Summits are lonely places

Stories abound about Sungdare Sherpa. Funny stories mostly, always to do with a man in inebriety. Amusing when he was alive, they aren't now . The five-time conqueror of Everest died on October 16 by falling – or hurling himself – in the river below his village Pangboche. The stories don't amuse now because Sungdare, from all accounts, died a distressed man. Whether distress caused his drinking, or drinking caused it, is uncertain.

Sherpas, and others who recounted the tales, derived vicarious pleasure from Sungdare's doings. He was Sungdare, five-time Everest summiter, the last two climbs with most of his toes missing. Few shared his glory; few deserved it more: the feats of a new generation of Sherpas such as Sungdare, Pertemba, and Ang Rita have dispelled all notions that Sherpas are only good high-altitude porters.

Having been up the world's highest point for more than his share, Sungdare could get away with some things. Introduced to a minister at the reception after the 1988 trinational expedition, Sungdare is alleged to have said, "So? Anybody can be a minister these days."

In Namche once, a drunken Sungdare admonished the game warden: "Don't you steal flowers – this is a national park." When a gleeful Sungdare was returning from his fifth summit, to an older Sherpa's entreaties to remain sober and not spoil things, he responded: "Oui, Oui. Oui, Oui."

There are other stories. And yet, Sungdare couldn't tell his own story. A writer who spoke to Sungdare after his third summit was, struck by the un-"storylike" account of his Life and climbs. Sungdare spoke about starting as a mail-carrier for an expedition. He'd be dispatched to buy rum for the older Sherpas. He also spoke of his hope to be a sirdar, which had sounded incongruous, coming from a man who had thrice scaled Everest.

A traditional man at heart, Sungdare's life essentially stayed the same, despite the world of fame, celebrity-hood, media attention, and awards brought by his achievements. His knowledge of English was limited to words connected to climbing. On and off he was sought by cameras, reporters from out-of-town, and conferred awards as prestigious as the Trishakti Patta, but Sungdare was ill-equipped to turn these to capital. When he died, he died a poor man, despite all these bestowments.

He was always short of cash, and often "borrowed" from his loyal friend Phurbu Sonam. "It was my karma – a loan from my past life – to help Sungdare out," says Phurba. "I'd say, 'If I give you fifty or one-thousand rupees, you'll come back with an empty pocket."

"It is a great loss that he never had the education or the sophistication, for there was definitely something more to him, a sensitivity," said Robin Marston of Mountain Travel, Sungdare's onetime employer. As three-time climber Pertemba put it: "Every one sought him, but he didn't know how to talk to them."

Or as Sungdare himself, as a member of a tourism delegation to Hongkong, said about reporters: "Why do they carry on? I'm sick of answering questions about Everest."

Was his the frustration of a man from whom fame took away but from which he derived so little? Did that make him drink? Or, was "cultural drinking" to blame? As a sherpa friend said: "We Sherpas always drink – at weddings, deaths, picnics, gambling, and, of course, to keep warm. You get famous, and there's more people saying, 'Shay, Shay' with that last round."

After his third Everest ascent, which he barely survived, Sungdare spent more and more time and money drinking. But his drinking never hurt anybody. He was a good man, in the best sense of the word. And a courageous one. That night on South Col, coming down from his third ascent, Sungdare could have left behind the two foreign climbers. They had refused to listen to him and the other Sherpa. Against his better judgment, he stayed with them, and he alone survived. The decision cost him his toes.

"From then on, I knew he was a good man, a man of good heart," said Pertemba, who was the expedition Sirdar.

A good man, a man of good heart. From a fellow Sherpa and climber as respected as Pertemba, this is a tribute.

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Himal Southasian