Nepal, September 2017: Lopsang Tshering Sherpa walks around the Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu, a large prayer mala in hand as he spins prayer wheels and chants mantras. Following his angular frame, I am reminded of the story he likes to tell of the 1964 Anglo-Swiss expedition to Dorje Lhakpa, a 6966-meter peak in the Jugal Himal: Lopsang was trudging on a narrow ridge with the Swiss climber Michel Darbellay, who had made the first solo ascent of the Eiger Nordwand a year before.
THE TWO MEN WERE NOW LINKED BY A ROPE, a hundred feet between them. To the north, a glassy slope of blue ice fell away into Tibet. To the south, an equally sheer face plummeted into Nepal. Darbellay told Lopsang that if he slipped off the ridge, Lopsang must jump down the opposite side to break his fall. “I knew that that was an impossible task. If Darbellay fell, there wouldn’t be enough time for me to react,” Lopsang recalls. “But I said to him, ‘Sure. Go on ahead.'”
By then, Lopsang was used to doing near-impossible tasks. “The word ‘no’ did not exist in our vocabulary,” he says of the Sherpa expedition workers of his generation. For him and many others, mountaineering jobs provided the only hope for economic advancement. When he was eighteen, Lopsang left his village in east Nepal for Darjeeling, and Tenzing Norgay, his mother’s famous cousin, took him under his wing. Lopsang enrolled at the prestigious Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, where he learned basic climbing skills and eventually became an instructor.
At the time, Lopsang’s elder brother Wangdi was a well-known sirdar. He brought Lopsang along as a kitchen helper on the 1959 international women’s Cho Oyu expedition, which ended after avalanches swept away two foreign climbers–Claude Kogan and Claudine van der Stratten–and two Sherpa mountaineers, Ang Norbu and Chewang. Three years later, Lopsang’s work on the first ascent of Jannu (Khumbhakarna) established him as talented high-altitude worker. When the French climbers led by Lionel Terray faltered at the edge of a large chasm above Camp II, Lopsang and his fellow Sherpas carried four trees up waist-deep snow and over crevasse-streaked glaciers to create a bridge. As the climb progressed, Lopsang hefted 30kg loads up to 6700 meters. In 1965, on the expedition that led to the first Indian ascent of Chomolungma (Everest), Lopsang climbed to the South Col four times, ferrying oxygen cylinders that weighed nearly 20kg. On each of those sorties, he slept at 7900 meters, without any supplemental oxygen for himself.
Lopsang downplays all these feats, saying that it is the high-altitude Sherpa climbers before him, carriers of loads upwards of 40kg, who are true legends. “I never had the desire to summit any mountain that I ever went to,” he declares. “I was a stickler for discipline, so I only focused on my work.” In 1978 he became the sirdar for the expedition that resulted in the first female and first American ascent of Annapurna. Asked about the most memorable aspect of the climb, he says, “I am proud, even arrogant, about the fact that not even one piece of equipment was lost. There were 250 porters [carrying loads to Base Camp] but not one was hurt.”
Today, Lopsang appears almost eager to distance himself from his own mountain exploits. “Fame and records were for the foreign climbers,” he explains. “I worked for expeditions for my stomach. I said to myself, If I die, so be it. But if I survived, I could feed myself and my family.” To him, the lust to bag peaks or become the best seemed merely like extra baggage to carry. Nonetheless, he tells me he is grateful that his climbing gave him a chance to escape poverty. And although he writes off mountaineering as “something fools do,” he spends more time, now, thinking about the peaks themselves as holy places. In the early 1970s, he’d started studying Buddhist texts and spending time with lamas. As he descended from the heights, he felt changed and cleansed, and he began intoning traditional prayers every time he ate or drank. “I never had a spiritual outlook when I first got into mountaineering,” he says. “But I’ve come to realize now that Nature is sacred. So mountaineering brought me closer to the divine.”