A lost draft of a blog post. Last year’s visit to Khumbu.
A chapter from Gaiety of Spirit about a visit so long ago… 35 years. Now, fewer and fewer Sherpas keep yaks.
Heavy mist obscures the mountainside where I wander along an overgrown trail among fences of stone. The mist and thick, damp grass muffle all sound as I search for the stone hut where I have been invited to spend the night. The tiny settlement appears deserted except for a few shaggy yaks.
An elderly lady appears in the fading light, wading through a field of wildflowers and grass. It is a relief to see my friend’s mother, Ama Yangin. In the Sherpa language, ama means mother, and everyone calls her that out of respect and affection.
Entering the tiny door of her hut, I bend double and leave my damp pack in the anteroom where supplies and the remnants of last year’s hay were stored. In the main room, benches that doubled as beds line the walls around the hearth.
Ama Yangin poured milk from the wooden barrels into a large metal pot and quickly set about preparing us tea. Sitting quietly by the hearth, warm and dry after being damp outside, we watched flames lick the tea kettle and each seemed absorbed by our own thoughts. Despite the rain that started outside, we are warm and dry by the hearth.
In the eastern Himalaya, the summer monsoon lasts from June to September. During this quiet but productive season people carry out the chores of herding and farming with calm dignity and quiet purpose. Farming is not easy on these mountains, but almost everyone, including businessmen, owns plots of land on which to grow potatoes, buckwheat, or barley to feed their families.
Most fields for cultivating food crops are at relatively lower elevations of about 3300 meters near the main Sherpa villages. During the cold winter, herds of yaks are grazed on nearby hillsides; when the summer comes, the yaks are taken up to high valleys where the rains have changed the dry mountainsides to rich, green pastures.
I marvelled at the contrast seen in this valley between the summer monsoon months and the rest of the year. Surrounded by snow and ice mantled mountain peaks, the Sherpas’ valleys transform with the seasons. In autumn and winter, when almost all tourists visit, the land is dry and barren with not a blade of green grass to be found. Snow often blankets the valleys after winter storms.
Summer rains color these valleys unimagined hues of green. Hillsides become carpeted with lush, green plants and wild flowers. Monsoon is a gentle season in the mountains; the rain and humidity are less intense than in the lowlands and colors are muted by the misty skies. Though there may be several days of clinging mist, the sun does sometimes shine in the monsoon.
Many days dawn clear. The hills vibrate with color and the mountain peaks sparkle with fresh snow. Clouds form rapidly in the lowlands. Rising, they first envelope the peaks and then fill in the valleys by noon. Mist becomes drizzle and then rain by late afternoon and evening. People time their activities to the daily weather patterns, retreating indoors as the afternoon rain begins.
Despite the weather, this is a favorite time of the year for the Sherpas. Those who have moved to Kathmandu wistfully compare the cool, green mountain monsoon to the hot, muggy summers in the lowlands. Since most visitors avoid traveling in Nepal in the monsoon, many Sherpas who work as guides and porters return to their homes in the high country.
Ama Yangin offers a plate of hot potato pancakes. After we eat, Ama Yangin talks about two of her sons. Both are far away from Khumbu; one works on climbing expeditions and the other, a graduate of a foreign university, works for the national park. From Ama Yangin’s questions, I realize she cannot imagine how they spent their days on expeditions or in offices.
The pace of her days in the summer pasture is steady and predictable — fetching her animals, milking the females, heating the milk and making it into yogurt and butter. Between her herding chores, she fetches water, cooks, and looks after her grandchildren.
This maze of fields, stone walls, and huts was an oasis of habitation amidst isolated, sprawling valleys at 4300 meters. Sherpa families use these valleys as summer pastures for their yak herds. The shaggy bovines provide dairy products, wool, transportation, and perhaps an excuse to spend three months in these mountain meadows.
From her main house in the village far below, Ama Yangin has brought just enough to meet her simplest needs. Only essential kitchen utensils line the shelves on the far wall. Though she stays here alone, her eldest son with his wife and children are in another hut just across the hay field. They help Ama Yangin with her heavier chores and she keeps an eye on the younger children. They visit in their huts several times a day. Sharing a few moments together seems just as important as tending the herds.
