Miles to go before I sleep

At 10, he carried a backpack to the Everest Base Camp. At 60, he still carries gear to trekking destinations. Nyima Sherpa says he will go on until he physically cannot

Love of mountains did them unite/A rush of snow brought death in white. An early end, but one final grace/ Eternal rest/ In this mountain place. A eulogy by Brian Williams is etched on the stone plaque erected in memory of 13 Japanese trekkers and 12 Sherpa guides and porters at a small place called Phanga, on the way back from Gokyo lakes at 4,790 metres. With its gentle slopes and low-lying shrubs, Phanga seems incapable of burying anyone under the snow, but on November 10, 1995, in one of the worst snow blizzards following a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal, these Japanese trekkers, most of them over 50 years old, and their Nepali helping hands, most under 35, perished when the lodge they were camping at was trapped under six feet of snow.

“My nephew was one of the Sherpas,” said Nyima Wangchu Sherpa, our 60-years-old guide, who called our team of three journalists his responsibility. We were covering the Royal Penguin Ultra Marathon, from Namche to Gokyo over the Renjo Pass to Thame and back to Namche.

“Only one man survived,” said Nyima, “But we hear he is in a mental hospital. An avalanche swept him away from the lodge to the other side of that low hill and he lost his mind.”

Nyima later reiterated the story to a colleague’s camera, sitting on a rock and pointing at the site of the incident without looking at it. Once the short shoot was wrapped up, he took a few paces, stopped in his tracks and squeezed his eyes shut. He had been suffering from a bout of mild altitude sickness and we thought the headache had returned. As we held him, he let his shoulders loose and let out a sob. We did not realise that as he told the story, he was on the verge of tears.

“This is the Sherpa life,” he said, later. “We lose our lives and then point out the deaths to trekkers. This is our work.”

The mountains are gorgeous to look at. As a fellow trekker said, they are horizons so silent they scream. But the mountains can be unforgiving. Nothing but potatoes and a little bit of vegetables like radish grow above 3,000 metres. Fields demarcated with stone walls grow grass for yaks and jopkyos. Those who are fortunate enough to own land along the trekking route open lodges and teashops. Others have to work as porters, making their way up to a mountain guide and a lodge owner.

Nyima had a rough childhood in these mountains at Muse, 10 minutes downhill from Lukla. His mother used to make him sleep with the promise of a rice meal the next day. When the air froze and he had no shoes to warm his feet, he would take his mother’s advice and strike his feet against the stones. It used to hurt for a while and then the warm blood would cover his feet and soothe them.

At just 10, he followed his uncle and carried a foreigner’s backpack for 5 paisa a day to the Everest Base Camp. At 12, he left for India, from where he went to Bhutan, dug roads and sawed wood for eight years. Once done with Bhutan, he spent another seven years in Sikkim, working at a cardamom farm, falling in love with a Lepcha woman and later marrying her and having a daughter with her, whom he named Doma.

His daughter was only three when he decided to come back to Nepal and see his mother. His father-in-law would not allow his wife and daughter to travel with him, for fear that the family would never return to Sikkim. Once home in Muse, his mother burned his passport and other documents, out of her fear that if he left again, he would never return to Nepal.

Later, he married a Sherpa woman 10 years his senior. He never saw his Sikkimese wife and daughter again.

“She must have changed the daughter’s name. The Lepcha woman never liked ‘Doma’,” said Nyima when I asked him to look his daughter up on Facebook. Without any children from his second marriage, he keeps remembering the child he left behind. And sometimes wonders, for laughs, if he should get a second Kanchhi. “But a Sherpa once committed, is forever committed. No children, no worries,” he said.

The second sentence is a lie. Nyima has to keep on working as a porter and a trekking guide even at 60 because he has no children here in Nepal. He suffers from cervical spondylosis, a rusting of the collar bones, from years spent hauling heavy loads on his back. His hands and joints tingle and need to be bandaged to suppress the pain. With a porter’s baggage on his back, he cannot keep pace with the faster trekkers. Fellow porters and guides are quick to notice his age and taunt him. “Why are you hiring an old man like this? He will only increase the insurance cost,” a friend from his village once said when we met him on top of the Mong Hill. Nyima retorted with a jibe about the friend’s height, saying that a short porter would get lost among the shrubs. But it was a feeble comeback.

If Nyima pushes despite his corroding bones, he might one day get paralysed. To think of him lying in bed, unable to sprint (a word he likes to use), take pictures of ‘hile’ (his word for a helicopter) whenever it flies past or console his trekking team with “Tomorrow Khumung, you see Everest many, many looks” is hard to imagine once you get to know him. This is a man who once came second at the Everest Marathon, winning Rs 30,000 in cash.

He does have a teashop at Muse, but it is situated a little away from the trekking route and the abundance of such teahouses to the left and right means he gets few customers. So he prefers paralysis in the future over retiring now. His rationale: If he quits now, he cannot feed his wife and no one helps a man who is still “employable”. If he quits past his limit, his nieces and nephews will have to look after him and his family.

Like almost all porters, he does not see the benefits of a road in the village. Neither is he bothered by the hierarchy that exists between porters, guides, lodge owners and the foreign trekkers. As a porter and a guide, Nyima eats the last—a simple meal of dal bhat tarkari at a cheaper price. His breakfast cannot be more than noodles and he has to sleep in a dorm with other porters, sometimes by sharing blankets. “This is our job,” says Nyima. “We are not here to beg for fancy rooms and meals.”

But he knows that is just consolation. Porters throng Lukla Airport every day hoping to catch trekkers without pre-picked baggage carriers or in some cases hoping to catch a few stray onions spilled out of their cargo sacks. Nyima knows the business is not sustainable the way it is. He might retire one day, but crops of new generations of porters emerge every year and some will work like him, drudging on until the end—and telling stories of Gods creating mountains out of love until they ran out of earth, and then pointing out how the same mountains ate some of the Sherpas alive. They will also point out Himali swans, warn trekkers and climbers when they sight sunpati shrubs and what their presence means (the likelihood of getting sick with altitude sickness) or console them with the sight of potato fields (a less likelihood of getting ‘high’).

On the last day of the trek, at Lukla, Nyima tried to secure the job as a guide for the next edition of the Penguin Marathon. With his hurting limbs and frail age, the job is uncertain. Still, he gave us a fond goodbye, saving everyone’s numbers on his mobile phone and promising to see us in Kathmandu one day.

A colleague said he used to be frazzled by goodbyes, but he decided to accept it as a way of life and move on. At 60, with years of experience leading groups up the mountains and dropping them off at Lukla, Nyima must be a veteran of bidding farewells. Tell jokes, tell stories, fulfil the responsibility, and sayonara. Attachment is inevitable, but so is its opposite. As Nyima said, “You go to Kathmandu. I will be in these mountains,” it seemed like the end of a brief poem.

As soon as we landed in Kathmandu, he called. Then a day later. And a few days after that.

Ghumti chha ghumauro, I will see you tomorrow. 

Published: 18-10-2014. The Kathmandu Post