Meeting a Himalayan Legend: the Man who Conquered Everest

Mountain tourism in Nepal has been very much in the spotlight recently following the tragic deaths of 16 Sherpa guides on Everest last April. In October last year, unseasonal snow storms in the Annapurna region accounted for a further 43 deaths, including many trekkers from around the globe. These incidents highlighted long-held concerns about the over-exploitation of the Nepal Himalayas and the incredible risks placed upon the Nepali guides who serve the ever-growing commercial aspirations of adventure tourism operators. The situation was most graphically illustrated by Ralf Dujmovits’ 2012 pictures  from Everest which unbelievably showed a ‘human snake’ of 600 climbers ascending the mountain.

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Mt. Everest peeping over the Lhotse Ridge from Tengboche

This is a far cry from the early days of Everest exploration. When Edmond Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first scaled the peak in 1953, the region had been effectively closed off from the rest of the world. The life of the Buddhist Sherpa inhabitants of the Khumbu had remained virtually unchanged for generations and mountain peaks, including Everest (or Chomolunga in Tibetan), were considered to be sacred places and the abode of the gods alone; there was certainly no question of the Sherpas wanting to conquer these high places for personal prestige. Following the ascent of Everest, however, all this started to change as the region opened up to climbing expeditions and then to trekkers who appeared in ever-increasing numbers.

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A Sherpa Hamlet on the trail to Gokyo

The adventure tourism boom brought significant benefits to the Sherpa people who were able to earn wages of up to 5000 dollars a year (compared with the Nepal national average of only 700 dollars) in one of the world’s poorest countries. New schools, hospitals and airstrips were constructed in the Region, including the famous airport at Lukla. For the first time a new generation of Sherpa children were able to benefit from educational and employment opportunities far from their homeland. However the stream of visitors also brought problems; these included deforestation, rubbish dumping, social inequalities and the decline of community cohesion and agricultural systems. The creation of the Sagamartha National park in 1976 set out to address some of these problems, but in so doing, inadvertently created additional pressures including the intensification of environmental impacts from deforestation outside the park boundary.

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“Sir Ed” – Hero of the Khimbu Region

It was with these issues in mind that Sir Edmond Hillary set up the Himalayan Trust to tackle some of the inequalities and challenges facing the Region. “Sir Ed” (as he affectionately became known) worked tirelessly up until his death in 2008 to improve the lot of the Sherpas and to gain greater recognition for these hardy mountain people, whose achievements, have sometimes been overshadowed by the self-aggrandizing accounts of an egotistical mountaineering elite.

Back in the early 1990s I was fortunate to have the chance to work as a forester in Nepal with British volunteer agency VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) and jumped at the opportunity to live and work in the Himalayas for two years. After working for some months in the Middle Hills District of Dhading, I was transferred to Solu Khumbu, where I was based in Phaplu just South of  the Everest Region. It was here that I got the chance to become involved in reforestation and community forestry projects with the indigenous Sherpa people of the region. This included work initiated by Edmond Hillary’s Himalayan Trust to develop tree nurseries and sustainable forestry in a buffer zone just South of the Sagamartha National Park; particularly around Lukla where the human impact on the forest from trekking and tourism had been the greatest due to tree felling restrictions within the National Park.

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Tengboche Monastery prior to the reopening in 1993

While I was there I got the chance to meet “Sir Ed” at the reopening of the Tengboche Monastery, the iconic Buddhist temple on the trekking route to Everest Base Camp which had been burned down by a fire in 1989; later to be reconstructed and then reopened in 1993. Traditionally, all Everest climbing expeditions have stopped at Tengboche to receive the blessing of the Abbot for their mountaineering endeavours.

On this occasion Sir Edmond Hillary had been flown in by helicopter specially for the reopening ceremony. Ironically, the man who first summited Everest (and then in his mid 70s), was no longer able to remain at high altitude for more than a few hours on medical grounds. As the monstrous ex-Russian Army helicopter lurched out of the clouds and thudded down in an ungainly fashion on the grassy meadow at Tengboche, it was clear from the excitement of the crowd that somebody very important indeed was arriving. Despite this (and the fact that “Sir Ed” was very much the man of the moment) I had the chance to chat to him informally after the official proceedings were concluded. We talked about the reforestation work in the Khumbu Region and the pressures generally facing the Sherpa people and the Region. I found him exceptionally approachable and without any of the normal sense of ego that normally goes alongside fame. Despite high altitude experiences, Sir Ed had clearly kept his feet on the ground !

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A youthful me meets a youthful (in spirit) Sir Ed

The reopening of the Monastery was a highly colourful affair with much pomp and ceremony from the Tibetan Buddhist establishment. One highly venerated reincarnation of a revered Lama (resembling the Dhali Lama himself) caused quite a stir as crowds jostled to receive the blessing of this senior orange-robed dignitary. Masked dancers also performed traditional Mani Rindu dances, which have traditionally been performed by monks in the Khumbu Region to celebrate the triumph of  Buddhism over the pre-Buddhist Bon Po religion of Tibet. A somewhat unharmonious cacophony of sounds were emitted from long Tibetan prayer trumpets, brandished by yellow hatted monks.

After the official and Buddhist ceremonies were completed, the real party was able to start. The Sherpas know how to let go and enjoy themselves and any gathering is usually a good reason to consume copious quantities of “chang” (or home-made rice wine). Needless to say though the festivities continued through the night with traditional Sherpa dancing and drinking of “chang” until daylight; the Sherpas certainly do know how to party ! Some of the less pious monks even literally got into the “spirit” of things with 2 somewhat inebriated examples even getting into a scrap over whose Monastery was the best; I’m not so sure that the Buddha would have approved (but hey anything goes in Sherpa land !).

