The Story of the Climbing Sherpas of Darjeeling – first impressions

Deepa Balsavar and Nandini Purandare

This is no ordinary morning. For the Toong Soong community, this chilly November day marks a poignant farewell.

Today is the funeral of Nawang Topgay Sherpa; the last surviving Tiger Medallist of Darjeeling. Descending steep stairs and winding alleys, passing buildings and shanties, we finally reach lower Toong Soong that clings precariously to the hillside midway between upper Toong Soong and the valley floor. Guruji (Respected teacher), as Topgay was known, died quietly in his sleep yesterday after lunch, while watching TV with his grandson.

Nawang Topgay Sherpa. (courtesy Nawang Topgay collection)

Nawang Topgay Sherpa. (courtesy Nawang Topgay collection)

We enter his home, looking as sombre as possible and see people in every room, eating, drinking Pepsi and chang, gossiping and catching up with each other. Our friend Phurtemba comes forward with a wreath, hand crafted by him that he gives to us to place on the crate-like coffin. Following their Buddhist beliefs, Topgay’s community of Sherpas is sending him to his resting place without signs of overt lament. His body is deliberately curled in foetal pose, exiting the world the way he entered it.

Born in the Tibetan year of the Ram, 82-year-old Topgay lived for the better part of his life in Toong Soong, until his passing away on 2 November, 2012.

Young Topgay had migrated in search of work to Darjeeling when he was a lad of 14. He was taken under the care and guidance of his father’s younger brother, Tenzing Norgay and lived with him till he found a place of his own. It was with Tenzing that he began his expedition work as a high altitude Sherpa. He was one of the youngest porters to reach South Col on the 1953 Everest expedition and soon after when the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute was established he was appointed instructor. He later went on to teach at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Uttarkashi. Known popularly to scores of students as Guruji, he retired from NIM and returned to Darjeeling where he spent the rest of his life.

The funeral procession of Topgay Sherpa.

The funeral procession of Topgay Sherpa.

And so we stand on the hillside in the beautiful morning sun, waiting for the coffin with the lone marigold wreath on it and the funeral procession to wind its way up and up, back to the upper section of the basti and towards the Sherpa cemetery at the southern end of Toong Soong.

‘We’ are the Sherpa Project researchers, spending time in Darjeeling, collecting and collating oral histories from the families of the great climbing Sherpas of Darjeeling. Who were these men? Where did they come from? What did they do?

This is the task that we set for ourselves six months earlier when we attended the first death anniversary ceremony of Topgay’s cousin and another great Tiger, Nawang Gombu. He too was a nephew of Tenzing – his mother was Tenzing’s sister – and he was also on the 1953 Everest expedition that put Tenzing and Hillary on top of Everest. Gombu also belonged to Darjeeling but the future he had secured for his children was in a world far removed from Toong Soong.

As our stays in Darjeeling lengthened, we came to hear and understand more about a remarkable community of people; of men and women who, entering India as illiterate, impoverished migrants had been able to carve a niche for themselves in this country and a name for themselves in the world. Whether upwardly mobile like the families of Gombu and a few other climbers or humble like most of those who live in Toong Soong, the stories literally and figuratively reveal nothing less than a vertical ascent.

The beginnings

To introduce the community we are talking about, a little history is in order.

If you ask an old Sherpa or Sherpani from Darjeeling where he or she comes from, the answer is usually ‘Solu khumbu’ or ‘Shar khumbu’. Solu and Khumbu divided by a third stretch known as Pharak are actually a series of valleys in the vicinity of Mt. Everest in Nepal. The word Sherpa derives from ‘Shar wa’ (‘Shar’ means ‘east’ and ‘wa’ or ‘pa’ means ‘people’) and refers to inhabitants of eastern Nepal who are of Tibetan origin. It is believed that the Sherpa ancestors fled from Kham in Eastern Tibet in the 1600s to settle in the upper Khumbu valleys of Nepal.

