Kancha Sherpa: The only live witness of Mt. Everest expedition

Kancha Sherpa: The only live witness of Mt. Everest expedition

June 23, 2022

-Gobinda Pokharel

90 year old Kancha Sherpa spend these days at Nirvana Homes, Namche chanting gospels for world peace. Reminiscing those days, he feels quite surprising to note how the Mount Everest expedition became a successful story. In a brief interaction with the members of Himalayan Climate Bootcamp this April, he shared the story of Mount Everest expedition including its challenges.

Kancha Tamang

Kancha Tamang

Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norway Sherpa resurrected first human footprints at the Mt. Everest on 29th May, 1953. In their arduous journey of Mt. Everest expedition, they were accompanied by Kancha Sherpa including 2 other Sherpas upto an elevation above 27000 ft., who arranged the accommodation from basecamp upto Camp 4.

Namche Bazar is no longer the same place that used to be recalls Kancha Sherpa. His grandfather Aang Furi Sherpa migrated from Thame to this place. During those days, there were around half a dozen of houses in this area. Kancha’s father was a porter along the way from Solukhumbu to Tibet. Life was full of hardship during those days. When Kancha heard that he might be able to grab some work by meeting Tenzing Norgay, he along with his two friends went to Darjeeling to meet Tenzing who was a dear friend of his father. This meeting became a life changing moment for Kancha.

After few months, Tenzing shared his plans of ‘Chomolongma’ expedition. Excited to hear this with a hope that he will get some decent work, Kancha came to Kathmandu from Darjeeling mostly on foot as there was rail service only upto Silgudi at that time.

After few days, Tenzing along with his team came to Bhaktapur where Kancha and his friends were residing. There were only patches of grasses and open spaces in Bhaktapur at that time. With a week long stay at Bhaktapur, they decided to move towards their destination. The team had brought all equipments and materials required for an expedition trip. A total of 400 workers accompanied the team for carrying expedition stuffs. After 16 days of walk all the way from Bhaktapur, Panchakal, to Dolalghat, they eventually reached Namche. Due to the fear of catching extreme cold, these workers were sent back from Namche and the loads were carried by 60 yaks bought from Thame to the basecamp.

Due to heavy snowfall and landslides along the way, it was very difficult to commute from Namche to the basecamp. On the one hand, it was a completely new place to them, on the other, they were required to pave a path along the way. After reaching basecamp, huge ice boulders along the way posed great obstacle in their expedition trip. To get rid of this problem, Kancha Sherpa had an innovative idea of paving a path by felling trees and building a bridge. To materialize this, he went back to Namche, fell around 10 trees and ultimately cleared the path from basecamp upwards. “Since there was no iron, leather at that time, this idea clicked well”, Kancha Sherpa stated in conversation with us.

Then camp 1,2 and 3 were gradually arranged. Using fixed rope, they made south pole for the first time. While Kancha and his friends managed oxygen supply, sleeping bags, tents, mattress and other necessities at the south pole, moving upward from camp 3 was extremely challenging due to heavy snowfall and strong wind. There was a danger of losing life. Hence, Kancha and his friends decided to step back from Camp 3 but Tenzing and Edmund wanted to scale up Mt. Everest.

The information of successful summit came at 1pm another day through walkie-talkie and Kancha and his friends were invited to come to Camp 2. Kancha says that Tenzing and Hilary came down after summit in an hour. They exchanged pleasures and warm greetings hugging and kissing each other on their victory.

At the time when a big celebration was going on at Camp 2 of the Mount Everest expedition, Great Britian was bracing up for sworn-in ceremony of their New Queen. The British embassy in Kathmandu was informed from Namche of the successful summiting of the Mount Everest. This news spread not only to Great Britian but also to other parts of the world on June 2nd, 1953. Coincidentally, Queen Elizabeth ascended the throne on the same day.

Kancha remembers that he was informed of the news of Tenzing and Hilary returning back to Kathmandu via the Thame route as there was no bridge from the side of Dudhkoshi at Namche. Since they were busy celebrating the summit victory, the team left many of their belongings at Camp 2 like tent, kerosene, foods, clothes.

Over the past five decades, Kancha notes that there have been remarkable changes in the Khumbu region. While there was a time when they didn’t even get a paddy rice to eat, today there are varieties of delicacies including various brand of rice, lentils available. Kancha recalls that it was at the age of 20 that he got an opportunity to eat paddy rice for the first time.

Kancha who hadn’t put Syangsheel ( type of shoe upto knee length) for around 15 years feels amazed to see the various brand of shoes showroom at Namche these days. Kancha also remembers the medal that he got from the British Queen and is proud of the name and fame that he could create of the Sherpa people in the world. Even though Kancha have never been to school, he is spreading awareness of free education to children in the remote areas through a foundation at Namche. This information has been included in his autobiography ‘Tough and Cheerful’.

Kancha considers Tenzing and Hilary as gods in the form of human. He is highly indebted to them for making the Sherpa people well-renowned across the world. The changes in the livelihood of Sherpa after Tenzing and Hilary climbed Mount Everest is incredible. “ Now-a-days if a poor Sherpa goes to Lukla airport as a porter, he/she earns around 4-5 thousand. Not only the government but also the people in this community has been able to make some good income by being in the trekking, travel business and tour guide profession”, says Kancha.

People used to have strong religious belief in the mountains those days, Kancha sees some negative trends emerging in the journey of climbing mountains these days. Smoking and drinking alcohol among trekkers and mountaineers are some of the maladies growing at the present time which worries Kancha.

More worrisome for Kancha is the declining snow in the mountain. During his time, there used to snow until the month of June-July but no longer these days. “ If the snow continues to decline, our source of water will also dry up and who will come to climb the mountain”, says Kancha in an anxious tone. He further adds that it has become urgent to conserve the mountains, otherwise, the fate of Sherpa will be like the situation before 1953 full of poverty and extreme hardship.

In their first expedition to Mount Everest, there used to be a good grass cover at the basecamp which was also grazing land for Yak. But this has become a fairy tale for today generation who finds Kancha’s words difficult to believe.

What adds to his worry is the shrinking glaciers. These days Kancha offer prayers by chanting Theng mala for world peace to avoid valanche in the Khumbu icefall region to save the lives of the mountain climbers and trekkers.

Growing pollution in the Sagarmatha region is a matter of grave concern. Kancha thinks that it is high time we give rest to these mountains. He also opines that there should be only one climbing season in a year and remaining months should be free for mountains to stay on their own.

Kancha, however, laments at his unsuccessful attempt to reach the top of the world. While he applied for seven times to climb Mountain Everest, he was denied by the government authority. He could reach upto 27000 ft and 2000 ft above would have been his dream come true. He feels sad that he couldn’t get permission but also thinks that God had different viewpoints of his expedition and also the government rules didn’t favor him.

His autobiography ‘Tough and Cheerful’ was launched in Jan, 2022. To anybody visiting him at the Nirvana house, Kancha has a compelling story to share about his experience of mountaineering. Kancha, who didn’t have any formal education but learned to write his name from Tenzing’s daughter feels proud to put a signature in the book centred around his experience.

Kancha Tamang

(Originally published in ekantipur.com on 28 May, 2022)

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