The coolies who conquered mighty mountains

Shail Desai | Updated on January 16, 2018

Ascending order: A team of Sherpas in this image dating from 1952; Tenzing Norgay (seen centre, in a hat and with arms crossed) was the first to summit Mount Everest alongside Edmund Hillary the following year.   -  The climbing sherpas of darjeeling project

World-famous for their climbing skills, the hardy Sherpas of Darjeeling today languish in obscurity, after Nepal emerged as the new hub for Himalayan expeditions

It was during yet another of her jaunts in the Himalayas that Nandini Purandare stumbled upon an interesting story from her friend, the veteran mountaineer Harish Kapadia.

“There was one Pasang Dawa Lama, who ran naked through the streets of his village, and plunged into the cold river. It was a tradition among the Sherpa community, when someone had liaisons with a hundred women,” Purandare recounts with a smile.

Funny as the story was, on delving deeper, Purandare learnt about the forgotten Sherpa community in Darjeeling, which had played an important role in the region’s exploration and mountaineering history. On her return to Mumbai, Purandare approached a couple of writer friends and, alongside Deepa Balsavar, started researching on a project titled ‘The Climbing Sherpas of Darjeeling’ in April 2012.

Originally from Tibet, the Sherpas moved to northeastern Nepal during the 1600s, and settled down in the Solukhumbu region — home to Mount Everest. Many Sherpa families migrated to Darjeeling, which had developed as a retreat for the British in colonial India, and took to lugging loads and palkis (palanquins) in the hill-town.

With Nepal off limits at the time, Darjeeling became the base for numerous expeditions in the Himalayas in the 1920s. While Everest was the ultimate dream, other 8,000-metre summits too were on most wish-lists. There was a need for coolies to carry the rations for these expeditions and, given their hardy background, the Sherpas were picked for the job.

“The Sherpas slowly built a reputation for themselves as loyal, hard-working men, and were considered an integral part of these expeditions,” Purandare says.

A Scottish explorer, Alexander Kellas, who studied human physiology at high altitudes, found the Sherpas not only acclimatised well but were also great climbing companions.

The most prominent Sherpa, of course, was Tenzing Norgay, who became the first to summit Everest alongside Edmund Hillary in 1953. Under Norgay’s guidance, two of his nephews — Nawang Gombu and Nawang Topgay Sherpa — made a mark in the world of climbing. The close-knit community looked out for each other.

Purandare and Balsavar’s first trip to Darjeeling coincided with the first death anniversary of Gombu, the first person to have scaled the Everest twice.

“These are big events, weeklong ceremonies in which every member of the community participates,” says Balsavar, a writer and illustrator of children’s books. They met many Sherpa families in the Toong Soong colony, their home for years now, and learnt their story. They then stumbled upon another minefield of information. “We were fortunate to lay our hands on a number of porter books that a few families had still preserved,” Balsavar says. The practice of maintaining these porter books, or chit books, was started by Joan Townend, who became the honorary secretary of Darjeeling’s Himalayan Club in 1934. The books held records of the climbs that each Sherpa undertook, followed by ratings from expedition members.

In 1939, the Tiger medal was instituted to recognise Sherpas with unique abilities. “A Tiger medal entitled you to higher pay and respect in the community,” Balsavar says. Among the last of the living Tiger medallists was a Sherpa who was on the 1965 Indian expedition that put nine climbers on top of Mount Everest.

“It was heart-rending to meet Sona Sherpa,” recalls Purandare. “He had no recollection of where the medal was. He had turned into an alcoholic and was living in penury.”

Once Nepal opened its borders, the entire climbing scene moved there, as did a number of Sherpas. Those who stayed behind were left grappling with the loss of their livelihood. A few joined as instructors at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, when it opened in Darjeeling in 1954.

“Besides, no climber wanted their children to follow in their footsteps — it is a high-risk job, without adequate compensation. Their kids had access to education and aspired for government jobs. The few who still go to the mountains have specialised roles such as route openers or high-altitude Sherpas — they aren’t just coolies any more,” Balsavar says.

Purandare and Balsavar plan to bring out a book on the community, now that they have a treasure-trove of interviews, photographs and documents — all of which have been sent to the University of Toronto Scarborough for digital archiving. An audio-book in Nepali is also being planned, to make it accessible to the older generation of Sherpa families.

Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer

Published on December 23, 2016

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