At 3500 – 4000 m, Khumbu, where most of the climbing Sherpas came from, is a hard environment to live in. The villages of Thame, Namche Bazaar, Khumjung and Kunde lie scattered in the playground of the highest peaks in the world. In the early days the people were agriculturists (growing barley and potatoes), herders (grazing yaks and naks in the higher pastures) and traders (trading with Tibet across the high passes). Gradually many Sherpas moved to the lower valleys to grow better crops and enjoy a less extreme environment – to Solu in the south. Dorjee Lhatoo, a distinguished climber and our ‘go-to’ person for all queries on Sherpas has this to say about the inhabitants of the two areas ‘Solu Sherpas call Sherpas of Khumbu “snot eaters” and the Sherpas of Khumbu call their Solu counterparts “crawlers under the bridge”.’ (This is a private joke among the two groups. Khumbu Sherpas are unfamiliar with fishing so they say Solu Sherpas crawl under the bridge for worms. The Solu Sherpas respond by pointing to the permanently snotty noses of the children of colder Khumbu).

So when did the Sherpas start coming to Darjeeling and how did they get here? In an article he wrote for the HJ Vol 35, 1976 - 78, Lhatoo noted:

There is no recorded history of the first arrival of our people in Darjeeling. But there is evidence of their being here as early as towards the end of the 19th century. Like many of the plainsmen who came up as the followers of the British, and the eastern Nepalese who came across attracted by labour and other employment prospects in the tea plantations, many Tibetans and Sherpas came to work as ‘coolies’ and ‘dandy bearers’ for the tourists after Darjeeling was established as a hill resort by the British Government.

The first migrants walked uncharted lands, following the sun and asking directions at infrequent settlements. It must have been an arduous journey in any season. We have this account of the trip made by a Sherpa when he was a boy of six or seven from his home town of Yatung in the Chumbi valley of Tibet to Darjeeling:

‘I came walking I remember. I came walking over the Nathu la. It must have been in October – November. I remember the time because it was orange season. Now I believe you can descend from Nathu la into Chumbi valley in one hour and in two-three hours you are at Yatung. But I remember my mother saying that we walked for nine days. Nine days from Yatung (Tibet) to Bhutia Basti in Darjeeling.

‘I remember Nathu la vividly. Then it was wilderness. Nothing! Complete wilderness. We were the only people crossing the pass. My uncle - my mother’s youngest brother - and his wife and friend came to Yatung with six horses to fetch us. My older sister and younger brother were on one horse and on the other horse were my mother and the baby. The rest of the horses had the provisions and whatever my mother could bring.

‘And I walked with the three elders all the way. My mother used to flatter me and these two men would also say “He’s a strong boy; he doesn’t like to ride a horse.” So I didn’t want to ride a horse because of my ego. But I used to be so tired I slept while walking I’m told.’

One of the routes taken by Sherpas from Solu Khumbu to Darjeeling.

One of the routes taken by Sherpas from Solu Khumbu to Darjeeling.

Toong Soong.

Toong Soong.

All the early immigrants from Nepal and Tibet to Darjeeling would have made a similar journey. Another older Sherpa shared this with us: ‘How did they find the way? They looked at the early morning sun. They saw from where it rose. They knew they had to go east so they would go in the direction of the sunrise. From Nepal they came walking for 15 days. You walk from sunrise to sunset and then you reach a village. You could request for a place to stay.’ There was trust in those days and a place by the hearth and a glass of chang for every weary traveller.

If you had to follow one of those trails from Nepal today, you would walk for about 375 km, cross seven passes ranging from 2300 m to 5800 m, and cross the watersheds of major river valleys such as Bhote Kosi and Dudh Kosi. On an average, you would climb and descend about 5000 m to cross one river valley.

The new and promised land

And so they came to settle in Toong Soong, a hill side in Darjeeling. It is the only side with no views of the snowy mountains. There are nicer parts of course but these were taken by the British sahibs who built the hill station. Toong Soong is a buzzing shanty town. If you are on Chowrasta in Darjeeling, look south. There is a street on the left, lined with open food stalls, vendors selling vegetables, flowers, meat and fruit. Past that, there is a crowded township spanning the hillside with a narrow main artery slicing through it. Along this road is the Sherpa gompa - the centre of religious, social and cultural activities for the community. It is a comfortable cheery temple with men and women volunteers maintaining the place and always trying to build one more floor! Above, below and alongside the temple are apartments vying dogs and cats stretch, stuffed toys are washed and hung out to dry and women knit or wash or gossip along this lively street.

