A Project on the Climbing Sherpas of Darjeeling

Today the word ‘Sherpa’ is synonymous with mountain climbing. It is generally understood that Sherpas come from Nepal and live in the Everest region. Less well known is the fact that from the late 19th century Sherpas started traversing the passes from Nepal to Darjeeling in India in search of work. The first half of the 20th century was the time of early exploration and first ascents in the Himalaya. From coolies and litter bearers to high altitude porters and finally climbers in their own right, the story of these hard working, irrepressible and dogged men, carrying loads up the most dangerous mountains on earth, is unique.

Unlike Western climbers, the early Sherpas climbed mountains for a living. They did not know how to read or write so they kept no records or dairies; they wrote no books. There are no accounts of their thoughts or feelings as they battled one of the most inhospitable landscapes on earth. Often all that was left to tell of their valour were the pass books issued by the Himalayan Club to record their climbs. In many cases these too have been lost.

Their stories can only be pieced together from the recollections of family and community members; from the few fading photographs; from the mentions in books and the carefully preserved clutch of medals from all around the world.

And while the story of the men needs to be told, no less heroic was the role played by the women of their community in Darjeeling. With most of the men away for most of the year, it fell upon the women to earn a living, raise the children and care for those who returned injured or incapacitated from the mountains. Those stories need to be told too.

With the opening of the Nepal borders in 1949, the focus for climbing and trekking in the eastern Himalaya slowly shifted from Darjeeling to Kathmandu, and many Sherpas moved on too. The community of Darjeeling Sherpas today is dwindling. Only a handful of climbers remain and with the disappearance of the climbing Sherpas ends a vital link to that early age of Himalayan mountaineering.

A project has been initiated to record the oral history and collate recorded documents on the community of Sherpa climbers and their families in Darjeeling during the decades of early exploration and expeditions in the Himalaya.
An initial trip was made by the project team in April and a second month-long study is arranged for the month of October 2012. The team of three researchers will be making audio and video recordings as well doing photo documentation both in and around Darjeeling as well as the villages of origin in the Solu Khumbu region of Everest. Apart from families and community members, the project involves interviews with associates, friends and organizations in India and abroad linked to the Sherpa climbers and collecting documents pertaining to the Sherpa climbing community during this period.

The project has the support and backing of the Himalayan Club without financial implications. The project also has an illustrious advisory board consisting of Mr. Harish Kapadia, distinguished mountaineer and explorer; Mr. Doug Scott, distinguished climber and writer and Dr. Monisha Ahmed, eminent researcher and writer.

The research team comprises of Ms. Nandini Purandare, Honorary Secretary, Himalayan Club; Associate Editor, Himalayan Journal; researcher and writer, Ms. Meher Marfatia, author, editor and publisher and Ms. Deepa Balsavar, author, illustrator and photographer.

The team would be grateful for any information, photographs and records pertaining to the Climbing Sherpas of Darjeeling and also for financial contributions to help defray costs of the project. Please do contact us at [ projectsherpa2012@gmail.com ] for further details and a full project proposal.