Her hands were busy even as she sits. Those who spin wool, work at it continuously during the monsoon. Wool is plucked from the yaks in the spring, then beaten and rolled by hand into loops, which are coarsely spun by the men. Women do the final, fine spinning. Eventually the yarn is woven into long narrow panels that are sewn together to make striped brown-and-gray blankets for sleeping.
The next morning Ama Yangin rises before dawn to start the fire and brew the traditional butter-salt tea. After three quick cups of tea, we ventured out to the corral where her female animals and their young are tethered for the night. She deftly binds the rear legs of a slightly perturbed nak. Talking gently, she squats beside it and coaxes the milk from its udders into the wooden bucket.
“How much milk does a yak give each day?”
Ama Yangin laughed and giggled. I mentally reviewed my Nepali phrasing to make sure I hadn’t just embarrassed myself.
“Yaks don’t give milk,” she chuckled, “yaks are the males, we call the females NAKS. …That’s why we Sherpas laugh so hard at foreigners asking for Yak Cheese.”
She describes the sex and parentage of her animals: three yaks, seven naks, ten yakbees (the young of the species) and several dzopchioks — male crossbreeds that are sterile and are used as pack animals, especially on trips down to the warmer elevations which the high-altitude yaks can’t tolerate. Female crosses are called dzooms. They produce milk that is almost as rich as a naks, and in greater amounts.
In the trekking season her male animals, the yaks and dzopchioks, are sometimes hired out to carry loads for trekking groups. Besides being a traditional status symbol, yaks are a good investment of the family’s earnings from trade or tourism.
Ama Yangin explains that she first makes the milk into yoghurt so it will keep for three or four days until she has enough collected to churn it into butter.
“The butter has to be churned enough to squeeze out all the buttermilk. Then it should keep without smelling for a year. In a good summer, I might make enough butter for my family’s needs and have some extra to sell to a tourist hotel in Namche.”
Owning a herd necessitates having pastures away from the main villages.
“Our traditional Sherpa rules prohibit us from keeping livestock at the main villages during the summer while the crops are growing,” explains Ama Yangin. “It’s in everyone’s interest not to have animals breaking into fields and devouring the crops. A hungry yak can quickly destroy a potato field.”
Some families have huts at three or four pastures in the higher valleys where there are grazing areas of rich grass during the monsoon. They move from their spacious homes in the main villages in late June just as the rains begin. “We shift our herds to a new pasture at least twice in the monsoon. It depends on the size of the valley and when the grass is at its prime in each place.”
By fall, the herds have thoroughly grazed plants on the high pastures. Some fields are walled to protect grass that will be cut for hay to feed livestock during the winter. The field in front of Ama Yangin’s hut is knee deep with pale blue fleabanes, golden ragwort, and bright yellow cinquefoil.
The morning is clear and bright — good conditions to cut and dry the grass for hay. The eldest son and his wife wield a scythe in each hand, mowing the grass close to the ground. Ama Yangin and her two older grandchildren follow with wooden rakes, gathering the cut grass and piling it into stacks, filling the air with the scent of freshly cut grass.
After two hours, everyone takes a break, sitting cross-legged in the grass, consuming cups of tea and two pots of boiled potatoes dipped in chili sauce.
The grass cutting ends as the late afternoon drizzle began. Ama Yangin went off in the gentle rain to milk her naks and dzooms. Finally retreating indoors as the rain pours down, we repeat last night’s routine of tea, potato pancakes, and conversation.
The next morning, the sun is bright and clear. Except for the vivid green of the near hillsides, this could have been a day in the dry, clear winter. Though I have a long day’s walk ahead of me, I linger.
“Don’t forget,” reminds Ama Yangin, “Walk early in the morning, before it rains.”
“The purpose of our religion is to perfect our minds,” says Tengboche Rinpoche. His point of view is the Buddhism of the Himalaya, the heart and soul of the Sherpa culture.