When the first Sherpas built their wooden homes in Toong Soong though, the hillsides were thickly forested. There was plenty of water and firewood to chop and sell for money. Nima Tsering, whose father was Gyalzen Sirdar and who lives in one of the oldest houses in Toong Soong told us that after sunset it was too dangerous to venture out. Even Mall road, now the busiest thoroughfare in Darjeeling, was a desolate area, and once the sun had gone down, the children remained indoors huddled in fear.

This is Dorjee Lhatoo again on the origin of the name Toong Soong:

I heard from the early Sherpas that Toong Soong is a corruption of Thung Soom. Thung is shankh (shell or conch). There were three prominent rock features on this road. One is still there. From Chong Rinzing’s house if you look up – there’s a big rock. We used to do our rappelling on that. That looks like a shell. There was one close to the Sherpa gompa. And there was one at the bifurcation, where the three roads meet. They have blown that up and built a big house there. Soom in Tibetan is three. Thung Soom – Three shells – one is still there. You can’t miss it. The old Sherpas still say Thung Soom

Today, we are visiting the neat cottage that Ang Tshering built.

Four of the seven daughters of Ang Tsering with their cousin Nima Tsering, son of Ajeeba Sherpa.

Four of the seven daughters of Ang Tsering with their cousin Nima Tsering, son of Ajeeba Sherpa.

Even steps lead down to a broad paved terrace overlooking lower Toong Soong and the valley. We have seen pictures of Ang Tshering sitting here whittling a piece of wood and even now, ten years after his death his presence is everywhere. The entrance to his spotless green painted house bears a small black sign ‘Ang Tshering Sherpa, H. No. 10/1, Ganesh Gram, Toong Soong Basty, Darjeeling.’ Many climbers especially foreigners come actively seeking this place for Ang Tshering is a legend. He was awarded his Tiger medal for his role in the 1952 Everest expedition and he continued climbing well into his sixties. By the time Ang Tshering passed away just months short of his hundredth birthday, he had amassed medals and citations from all over the world and these are now part of a loving legacy guarded by his daughters.

Ang Tshering’s daughters, Pema Diki, Phur Diki and Lakpa Chamji live in this house now. ‘Altogether we were 12 brothers and sisters – five boys and seven girls’ explains Pema Diki. Only five sisters and the brother Tharchen are still alive. There is a lot of laughter in this house. Hot tea, momos and Hindi film dialogues are dispensed with equal generosity. When they talk about their father however, the voices lower and soften and they interrupt each other frequently to make sure that not the tiniest detail is overlooked. Ang Tshering’s medals are mounted on blue velvet and encased in a glass cabinet.

Curiously, the women do not know much about their father’s expeditions except for a shaky account of the infamous German Nanga Parbat one in which four Germans and six Sherpas lost their lives. Phur Diki easily the actor in the family begins the account. She punctuates her narrative with actions and voice changes interrupted occasionally by the older Pema Diki who mutters loud stage whispers behind her.

1952 Pre-Everest. Standing (l to r): Pasang, Kirken, Nauri, Ang Dawa Phurkey, Jombe, Pasang Phutar Jockey. Standing, middle row (starting from the middle l to r): Topgay, unidentified, Tenzing, Da Thendup, unidentified, Pemba Sungdar. Seated (l to r): Nawang Gombu, Ang Balu, Ang Temba (above), Da Namgyal (below), Da Thondup, Ang Nyima, Phu Tchering (Courtesy Dorjee Lhatoo collection)

1952 Pre-Everest. Standing (l to r): Pasang, Kirken, Nauri, Ang Dawa Phurkey, Jombe, Pasang Phutar Jockey. Standing, middle row (starting from the middle l to r): Topgay, unidentified, Tenzing, Da Thendup, unidentified, Pemba Sungdar. Seated (l to r): Nawang Gombu, Ang Balu, Ang Temba (above), Da Namgyal (below), Da Thondup, Ang Nyima, Phu Tchering (Courtesy Dorjee Lhatoo collection)

