Climbing Sherpas of Darjeeling

Today the word ‘Sherpa’ is synonymous with mountain climbing; but while people know of them as high-altitude porters and climbers, very few have heard the stories of these hard working, irrepressible people, who made a living out of carrying loads up the most dangerous mountains on earth.

The Sherpa project was initiated in 2012 to record the lives of Sherpa climbers and their families in Darjeeling beginning from the earliest days of exploration and expeditions in the Himalaya.

After several long stays in the community and over 100 interviews, the lives and times of this remarkable community are slowly being pieced together. It has taken time for trust to be established and interviews to pass beyond the stage of platitudes but we have now been privileged to hear family stories of migration, deprivation and tragedy; of achievements, victories and happiness. We have discovered a long-forgotten and arguably the last surviving Tiger medallist in Darjeeling, Sona Sherpa and we have also witnessed the deaths of people who invited us into their homes and became friends: Topgay Sherpa, nephew of Tenzing Norgay, Tiger medallist and instructor at both the HMI and NIM; Ani Lakhpa Diki, the 102-year-old widow of an early climber and a load carrier herself and Tenzing Tharkay, the younger son of the illustrious Ang Tharkay. To all these and so many others we pay homage and renew our commitment to convey their stories as honestly and clearly as possible.

The HC - Sherpa Connection

The Himalayan Club, established in 1928, began by helping expeditions in terms of information and arranging porters. The Himalayan Club and the Sherpas of Darjeeling thus have a relationship that has spanned decades. When the Sherpas first started migrating from Nepal in search of work, it was the Himalayan Club in Darjeeling that gave them official standing, regularized pay scales, and overall improved their professional lives. The Sherpas were issued with personal books, to enter their records by which they were graded. As the name ‘Tiger’ was a title that had been constantly used since the Everest expedition of 1924, it was decided that the superior grade of these people should be known as Tigers and that they would be awarded a bronze medal in form of a tiger’s head. So, the first Tiger medals were awarded on 30 May 1939 to those picked ones, who had gone high and had qualified for the grade.

It can be said that way before Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Everest in 1953, the Sherpas were the most sought after support staff to the pioneering expeditions of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. The Himalayan Club played an important role during this period to assist this community.

It is with this relationship as a backdrop that the Himalayan Club is the institutional sponsor of the Sherpa project. We plan to draw and emphasize this connection in our research and finally in our book.

The research duo comprising Ms. Nandini Purandare, Honorary Secretary, Himalayan Club; Associate Editor, Himalayan Journal; researcher and writer and Ms. Deepa Balsavar, writer and illustrator, is now in the process of putting together draft chapters. A few more trips to round off the interviews and collect archival material will take place this year. Apart from audio recordings, most interviews have also been videotaped and old photographs are being documented and scanned.

We 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.

Update on the Sherpa Project:     (As off 05-Aug-2016)

This is a brief update on the progress of the project to collect the oral histories of the climbing Sherpas of Darjeeling and the status of the book based on the research and interviews.

Including the first trip to Darjeeling in April 2012, the Project Sherpa team has now made several trips to Darjeeling (six extended visits) and trips to Gangtok, Nagpur, New Delhi, Bangalore and Dehradun. We have conducted to date, 116 in-depth interviews in all these places (and Mumbai) with Sherpas, their families and other climbers. The slow and tedious process of transcribing those interviews is almost at an end and we are now at the stage where we can start telling the stories.

Simultaneous research from books, periodicals, archives, and the World Wide Web continues apace and has generated a mountain of invaluable material. Work on the outline and initial chapters of the book has begun.

In another development, we have entered into a mutually beneficial understanding with the University of Toronto, Scarborough. They have undertaken to digitize and eternalize the full set of audio interviews and video recordings. The agreement between the Project and the University acknowledges full copyright of the Project over the material and our control over access to the material. For the University, our collection extends their Himalayan studies section and will be available with limited access to researchers and scholars once our book is published and with written consent from those interviewed.

The Project has now also felt confident talking about the work and in the past year we have been invited to make presentations at the Mussoorie Writers’ Mountain festival, The Himalayan Club and The Kala Ghoda Festival of Art and Culture. Early next year, we will be talking at a programme hosted by the India International Centre in New Delhi.

It is fitting here to acknowledge groups and individuals without whom none of our work would have been possible. The Himalayan Club has been providing a sanctuary to work in and institutional support. The travel agency, Cox and Kings supported all our travel for a period of three years and various individual donations have enabled the members to continue working on a frugal budget.

What we hope to achieve by year-end 2016: Our commitment to completing the project with the dedication and love it deserves is still our primary goal. Over the years, many Sherpas from Darjeeling and climbers elsewhere have honoured us with time and memories and we feel the acute responsibility of conveying these memories in the best way possible.

We hope for more active support from you. We look forward to your reactions and inputs particularly with regards to the modest finances we now require to complete the project. Essentially, this includes raising finances for the photographer’s visit to supplement our photographs as well as some further field research. A visual record of all the climbing Sherpa families is vital to our documentation. We can talk more on what this would involve at a later date.

We look forward to your response and trust that we will continue to receive your support.

Nandini and Deepa