The celebrated death of a Sherpa woman climber on Chomolongma seems to have served the purpose of politicians and journalists far removed from mountaineering.
On 10 May 1993, 18 days after she had disappeared on Chomolongma, the body of Pasang Lhamu Sherpa was found near the South Summit. She had perished while on descent, along with her companion Sonam Tshering Sherpa.
There was public outpouring of grief, most notably in Kathmandu, for the first Nepali and Sherpa woman on top of Chomolongma. In the face of growing criticism of the neglect of native Himalayan climbers (see Nov/Dec 1992 Himal, Mountaineering issue), the commemoration of Pasang Lhamu’s achievement was significant. At the same time, however, it seemed that Kathmandu went overboard.
Tragic as her death was, there is general consensus among Nepali climbers that Pasang Lhamu was not a good climber. This was her fourth attempt on Chomolongma and the tenacity of purpose which eventually got her to top was to be admired. But as a climber, Pasang Lhamu’s achievement was relatively modest. She was the seventeenth woman to climb Chomolongma, using the traditional South Col route.
Overkill of mountaineering achievement is not a particularly Nepali failing. It is an international pastime of the mainstream media everywhere, which the mountaineering journals keep a stiff-upper lip about. When Rebecca Lucy Stephens became the first British woman atop Chomolongma (a couple of slots after Pasang Lhamu), the hype which greeted her return to England bordered on the ridiculous. Only a little less grandiose was the glorification heaped on the Indian Women’s Expedition on Chomolongma by the Indian press, even though the ladies seemed to have been helped to the top by a male “technical advisor”. In this connection, the reported comments of Indian alpinist Sharavati Prabhu is worth considering. (See “Himalaya Mediafile”, page38).
But if the British and Indian achievements were merely momentarily overplayed, Pasang Lhamu’s death was a cause celebre that preoccupied Nepal´s national consciousness for more than a month, and in fact was not eclipsed even by the subsequent deaths of Leftist leaders Madan Bhandari and Jeev Raj Ashrit.
Why did Pasang Lhamu’s case get extraordinary play, against the background of Sherpa deaths generally being treated as footnotes even by the Kathmandu press? A string of sociological factors seem to be involved, and this writer concludes that it has had to do with, among other things: Pasang Lhamu’s high, public profile prior to the climb; the vernacular media´s limited understanding of what makes mountaineering achievement; the need of the political establishment to nurture a national Nepali icon at a time when nationalism is at a low ebb; and both the Nepali Congress and Left opportunistically seeking political mileage by displaying sensitivity to a janajati, hill ethnic, subject.
The extended and exhaustive coverage of Pasang Lhamu’s death and her funeral at Swayambhu could also be read as indication that the Sherpa community has become economically significant and politically strong enough to exact such recognition in the nation’s capital. To the extent, therefore, that an “ethnic” subject was getting wide play nationally, there was some good to come out of the tragedy.
By and large, Sherpa heroes have been inarticulate climbers who climb as a job. They have been content to let the Western climbers hog the publicity and the glamour of climbing. Past efforts by Nepali bureaucrats to peddle native climbers as personalities worthy of world media attention, such as in the case of the late lamented Sungdare Sherpa, have generally failed.
Pasang Lhamu represented a breed of “modern Sherpa” who had the ability to seek sponsorship (from San Miguel Beer/Nepal for her last two attempts), conduct media briefings, make appointments with Kathmandu dignitaries, and go public with news and controversy that would catch the public’s fancy. She was probably the first Sherpa to use the press in the way that many Western climbers have long done, some of them with the help of media consultants.
By the time she had gained the summit, therefore, the Nepali press and television were closely following Pasang Lhamu’s moves. And when she died on Chomolongma´s cold upperreacb.es, and when her body could not be located for days afterwards, the heroics and the pathos were readymade for the press. Forever having had to write about Western climbers on Himalayan mountains, a newly reportage-oriented vernacular media of Nepal played the Pasang Lhamu story to the hilt.
Originally, Pasang Lhamu had planned to climb with the Indian Women’s Expedition as the Assistant Leader, but when that post was not given to her, she decided to form her own expedition — the Nepali Women’s San Miguel Everest Expedition. There were two other women in her team, Lhakpa Phuti Sherpa and Nanda Rai, and several Sherpa men. As her’s was an all-Nepali team, she petitioned the Minister for Tourism and Civil Aviation for a rebate on the climbing royalty, which currently stands at U$ 10,000, but when only a 10 percent discount was offered, she decided to pay in full.
Her husband, trekking executive Lhakpa Sonam Sherpa, who accompanied Pasang Lhamu to Camp III (7300m), says the learn was not even allowed to take a walkie talkie set, because such sets are “controlled items” in Nepal. He says that the lack of such a set later hindered the rescue attempts.
First on Top
According to an interview given by Lhakpa Phuti to Rajdhani, a Kathmandu weekly, the original assault plan called for the women to try the summit together. But Lhakpa Phuti says Pasang Lhamu told her at Camp III (7300m) that she was in competition with the Indian Women’s Expedition, which included a possible Nepali summitteer, Nimmi Sherpa. Hence, Pasang Lhamu would push for the summit on 22 April with the help of five male Sherpas, while Lhakpa Phuti could make her try on 26 April. It seems that Pasang Lhamu was determined to reach the top at any cost, and as the only woman on the team. This was her fourth time on Chomolongma, and the need to succeed this last time could have played a role in the later tragedy.