‘In 1934 Babuji (father) went to Nanga Parbat – we have only heard the story – we are not sure. It was a German expedition. There was a school teacher – Merkl – and the Sherpas: Gaylay and Dakshi. I don’t remember the others. Babuji, Gaylay and others were sent up by the leaders. When they went up, the weather turned bad. At base camp everything was good. They had taken food up but it ran out while they waited for the weather to clear. The people below could not take food to those who were stranded higher up. They had reached Camp 8. What to do? Babuji thought we can’t go up, can’t go down... Seven days had passed. School master was very sick and weak. Gaylay stayed with Merkl who died that night. Before he died Merkl asked Babuji to get help. On the way down Babuji became snow blind. He could not see and there was nothing to eat. He finally came down eating ice. Nine days he survived on ice. So many died. Some bodies were still on the ropes... Finally he could see the base camp. ‘Hai hai’ – he tried to call but no sound would come. The people could not see or hear but he could see them moving around. He went further down. One man who was taking food from one tent to another finally noticed him. They thought they were seeing a ghost ... someone helped bring him down. “Where is Merkl?” they asked. “They are coming down slowly. There is no food, send some people”. They sent five people up. Babuji was brought to base camp and then admitted to hospital. His feet were frost bitten and they put leeches to stem the gangrene. He lost some toes.’

Starting from the bottom

The first real record of the presence of Sherpas in mountaineering was noted in 1907 when Dr. A.M. Kellas took high-altitude porters with him from Darjeeling to the Sikkim Himalaya. Ever since then, Sherpas have been mentioned in almost every Himalayan mountaineering book. Early photographs show them as small smiling men with cropped hair or pigtails, wearing happy combinations of Tibetan and Western clothes. They carried loads, made camps and cooked. They were referred to as coolies or porters or load bearers, sometimes with affection but more often in a patronising manner. Their employers, the Europeans who climbed and explored and wrote books during the early 1900s mention their childlike laughter and fondness for pranks, their love of chang and occasional petulance and sulks. While there was often genuine fondness for individual porters, the Sherpas on the whole were regarded as nameless pieces of essential equipment necessary to allow the sahibs to get to the top. And yet these were individuals who risked their lives on an annual basis, not for the lure of the mountains but in order to earn a living.

The story of the Sherpas – from cultivators to load carriers to faithful climbing companions – makes a riveting saga. Europeans eyeing the mighty 6000+ m peaks of the Himalaya noticed the Sherpas were naturals at learning mountaineering techniques. They had one other quality besides – adaptability. Eric Shipton wrote in 1937 during survey work in the Nanda Devi region that two of the local Lata porters they had hired ‘worked splendidly and with a little training would be as good as the Sherpas. But, they have one tremendous disadvantage and that is that their religion forbids them to eat either with Europeans or anything cooked or touched by Europeans or Indians of other castes. When a party is engaged in a long and difficult task, this taboo would produce an impossible situation. With the Sherpas I am in the habit of eating out of the same dish and drinking out of the same mug and no one loses caste or feels embarrassed. Later in the year, when we were employing some Dotial porters and ran short of food, the Dotials who had finished their own food, allowed themselves to become feeble with hunger, rather than eat the rice which we had been carrying in our rucksacks. Ang Tharkay always becomes infuriated by this prejudice and taunts the victim mercilessly’.

Hard way up

At the end of the 19th century the Himalaya of the Raj was the centre of adventure; an intriguing and exciting destination for the British, the French, the Swiss and the Germans.

Parties from all these places came in the first decades of the new century to climb, and the hills were alive with the sounds of hundreds of porters hauling luggage and equipment. It is no accident that the words used for climbing include assault, attack and conquer, for the attitude of the westerners was that of an army launching an offensive against a worthy opponent. Early expeditions were massive affairs. Porters carried equipment, tents and food as also luxuries like cots, tables, silver tea services, linen napkins and tin baths for the sahibs to wash off the dirt of the mountains! This may not seem too much of a hardship until you realise that even base camp in the Himalaya is often higher than most mountains in the Alps. In 1931, during the Kangchenjunga expedition, the team comprised five Germans, three English, two Swiss and one Austrian; a total of 11 members. 350 coolie loads were assembled. Prof. G. O. Dyhrenfurth, the leader, stated that the load was not excessive for the number of members on the team. Rationalising, he wrote ‘The Vissars for instance, took on their last expedition 450 porters for half the number of Europeans. For the baggage of the 3rd Everest expedition (containing the same number of Europeans) 770 coolie loads were required (although this was divided over 70 porters and 350 animals)’. Dyhrenfurth’s expedition provided only 70 pairs of shoes so many coolies climbed barefoot above 4000 m – the height where the blanket of snow starts.

