Life for Nepal's Sherpas Hit Peak With Hillary's Arrival, Guide Says


When Edmund Hillary reached the summit of Mount Everest 36 years ago, he did more than make history, he changed the lives of a people--the Sherpas.

One of those affected was Pertemba Sherpa, who today runs a trekking company and exudes all the confidence and warmth of a man who has climbed the world's highest mountain three times.

"Hillary loved the Himalayas and especially the Sherpa people and he came back many times after 1953. He opened a school in 1960 and I became one of the first to study there," Pertemba said with a broad smile in his Katmandu office.

Until Hillary's school, education was almost nonexistent in the highest regions of northeastern Nepal, where Sherpas had migrated from eastern Tibet.

High-Altitude Porters

They worked as farmers, herders and tradesmen. Their physical prowess and good nature also made them excellent high-altitude porters on mountaineering expeditions.

But meeting Hillary--who is now the New Zealand High Commissioner to India and Nepal, based in New Delhi--and his friends changed Pertemba's life.

"I dreamed of following in their footsteps to the summit," he said.

Nepal is home to eight of the world's 10 highest mountains. Freezing temperatures, threats of avalanche, ice falls, strong winds and high altitudes have tested the most experienced climbers. Sherpas are ideally suited for the extreme conditions.

Pertemba, who was born in 1949 in the shadow of Everest, worked as a trekking and climbing guide before he got his first chance to scale a major peak. He joined British mountaineer Chris Bonington on an expedition to Annapurna.

'Supported the Team'

"I didn't get to the summit but I supported the team," he said.

In 1975, after two previous unsuccessful attempts on Everest, he joined Bonington as sirdar, or chief Sherpa, and scaled the world's highest peak at 29,028 feet. But the experience was marred by tragedy when Englishman Mick Burke died during the descent.

"It took me a long time to get over it, but I went back to Everest in 1979 with a West German expedition and reached the summit again. The weather was good, the view was fantastic and I found myself much more relaxed."

He joined Bonington again on a Norwegian expedition to Everest in 1985 and made it to the top of the world for the third time.

"I've been very lucky," he said. "I've had enough for now. Maybe I'll still try the north side or some other route but reaching the summit isn't the most important thing--it's the enjoyment, the sharing of the experience and the building of friendships."

Lasting Bonds

The bonds forged during a climbing expedition are lasting, he said. "So many things go together--good weather, good equipment and a good team."

Religion is also an important ingredient. Devout Buddhists, Sherpas pray for protection and hold prayer sessions during climbs.

Fate has been kind to Pertemba. During his mountaineering career he has had only two close calls, once narrowly escaping an avalanche and a second time during a descent in darkness.

Other Sherpas have not been as fortunate. Seven were killed in the first attempt on Everest in 1922 and many have died since.

Pertemba's close friend, Sungdare, who holds the world record along with Ang Rita for scaling Everest five times, was not as lucky.

"During his first attempt he and two other climbers were forced to spend the night outside. The others died but we had a very good rescue team who managed to get Sungdare down," Pertemba said.

Six Months in Hospital

Sungdare lost four toes to frostbite and spent six months in a hospital, but "he hasn't had any problems since going back," Pertemba added.

Mountaineering has changed since Hillary's time. Siege-style expeditions with large teams have given way to smaller groups and solo attempts.

The opening of Nepal's borders after World War II also resulted in a booming tourist industry and Sherpas can now choose less hazardous occupations. Many run guest lodges, tea houses or trekking companies.

The tourist boom has brought about improvements in education, health care and the standard of living. Despite the influx of foreigners, Pertemba said, Sherpas have guarded their ancient traditions.

"The local culture has become stronger because the changes have given us an opportunity to explore our own country. Very few people could travel before."

Bonington has a "profound regard" for Sherpas and has often acknowledged how vital they have been to all Everest expeditions. But that's not their most important achievement, he said.

"The great success of the Sherpas is how well they have adapted to a changing society," he said. "They are a resilient and wonderful people."

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