A lost draft of a blog post. Last year’s visit to Khumbu.
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A risky living
“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.”
Why did some Sherpas first go on expeditions…
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.”
Experiencing another culture
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.
A Sherpa Legend: Historian, Trader, and Dignitary
Khonjo Chombi was renowned among the Sherpas as a village leader, for his knowledge of Sherpas folk songs, and his skill as a dancer. He was often asked for his knowledge of Sherpa history and culture so Tengboche Rinpoche had appointed him to be one of my ‘informants’ for the Sherpa Cultural Centre while I worked there in the 1980s.
Khonjo Chombi is sitting by the window of his house in Khumjung sewing prayer flags onto bamboo sticks.
“Everyone from our clan is putting up new prayer flags today. Then, I have to give a speech at a wedding in Namche. It introduces the two families, even though they’ve known each other for generations.”
“What about your own family history?”
As he continues stitching, he begins, “When people ask about my life story, I first must tell them about my family history.”
Khonjo Chombi pauses as he finds more thread for his needle. “Way back, one ancestor moved from Lhasa to Kham in eastern Tibet, where he settled, practised religion, and had a family.” He then names off successive generations of ancestors for three hundred years.
“In the fifth generation, there was a war between Kham and Tibet. My ancestor, Michentokpa, did not want to fight because it was against the Buddhist tenets to kill any living being. So, he left Kham and first went west to the north side of Everest, then crossed the pass into Khumbu. He may have been one of the first to cross this way into the Khumbu ‘beyul’ (the sacred hidden valley).
First, he settled up high near treeline at Pangboche. This place was like Tibet. Later, his grandson moved south to the Solu valley, to a place called Thakdobuk just below a pass. Our clan name Thakdopa comes from this place. Eight generations later, my family moved to Thame in the Khumbu. After another three generations, my great grandfather moved to Khunde. He had five sons. My grandfather’s marriage was arranged so that he moved into this house as a son-in-law. My father was his only son, and I was my father’s only son.
“My father traded sheep, goats, and ponies throughout eastern Nepal and to Darjeeling in India.” He pulls out a big plastic bag of folded papers, some written in Nepali script and others in Tibetan. He reads aloud from one of the documents dated the Nepali year 1885 (1828 AD).
“This paper from the government in Kathmandu granted us Sherpas a monopoly on the trade route between Nepal and Tibet over the Nangpa La pass. It allowed only Khumbu people to cross the pass. Before the Nepali kings, we paid land taxes to the Kiranti kings in the east and food taxes to the Tibetans.”
These villages in the remote Khumbu Valley have always been in the nexus of different political authorities, although the Nepali kings ruled since 1769, the Sherpas retained their distinct culture with similar traditions to the Tibetan people to the north. Prior to 1769, various ethnic kingdoms in east Nepal had had enough power over the Sherpas at times to demand taxes or tributes.
Pulling out another paper, he continues, “This list of rules is from the Nepali year 1910 (1853 AD); it also records the taxes collected and how much land people owned. The government in Kathmandu was impressed that my father had dealt with thieves robbing traders in east Nepal, so they asked him to be the tax collector in Khumjung.
“My father performed our Buddhist rituals and treated people with herbal medicines as an amje (traditional doctor). He was also a politician, lawyer, tailor, and carpenter. As a politician and trader, he was sued many times, even in Tibet.
“He had many regrets about having killed people, especially the way he took care of thieves in east Nepal. So when he was old, he left home and became a hermit at the age of 68 and died when he was 78.”
“Did you learn Tibetan herbal medicine from your father?”
“No. My father and the father of Namche’s amje (herbal doctor) trained together in Tibet. My father had many notes for making herbal medicine. When I was four, our house burned down. The notes were lost, so he could not train me as an amje. I always felt this was really too bad, because my father had a cure for smallpox. After he died, the disease struck again twice in Khumbu. Many people died that time. That is when we built the big chorten at the entrance to our village. The second time, the Nepali health worker died first. We buried the body so as not to spread the disease. Later, we were vaccinated by cutting a cross on the skin.”
