Remembering the mountain of people and supplies who made the summit possible

IMG_0058 IMG_0266 IMG_0260 IMG_0107ImageFrom Khumbu to London, celebrations the week of May 29th, commemorated the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest. The celebrations often focus on the two summiteers, Hillary and Tenzing, belying the fact that the actual climb was truly a team effort. While Tenzing was the lead climbing Sherpa, an often forgotten figure is the sirdar, the foreman of the expedition.

“Has my grandfather been completely forgotten?” asks Tashi Sherpa of Tengboche as we sort through a bag of old photographs.

As the then renowned sirdar (foreman) of the 1953 Everest Expedition, Tashi’s grandfather, Dawa Tenzing of Khumjung managed the virtual mountain of supplies, porters, Sherpa high altitude porters, and logistics. He ensured the safe transport of over seven tonnes of supplies and equipment from Kathmandu to Khumbu. The porters he employed represented the wide spectrum of ethnic peoples of eastern Nepal as seen in old expedition photographs.

At the time of the ’53 expedition, Dawa Tenzing (also known as Da Tenzing) was over 40 and was already a veteran of several Himalayan expeditions. Having gone from Khumbu to Darjeeling in search of work as a young man, Dawa Tenzing had memories of the disappearance of Mallory and Irvine on Everest in 1924 according to his bio on the Royal Geographic website.

There is no existing record of his expeditions before 1952, but from 1952–63 records show that Da Tenzing was on several expeditions — reaching the South Col twice in both 1952 and 1953. He was sirdar of the 1955 Kangchenjunga expedition, and again went twice to the South Col with the American expedition of 1963.

During the 1980s, I lived with his daughter’s family at Tengboche where Da Tenzing spent his final years, half paralysed after being injured in the bus accident that killed his wife. One foggy afternoon after his death in 1985, his daughter (Tashi’s mother) emerged from the storage room carrying a large dusty old cardboard box. “Since I cannot read, will you go through this to sort out what might be useful and what we can throw away…”

In the afterglow of the 1953 expedition, the British Alpine Club had made Da Tenzin an honorary lifetime member. His remote address had not escaped their mailing list and months later all alpine club mail had duly arrived at Tengboche.

In among the brochures advertising anything from crampons to electric kettles were letters and photographs from the previous generation of climbers from around the world. These included Lord Hunt, with whom he had managed the ’53 expedition, and others from George Lowe to Reinhold Messner.

The photographs revealed Da Tenzing’s close relationship with dozens of expedition climbers from the 1950s onwards. Some showed his attendance at celebratory functions in Britain clad in traditional Sherpa dress and still sporting a long braid wrapped around his head as he met the Queen.

Da, Tenzing spent his last years hobbling around Tengboche monastery as best he could with complete Buddhist devotion. According to his Royal Geographic Society biography, he had “earned respect for his character and his performance as climber and sirdar, and affection for his wicked sense of humor.”

In these 60th celebrations, let’s remember the mountain of men (and some women porters) who made it possible to reach the summit.

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Connection and Reflection

Being blessed with communities of friends and family on two sides of the world, it seems a good time to organize my photographs and all the bits and pieces of writing into one place. Another book has not yet gelled. After asking various writers, it seems that a blog is the best way to start taking some steps forward.

This is a blog for connection and reflection to connect these two worlds on opposite sides of the earth.

So, on a sunny monsoon morning in Kathmandu, here goes.

Some posts will be of old photographs, some journal musings at the time,and re-musings after time and reflection.Other posts might be very immediate after a field visit or encounter.

I might bring in passages from my book, Gaiety of Spirit, and embellish them with some of the thoughts that were deleted in the process of cutting down the manuscript from 700 pages.

It has been almost thirty-three years since I first came to Nepal. Not all of that time has been spent here, so I am still strongly connected to my roots in Canada, all along the Bow River from its source in the mountains to its gorge through the southern Alberta ranchlands.

The posts might often reflect my dual existence and all that I keep on learning in these years in Nepal. As I wrote in Gaiety:

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.

Living in Nepal and doing documentation work for development projects in more recent years has offered opportunities to talk with so many people in difficult circumstances — former bonded labourers, so-called “untouchables”, Hindu widows, and farmers without enough fields to feed their families. I came to realize how the systems of hierarchy went beyond discrimination to actually keep some people poor.

Just as working with the Sherpas opened my eyes to another way of perceiving the world, the conversations with these people helped me to understand the more difficult side of Nepal. They helped me to see both the sacred and the profane and start to understand and question world events in this era of intense politics and crisis.

Ultimately, we can build bridges of understanding between cultures in the world if we are not afraid just because they are different.

I hope that this blog for connection and reflection can help to serve as a small bridge.

Be well, frances

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