“I was born in Nauche and as a small child talked about wanting to go home to Tengboche,” says Rinpoche. He sits cross-legged on a wide bench in his dark kitchen lined with shelves of copper pots. In his lap he holds the small text from which he reads prayers every day.
“My mother carried me to Rongbuk Monastery in Tibet. Upon seeing a monk, I ran to hug him as if I had known him before. He was the nephew of the founder of Tengboche. The Abbot of Rongbuk recognized me as a tulku [reincarnate of a spiritually advanced person], the reincarnate of Tengboche’s founder, Lama Gulu.
“Back in Nauche, I identified Lama Gulu’s belongings. Everyone was satisfied after this proof, so I was brought to Tengboche at the age of five to be raised as the reincarnate lama and eventually become the Abbot of the monastery.”
Rinpoche spent decades studying at Tengboche and Buddhist universities in Tibet and Darjeeling until he was ready to assume the leadership of the monastery. As a spiritual leader of the Sherpa people, he is equally adept on matters as varied as health, education, politics, the building of bridges, and naming children.
Rinpoche’s life had been devoted to study of the Buddhist faith, which he describes by saying, “Our religion protects our character, which is why religion is so important in our culture. Happiness and unhappiness are caused by one’s state of mind.”
Merging the metaphysical with everyday life, the Sherpas’ prayers and rituals aim to generate positive spiritual energy for the benefit of all beings. Whether layman or cleric, religion is the way of life, unifying all aspects of existence. The practice of religion is not confined to a day of the week, it is an everyday affair.
The Sherpas’ religion is the oldest sect of Mahayana Buddhism, the Nyingma, which was established by Guru Rinpoche, an Indian mystic who was invited to establish Buddhism in Tibet about 730 AD.
Tengboche Rinpoche introduces me to the principles and practices of Buddhism through my work to complete the Sherpa museum. He often uses examples from daily life to illustrate the complexity of Buddhism. For example, one day talking about the Buddhist concept of emptiness:
“Think about this knife on the table,” says Rinpoche. “It’s real when you are sitting here in Tengboche. Will this knife be real to you in Canada? If you think about Canada right now, which is real — Canada or Tengboche, where your body happens to be?
“This is illusion, the unreal objects. The real objects and events happen in your mind. There are two ‘rivers’ to follow in our minds. The first, Sunya, emptiness, is about the knife. It deals with the perception or non-reality of all things. The second, Karuna, is compassion. After one attains perfect understanding of emptiness and compassion, one attains Buddhahood.”
“This is why it is important to remember that the purpose of our religion is to improve our minds. This is why it is important to study the Buddhist teachings, think about them, meditate — and then think some more.”
I wonder how to reconcile the purpose of “perfecting our minds” with the many rituals, offerings, deities, and religious objects of everyday life.
“There are many kinds of offerings,” says Rinpoche. Pointing at the urn of smouldering incense hanging outside his window, he continues:
“This is an offering through the sense of smell. There are physical offerings such as torma [dough figurines], visual offerings like pictures and sand mandalas, sound offerings like the ritual instruments and chants or prayers. Our good intentions are the most important offering.”
Sherpa life is also full of ritual objects. Everywhere in Sherpa country are stones carved with prayers, water-driven prayer wheels, and prayer flags. The carved prayer stones usually contain a single chant, a complete prayer, or a Buddhist image, while prayer wheels contain scrolls of printed prayers, often thousands of them.
Prayer flags, attached to tall poles or on strings, flutter on rooftops and mountain passes, or are strung across rivers and paths. They carry printed prayers and often show the wind horse, the swift bearer of prayers. Their five colours signify the elements — earth, wood, water, fire, and metal.
Stupas, called chorten in Sherpa and Tibetan, are the numerous monuments found across the Buddhist countryside by paths, streams, homes, and gondas. Chorten represent the body, mind, and spiritual development of the Buddha.
