As Gurungs, Tamangs, Magars, Rais and Limbus become active in Himalayan mountaineering, they will, in a manner of speaking, be going back to their roots. For as Gurkhas, the non-Sherpa hill people of Nepal have also been active mountaineers since the time they helped British empire chart and control the Himalayan region. As geographer Harka Gurung writes, it was in the 1880s that soldiers- of the 1/5th Gurkha Rifles were trained as mountaineers while serving in the North-West Frontier of India. These riflemen, according to Gurung, “became pioneers among Nepalese climbers.” (see “Gurkhas and Mountaineering” in NMA’s 1985 Nepal Himal and Himal Jul/Aug 1991).
The Gurkhas were first engaged in mountain exploration in 1889. when they traversed several till-then unknown glaciers in the Karakoram, The most interesting early Gurkha exploits were by Amar Singh Thapa and Karbir Burathoki, who together with some alpine guides “crossed 39 passes and climbed 21 peaks in 86 days of Alpine traverse”. A.F. Mummery’s 1895 attempt on Nanga Parbat (8125m) included two Gurkhas. The three never returned, and were believed to have been perished in an avalanche.
Gurkhas were also members of the successive expeditions on Chomolongma between 1921 and 1938. In 1922, Naik Tejbir Buda of the 3rd Gurkhas- spent two nights at 7772m on the mountain. In 1927, he received an Olympic medal from the President of France for his high altitude resilience.
All this was the distant past. These “amateur diversions” ended for the Gurkhas, writes Gurung, “with the passing of the gentleman alpinists they emulated.” As for the fume, mountaineering and trekking hold out the possibility of absorbing at least some of the surplus labour released by the planned phaseout of the British Gurkhas and reduced recruitments into the Indian Gorkha regiments.
While the non-Sherpa hill people of Nepal have concentrated in providing “lowland porter” support to mountaineering expeditions, some of their bretheren in the armed forces have been actively engaged in mountain climbing. The British Army, for example, has been training Gurkhas in the Alps for decades, and Gorkhas of the Indian Army serve in high altitude outposts, including the killing snow-fields of the Siachen Glacier.
In a unique mix of two of the motifs which define Nepal for many — the Gurkhas and the Himalaya — one trekking agency recently put out an advertisement inviting climbers to “Explore the highest snow mountain with the brave Gurkhas of Nepal”— using Gurkhas rather than Sherpas to sell mountaineering services. There seemed to be a bit of overkill, though. For when Himal called the agency, the voice at the other end was apologetic: yes, they had one Gurkha with them.