On 22 April, Pasang Lhamu did succeed in reaching the summit of Chomolongma, along with Pemba Norbu Sherpa and Sonarn Tshering Sherpa. Three other men of the expedition also reached the top separately that day. As they began then-descent, it is said to have taken Pasang Lhamu and her two friends five hours to make the South Summit, whereas for climbers in good form, that is a passage of about an hour. Since the team had left their night lamps at a cache lower down, they could not continue.
As night fell, Pasang Lhamu and her two partners were forced to bivouac on the South Summit The next day, Pemba Norbu descended to Camp II to get oxygen supplies for Pasang. But the weather deteriorated and he couldn´t make it back to the bivouac. Over the next few days, in worsening weather conditions, there were repeated attempts to reach the two stranded Sherpas, but to no avail. Finally, on 26 April, Lhakpa Sonam Sherpa returned to Kathmandu, giving up all hope of finding his spouse alive.
The rest of the summitteers, meanwhile, went back to Base Camp to recuperate. A Russian team approached them and offered to bring down the bodies partway if they were allowed to use the route prepared by the Sherpas. With approval of the Tourism Ministry in Kathmandu, the Russians found the body of Pasang Lhamu and brought it down to 8,000m. From there, a Southwest Face Korean expedition provided members and Sherpas to carry the body to Base Camp.
Never before had a body of a climber been evacuated from that high on Chomolongma (8750m). That the climber´s body was brought back to the capital for national mourning and funeral rites at Swayambhu attended by thousands of Kathmandu citizens marked another first.
After this episode, other expeditions too are said to be feeling the pressure to bring down bodies of dead members which earlier would have been left at site. The body of Tenzing Norgay’s nephew Lobsang Sherpa, who died subsequent to Pasang Lhamu on Chomolongma, has similarly been retrieved from 8,200m, and a Korean who died below the South Col was returned to Base Camp and cremated. A precedent of Himalayan mountaineering seems to have been set.
The Pasang Lhamu case has also highlighted the issue of whether Nepalis should be made to pay royalty for climbing their own mountains. Although the Kathmandu press made too much of the fact that the Tourism Ministry had refused to waive the royalty required on Chomolongma (it was, after all, a sponsored expedition), the issue is bound to come up in future as truly amateur attempts are made by Nepali climbers.
A suggestion to the Tourism Ministry Mountaineering Section as it starts thinking about making policy would be that Nepali expeditions, as long as they are fully funded by indigenous money (itis impossible to mount full-sized expeditions without sponsorship), be waived royalty. However, Nepali climbers too must stand in line with foreign expeditions, and the first-come-first served rule must continue to apply. Foreign funders and “technical advisors” should not sneak into such “Nepali expeditions” for a quick hitch to the top.
If the newspapermen and women of Nepal look back over their coverage of the Pasang Lhamu “event”, they will find that their concentration was on a rousing nationalistic story rather than on a mountaineering drama. For all the hundreds of column inches devoted to Pasang Lhamu, there w as no article which adequately presented historical, technical and psychological aspects of mountaineering.
And no one reported on Pasang Lhamu’s climbing abilities. A Nepali mountain guide who was with Pasang Lhamu on her 1991 attempt recalls that she “used to walk five minutes and rest for fifteen minutes” while up on Chomolongma. He says she had neither the technical skills nor the stamina for mountaineering. It is also stated that Pasang Lhamu was not good at going downhill on crampons. The row between Pasang Lhamu and French soloist Marc Batard in 1990 was said to have to do with the latter’s belief that Pasang Lhamu was too slow and engaged too many Sherpas to help her along, which was why he refused to allow her to go beyond the South Col. Back in Kathmandu, Pasang Lhamu went public accusing Batard for discrimination against a woman and a native climber.
In many ways, the posthumous popularity of Pasang Lhamu harks back to the feeding frenzy that accompanied the first ascent of Chomolongma by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary in 1953. As Tenzing (then thought to be a Sherpa — he turned out to be from north of the border) arrived in Kathmandu Valley after a long trek from the Khumbu, he was swept off his feet, awarded the Nepal Tara medal, and hailed as a true Nepali hero, right up there on the pedestal with Amar Singh Thapa and Arniko the architect. But the moment Tenzing “defected” to India to join the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, he was dropped like a pariah.
The Nepali establishment had gone overboard with Tenzing, and felt let down by him. The song “Hamro Tenzing Sherpalay chadyo himal chuchura” (Our Tenzing Sherpa has made it to the summit) quickly fell into disuse on Radio Nepal airwaves.
Pasang Lhamu also received a posthumous Nepal Tara. Her spirited sieges on Chomolongma have served to make the Nepali population generally more aware of mountaineering in the high himals. A sport that is so important to the national economy and which is the defining factor in the livelihood of the Sherpa community, has now received some recognition nationally as a result of her tragic effort.
It was probably because of the publicity generated by Pasang Lhamu that Nepal Television was present at Kathmandu´s airport when Ang Rita Sherpa arrived from the Khumbu, having climbed Chomolongma for the eighth time. Certainly, something worthy of national celebration and recognition.
Risal is ,Himal’s Know Your Himal columnist.