During the historical Buddha’s lifetime, stupas were a memorial for the deceased. As the Buddha lay dying, his followers asked what should be done with his remains. He requested that his body be placed in a simple stupa. Since then, the stupa symbolizes the Buddha, and often offerings or the relics of the deceased, especially lamas, are sealed inside various sizes and shapes of stupas.
While discussing displays for the museum, Rinpoche explains the importance of Buddhist prayers on rocks, flags, and other objects:
“We see them everywhere in the land of Buddhist people. These religious objects are part of our daily lives. They help focus people’s thoughts on the Buddhist teachings and bring about a positive state of mind in people, to the benefit of all.
“The religious objects help create harmony between our actions, body, and mind. The Buddhist teachings will come easily to us when we gain merit first with our actions and body and then through our minds. So that everyone may understand them, religious objects have many explanations at these different levels.”
These objects allow anyone to gain spiritual merit through good intentions and each flutter of the prayer flag or turn of the prayer wheel.
“If the avalanche had been about an hour later, I would have been right there and so would have been about a hundred more people,” says Pemba. “I was just about to leave base camp!”
Twenty years ago, Pemba had often been the cook on treks I was leading. Since about 1998, he has worked as a high altitude cook on Everest expeditions.
“I prefer expeditions to trekking because I make more money. Otherwise, my wife and I have just a small potato field and this little teashop. Without the expedition money, we could not afford to buy rice and staples at the market – everything has become so expensive!”
Besides, he adds, there are now very few jobs as cooks on treks since most trekkers stay in the many hotels and lodges that have sprung up along the trekking routes. In the decades prior to 2000, trekking groups stayed in tents with own cook and kitchen crew, guiding staff, and porters. With many groups coming with just a guide and porters, the jobs with trekking groups dwindled.
It was about the same that commercial expeditions started on Everest. With several expeditions attempting Everest each season, the demand for expedition workers boomed. At least 400 Nepalis of various ethnic groups, especially some Sherpas, work as high altitude climbers, guides, cooks, porters, and kitchen staff each season.
It is an occupational option, often taken by those Sherpas from poor families living away from the main trekking routes. They just do not have the capital or opportunity to start a hotel, or the education to work in another profession. One Sherpa from a poor family said he was in a fix when his wife demanded that he stop working on expeditions. Luckily for him, an uncle offered a small piece of land and a loan to start a hotel on a newly popular trekking route.
However, for many like Pemba, they may feel that they have fewer options to make money other than expeditions. “I could work in a hotel and one of my bosses at the company said that he would help me to get special training as a chef. But, I would have to work twelve months a year to make the same as I earn in three months on an expedition.”
His wife adds, “Those three months… the whole time I have a knot in my stomach and ask anyone coming down if they have seen Pemba.”
He admits that it is a risky way to make a living. I ask if he has attended the Khumbu Climbing School held each winter to train Sherpas and Nepalis in technical climbing safety. “No, I’ve not gone because I only go through the icefall twice each expedition, once up to Camp 2 and once down.”
Pemba leaves the kitchen for a moment, returning with a small red pouch. “These amulets, relics, and blessing cords from the lamas are all very potent. I have all of them blessed again each year by the lama in Pangboche as I go up for an expedition. I wear it under my clothes the entire time I am on the mountain.”
When I ask if he will go on an expedition again next year, he says, “Of course I will go, how else will I buy food in the market. But it is true, that it would be a lot less risk to my life to go get a job cooking in a hotel.”
On this anniversary of the first ascent to the summit of Everest, let’s pause a moment to remember why men from the Sherpa ethnic group in Nepal first went off to work on expeditions.
Kancha Sherpa is the last surviving member of that 1953 expedition, perhaps because he was very young when he went off to Darjeeling in search of expedition work. Kancha told me his story in December 2009 in Namche.
“When I was a kid we were so poor, we had no mattresses just yak skins and the wooden plank for a pillow. We used to walk to Kathmandu in 8 days, carrying tsampa cause we had no money to stay in hotels.