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Masked dancers and Tibetan monks

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Tibetan Buddhist Trumpets

The meeting with “Sir Ed” was just one highlight in a 2 and a half-year stint as a VSO volunteer in Nepal. For much of the time I was based in the picturesque village of Phaplu and worked with the Government forest office located in the District centre of Salleri. My job there was to work with local Nepali staff in the field to develop the Community Forestry programme. This involved working with the forest rangers to develop forest management plans in partnership with local communities. Previously the forests had been under  state control with the rangers acting in a strict “policing” role.  This however, was found to be unsuccessful and created antagonism between the forest department and villagers who depended upon the region’s forests for their own livelihood. Local people who were caught harvesting wood without permission could be fined or even imprisoned and the old system sometimes encouraged corruption and extortion of money from (occasionally) less than scrupulous members of staff.

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Bearded “mountain man” with Nepali colleagues

The idea of the community forestry programme was to hand control back to local people through the establishment of forest user groups. Tree nurseries were also established around the District to encourage new planting and to reverse trends towards forest degradation. The work, however was far from straight forward as rangers effectively had to be retrained from their traditional “policing ” roles  to a more proactive role as a development workers and agents of change; this transition did not always come easily.

Sometimes the newly established plantations were of inappropriate species or were protected at the expense of existing areas of natural woodland which could have been better managed. Many of the forest rangers came from other parts of Nepal which made it difficult sometimes for them to be accepted and trusted by the local communities with whom they worked. Consequently at worst some management plans existed only on paper. At best however there were motivated and enthusiastic members of staff who were able to get things moving with successful results.

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Nepali colleagues take trees for planting

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Sherpini girls collecting leaves from the forest for fodder

Difficulties aside, one of the great things about being in Nepal was just being able to live in a different culture and to enjoy participating in local events and festivals. I lived in a wonderful “chocolate box” Sherpa house within a beautiful valley at an altitude of 2500m  and with a view out the window to 7000m snow-capped peaks at the head of the valley. Around the house where I lived there was always something going on; whether it was harvesting maize or apples from the orchards, milking cows or making “raksi”, the potent (and vaguely illegal) moonshine produced by Nepalis  from all manner of products. Sometimes I would make trips to get potatoes or vegetables from my aging landlord (in the house next door) and be invited in for a “raksi” session, only to stagger out a few hours later. As far as drinking is concerned, “no” is not an acceptable answer in Sherpa culture and your hand will be literally wrenched from your glass if you don’t comply with this.

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Mountain Home – my house (rear) for 2 years

Living conditions could at times be somewhat basic; I even had an outside squat toilet (a hole in the ground) where I could pick apples from inside as I went about my business. Nepali hygiene certainly left something to be desired. However, for mountain living, things weren’t too bad at all. I had electricity, friends living nearby, a beautiful location and a chance to participate in the life of a Himalayan valley. In Phaplu you had to expect the unexpected; one morning I was awoken in the wee small hours by people blowing trumpets and reciting incantations outside my house in the darkness. It later transpired that these were the local “ghost busters” who regularly visit every house in the neighbourhood to exercise bad spirits. Needless to say payment was expected…

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Local celebrity – me with my Sherpa friends.

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“Seat of the Pants” – flying into Phaplu could be a fun experience

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Meet the locals – some of my neighbours in Phaplu

Some local events and festivities were really quite amazing including a mid summer pilgrimage to the Dudh Kunda lakes at over 5000m. This is a very sacred place for both Hindus and Buddhists.  Pilgrims (even into their 80s) sometimes walk for several days to circumnavigate and bathe in the lakes, ensuring good Karma and the chance of a better reincarnation. For the less pious there is also a wonderful and crazy all night festival with stoned sadhus chanting for Shiva, crazed shamans in full tantric flow and trendy young Sherpas ,with base-ball caps and ghetto blasters, all dancing the night away under the stars and the moonlit peaks of the Himalayas. Far down below and a world away, the flashes of distant electric monsoon storms illuminated the plains over India; a truly dramatic spectacle indeed.

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Place of Pilgramage – Dudh Kunda at 5000m

Just like the mountains of Nepal, the psychological highs and lows of living there compared with nothing I have encountered before or since.  Although the experience of living there was  not often an easy one, it was a period rich in experience which I still would not have missed the world.

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Contemplating the “Mother Goddess”: the view from Gokyo Ri, 5500m

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Sunset over “Chomolunga”

Postscript 4/05/15; Nothing could have prepared us for the shock of the severe earthquake which hit Nepal on the 25th April 2015. Although the earthquake epicentre was located in Gourka District to the NW of Kathmandu, the quake triggered significant avalanches which resulted in significant loss of life and injuries around Everest Base Camp to both Sherpas and international climbing teams. This however pales into insignificance when compared with the scale  of destruction across the Country as a whole, particularly in the Kathmandu Valley and in remote rural villages to the North and West of the Capital. Many remote villages have been virtually  destroyed leaving people homeless and deprived of basic needs including food, water and sanitation. In the Langtang Valley whole villages have simply been buried by landslides leaving no trace.

Providing immediate relief to shattered communities is proving challenging and is further compounded by poor communications and damaged infrastructure. Our thoughts are with the people of Nepal who face the enormity of the task of rebuilding their shattered homes, communities, temples and lives. For more information please see, friend and fellow VSO,  Gayl Kennedy’s  blog;

This entry was posted in History & Culture, Mountain Treks, Trees & Greenspaces, Wild Places, World and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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