The photo Ed Hillary took of Tenzing on the top of the world, became the iconic Everest climbing moment. It is captured in the worlds memory and a symbol of partnership in reaching one of earths great goals.
When Tenzing Norgay Sherpa first climbed to the summit of Everest, he was chosen for his climbing experience and ability, tenacity and his camaraderie with his climbing partner, Ed Hillary.
That the Sherpa team had initially been housed in the garage of the British Embassy in Kathmandu, while the Commonwealth climbing team tucked into their sheets at the Residence, was quickly relegated to the small print.
After this iconic beginning, it seemed that perhaps the dye was cast for strong partnerships and teams working alongside each other on subsequent ascents. Sadly, that was not to be.
While Superstar Sherpas occasionally emerged as Sirdar’s and summiteers, they were initially very few and far between.
Ten years after the first ascent, when Jim Whittaker summited as the first American to reach the top, Nawang Gombu Sherpa was his climbing partner. Yet below on the mountain, the Americans still led the way through the icefall and fixed the ropes up the Lhotse Face – out in front, building the route, while the Sherpa contingent followed along behind carrying loads. On the technically more difficult West Ridge, Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld utilized Sherpas to carry loads in support, but then did the final difficult summit day on their own.
Sherpas were primarily load carriers, an essential role for assisting larger teams, but a generally thankless task, carried out repeatedly under the most dangerous of conditions. While Western team members may have been out in front initially, fixing ropes, the follow-up journeys through the icefall and up the Lhotse Face were done almost ad-infinitum by Sherpas. As Everest became a matter of national pride, Sherpas supported one country after the next carrying loads right into the 80’s.
In 1985, when Dick Bass completed the world first 7 Summits, climbing with David Breashears, the Sherpas were still very much in support roles. The Norwegian team they were part of fixed the ropes and put the route in place, closely followed by the Sherpas making their endless trips up carrying supplies. I well remember them leaving Base Camp well before dawn, day after day, stomping by my tent in the darkness, the waft of burning juniper in the air and their quiet chants drifting over the ice.
Over on the West Ridge Direct, we were making an attempt on a route that seemed to be four Everest’s in one, with vertical rotting rock leading to the Lho La in Tibet, then up the West Ridge itself, onto the shoulder, before tackling the final 1,000 meters of the summit pyramid.
With steep and technical climbing to start, we fixed all the ropes as high as the West Shoulder, then our Sherpas placed the ropes across the long and gentle slopes to the base of the summit pyramid. On the summit pyramid, I spent a week climbing with Lhakpa, but he climbed along behind me, lugging up extra ropes and gear so I could fix the steep sections up to our final camp at 8,100 meters.
He led one section, but having no experience in placing pitons, laying out ropes for fixing and equalizing anchors, he was quickly back in a support role. He could certainly climb quickly, but his technical abilities just weren’t at a standard to safely take the lead. This certainly didn’t preclude us having a delightful week of climbing together on the heights and having a successful partnership. But it was a partnership where I led and he did the heavy work carrying along behind me. It was simply the most efficient way to get up the mountain at the time.
When I put together our team to do our new route on the Kangshung Face in 1988, I took one look at the route, with its abruptly steep and obviously challenging start, and didn’t even consider adding a Sherpa to our climbing team, beyond our Sherpa Sirdar and Chef in Base Camp, Passang Norbu. We paid tribute to past ascents, with Tenzing Norgay’s son Norbu Tenzing accompanying us to Base Camp and meeting his Tibetan relatives along the way. But when it came to the climbing, and then carrying up the loads of tents, ropes, food, fuel and stoves, Paul Teare, Ed Webster, Stephen Venables and I were on our own. At the time the route was too technical, and asking anyone to carry loads up and down those ropes just seemed both unkind and unfair, it was just to dangerous.
Pete Athans, who I’d first climbed with on Everest, had quickly formed a strong and lasting relationship with the Sherpa’s and recognizing both their incredible climbing potential and natural athletic abilities, went on to assist them in making the first all Sherpa ascent of the mountain, breaking through some of the initial financial and psychological barriers of being out in front. But throughout the 90’s it was a long slow road for the Sherpas skill to be honed and then finally put into practice.
By 2003, when the 50th anniversary of the first ascent rolled around, Sherpas had moved to the fore – fixing ropes through the icefall and leading the way up the Lhotse Face. Myself and the other Western guides in Camp concentrated on looking after our teams. Meanwhile the real and dangerous work that required going out front, choosing the route and then carrying loads was all being done by our Sherpa teams. But Base Camp was dominated by Western guide companies and Western Leaders, with the Sherpas primarily working for those companies.