“Do you remember the first foreigners you ever met?”
“I first saw them when I was trading in Darjeeling and Calcutta. I would normally go twice a year. In the fall, I’d take dzopchioks to Tibet and trade them for Tibetan horses which everyone liked because they were so strong. I’d take the horses to Sikkim or Nepal. I’d also sell Tibetan goods as I went through Solu to the Indian border.
“Finally, I’d go to Calcutta with the money. What a surprise the first time I went. There were people from all over east India and the British with their trains and cars. In Calcutta, I’d buy cloth and corals to bring back to Khumbu and then Tibet.
“When I was young, I wasn’t very business-like. Once, another man and I finished our business in three days and then spent the next two weeks travelling around learning new songs and dances. On those many trips to Tibet, we’d always sing and dance and have a good time with the people where we stayed. Finally we returned to Khumbu before we spent all our money.”
“The first foreigners that I met were on the early climbing expeditions in Khumbu. I met them because I a village headman. For example, I always remember the anthropologist Haimendorf. He stayed with us a long time after arriving in the middle of the monsoon. The time I met the most foreigners was when I went to America with the yeti scalp.”
Khonjo Chombi brings out an old photo album and shows me photographs of his tour in the 1960s. Sir Edmund Hillary had led an expedition in 1964 to view and photograph a yeti, the legendary ‘snowman’ of the Himalaya. Early Western explorers had claimed to have seen huge footprints of a two-legged creature in snow on the high passes.
Sherpas have legends of the yeti. About 350 years ago, the ‘patron saint’ of Khumbu, Lama Sangwa Dorje was particularly fond of a yeti who brought him food and water while the he was in meditation retreat. When the yeti died, the Lama put its scalp and hand bones as relics in the Pangboche village gompa. There is also a yeti scalp in Khumjung gompa.
Khonjo Chombi explains, “The foreigners requested that they be allowed to take the scalp to their foreign lands to show it to their doctors. The villagers agreed if one of us could accompany the scalp on its journey around the world. They chose me to go. The foreigners brought in a flying machine that I’d never seen before. I had to get into the machine – now I know it is called a helicopter. We flew to Kathmandu, where I got into a bigger flying machine, with two other men.
“First we went to England. Here is a photograph of me with the Queen,” says Khonjo Chombi as he points out the picture of himself in his traditional Sherpa garb with a young looking Queen Elizabeth.
“Next we went to New York, then Washington.” He shows a photograph of himself and a US president. More photographs followed of Chicago, San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. “They kept looking at our yeti scalp, while I had a good time.”
Just then, a young man enters the room. He tells Khonjo Chombi how he and his wife have lost two babies in the past four years, but they now have a new baby boy. He had asked Tengboche Rinpoche for an auspicious name for the child, and is now here asking Khonjo Chombi to recite the prayers for the child’s naming ceremony.
Khonjo Chombi agrees to come perform the rituals the next day. The man invites me to the party and I accept knowing that to the Sherpas, one helps the host gain merit by receiving their hospitality at these ceremonies.
Both the man and I take our leave. Once outside, he says, “Without Khonjo Chombi we would have so many problems. He tells us the best times to plant potatoes and to dig them; to send livestock to the high pastures, and to bring them down. If there is a quarrel in the village, he is called in to settle the dispute. When he is gone, I don’t know who will be able to replace him.”
Note: Khonjo Chombi passed away in the early 1990s.
Places of Power
Trail across a cliff between Gokyo and Phortse
Prayer flags flutter at a notch in a jagged, rocky ridge. Our group of Sherpas and foreign trekkers has trekked carefully down the narrow track made slippery by snow, ice, and mud.
At the pass is a cairn with prayer flags, a labtsa. Each Sherpa companion places a small stone from the path onto the cairn, giving thanks that our trekking group has safely finished this part of our journey. I follow suit.
