Sherpas in Nepal
Sherpas in Nepal
Caroline Christinaz

THAME — A small man appears behind us. "Namaste," he murmurs in a quiet voice. He calls himself "Ang Tshering Sherpa," before asking, "Do you want some tea?" His house was destroyed by an earthquake last year, and was just renovated, but he still lives with his daughter next door.

At 3,820 meters, the gray sky serves as the canvas for for the lethargic flight paths of crows. A few hours walk from Namche Baazar, the traditional home village for mountain guides, Thame is maintained to perfection: well-cut thick green grass, shingled wales encircle freshly renovated houses, crystal clear creak water. Even the yaks have a certain shine.

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The village before the earthquake of April 25th, 2015 — Photo: Thame Sherpa Heritage Fund website

Many Everest climbing Sherpas come from here. Each year in March, they leave their wives and children for what they call Chomolungma, the goddess of the wind that lives on the mountain. They only return once the expedition is over, often at the beginning of the monsoon season. At stake is a salary of several thousand dollars that varies according to agency and experience. This is a considerable sum in comparison to the average Nepalese yearly salary of $730.

Situated on the road that leads to Tibet, the village made of stone seems at first to be empty. The doors are close, the paths deserted. We followed one path that leads through a potato field, but it was a dead end.

Ang Tshering is wearing red Adidas sneakers with holes on the bottom, feathers are poking out from his jacket. The walls of his house are covered with piles of knapsacks. Have these been on the mountain? "Of course," he replies in his soft voice as if that was obvious.

Tshering lists the peaks he has climbed multiple times. Some are the tallest and most beautiful ones in the region: Ama Dablam, Cho Oyu, Kanchenjunga, and Everest, of course. The man stands on shaky legs and sometimes relies on support during his bouts of dizziness. He reveals his hand without fingers. What happened? "I lost them in 1982 on Everest. If I am alive, it is thanks to the mantras that I did not stop reciting."

He speaks about his childhood in Thame before the arrival of hikers, his poor grades at school in Khunde, his preference for caring for his yaks, and his decision to join his first expedition when he did not know how to climb. "I was strong at the time," he recounts proudly. "I could climb without oxygen because I didn't like the mask, which pleased the expedition leaders."

Bad memories

Still, this lifelong career in the mountains has had some ugly chapters. Once at South Col, nicknamed, the roof of the world, he was trapped by violent winds, and waited for three days and nights alone and hungry in a tent. "I was waiting for some clients. We did not have a radio at the time. I did not know that they had already descended the mountain." He finally decided to return to base camp, but when it was time to tie his boots, the severe cold froze eight out of 10 fingers and two toes. "I was evacuated to Kathmandu. I stayed in the hospital for three months."

The agency he worked for gave him his $750 insurance, but the now 69-year-old says his salvation was the Himalayan Trust, an organization founded in 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary, who with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, was the first to climb Everest.

The cup of scalding and sugary tea that Ang Tshering filled to the brim is now empty. He had not touched a drop. He excused himself, he does not like the tea. Ang Tshering drank something else, we could tell from his breath.

In the center of the houses, a dark building serves as the grocery store. Two women, Dawa and Pema maintain it in the dark. Beside them, a grim old man is in a deep sleep.

"If you want to find the world, don't come here," says Dawa. "There are only women, children, and the aged" Her husband is currently up on Everest. She spoke to him yesterday on the telephone. "He is doing well. But me, I worry all day." Pema adds, "Fortunately we women are here. Who else would take care of the village? Who would teach the Sherpa songs and dances? Surely not the men, they are becoming Americans by being around them!"

Thame is a village that has produced many famous Sherpas. The names Ang Rita Sherpa — who climbed Everest without oxygen 10 times — Apa Sherpa and Phurba Tashi Sherpa — climbed 21 times, a record — are the pride of the village. But only their empty houses bear witness to their past presence. Ang Rita lives at Kathmandu where he now prefers to climb to the heights of rum drunkenness. Apa is in the United States. Phurba Tashi moved down the mountain to Khumjung towards Namche Bazaar. Out of the three, he is the only one who still works on the mountain for a large American company.

Apa Sherpa during 50th anniversary of Mt. Cho-oyu in Nepal — Photo: Mukunda Bogati via Zuma

Rain is starting to fall on Thame. Pretty soon the earth turns to mud and the streams into floods. Higher in the village, sitting under the eaves of her restaurant called "Sunshine," Kanchi sorts dried yak droppings and puts them in the furnace. Today is a festival day: all of her family is reunited. For the occasion, she prepared Sherpa crêpes, a potato-based specialty. Her husband is an electrician at a plant down the mountain near the river. "I only see him once a week, but at least he is not on the mountain," she says. Her two sons just finished their exams at Kathmandu. Nyima, the oldest, stays here now to help his mother with the restaurant. His brother, Lhakpa received a scholarship to study medicine in the United States.

Off the mountain

Climbing the mountains? That's not for her sons. Without taking his eyes off of the televised cricket match, Nyima adds, "I have too many friends who died on the mountain. Last week, one of them died on Lhotse. He was only 24. The last time I saw him, he was happy to have found work. He liked to climb, and he had trained a lot."

In the middle of the kitchen, near the stove, their father sips a cup of chang, a rice-based alcohol that Kanchi prepared. Between sips, he scratches the strings of a dranyen, a Tibetan guitar that his younger brother brought back from Kathmandu. When Mingma was 20, he was a mountain guide. The photos hanging on the wall attest to that. Among the images is a Swiss topography map covering the majestic area of Everest. "Clients often ask me if they can buy it, but it is more than just a map to me. It is a memory of my first climb on Everest when I found the South Col, the Roof of the world." Mingma loved to climb, but he quit to be safer with his wife and children.

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A woman in Thame Village — Photo: Thame Sherpa Heritage Fund website

He offers a cup of chang and pours another one for himself. Yak butter adorns the rim of the container. "The butter is welcome, but what is important is the liquid." He continues, lowering his voice, "I used to drink a lot before. Now I restrain myself. My wife does not want me to end up like the old men in the valley."

The song he hums with the dranyen evokes the beauty of the Khumbu, the gods of the mountain, and asks for prosperity for the Sherpa people. The following morning in front of the grocery store, Ang Tshering stares at us smiling. He does not seem to recognize us. He murmurs "Namaste," then he adds, "Would you like some tea?"

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