‘Not just Sherpas, Himalayas too will miss Hillary’

By Manik Banerjee, IANS

Darjeeling : Tung Sung Bustee, the haven of the Sherpas in Darjeeling, is in mourning since Friday when news of Sir Edmund Hillary’s death reached the community that considers the New Zealander as one of its own.

Support TwoCircles

The Sherpas, who originally hail from Solo Khumbu region of Nepal near the base of Chomolungma (Mother of the Goddess Earth), remember Sir Edmund more as a person who was instrumental in giving them an identity and who changed their nomenclature from mountain porters to mountain guides.

It was from Darjeeling, the queen of hills in West Bengal, that the first expedition to Mount Everest set out in 1931 through Tibet.

In all subsequent ventures to the world’s highest peak, Darjeeling supplied this band of dedicated persons but for whom expeditions to Mount Everest would not have been possible. So it is but natural that the mountaineering fraternity and adventurers in general and the Sherpas in particular felt a great loss in the death of Hillary.

Hillary, along with Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa, was the first to reach the world’s highest mountain more than 54 years ago.

Nowang Gombu, former director of field training at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) and the first person to climb Mount Everest twice, said: “It’s a great loss for me, the HMI and particularly for the Sherpa community.

“It was Hillary who opened the eyes of the Sherpas to the outside world,” recalled Gombu, a nephew of late Norgay.

“I still vividly remember those days (from 1953). When I first met him in the expedition, we forged a friendship instantly though we were in different groups. Edmund was most friendly and used to mix with the Sherpas with equal affection as with other members.”

Gombu, who is known as the “Last of the Mohicans” from the gallant group of Sherpas but for whose help the success in the 1953 Everest expedition would not have been achieved, recalled: “We met several times at the HMI and other places and in different functions and he always used to greet me with equal jest and bond of friendship.

“After that historic ascent of the Everest, Hillary could have settled for a cushy and comfortable life. But he preferred to take up the mantle of uplifting the lot of Sherpas. He spent most of the time setting up schools and hospitals and bridges in remote parts of Solo Khumbu and around in Nepal Himalayas for the benefit of Sherpa communities.

“He also raised funds and rebuilt the Thyangboche Monastery on way to the Everest base camp after it was devastated by a fire. For Sherpas he was the son of the soil and did much more for the community than anybody else.

“Even in his very busy schedule as high commissioner of New Zealand in India, whenever any mountaineer approached him he was always ready to extend his helping hand,” Gombu said.

“In Hillary’s death not only the Sherpas but even the Himalayas would miss this great adventurer,” he added.

The HMI here was a second home for Hillary.

Condoling his death, HMI principal Colonel J.S. Dhillon said: “It is a great loss to the mountaineering and adventure fraternity of the country. The HMI particularly lost a great friend. Sir Edmund’s death has created a big void. He will be remembered forever.”

Beside the Sherpas, Sir Edmund used to respond to the phones calls of any mountaineer.

This writer recalls an incident in August 1977 when Hillary was leading the “Ocean to Sky” expedition.

After beginning the venture from Sagar Island near the Bay of Bengal where the Ganga meets the sea, the expedition halted at Kolkata.

We were then planning for an expedition to Bomba Dhura, a virgin peak in Kumaon Himalayas, which was organised by the Himalayan Association of Kolkata (HAK). I as a leader approached him to cheer our team. In spite of his very busy schedule, he readily agreed.

The team successfully made the first ascent of the peak and Hillary did not forget to congratulate the squad.

(Veteran journalist Manik Banerjee is a well-known mountaineer who participated in several expeditions, including to Bomba Dhura, a virgin peak in the Kumaon Himalayas in 1977. He can be reached at [email protected])