Further down the trail, we turn our backs to gusts of wind. In the fury of blowing dust, we hide our faces inside our jackets. Though I see only the ground before me, a vision fills my mind — a hard impact on the back of my head, and then a sudden void.
I react by taking two steps forward…
In that instant, a thick board blown off a nearby hut hits the back of my ankle. Shocked, I feel the pain in my ankle ebbing with the realization that the board would have struck my head if I had not stepped forward.
After the incident, Sherpa friends explain my premonition. “Khumbila, our local mountain god, protects all of us in this Khumbu valley. He may have sent the vision to help you move from harm’s way.”
Two weeks later, I ask Tengboche Rinpoche about the suggestion that the incident was protection from Khumbila. He is quiet for several minutes, and then says, “Yes, Khumbila helped you by bringing that insight. This means of protection works forthe Sherpas because we understand the power of this place. Although you are not Sherpa, you have lived here long enough.”
For years, I have heard of Khumbila, the spiritual guardian of Khumbu, but I have never really understood how he protected the valley’s inhabitants. Wondering about recent disasters, I ask, “How about the giant flood last year? Where was Khumbila then?”
“The flood reminded us to cherish our land. It was going to happen, but very few people were killed. Perhaps Khumbila’s influence held the flood until a day when many people were at a festival high in the yak pastures. Imagine if the flood had happened in October when the trails by the river would have been crowded with Sherpas, porters, and trekkers. Khumbila protected us from that disaster.
Khumbila, the protector of the Khumbu valley
“Khumbila cannot protect everyone from everything. His protection depends on karma, the impending consequences of our behaviour. If your work here was without merit, if you had not been open to our Sherpa way of seeing the world, you may not have been able to see the vision Khumbila offered.”
As a Westerner, I had tried at first to intellectually understand this other way of seeing the world. Being with people with different perceptions and assumptions, I gradually learned to perceive and accept other cultures and ways of life. The total immersion in Sherpa culture led not to a rejection of my culture, but to a realization that other ways of being work for people in different geographic situations.
The people of the Himalaya believe the mountain peaks, ridges, passes, fields and homes are the abodes of deities representing the power of the place. The prayer flags, ceremonies, and little rituals of everyday life in these places acknowledge some greater power.
The Sherpas’ lives embrace extremes: folk belief and a profound spirituality, loneliness and social obligation, deprivation and abundance. The existence of one extreme doesn’t rule out the possibility of its opposite.
For the Sherpas, Khumbila is the short name of the Khumbu-yul-lha, “Khumbu country- god”. He is the protector of the land, people, and religion of the Khumbu. He is shown riding a great white horse and carrying a tall banner. Rinpoche says, “Khumbila wears the traditional turban-like headgear that men wore in the old days.
When I was a boy, the mountain had a ring of snow, like the headdress, at its summit.”
Rinpoche tells how the Sherpas’ ancestors brought books from Tibet describing the mountain and a valley that would be a refuge for people fleeing trouble in Tibet. At the centre of this valley is the mountain Khumbila, the abode of the protector deity.
Sherpas and Tibetans also believe that Everest is the abode of the goddess Jomo Miyo Langsangma. This lovely resident of the earth’s highest place is one of the five Long-Life Sisters inhabiting peaks of the Himalaya. Tengboche Rinpoche describes her:
Jomo Miyo Langsangma resides on Everest.
She is the goddess of humans and rides a red tiger. Miyo Langsangma is very pretty. Her skin is orange and bright, flowers wreathe her head, and she wears many colours of silk cloth. She holds a long bowl of food in her right hand and a mongoose that spits out wealth in her left.”
Legends say this goddess distributes wealth and good fortune. In modern times, expeditions and treks to Everest have brought affluence to many Sherpas. At the start of each expedition, Sherpa crews perform rituals to appease the goddess before entering her abode.