Joan Townend, Secretary of the Himalayan Club, Darjeeling. (courtesy Ang Tsering collection)

Joan Townend, Secretary of the Himalayan Club, Darjeeling. (courtesy Ang Tsering collection)

Let’s have a little visual imagery: imagine yourself in a plane and looking out the window. Cruising altitude for most planes is about 10,500 m. At 8848 m the summit of Mt. Everest is less than 1700 m below you and Kangchenjunga at 8586 m is just 300 m lower. Now imagine you are not in the nicely pressurized cabin but on the slope, contending with -20 to -35 degrees Celsius temperatures, howling winds, icefalls, and the dangers of avalanches and snow blindness, all with a load on your back and clothing that is ill-fitting and often insufficient. Part of the weight borne by you would be bottled oxygen for the members. This was brought into use as early as 1922. One bottle at that time contained approximately 240 litres of oxygen and four bottles were fixed on a porting fixture. With the additional elements this meant a weight of about 14.5 kg. This bottled oxygen was used only after gaining a height of 7000 m. This means someone would have to carry it at least up to this altitude. Each bottle lasted about two hours and all the oxygen would be used up after a maximum of eight hours of climbing. The Tibetan and Nepalese porters nicknamed these oxygen bottles ‘English air’.

Pages from the Himalayan Club issued ‘chit book’.

Pages from the Himalayan Club issued ‘chit book’.

Ang Tsering’s chit book.

Ang Tsering’s chit book.

The Himalayan Club Tiger medal.

The Himalayan Club Tiger medal.

By the 1920s, Darjeeling had emerged as the base for major intrepid Himalayan reconnaissance and Everest was the dream everyone wanted to capture. The climbing world is littered with names made famous through the expeditions of the period: Gen. Charles Bruce, Dr. A.M. Kellas, Tom Longstaff, Frank Smythe, Eric Shipton, H.W. Tilman, and the Duke of the Abruzzi … Edward Norton, Dr. Somerwell, George Mallory and Sandy Irving ... the list goes on. They all came to Darjeeling to hire their porters and attempt climbing Everest from the Tibetan side as Nepal was closed to foreigners. For a period though, this route was also closed down. In 1924, on the return journey from Everest, one of the members of the expedition broke away from the normal route to visit Tsangpo - a forbidden trip - and later on in London, a photographer arranged for some Tibetan lamas to dance at lectures to give them publicity. The authorities at Lhasa were very annoyed by both occurrences and put a ban on further expeditions, which was not lifted until 1933.

It is against this backdrop that in 1927 people in Calcutta and Simla began to think of founding a club to encourage people to visit the mountain regions on India’s northern borders. The Himalayan Club was born in 1928 and its most active cell was Darjeeling where all the action was. The Club took the responsibility of organising Sirdars and porters and a strong bond between the community and the club took root; a relationship that continues even today

In 1934, Joan Townend, became Hon. Secretary of the Himalayan Club’s Eastern Section. She was deeply distressed by the loss of Sherpa lives on Nanga Parbat and keen that individual Sherpas should be suitably commemorated (Ang Tshering - whose descent from the mountain was told to us by his daughters - was on this expedition), but she found that details of their careers were lacking. To facilitate the collection of information, Mrs. Townend suggested that each Sherpa should be issued a ‘chit book’ containing his photograph and wrapped up in a mackintosh case. Leaders of expeditions were expected to fill in details at the end of each expedition and remark on the services of the porters. General Bruce arrived in Calcutta in December of the same year and went up to Darjeeling to give a feast to all his old friends and distribute this prized possession. Indeed we are lucky that we have come across many of these, lovingly preserved by the families but with pages that probably contained unsavoury comments assiduously torn away!

When men become Tigers

The Tiger Medal was instituted by the Himalayan Club in 1939 - an honour bestowed on a handful of the worthiest Sherpas to recognise outstanding service rendered on British expeditions. Though ‘Tiger’ was a term George Mallory used in the 1920s, the medal was announced almost two decades after, for select Sherpas who boasted exceptional feats of climbing and bravery on hostile ice and rock. The very first medals were given out to ten handpicked Sherpas on 30 May, 1939.

Sona Sherpa, the last Tiger in Darjeeling.