“We carried loads to Tibet. There were three people who traded Nepali paper to Tibet to use in the prayer wheels. We earned Rs.5 to carry 30 kg loads for the 4-day trip to Kyabrak, just over the Nangpala. The Tibetans would pay us in salt – 8 pathis (30 kg) that we carried back to Khumbu in three days. Then we carried four pathis at a time to Kharikhola where we got three parts of corn for one of salt – so we could not take too much salt at once to be able to carry the corn back to Namche.
“Then we dried and ground the corn to eat. Then we started the whole circuit all again. The paper was made in Karikhola and they brought it here to sell. There was thick and thin paper for the inside of prayer wheels and pecha (religious books). At the age of 13-15, I would go 11 times a year over the pass. We were walking on snow for about an hour at the top of the pass.
“I first went to climb in 1953. Three friends and I decided to go to Darjeeling to see if we could get work on an expedition. While my mother was out with everyone dancing in a potato field, I hid some corn flour in one of her shirts. My friends each had Rs.15 and 20, but I had none so I took the corn for us to eat. We left at night and got to Chaunrikharka at day light -looking over our shoulders to see if our families were coming for us.
“It took four days of walking over the hills to get to Darjeeling. We met a woman from Thame village there, carrying a load of vegetables. We asked her where Tenzing’s house was. She took us to his little house. He asked who our fathers were and since he knew my father, he took me in to work while my friends found work elsewhere. Tenzing liked my work cleaning and getting firewood so he said he would take me to Everest in a month. I was so happy, I carried even more firewood.
“Then I worked on expeditions until 1973, when my wife asked me to stop as so many friends had been killed. I liked the expeditions cause I got clothes and money.
“During these years, 1953-73, I would also earn more money by buying western watches in Calcutta with loans, and selling them in Tibet. One time in Shakya, I was caught by the Chinese army, who took all my watches and money. We were stuck inside the jail for a week without any water. My older brother was in jail in Lhasa because they did not know who was Tibetan or Sherpa. I had a letter written and showed our Nepali passports. Eventually, we got back here.
“Afterwards, I started working trekking. Since I can only write my name, Kancha (Tenzing’s little daughter taught me in 1953), I’d keep accounts on trek with my beads and have someone who could write make notes.
“Now, we earn money here and don’t have to go away. The kids whose parents have earned well with hotels all have good educations. Now, the Tibetans all come here to trade and earn money. Now, I’m an old man doing my prayers.”
Life with the Sherpas revealed different ways of seeing the world. It peeled away my preconceived notions. I have come to see that while outside cultures divide us, inner cultures, the core of all religions and beliefs, can bring us together.
Arriving at the ridge crest, each Sherpa companion murmured a prayer and placed a small stone from the path on the cairn with prayer flags. I followed suit, relieved that our trekking group had traveled this path safely.
Further along, we paused and turned out backs as wind and dust blasted across the pastures. We hid our faces in our jackets. Seeing only the ground before me, a premonition — an impact on the back of my head and a sudden sense of nothingness.
I reacted by taking two steps forward. In that instant a thick plank, blown off a nearby hut, hit the back of my ankle. Stunned, I realized that had I not moved, the plank would have struck my head.
This event was my first real experience with the Sherpa perception of place, of the power of these mountains.
Mountain scenery first attracted me to the Himalaya, but the warm, friendly people became my enduring connection. From 1983 to 1989, I had the opportunity and privilege to live and work with Sherpa people in the Khumbu Valley of east Nepal near Mount Everest, helping to create a museum of Sherpa culture at Tengboche monastery.
The Sherpas are renowned through the literature of adventure, where they have earned an international reputation for their work on mountaineering expeditions, especially on Everest. However, this reputation focuses on an occupation, rather than the Sherpas’ rich cultural heritage.
The museum described mostly what the Abbot of Tengboche calls the Sherpas’ “inner culture” and the importance of ceremonies that link their spiritual and physical lives. The preparation of the museum took time because it was essential to first know the people and the many dimensions of their culture in order to accurately and concisely depict it.
While compiling information for the museum, I often found that conversations encompassed aspects of philosophy, psychology, and spirituality. Often the subjects we discussed wandered to the questions we seek to answer with religion or science: How did the earth begin? What happens after death? What is our relationship to nature? To our symbols in the environment?
