This past mountaineering (spring) season was a full one for Nepali climbers on Mount Everest. Besides the usual dozens making it to the top as high altitude guides and the porters, there were the few climbs that was noteworthy.
Appa Sherpa made his 11th ascent; Babu Chhiri Sherpa accomplised a speed climb of 16 hours 56 minutes from Base Camp (5400m) to the 8848m summit; Lakpa Sherpa became the second Nepali woman to make it to the top (and also the first to come back alive); and Pemba Dolma Sherpa became the third Nepali woman to climb the Everest but the first to do so from the Northern Tibetan side. Ram Krishna Shrestha became the second Everest Summiteer from the Newar community (yes there are a few non- sherpa Nepalis who have taken the climbing). Then there was 15 -years- old Temba Chhiri Sherpa who missed submitting by a bare 22 meters (and managed a record height by anyone so young).
As has become a norm, these individual achievements were a matter of such celebration in Nepal, where the media has finally become aware of the mountains as not only the locus of Western Climbers. The Nepali mountaineers were feted by all and sundry —political parties, youth groups, cultural organisations.
For sure, Nepali (to be more exact, Sherpa) climbers have come a long way since British mountaineer Alexander Kellas ´discovered´ the Sherpa climber in first decade of the 20th century. The early British expedition employed expatriates from Nepal´s Sherpa country living in Darjeeling — Tenzing Norgay being the most notable among them. Thereafter, Sherpas evolved as the integral of Himalaya Climbing– typecast in the role of support staff helping carry loads and setting up high camps– so much so that ´ Sherpa´ entered the English lexicon as meaning someone who goes ahead to prepare the ground for the meeting or summit.
Eight decades and countless expeditions since it took to the mountain massif, the now famous mountaineering community has created a reliable econimic niche for itself by supporting Himalaya expeditions, not only within Nepal. The last few years, however, has seen a shift in the way Sherpa climbers have begun to percieve mountain climbing. The tradition has been for Sherpas from villages such as Namche, Khumjung, and Thame to work their way up from porters to high altitude porters, then sirdars (basically, head porter) and finally climbing team member, before retiring into anonymity to tend yaks or grow potatoes. This is how it still largerly is even today, as exemplified by the world renowned ” Snow Leopard”, Ang Rita Sherpa, spending his retirement thus in his home village in Thamo.
The newest generation of Sherpa mountaineers, however, is not content with helping the sahib get to the top and basking in the reflected glory. These younger climbers have begun to capatalise on their own achievements. The benefits are obvious and financial gain is but one consideration. More important it seems, is the desire to leave their mark on the record books by attempting what can only be called ´extraordinary´ climbs. Thus we have seen Lobsang Jangbu sporting a karate gi on the summit; Kazy attiring himself in the Nepali national dress complete with topi; and Babu Chhiri daring the medical theorists by spending 21 hours on the top and so on.
There was a time when multiple ascents of Everest was enough to ensure a name in climbing circles. Three- timer Pertemba Sherpa and late Sungdare Sherpa, the first with five climbs and immortalised in postage stamp stand as examples. But with such records being a dime a dozen among Sherpas since the 1990s, imaginative ways had to be found to attract notice, hence the stunts. This does not mean that importance is no longer attached to multiple climbs. On the contrary, the most famous climbers in Nepal at the moment are Appa, Ang Rita (the first to manage 10 times) and Babu Chhiri (with 10 ascents, apart from his other accomplishments).
Amidst all the chest-thumping of this spring´s climbing season, what went quite unnoticed was that the climbs by Pemba Doma and Ram Krishna represented a different and welcome dimension to Nepali mountaineering. Neither of them had taken to climbing for a livelihood, and there was no pre-departure grandstanding when the two left for base camp. News of their success came as a bonus to a Nepali public that was being given a blow-by-blow account of what was happening up on Everest by a couple of Nepali reporters and a photographer who were at Base Camp at the invitation of one of the better-publicised expeditions.
Nepalis seem to have finally discovered their mountains. But it is yet a far cry from the amateur, ´because-it-is-there´ spirit of climbing pioneered by the British. Mountain conquests that receive a high profile in Nepal are limited to Everest: it is as if climbing other peaks are of no consequence. More challenging ascents go unremarked. Take the case of Ang Rita, a household name in Nepal. Hardly anyone is aware that apart from his 10 successes on Everest, he has 14 other 8000-metre ascents to his credit.
It is not too difficult to understand why this is so. As a British sociologist who has done work among the Sherpas says, for them climbing Everest is the equivalent of striking gold. But it is also true that despite their proud assertion of Nepal being the “land of the Himalaya”, Nepalis, on the whole, are hopelessly ignorant about the abode of the gods. Hardly anyone would be able to even name the different himals (ranges), let alone the individual peaks they have seen all their lives. On the other hand, Everest (or Sagarmatha, as it is formally known in Nepal— Chomolongma is the Sherpa/Tibetan name) is a source of great pride to Nepalis. No wonder the climbing heroes of Nepal are all connected with Everest.
The Guinness book
Nepali climbing will not come of age before the climbers realise there is more to mountaineering than the somewhat crass aspects of setting records on Everest and striving for mention in the Guinness Book of World Records. After all, the adulation over their achievements is coming from a Nepali public generally ignorant about mountaineering. These climbers are probably already aware that despite all the hullabaloo they manage to rake up at home they are not accorded much respect in the international climbing fraternity, which considers most of the Sherpa climbers who have ´graduated´ from support staff as serious plodders rather than experts at technical climbing.
Things will only begin to change when Nepali climbers begin tackling unclimbed summits and faces of which there are hundreds in their country, or trying out new routes to well-worn summits. Even if it has to be Everest, they could shun the ´yak route´ of up the Southeast ridge and try the more challenging routes, including the Southwest face or the West Ridge. In short, it is time Nepali climbers also took up mountaineering in the true spirit of the amateur.
The inevitable question would be: will Nepalis be able to afford the high cost of mountain-climbing? Will domestic corporate sponsorship be forthcoming the way it apparently does for Nepali Everest expeditions? For sponsors to come forward, the public will first have to become more aware of mountains and mountaineering. This will take years, but a start has to be made.
There is, however, also another way to enhance mountaineering as a truly national sport. Since Nepalis will continue to climb no matter what, they might as well train to become accomplished mountaineers and sell their skills for much more than the pittance they earn today. Rather than stand by while foreign mountain guides earn big bucks up the Nepali mountains, the Sherpas and other Nepalis could also evolve from serving as load-carrying plodders to being good climbers and true mountaineering guides. For that to happen, Nepali climbers will have to become highly specialised, technically proficient climbers. It may come as a surprise that in nearly a century of Himalayan climbing, there has not been a single Nepali certified by the UIAGM (Union Internationale des Association de Guide de Montagne), the world body of mountain guides whose imprimatur places everyone at the same level, whether you are Swiss, Canadian, Chilean or Japanese.
Admittedly, UIAGM certification is not easy. It can take up to three years and involves considerable expense. As things stand, the possibility of those already in the profession going for it is remote, not least because proficiency in a useful foreign language is of utmost importance to serve as an international standard guide. Which is why the present lot of climbers, whatever their personal best, cannot take full advantage of the potential represented by their skills.
Fortunately, the education level of the new generation of Nepali climbers is rising, and this gives hope that before long there will be many pukka Nepali mountain guides who will then show the way to others. Given the varied opportunities Nepal´s mountains have to offer, there will be no shortage of work. But until that happens, it is the foreign guides who will lead from the front (and make most of the money), and Nepalis will continue to plod behind with their loads.