Sona Sherpa, the last Tiger in Darjeeling.

The HJ Vol XII (1940) includes a note by Joan Townend on how Tiger Badges for Sherpas had been decided on and the Himalayan Club Committee was to take great pains in the years to come to ensure that the right Sherpas got the awards.

The note reads thus:

The Grading of Sherpa and Bhotia Porters

At a Committee meeting of the Eastern Section of the Himalayan Club on the 6th of February 1939 it was decided to create a superior grade for experienced climbing porters, and to give them 8 annas a day extra pay beyond the rate paid to others, for work above the snow-line1. It was first suggested to give them a smaller increase at any time, until it was realized that this might prevent travellers from engaging them for ordinary treks, where climbing skill and experience are not so valuable; and since they count on employment on these journeys to keep them between the high climbing expeditions, it was decided to give them a larger increase when their greater skill is being used.

It was suggested that these men should be given the name of ‘Tigers’, together with a badge representing a tiger’s head. There were a number of criticisms of this name, but none of the alternatives appeared suitable. ‘Climbers’ is a term already used for Europeans of the party; ‘guides’ would give a false impression, for it is most undesirable that the porters should be looked upon as guides in the Swiss sense; and since the name ‘Tiger’ has been fairly constantly used since the Mount Everest expedition of 1924 for the picked porters who have gone high, it has been adopted as the best name put forward.

Striking Gold

We had believed that after the death of Nawang Gombu, Nawang Topgay had been the last Tiger in Darjeeling; but our readings and interviews had not answered the question: ‘When was the last Tiger badge awarded?’ Without knowing the answer to that, we couldn’t be sure that there were no other living Tigers. Then one rainy morning in our little cottage in Singmari, pouring over past issues of the Himalayan Journal, we have a Eureka moment. Tucked away in an issue from 1967 we find an exhaustive list of Tiger Badge recipients. Towards the end of the list is an entry – ‘Sona (Darjeeling), Everest 1965’. Feverish searches of later issues produce no further lists. These seem to have been the last Tiger medals given out. Is Sona then an unknown Tiger? Would he still be alive? Fingers crossed, we set out to locate him.

‘Sona Sherpa? There is no such Tiger medallist,’ respond local contacts. ‘Wait a minute, an alcoholic who goes by the nickname ‘King Kong’ walks to Chowrasta from Toong Soong every day.’

‘Yes, he’s the one!’ Dorjee Lhatoo had already told us that the climber Sona used to be better known by that name. ‘He cannot be the medallist you are looking for, but his name is Sona. He lives with his daughter.’ Wanting to check for ourselves, we ask Phurtemba to organise a meeting with Sona in Toong Soong. ‘Tomorrow morning’, he says. ‘That way I can warn his daughter to keep him sober’.

The next morning we take our usual route. Just past the Sherpa gompa, we see a shaggy, bumbling grown man being gently lowered onto a stool and given a thorough washing by a younger woman – anything is possible in Toong Soong! We settle down in Phurtemba’s little home to wait and a few minutes later the same timid bear of a man enters. Well scrubbed now with water glistening in his wet hair, his daughter has kept her promise and delivered a sober Sona for the occasion. A tremor visibly shakes his hand as he dabs a crumpled handkerchief on his furrowed forehead. This big and gentle but wasted soul with heartbreaking rheumy eyes was bestowed the Tiger for his role in the first successful Indian Everest expedition of 1965. When Captain M S Kohli placed nine Indians on the summit, Sona was one of the support staff. But his recollection of those days is dim. He does not know where his ‘prized’ medal is, probably in his hut in Gwaldam where he worked as a chowkidar of some sort ... ‘When my name was called for a medal, I thought, there is nothing special I have done, how did I get this? So I was really left very surprised and wondering.’ At this point Phurtemba adds ‘May I say something? Mr. Sona says that he had nothing ... But he had a lot! He was young, he had energy, he had strength – which is why everyone favoured him and took him on expeditions. That is what he had, so much of, even though he says he had nothing.’ ‘You are right’ smiles Sona, ‘But I have nothing now; I have no support in life. When I drink, that is some sahara (solace).’

