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Last surviving member of first expedition to world’s highest peak regards Qomolangma as God

Dec 09 2016 | 12:44 pm

By Shristi Kafle

Namche Bazaar: November is one of the busiest months for trekking in Qomolangma region of Nepal, when each hotel in the gateway to the world’s roof and the biggest town of the Khumbu region “Namche Bazaar” remaining packed with foreign trekkers.

The C shaped Namche, located at 3,440 meters above sea level, was once the typical village of ethnic inhabitants Sherpas, who are known worldwide for their mountaineering bravery.

Within few decades, the town has turned into a business hub enriched with concrete buildings, luxurious hotels, restaurants, European bakeries, coffee houses, trekking gear shops, internet cafes and bars.

Surrounded by majestic Himalayas, this spectacular town which needs two-day trek to reach from the nearest airport, has been carrying many histories within it in different forms.

Among these, 83-years-old Kanchha Sherpa is a living history, who was the team member of the first expedition to the world’s highest peak Mount Qomolangma in 1953.

In a fine winter morning, Kanchha Sherpa, dressed in a red jacket and cap, was found spinning a Buddhist prayer wheels and chanting mantras in his bed in a small cozy room on the second floor of “Nirvana Home,” a hotel owned by his youngest son in the center of Namche Bazaar.

“Life was full of struggle. Now, I am a happy man with no health problems even in 80s. I feel blessed by Himalayas. Mountains are not just mountains, they are Gods,” Kanchha shared with Xinhua while drinking his first cup of tea.

He is the only surviving man among the 35 team members of New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepali guide Tenzing Norgay, who conquered the 8,848 meters high Qomolangma for the first time.

Kanchha, only 20 then, was helping his parents in the household chores and used to carry local productions and wood logs to the Nepal-China border for trading. Though born in the lap of crescent Himalayas, he never knew about Qomolangma until he was introduced to Tenzing Norgay by a neighboring friend.

Norgay belonged to Thame, a Sherpa community in the same Khumbu region, due to which Kanchha shared familiar gestures with him.

Kanchha recalled, in the capital city that is home to an over-3.5 million population now, “We traveled from Darjeeling to Kathmandu and stayed for a week in tents. There were no houses, no motor roads and no vehicles.”

The first expedition team started off their journey to the Qomolangma from ancient Newar settlement Bhaktapur. “There were 400 coolies to carry the mountaineering equipment and logistics. It took us two weeks to reach my village Namche by foot,” he said.

The core team was reduced to 35 then, comprising 15 from New Zealand including Hillary and Norgay, 10 porters and 10 high-altitude workers. Kanchha was one of them assigned to carry oxygen, water and food items, getting Rs 8 per day as wage, equivalent to Rs 4,000 today (about 40 U.S. dollars).

Kanchha recalled that the Qomolangma base camp located at 5,364 meters was in a plain grass field then where yaks would graze. Qomolangma journey was difficult, compared to what it is today when preparations are made at high end since the very beginning.

“May 29 is the most special day of my life. Tenzing and Hillary paved the way for the whole world to Qomolangma and they explored the future for Nepal. I I regard Tenzing as my mother and Hillary as father,” Kanchha shared in a room filled with photos, medals and appreciation letters he received.

His bedroom is like a live museum where he also keeps the bag he carried in the 1953 expedition, which is almost damaged but carries a history.

“My wife died two years ago, and the bag is my only friend now,” Kanchha said with a gentle smile.

Even at his 80s, an age when average Nepalis stay indoor due to health problems, Kanchha lives an active life today. His daily activity revolves around visiting nearest monastery, spinning prayer wheels, chanting mantras, meditating and sharing his stories and adventures with visitors who are mostly foreigners.

Despite having reached the South Pole of Qomolangma seven times, young Kanchha had not conquered the highest peak, for which he claimed he never got a chance. After working nearly two decades as a high-altitude worker, he quit the field, facing immense pressure from his wife.

“Qomolangma took lives of many, particularly in 1973. My wife was scared and insisted that I quit, and I agreed. I established a trekking company instead. We also didn’t allow our two sons to work in mountaineering,” Kanchha said.

Today, both his sons operate separate hotels in Namche Bazaar and serve hundreds of Qomolangma climbers and trekkers annually.

“I feel very proud of my father and his contribution towards the country and the world. We never dreamed of walking in father’s footstep due to mother’s fear. We respect her choice,” Kanchha Sherpa’s eldest son who owns Green Tara Resort told Xinhua.

2013 was a special year for Kanchha as he was honored by the Nepal government in Kathmandu on the Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

“Though I don’t get any monthly allowance from the government, I got a special treat in 2013 when my wife and I were taken in a horse-drawn decorated chariot procession. It was a moment to cherish,” he said.

This April, Kanchha was invited by a group of film makers to Camp II but he denied citing extreme cold. But he did visit the Qomolangma base camp and nearby areas in a helicopter.

“Once the grass field, now is filled with over 100 tents and hundreds of people. I felt strange about the base camp. I noticed less snow in the mountains and rough pathway of rocks as they call impacts of climate change. But I think mountain Gods are not happy due to excessive footsteps and pressure,” the veteran said in a serious tone.

He said he does not have any specific dream to fulfill for the rest of his life. He said he was happy devoting these years in the name of God.

“In terms of revenue, it’s good to see people from all over the world coming to conquer the Qomolangma and sustain livelihood. But in terms of God, it’s better for the future generations not to scare or insert pressure on Qomolangma,” said the old man.


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