Over the years, my questions turned from the intellectual to the intuitive. I began to experience the culture rather than question it. Life with the Sherpas revealed different ways of seeing the world. It peeled away my preconceived notions so that I began to appreciate the significance of rituals, traditions, and symbols. In the process, I was changed.
Sherpa friends introduced me to a new way of seeing the world through everyday life. Whether monk or shepherd, they know who they are and what they believe as “Sherpa people”. I saw an acceptance of mystery and of questions we just cannot answer.
Living in another culture forced me to think about how it works, to confront the ironies and inconsistencies of a different way of being. Soon, I realized that one layer of meaning reveals more queries within. The more one starts to understand, the more one realizes all there is to question and explore.
Looking at other cultures as different from our own, we split the whole into parts. We analyze what we see happening and ask why. For people of the other culture, it is their way of life.
We examine the oddity of different traditions and customs rather than the inner purposes that might bring us into an understanding of the culture. We end up looking at how the “other” culture is different from our culture rather than at our commonness in the wholeness of humankind.
While working on the museum, I started to see and question the ironies of my own culture and gained a new way of looking at myself and at my own way of life. I was moved by what I saw and experienced.
I became a believer in the value of inner culture that manifests itself in everything we do — in small actions in everyday life, in our interactions with everyone we meet, and in what we think and say.
I have come to see that while outside cultures divide us, inner cultures, the core of all religions and beliefs, can bring us together.
Tengboche holds a special place in the hearts and minds of both Sherpas and world visitors. On a ridge in the heart of the Khumbu valley, it is more than just a monastery. The scene of the monastery surrounded by snow-clad peaks, realizes many people’s notions of Shangri-La, of a sacred place beyond our daily existence.
Despite Tengboche’s fame, the Sherpas only founded celibate monasteries relatively recently. For about four centuries, they practised their faith in hermitages and each village’s gonda (temple) under the direction of married lamas (teachers) who performed the rituals required by the community.
In 1914, the Abbot of Rongbuk monastery on the north side of Everest in Tibet told a devout Sherpa, Lama Gulu, to establish a celibate monastery in the Khumbu. Lama Gulu went home to Khumbu and discussed the request with other Sherpas. They proposed several sites, including a remote ridge called Tengboche. Lama Gulu returned for advice to Rongbuk, where the abbot replied, “At Tengboche, at the edge of the flat area, where Lama Sangwa Dorje left footprints in stone.”
Sherpas from many villages worked for three years to build a gonda for Tengboche monastery. They completed it in 1919 and the Abbot of Rongbuk came for the opening celebrations. His presence attracted Sherpas from several days’ walk away. Thus, Tengboche became a focal point for Sherpa religious activities and the larger community of Khumbu.
In 1932, an earthquake destroyed the monastery’s main temple. Lama Gulu was not injured but passed away that night. The monks of Tengboche went to Tibet to visit the Rongbuk Abbot, who told them to rebuild the gonda. He donated some money to start the reconstruction.
Six years later, a young child from Nauche was brought to the Rongbuk Abbot, who recognized him as the reincarnation of Lama Gulu.
That child grew up to be Tengboche Rinpoche, the abbot of Tengboche monastery in the Khumbu valley. The Sherpas regard him as the reincarnate of the monastery’s founder. Everyone calls him by his title, Tengboche Rinpoche, and rarely by his given name, Ngawang Tenzing Zangbu.
Tibetan Buddhists reserve the title Rinpoche for special teachers and their reincarnates. The Buddhist people of the Himalaya revere thousands of rinpoches in Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, and India.
When asked about the changes in the Khumbu valley, Tengboche Rinpoche has replied:
“There are outward changes in appearances: some of our dress, houses, occupations, and opportunities.
“However, our Sherpa ceremonies and traditions — how we name children, assist the dead, get married, and celebrate a year’s passage — all this remains intact. What is most important to us remains. The coming of foreign visitors to Khumbu has not changed our inner culture.”