Twists and turns

After Tenzing’s success on Everest an exuberant Nehru started the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute to create 1000 more Tenzings. Scores of youngsters fired with enthusiasm came to train but, after living in seclusion for decades, Nepal finally threw open its doors to foreigners and the wave of expeditions and jobs slowly and inexorably flowed back to where it all began, back to Solu Khumbu. The wise Sherpas who invested in their children’s education are the ones who weathered the storm, but many others floundered.

(L to R) - Da Namgyal, Harish Kapadia, Gyalzen Mikchen, Ang Temba and Dorjee Lhatoo at Chowrasta, Darjeeling. (Harish Kapadia)

(L to R) - Da Namgyal, Harish Kapadia, Gyalzen Mikchen, Ang Temba and Dorjee Lhatoo at Chowrasta, Darjeeling. (Harish Kapadia).

Harish Kapadia, a household name among trekkers and Sherpas alike, shares a story from around 1970 about the gentle Tiger, Da Namgyal. Shy but extraordinarily strong; he was one of only three Sherpas to press upwards of South Col on Everest in 1953. Walking with Lhatoo in Darjeeling bazaar, Kapadia saw Da Namgyal and Gyalzen Mikchen, another celebrated Sherpa, selling woollen sweaters at a roadside stall. ‘I asked what they made per month. They mentioned 200-300 rupees. As Class 4 employees of the Bengal government they got no pension.’ Kapadia published a picture of all three Sherpas in the Himalayan Journal and a couple of British magazines. ‘It caused a furore. My caption under the photo read: “Two sweater sellers and one future sweater seller of Darjeeling”.’

It’s growing late and our days in Darjeeling are coming to a close, for this trip at least. But there is always time for another story and this time it is about the women, at last.

A Sherpa wife pining for her husband and unable to put up any longer with the fear and worry when he was away, sent word to him at base camp that she was ill and needed hospitalisation. The husband immediately resigned his job and set off for home in double quick time making the journey of five days in two. Panting for breath, he threw open the door of his house to find his wife calmly cooking in the kitchen. He was livid with anger and berated her for the fright that propelled his desperate journey home. The wife listened and then replied; ‘Now you know what I go through every time you leave’. Her husband never said a word of reproach to her again.

The magnificent men. Standing (l to r): Da Thondup, Da Thendup, Da Namgyal, Tenzing Norgay, Ang Nyima, unidentified, Pasang Dawa. Sitting (l to r): unidentified, Nawang Topgay, Ang Temba. (courtesy Nawang Topgay collection)

The magnificent men. Standing (l to r): Da Thondup, Da Thendup, Da Namgyal, Tenzing Norgay, Ang Nyima, unidentified, Pasang Dawa. Sitting (l to r): unidentified, Nawang Topgay, Ang Temba. (courtesy Nawang Topgay collection)

Climbing mountains is an uncertain business and Sherpa women are equal partners with their men when it comes to earning a living and keeping the family going. Indeed many of them were load carriers themselves, carrying the coin boxes filled with porter’s wages up to base camp. Ang Tharkay’s wife was a road contractor and many others started independent businesses and small shops. In social situations we hear the banter and even mild flirtation between the sexes and see the confidence with which Sherpa women move about.

There is so much that we have begun to learn: of the rituals and superstitions, family intrigues and alcoholism; ambitions and disappointments and there are questions that remain scrawled in the margins of our note books: Where are the papers of the Sherpa Association started by Tenzing? Can the Sherpas of today consider jobs in HMI their birth right when none of them want their sons to take up mountaineering? How did world acclaim and recognition impact the Sherpa’s role in the growth of Indian mountaineering? And, what is the future of the community made famous by its climbing prowess?

In Darjeeling, the Sherpas are ordinary human beings with the same pre-occupations and individual strengths and weaknesses that make them, well, ordinary, just like the rest of us. But on the mountains, they are the magnificent men, there at the right time and with the right skills and attitudes that mark them as special from everyone else.

The Sherpa Project

Nandini and Deepa have been recording interviews and collecting stories of the climbing Sherpas of Darjeeling in order to put together a book on this unique community. The material is also being archived and digitally eternalized to preserve the information for Sherpas today and for future generations. Readers are invited to contribute any information or photographs they may have on the topic and may write to


  1. To give a perspective of the salaries and compensation, in 1931, a Sherpa was paid one quarter of a rupee a day, plus five rupees per joint lost by frostbite.

⇑ Top