Stories of Nepal’s summiteers

Wind-swept Mount Everest. Photo: NEPALI TIMES ARCHIVES

Sherpa: Stories of Life and Death from the Forgotten Guardians of Everest begins in Spring 2019. Nepal’s mountaineering has just rebounded from the deadly avalanches on Everest in 2014 and 2015, and a year before the pandemic hits.

High on Mt Everest, internationally certified mountain guide Tendi Sherpa and his 60-year-old American client leave their tent in Camp 4 and climb into the ‘death zone’.

Only 800m remain, but for a guide, the worry is not so much about the summit as it is about returning to Camp 4 safely. Tendi’s story is but one among the many that are woven together in Sherpa, a new book by authors Ankit Babu Adhikari and Pradeep Bashyal.

At the moment Tendi is among 800 climbers on Manaslu, and took the video of a massive serac collapse near Base Camp on Sunday. Another avalanche near Camp 4 on the mountains killed one Nepali and wounded 10 others, and another American skier is missing near the summit – underscoring just how dangerous mountain climbing can be.

For the Sherpa, it is doubly dangerous since they have to put themselves in harm’s way (on the Khumbu Icefall, in the death zone) for longer periods than their clients.

The book attempts to go behind the climbs to portray the lives, dreams and destinies of the people who have made their surname and ethnicity a word for ‘support crew’ in the English language dictionary.

Even as climbing in recent years has been over-commercialised, adding to the environmental impact and danger, climate crisis is changing the very nature of climbing.

The two Nepali journalist authors of the book ask at one point: “Can climbing Everest ever be ‘a picnic’ for anyone?”

Every year, hundreds of Sherpa guides accompany their Patagonia-clad clients to the base of mountains in Nepal, Pakistan, India and even the Alps and North America. They fix ropes to summits, put ladders across crevasses, guide them up ice faces, pitch tents and even cook – all with a smile.

It is often easy to end up exoticising and giving a sense of otherness to the Sherpa climbers, painting them as superhuman sidekicks, relegating them to the footnotes of another’s attempts. Paired with the spectacular description of landscapes, the meditative, riveting or tragic first-hand accounts of the many Sherpa climbers and their families ensure that the book avoids this pitfall.

Sherpas now increasingly climb not just because it is a job but because they enjoy the adventure. And they are financing their climbs by taking clients along. Increasingly, the portering work is now increasingly done by Nepal’s other ethnic groups. The guide who died on Manaslu on Monday was a Rai.

Rather than asking the vague ‘why people climb’ questions, the authors cast their nets relatively wide over the history of mountaineering in the Himalaya, covering also a larger geographical area, from Khumbu to Darjeeling to the United States.

They trace their aspiration and motivation alongside the changing attitudes towards the mountains, trade and tourism. An entire chapter is dedicated to  women climbers. Legends and superstitions mix with the tales of ambition and endurance. The Sherpa's ‘romance with the mountains and the act of climbing,’ the authors realise, ‘is attached to their love stories back home.’

Sherpa: Stories of Life and Death from the Forgotten Guardians of Everest

by Ankit Babu Adhikari and Pradeep Bashyal

Cassell, 2022

321 pages    Rs699

Ashish Dhakal