took two full days to be corroborated, but it gradually emerged that all 24 people had died in the far eastern corner of the country when the chopper collided with cliffs above the village and crashed in flames, wiping out most of Nepal’s conservation leaders including a government minister, the Finnish charge d’affairs and Russian pilots.

Read also: 

Their souls march on, Bhrikuti Rai and Stuti Sharma

Friends and colleagues 

“Yes I’m so sorry, yes, I’ll be sure to let you know when we hear anything.” Bad news travels and with a sinking heart I was fielding landline queries from all over the world. Gazing through the window I prayed the story would end differently, the icy fingers of disbelief, the terrible finality of the words: “No survivors.”

The tragedy at Pathibara on 27 February was horribly similar, although these days news travels fast and the dreadful details were quick to be confirmed. This time it was tourism leaders who vanished into a blizzard and exploded into the crags, leaving a sickening void in Nepal’s hospitality and aviation industry. Along with technical personnel, we lost two fine men -- an inspirational minister, and Nepal’s most visionary and courageous tourism entrepreneur.

Read also: 

The Last journey, Ramesh Kumar and Gopral Gartaula

The power and pull of Pathibhara, Sewa Bhattarai

Last week WWF’s Ghana Shyam Gurung reflected on the trauma: "This loss brought back my memory of 2006. No one should challenge weather."  In 2006 most of the incinerated bodies were unrecognisable in their seats and crumbled into ashes to the touch, Ghana had told me. Only Mingma Norbu Sherpa was thrown clear on impact, lying as though asleep on the ground a short distance from the burnt-out wreckage.

Once Ghana’s rescue team was eventually able to access the area, hampered by driving rain and wind, it was late the day after the crash before they reached the site after a four-hour climb in the dark, and another day passed before news filtered through to us in Kathmandu.

Ghana should have boarded that fated helicopter but was off-loaded to wait in Taplejung to save weight. The Kangchenjunga Conservation Area had been handed over to local indigenous managers the previous day, and the passengers consisted of the cream of Nepal’s conservation community, WWF staff and international supporters. It should have been a celebration of yet another success in the history of Nepal’s innovative protected areas.

It was hard to accept the chill reality that they were not coming back. Never again would we be infected by Chandra Gurung’s restless energy, enjoy Tirthaman Maskey’s environmental zeal, admire Harka Gurung’s measured thoughtful responses, or appreciate Mingma Norbu Sherpa’s calm focussed determination – all dedicated to making a difference to the environment, development and wildlife conservation.

One of those telephone calls came from Lincoln University in New Zealand where so many of Nepal’s natural resource practitioners had received their education. Professor David Simmons’ voice was shrill with shock at the loss of so many friends: “I’ve talked to my colleagues and we want to offer a national park scholarship in memory of Mingma Norbu, one of our distinguished alumni, to help rebuild the conservation capacity in Nepal following the loss of so many highly skilled specialists.”

Born in Khumbu and a star pupil at Sir Edmund Hillary’s Khumjung School, Mingma (pictured right) had studied at Lincoln before initiating the Annapurna Conservation Area Project, and creating WWF programs in Nepal and Bhutan. At the time of the accident he was WWF Director of Conservation based in Washington DC with a global brief.

The grief was so great that the memorial event filled the Nepal International Convention Centre with associates and relatives rushing from all over the world. It was startling to see the 24 framed photographs displayed on stage, garlanded with marigolds and katas, each person prematurely leaving a life unlived.

The gathering was an emotional haze of shocked faces and empty eyes, stunned friends and shattered families struggling to cope with their loss.

Lingering on the broad steps in the autumn sunshine after the prayers and speeches, there was much talk of tributes and memorials. Seeped in sadness, perhaps it helped us to feel that in some small way these snatched lives would not be wasted or forgotten.

I shared the idea of the scholarship in Mingma’s memory with some trepidation at such a raw and delicate time, but his family agreed with gratitude, Ghana Gurung and other Lincoln graduates gave their support, and Sir Ed’s Himalayan Trust pledged the first airfares from Nepal to New Zealand. The concept took shape, criteria evolved, and before long WWF had committed to cover the annual living expenses and Greater Himalayas Foundation took over the travel costs.

Thus out of the ashes above Ghunsa, the Mingma Norbu Sherpa Memorial Scholarship (MNSMS) was born and has flourished. In 2007 we selected the first two recipients, Anu and Salina, and since then a collection of remarkable candidates have studied natural resource management and tourism in New Zealand, returning to a range of roles throughout government, NGOs and private sector. The MNSMS arrangement has been extended to 2027, by which time twenty young Nepali men and women will have had the chance to follow in Mingma’s footsteps and bring back their conservation knowledge to benefit Nepal.

This week with heavy hearts the religious rites for Minister Rabindra Adhikari were completed in seven days instead of 13 “so that we can get on with his work”. Weary with sorrow amidst the incense and chanting, Ang Tshiring Sherpa’s family committed to continue his philanthropic work with a new foundation to honour Nepal’s self-effacing tourism magnate.

Lisa Choegyal


  • Most read