A press conference was held earlier this year in Kathmandu to publi¬cise the success of the national team from North Ossetia, Russia, on Everest. The obvious pride the Ossetians felt about their feat was only understandable. Equally un-derstandable was the matter-of-factness with which the invited Nepali press-persons regarded the whole affair.
After all, Everest is in Nepal and suc-cessful ascents are only too routine. What was of interest during the press meet, however, was that the excitable Russians did not even refer to the fact that one of their expedition members had achieved a ninth scal¬ing of the mountain. Celebrated mountain¬eer Ang Rita Sherpa was part of the team, and it was only after pointed questions from the reporters that the Ossetians expressed their ´happiness´ at being associated with Ang Rita´s record-setting climb.
This episode is a good illustration of how notable achievements of Nepali (read Sherpa) climbers receive no attention from foreigners and, by extension, the foreign press. Another incident this year highlights this fact. When Allison Hargreaves, the Brit¬ish alpinist, was lost on K2, it made news world-wide but the same cannot be said of Pasang Lhamu Sherpa´s disappearance during her descent from the Everest summit in 1993. Of course, a basic difference existed in that Hargreaves was pretty well-known in mountaineering circles while Pasang Lhamu was hardly a climber. But one can easily assume that their respective climbing resumes were not the only factor that affected the column inches they deserved when they died.
Sherpas have always been given short shrift in terms of media exposure. Expedition stories that appear in foreign newspa¬pers and periodicals usually list them as two, three, or four Sherpas, as the case may be, who were there, relegating them to exotic anonymity. That is one reason why most people interested in climbing worldwide know that New Zealander Rob has climbed Everest four times, but cannot say who the dozen or so Sherpas that have made it to the top five times or more are.
There are many reasons for the casualness with which Sherpas are treated by the foreign media. On the lighter side, it can be said that keeping track of Sherpa names is a near-impossible task for Western writers. When a Sherpa is not a Dorje Lhakpa, he is a Lhakpa Dorje. Moreover, the Sherpa custom of naming children after the days of the week leads to too many Pasang Sherpas, Pemba Sherpas, and Phurba Sherpas.
Looked at another way, climbers become heroes or heroines in their own countries because of the natural pride their compatriots take in their achievement. What if there were some Sherpas climbing with them? Aren´t they always there? Let their country take glory in them while we fete our countrymen, is the attitude that exists, even if not fully articulated. Cross-border admiration for mountaineers hardly exists except for someone like Reinhold Messner. Even Jerzy Kukuckzkd, who raced Messner to be the first atop all 14 eight-thousanders, is practically unknown among non-climbers. Frenchman Marc Batard may have made it to the Guinness Book by his 22.5-hour as-cent of Everest, but how many ordinary Germans have heard of him?
Sherpa and Sahib
The perfunctoriness with which the world at large views Sherpas is also understand-able when looked at in the perspective of mountaineering history. Ever since the Brit¬ish first found, towards the end of the last century, in the Darjeeling Sherpas the physi¬cal stamina to match their sporting zeal, Sherpas have become an integral part of expeditions. For Sherpas, climbing was, and still is in most cases, a wage-paying occupation. Reaching the top was not on their agenda. While it is true that some like Tenzing Norgay become full-fledged expe¬dition members (that too only on the last three of his many attempts on Everest), it takes a lot of hard work and experience to attain that position.
The status of Sherpas in an expedition is a major factor that leads to their role being overlooked. Until the late sixties and even afterwards, each climber in an expedition had a ´personal´ Sherpa. The Sherpa and the sahib shared a relationship comparable to that of a batman and his officer in the British and Indian armies. What in essence a ´personal´ Sherpa did was make life com-fortable for the sahib, in many cases all the way to the top. And, when it came to fame, it is only too easy to guess who got it. A prime example of this Sherpa-sahib bond canbeseen in Maurice Herzog´s Annapurna, in which Herzog consistently refers to Ang Tharkay Sherpa as ´my Sherpa´.
With time, a change has come about in the Sherpa´s role vis-a-vis the expeditions they join. Earlier, although Nepali government regulations called them mountain guides, Sherpas hardly did any guiding, high-altitude portering being more their forte. But lately, specialisation on the biggest draw still—Everest—has become a common phenomenon among Sherpa climbers whose skills as climbers are being sought by groups from countries which have not yet developed a pool of experienced climbers.
A case in point is Lhakpa Nuru Sherpa, In May of this year, he reached the Everest summit via the till-then-unclimbed Northeast Ridge with a Japanese group. This was his sixth success on Everest, having climbed the peak twice in 1992, twice again the fol¬lowing year, and once in 1994. However, Lhakpa Nuru could not boast of having any other 8,000er summit under his belt. It was probably because of his prowess as a climber that a Korean team attempting the same northeast route commissioned him to guide them in late summer 1995. Unfortunately, Lhakpa Nuru was killed by an avalanche on the mountain on 10 September.
Everyone knows who made the first successful ascent of the Southwest Face of Everest but ask a mountaineer who first climbed Everest by the Northeast Ridge, and more likely than not he or she will say the Japanese, period. Both Lhakpa Nuru´s pioneering climb and his death went unnoticed. Sherpas have moved from portering to climbing, but their feats still do not make the news.
There is, of course, a new breed of Sherpa climbers who are beginning to climb for fun too. Had they had the financial backing, records of many kinds would doubtless have been established by now. However, reduced to climbing as part of the team to which they are attached, these Sherpas have had to keep their ambitions under wraps.
Media-savvy Sherpa climbers who know the value of trumpeting their achievements is another new development. Foremost among them is Kaji Sherpa, who tried, and failed, to break Batard´s Everest speed climb record last year. His attempt was preceded by much fanfare in the Nepali press and his daura-suruwal-on-Everest stunt this year received wide coverage, including an appearance on Nepal TV.
There may be some who decry such methods of personal aggrandisement, but then aren´t these Sherpas just late in a game that the sahibs have played all along?