The Khumbu Icefall above Everest Base Camp
The Tengboche monks are conscious that the ridge where the monastery sits is the abode of a minor female deity, a lhamo. This day is the annual ritual at the cairn on the ridge to honour the goddess of this place.
The ridge above Tengboche is 3,000 feet higher than the main Khumbu villages and surrounded by mountains. It rises from forestedslopes to a jagged summit plastered with finely fluted snow. At a low crest of the ridge is a large cairn with prayer flags. This lhapso is a monument acknowledging the power there.
Today, the monks are preparing new flags to place on the lhapso. In the gonda courtyard, two monks are printing flags. The first monk brushes ink onto a wooden block etched with the reverse image of a religious image. He positions a piece of cotton on the block and holds it in place while the other monk runs a roller over the cloth. The image prints onto the fabric. Two older monks stitch the flags onto long bamboo sticks.
Two young monks bound back into the courtyard after the twenty-minute trip up and down the mountainside to deliver flags to the lhapso site.
Each boy grips another armload of bamboo poles against his chest, gingerly balancing the sticks twice as tall as themselves. As they scuffle up the hill, they are careful not to desecrate the flags by letting them touch the ground.
Monks carry low tables, cushions, ritual instruments, and Thermoses of tea up the ridge. They arrange the cushions and tables along the edge of the forest. A middle-aged monk places sculptures of tsampa (barley flour) and butter, called torma, on a ledge on the cairn. The flat ground by the lhapso becomes an outdoor temple.
This lhapso is a stone and plaster cairn six feet high. Standing on top, the prayer leader removes old flags and carefully pushes the new flags’ bamboo poles into its earthen top. Other monks pile the old flags and green juniper boughs onto a smouldering fire. Fragrant smoke billows from the juniper. It signals that the ceremony is ready to start. Half an hour later all the monks finally arrive at the site.
The monks sit facing Khumbila to the west, across the gorge from Tengboche. Behind them, large yellow rhododendron blooms cover the trees. The monks blow horns, clatter cymbals, and chant prayers to the deity of the ridge, who personifies the power of this place.
In the ceremony, Rinpoche recites the prayers with intense concentration. Afterwards, he describes the prayers: “The prayers connect the spiritual with the physical. Our thoughts connect with the power of nature. We restore the harmony between us, nature, and spiritual beings.”
Creating harmony with the environment through prayers at TengbocheIt is not easy living in these mountains. On the narrow trails or in the fields, the immense power of the land can harm or kill. Sherpas do not tame nature; they accommodate this power that is beyond their control. Ceremonies to harmonize humans and nature give people a way to understand their environment.
Sherpas explain the power of their environment through a view that everything exists in two forms: the physical and the spiritual. They may see a god either as a real personality living on a mountaintop or as a symbol of nature’s power.
Their beliefs embrace tiers of explanations with deeper and deeper meanings, but all these rituals and objects of everyday life — the ceremonies, prayer flags, and Mani stones — acknowledge some greater power.
To quote Tibetan writer Thubten Jigme Norbu: “You find prayer flags on hills, mountains, by lakes and always on the crest of passes. It does not really matter whether these spirits exist. What matters is that through these stories we have come to believe that everywhere, all around us, at all times, there is some power that is greater than ourselves.”
Some power greater than ourselves — glaciers on Nuptse
The ritual on the mountainside draws to a close, as the monks’ prayers and horns merge with the whistle of the wind. Smouldering juniper incense mingles with wispy clouds condensing around the mountainside. Smoke from juniper incense mingles with clouds above Tengboche.
As chants and wind seem to merge the metaphysical and the everyday, I appreciate that moment when a metaphysical being might have intervened in my everyday life.
1 Thubten Jigme Norbu and Colin Turnbull, Tibet: Its History, Religion, and People, Penguin Books, 1968. Pg. 32.
From ‘Gaiety of Spirit: The Sherpas of Everest’ copyright: Frances Klatzel 2009