All these years, Sherpas have been the forgotten footsoldiers helping others climb to the top of the world, their own achievements and tragedies — a third of the 200-odd deaths are those of Sherpas — a mere footnote in mountaineering history. (The most common story cited: both climbed the mountain together for the first time in 1953 but Edmund Hillary was knighted while Sherpa Tenzing Norgay wasn’t.)
So Apa and Lhakpa hope that they will shed this burden of history at the summit. They are leading an all-Sherpa team up the extraordinary slopes to “highlight the hidden accomplishments of the Sherpa people in their role in extreme altitude climbing,” according to Roger Kehr, base camp manager of the SuperSherpas expedition.
The first ever all-Sherpa expedition on Mt Everest, where Kehr and Jerry Mika are the only two non-Sherpa members providing logistical support, has come as a “role reversal”. “The Sherpas are free to climb without the concerns of supporting Western climbers,” Kehr told The Indian Express.
While Apa holds the world record for climbing Mount Everest a record 16 times, Lhakpa is credited as among the fastest climbers (10 hours and 56 minutes) to the top of the 29,035-feet mountain.
Their current ascent though is aimed at “telling the Sherpa story that has never been told,” Lhakpa told The Indian Express from base camp a few days before the final summit push got underway. “Many Westerners come to Everest and make hollow promises that if we get them to the top they will help but we never hear from them again. They disappear like a crow flying in the fog,” he said.
Native of the mountainous regions of Nepal, money has been the prime motivator driving the ethnic community of Sherpas up the Everest. On the mountain, they have been used as porters for Western expeditions, in high-risk jobs of fixing ropes leading up to the summit, setting up camps in extreme altitudes, leading less-experienced climbers of guided expeditions and, when necessary, carrying the injured down the slopes.
“It is a well-known fact that my father climbed Everest so that we, his children, did not have to,” said Jamling Norgay, son of Tenzing and a fellow Everester. Belonging to the Sherpa tribe, Jamling today has lent his support to the SuperSherpas expedition and to Apa who says that he climbs Everest so that he can provide for his children’s education. “I never had a choice,” Apa says. In Darjeeling, the erstwhile hub of the Sherpa climbers when Nepal was closed to foreigners, the legendary Sherpa climber, Nawang Gombu, who was the youngest porter during the famous 1953 Tenzing-Hillary Everest expedition, has been instrumental in securing an insurance scheme for Sherpa climbers.
“As president of the Sherpa Buddhist Association I noticed that nobody bothered about the Sherpas who died while climbing.
These days, their families get compensated Rs 3 lakh,” says the 73-year-old who climbed Everest in 1963 and in the first successful Indian expedition in 1965 led by Captain M S Kohli.
“Visible changes can be seen in the life standards of Sherpas with creation of schools, hospitals, bridges and electricity. However, the concept of affordable education is still a distant dream. As for recognition, Sherpas have definitely not received any.
If they had, the two world record holders (Apa and Lhakpa) would be living the life of Michael Jordan, “ says Kehr.
Weather and good fortune permitting, the SuperSherpas expedition is now only a couple of days away from correcting a historic wrong. For, as Kehr says: “Without Sherpa support, one could count the number of (successful) Everest expeditions on one frostbitten hand.”