As the Everest 2104 season remain in limbo, Sherpas are home reflecting on their collective loss and worried about their future.
Climbers are at base camp processing a range of emotions from associated guilt to lost dreams. Families are simply worried about their loved one.
This tragedy has no simple answers. It is not about money, it is not about safety, it is not about anything more than the human condition. Anyone who professes to know the answer has not been there. Those who’ve been there, don’t know what the future holds.
Opinions and position based on morality are just as valid as those based on experience. It is this diversity of thought that fuels debate, develops solutions and brings people together. It is only a polarized position that doesn’t allow for movement, that stifles progress and creates conflict. No one, nobody has the only answer.
Having climbed in the Himalaya eight times, four on Everest; all with Sherpa from the solo Khumbu area. My relationship has ranged from a simple hello to a life long friendship based on mutual respect.
I would like to briefly tell you about my Everest 2011 climb and Kami Sherpa.
Kami was 47 years old at the time. He had five children. His oldest son was an Everest guide working for IMG, just like his father. His second son was a monk at the Tengboche Monastery. He and his wife had two daughters and a son in boarding school in Kathmandu.
His full name was Kami Sherpa (Ang Chhiring Sherpa – Pangboche). His mother changed it to Kami after an infant illness believing the illness would not return if she changed his name.
Kami’s father was an Everest guide, something he spoke of with great pride. Kami had seen death on the mountains, including Everest, including relatives.
One day we took a climb from Camp 2 towards the West Ridge for “exercise”. Who climbs towards the West Ridge of Everest for a workout? Well Kami did and he dragged me along. We slowly made progress until Kami saw my struggle. We stopped and looked back towards Nuptse, the Western Cwm and the top of the Khumbu Icefall; Pumori’s snow cone summit loomed to the East.
Regaining my breath, I took in the view. I was awestruck even though I had seen this view during my three previous climbs on Everest. “This is beautiful Kami.” I said as a question. “Yes” was his reply. “What do your think when you look at this?” A shoulder shrug came followed by “It’s a job.” Deflated by his answer, I followed him back to Camp 2. “It’s a job”. Yes it was a job that provided for his family. It was a job.
When I first met Kami, he impressed me immediately. Arriving at Everest Base Camp, Jangbu, IMG’s Base camp leader called out my name as I approached. “Alan, I want to you meet your Personal Sherpa, Kami.” He shook my hand firmly, with confidence as we walked together towards my tent.
I felt a bit uncomfortable as he seemed so eager to please, so eager to take care of me; even in the first few minutes. I silently asked if this was about getting a summit tip, or something else. Yes he was getting paid, actually the highest wage for a climbing Sherpa given he was a Personal Sherpa meaning he would be by my side the entire climb. I had climbed with Sherpa before but not like this.
It didn’t take long for my cynicism to be replaced with total respect. This was not about money, yes he was doing a job, but Kami cared about me.
Back at Camp 2, I went to my tent after eating dinner. I didn’t feel well. Lying in my -20F down sleeping bag, my stomach turned. I tasted dinner in my throat. I fell asleep only to wake up with a start an hour later. Hurtling to the tent door, I vomited everything into the vestibule. Wiping the remnants from my mouth and sweat from my forehead, I told my tent mate, “Well, that was fun.” The rest of the night was uncomfortable. We were schedule to return to Base Camp after this acclimatization rotation and wanted to leave early to go through the Icefall before it got too hot creating more instability.
Kami came over to our tent and unzipped the door. Seeing my vomit on the ground he looked at me with concern, his eyes betrayed his “job”. “Are you OK, Alan?” he asked. I told him what happened and that I felt OK now. With a sadness in his eyes and voice, he simply replied “You should have called out for me.” It was then I knew that Kami was not doing a “job” he cared about me as a person.
On our summit bid, we passed under the ice serac on Everest’s West Shoulder for the fourth time. As we left the area named “Popcorn” Kami reminded me to move fast. We clipped into the thin white nylon rope that served as a guide and safety line and increased our pace. It was hard, even after acclimatizing. The pace Kami set was strong. I knew he was worried and pressed as hard as I could for as long as I could.
Once out of the danger zone, we stopped for a break. with my chest heaving from the stress, I glanced toward the serac. Looking at Kami, also breathing heavily, I knew, he knew. This was the reality of climbing Everest.
As we neared the summit of Everest, the sun introduced itself with a tiny thin line over Bhutan. It was cold, -20F, and windy, maybe 20 mph. I was fourth in line that morning with my teammates Mirjam and her Sherpa Minga ahead. Kami was in front of me. We had made amazing time from the South Col. When there was a line in front of us Kami would unclip, give me a look and we would pass them. He set a steady pace he knew I could match. If he got too far ahead, he would slow down until I caught up.
His leadership, his experience and style is why I summited. I was proud of my own accomplishments, proud of my self sufficiency, my physical strength at age 54, my mental toughness, my desire to dedicate the summit to my mom and all those with Alzheimer’s. And I was proud to say I could not have summited without Kami.
The final steps passed amazing sunlight cornices. The pace was manageable, there was no exposure was we approached the top of the world. I followed Kami, step by step, trying to live up to his expectations of the speed. Without ceremony, we arrived. Kami helped me take off my pack. I sat on it as he took my picture. I looked around to see Kami and other Sherpas shaking hands.
A few climbers were there from the North side. It was clear the Sherpas were extremely happy. They shouted into their radios “Summit”, holding the sound of the T like a soccer announcer saying “goooooooal”.
I removed my goggles and oxygen mask and looked Kami in the eye as I held his mitten covered hand. “Thank you.” was all I could muster. “You are welcome.” was all he could say. His tiny smile betrayed his true feelings.
It was not a “job”.
Memories are Everything