In 2010 when I returned to guide again, the Base Camp routine, the route to the South Col, and then on to the summit was about as well oiled as could be imagined. As much as Everest is filled with variability and uncertainty, having ropes fixed from Base Camp to the Summit on every challenging section made the climb into a very different experience. It really came home to me when I walked back into Base Camp after summiting and realizing I hadn’t once taken my ice axe off the back of my pack. Is that really climbing I wondered?
Yet several very important elements were working to build the Sherpa’s experience.
As much as they were carrying loads, they were also building a physical confidence and abilities which greatly surpassed nearly all their Western counterparts. While we struggled up to Camp 1, acclimatized, came down for a rest, then did it again, before finally reaching Camp 2, they immediately started carrying equipment to Camp 1 and returned to Base Camp in a few hours, then quickly moved on to going direct to Camp 2. Doing 1,000 meters of vertical with a big load before returning to Base Camp by lunchtime was just what they did.
From Camp 2, the Sherpas dragged a few tents up to Camp 3 for us, but didn’t stay there either. Then they fixed ropes across and started carrying the multitude of loads and oxygen bottles from Camp 2 all the way to Camp 4, and then back to Camp 2 for the night, 1,500 mètres of ascent and descent, reaching just under 8,000 meters at the South Col.
This is something virtually no client is ever going to even consider doing, even without a load. The days of climbing to even the South Col without oxygen, a given on earlier Everest expeditions when we thought it was the right thing to do, is now rare. The days when Dick Bass and David Breashears headed for the summit in 1985, with Dick completing the worlds’ first 7 Summits, and they skipped Camp 3, going from Camp 2 to Camp 4 in a single burst, are long past.
The strategy now is more likely to include oxygen from above Camp 2, and even an extra night resting at the South Col. While we seem to get slower and less efficient, the Sherpas have gotten faster, more efficient and experienced at moving quickly at the worlds’ highest altitudes. It has been a long and slow road to moving into the lead, but it certainly was the right background for K2 in winter.
The second factor, is Shepas and the local Nepalis companies have moved from being employees to being employers. Dozens of local companies now vie for business in Nepal, offering any peak, including Everest, at a fraction of the cost.
Initially, these were small operations, with a few climbers, but pricing and early successes quickly expanded their client base. With local operators, recruiting their own staff, and leading on the mountain, came a new confidence. As in many areas where things change, some times the pendulum needs to swing too far in order to find a happy balance. Western operators grumbled at local companies taking their business, and Sherpa’s, some fresh back from gaining IFMGA qualifications in Europe (the MBA of climbing, with the added need to be rather comfortable in the vertical realm) exhibited a new found confidence, with skills now at a world standard.
The other simple factor is Himalayan Mountaineering is expensive. Messner realized this early on and pointed out that when he did the first alpine style ascent of an 8,000 meter peak, in the Karkoram, it probably cost him 10% of what the traditional big national expeditions of the time cost. He knew how to leverage both his abilities and his budget.
But big peaks, in winter have long and cold approaches. You need more gear, you may need more time, you may want more oxygen. It can be hard to find people who want to go or support you – it is a bit cold after all. It is not the kind of expedition where you pull together a few friends and go climbing.
This winter on K2, it all came together. Nims had just finished the 14 – 8,000 meter peaks and could pull in the budget for a strong team with good logistical support. Though we all know Nims is not technically a Sherpa, with a background in the Gurka’s, certainly his sense of team made him an indelible part of the group and a natural leader. The three Sherpas comprising Mingma G’s team managed to do some crowd funding online, if only enough to really get them there. And Sona Sherpa, already funded by a host of clients on the 7 Summits team, stepped across to join them. It may have been a bit kit-set, but it got them all into K2 Base Camp, in Winter, with pretty decent gear and support.
All the money in the world won’t get you up an 8,000 meter peak however, little alone, K2.
This is where the team really shone, in accomplishing their world first winter ascent.
With many of them having made repeated ascents of Everest and other 8,000 meter peaks (100’s between them?) season after season, carrying heavy loads with everything from extra oxygen to bulky sleeping bags in rotations high on the mountains, their physical abilities, mental stamina and confidence rose to the fore. Having been fortunate to have climbed Everest with one of the Sherpas on the winter team, Pemchirri, it was easy to understand the standard and how talented Nims own handpicked group really were.
Just getting all those mountains of gear they usually carry for clients out of their packs and being able to actually climb must have been a real relief – for once they could really move. And with the conditions, the ability to get into place and then do the incredibly long summit day from Camp 3 on K2, straight up through Camp 4, and onto the summit, would only be possible by a very select group of climbers.
They have taken not only a lifetime of their own experience, but in some cases, generations of knowledge passed from father to son, to reach the top of K2.
Next to the iconic photo of Tenzing atop Everest, which held so much hope and promise, we can now, 68 years later, pair it with the photo of the 10 Nepalis marching to the top of K2 in winter, together.