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Peek Season in the Himalayas

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jamling Tenzing Norgay, who scaled the world’s highest mountain in 1996 with a handful of other elite climbers, always keeps a cell phone handy now that the Imax movie “Everest,” which recorded their tortuous ascent, has made him better known than other Sherpa guides in the Himalayas.

“It’s high time that all the Sherpas got some recognition for what they do on the mountains,” said Norgay by phone, while driving between Katmandu, Nepal, where his mountaineering business is headquartered, and his home in Darjeeling, India, where he hooked up earlier this week with Laguna Beach filmmaker David Glen for a 25-day trek to Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak.

“The Sherpas have a big role in all the major [climbing] expeditions,” he said. “From David’s point of view, and mine, the world could use a better understanding of the culture of the Sherpa people and more respect for their environment.”

Glen, a photojournalist who started out as a safari guide in his native Kenya, plans to shoot 70 to 100 hours of digital video for an hourlong documentary and 8,000 photos for a companion book, both to be called “The Sherpas: Heroes of the High Himalaya.”

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To help finance the $60,000 cost of the expedition the Laguna Beach-based Earthling Foundation will present “An Evening With the Platters” on Sunday. The current lineup of the ‘50s R&B; vocal group will do two shows at Odessa Restaurant & Bar in Laguna Beach.

“We hope to raise at least $25,000,” said the documentary’s producer, Bianca Mead, who started the nonprofit foundation in January “to promote environmental awareness and spirituality through the media.”

Glen and Mead say they also have a projected deal with National Geographic, which could generate income to be invested in future documentaries.

(Mead, who moved to Laguna from San Francisco in 1995, says she has movie deals in development about the Wright brothers [in partnership with American Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola’s company] and about Rick Nelson [with Carsey-Warner, which produced “Roseanne,” and is expanding into films].)

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Jamling Norgay, 32, is not as renowned as his father, Tenzing Norgay, who with Sir Edmund Hillary made history in 1953 as the first climbers to conquer Everest. Nonetheless, he embodies the same sense of adventure that earned his father the honorific Sherpa name Tiger of the Snows.

“He was a very simple, humble person,” Jamling Norgay said. “He climbed the mountains because he wanted to. That’s all. He started at a very young age.”

Tenzing Norgay, who died in 1986, made his first attempt on Everest in 1935, at 11, with noted climber Eric Shipton, Jamling Norgay says. He believes they got at least as high as 26,000 feet. The elder Norgay made five more failed attempts before teaming with Hillary, the legendary New Zealand beekeeper-turned-adventurer, who to this day will not reveal whether he or Tenzing Norgay was first to set foot on the summit.

They were the only two of the 14 Nepalese and 13 foreigners in Hillary’s expedition to reach the top.

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Did Tiger of the Snows ever say who got there first? “I don’t know. Maybe,” Norgay teased, then changed the subject.

“I was very close to my father. He did not want me to climb because it’s dangerous. He did not want me to go up as a Sherpa carrying loads and making a living that way. I fulfilled his wish by not climbing as a porter. I climbed as a member of the team. This has been my dream since childhood.

“The strange thing,” he added, “is that, after I came down from Everest, my relatives told me, ‘Your father always said you would follow in his footsteps one day.’ But he never told me that.”

Norgay was in the May 1996 Imax expedition on the mountain when his friends--fellow Everest veterans who were leading another expedition, New Zealander Rob Hall and American Scott Fischer--were trapped near the peak by a freak blizzard and died, along with nine others.

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(Since 1953 the peak has been reached more than 630 times, according to Nepal government records. For every five climbers who make it, one dies. At least 123 people have died or disappeared on the mountain.)

Norgay says he wishes the Imax movie--which touches on the 1996 tragedy and shows him, American climber Ed Viesturs and Spanish climber Araceli Segarra at the summit in their moment of hard-won triumph--had also shown the Sherpas for that team.

“There were five other Sherpas,” he noted, all left unsung on the cutting-room floor, notwithstanding their names in the credits. Yet they were the porters who carried the 45-pound cameras, without which there would have been no Imax “Everest.”

In a separate interview in his Laguna living room, two hours before he took off for Darjeeling, Glen said the purpose of his current project is to trace the history, culture, philosophy and religion of the Sherpa people, the role of women in their society, the extraordinary feats of the great Sherpa guides--including one who was on the 1924 Everest expedition led by British climber George Mallory that nearly made the peak.

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"[The guide] is still alive, and we’re going to interview him,” Glen said. “We also hope to interview Hillary at a later stage. But the film will tell the story mainly through Jamling’s eyes. It will be a very personal film.”

In the 16th century, the Sherpas migrated from Tibet to Nepal’s Khumbu region. In Tibetan, Sherpa means “eastern people.” Today, about 40,000 live in northeastern Nepal and the nearby West Bengal region of India.

Led by Norgay and cameraman Vassi Koutsaftis, who is doubling as a guide, Glen’s expedition of 20 Sherpas from Darjeeling and a camera crew of five Westerners will trek about 200 miles on foot to Kangchenjunga and back.

“We’ll go up the mountain to 19,000 or 20,000 feet, which would normally be base camp on a climbing expedition to the summit,” said Glen, 45, whose sense of adventure was fostered in Kenya.

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Glen picked up photography following his “apprentice days as a safari hunter,” he recalled. “We hunted buffalo, elephant, rhino, lion. But right about that time they banned hunting in Kenya, so we became photographic safari people.” They had “a lot of close scrapes,” but that was normal. “You couldn’t live there without them.”

Glen was born during the Mau-Mau insurrection of 1953, which his family survived intact. “My mother went grocery shopping in Nairobi wearing a pistol,” he said. “It’s still a rough country. The roads are really bad. There are animals everywhere. You’ve got 40-plus tribes who speak different languages and pretty much don’t like each other. It definitely keeps you on your toes and makes you inventive. When your vehicle breaks down, you can’t call Triple A.”

In October, Glen says, he will return to the Annapuma and Mustang regions of the Himalayas in Tibet and Nepal as “a continuation” of the current filmmaking expedition to record, among other things, an annual Buddhist pilgrimage on the Tibetan plateau that “really hasn’t been filmed before.”

“One of the things we want to emphasize,” he said, “is the great charisma of the Sherpa people. They’re happy-go-lucky but incredibly tough.”

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* “An Evening With the Platters” benefit performance is Sunday at Odessa Restaurant & Bar, 680 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach. 8 and 9:30 p.m. $135 (first show with 7 p.m. dinner); $100 (second show only). (949) 497-6912.


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