03 Feb 2017
15 min read
The mountains show no mercy, not even to the skilled. They test the climbers’ limits, and more often than not, leave them disappointed. But they also teach climbers one important lesson—to never give up. In fact, Temba Tsheri Sherpa, one of the youngest people to scale Mt Everest, urges everybody to find their own Everest and work towards reaching the top—just like he did, one step at a time. Since his 2001 ascent of Everest, a lot has changed in the life of the young boy from Rolwaling Valley. As Sherpa recollects his past in this Inspire interview, he shares with Alok Thapa of M&S VMAG that one becomes a stronger and more compassionate person only after scaling the mountains in one’s life.
Why do people climb mountains?
Climbing mountains, for me, is the purest form of exploration. For Sherpas, it mostly has to do with identity, earning a livelihood and a passion for tall peaks. And although it can get tiring, uncertain, lonely and dangerous up in the mountains, for our community, it’s a way of life.
When you think about your childhood, what are the things that stand out?
When I think about my childhood, I see barren landscapes and harsh conditions but a lot happy faces who made the best out of challenging situations. I grew up in a small village, Tashinam, Gauri Shankar, perched at 2,500 metres. Summers were spent farming potatoes, and we spent most winters migrating to lower areas to escape the harsh cold. During the tourist season, both my parents worked as porters. They went out for months, and upon their return, brought back several stories—listening to these stories was my favourite pastime. One story that’s still stuck with me is the one about how my mother ascended Thorang La Pass, 5,416 metres, carrying 40 kgs, with torn clothes and no shoes. Despite difficult conditions, she endured and made it back to her three children.
“When I think about my childhood, I see barren landscapes and harsh conditions but a lot happy faces who made the best out of challenging situations”
No shoes, up in the mountain—that doesn’t sound reassuring. Were these stories not a deterrent for an aspiring mountaineer?
I remember working in the fields in the bitter cold, without shoes, and not thinking much of it. That’s just the way of life for many of us. Of course, what we faced was nothing compared to what our elders had to endure. My parents were hardworking people, and they didn’t let anything stop them from providing opportunities and education for my two brothers and me.
What were some of the best moments from your childhood?
Most of them were related to the times when my father returned from his trekking expeditions. He needed to be away for months during the tourist season, and when he came back, he brought gifts—biscuits, noodles and chocolates. The whole village—comprising mostly of our relatives—came to greet my father. When you survive to tell a story in the mountains, that calls for a celebration. I think growing up in this environment has helped me appreciate little moments in life; it has also helped me become a stronger and better person today.
You started scaling the peaks at an early age; what got you into it?
Whenever I heard news on the radio about local mountaineers and read about their achievements on paper, I wanted to do what they were doing. I also got jealous when I saw locals talking to foreigners in English, and I really wanted that life. I started assisting my uncle at his trekking agency, and by the time I turned 13, I had already scaled the smaller peaks. I use the term ‘small’ in reference to the mighty Everest, which I decided to climb after successfully scaling the Island Peak in 1999.
Your first attempt at scaling the mighty peak went terribly wrong. Tell us about it.
I would use the word ‘unpredictable’ to best describe mountaineering—from the weather to your mood to how your life may be after a climb. Even well-prepared climbers who begin their ascent on sunny days and make it to the summit cannot predict whether the weather will turn against them before they can make it down safely. In the year 2000, I had to abandon my dream at a mere 22 metres away from the peak of Everest. The harsh conditions robbed me of my five fingers—three fingers on the right and two on the left—and nearly left me blind. But because I lived to tell the tale, there was almost nothing that scared me after that. The climb wasn’t too bad also because I got to celebrate my 15th birthday en route to the top of the world. I don’t think many people can boast about that.
So when you finally summited Everest at the age of 16, did it live up to your expectations?
If you’re asking me if I had one of those dramatic reactions when I reached the top, then I’m sorry to disappoint you—I didn’t. We had climbed from the south side of Everest (from China), and just before reaching the peak, I had a sudden burst of energy. I started speed walking until I got to the top. The weather was perfect that day, and the sky was so blue that looking at it directly hurt my eyes. There were mountains everywhere, and I stood on the top taking in the view for about 10 minutes. Then I took a few photos and headed down. Like I said, it was a very normal, “Okay, I did it”, kind of experience. On my way down, though, I had a near-death experience. I nearly slipped into a crevice, and had I not grabbed onto a rope, I would have perished. At that point, I remember thinking, “Temba, you’re finished.”
When you became the youngest person to summit Mt Everest in 2001, according to the Guinness Book of Records, how did it change your life?
The attention I got felt very flattering. I enjoyed that phase of my life, but it also felt funny when people started noticing me. Meanwhile, I was also going through the struggles of being a teenager—attending college and trying to get good grades. I am indebted to Siddhartha Vanasthali Institute for providing me and my brother with scholarships and a place to stay. And it was because of that education that I later got the opportunity to go to Wuhan University in China to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration.
After overcoming such difficulties, I’m sure starting your own business was not that daunting a prospect?
When I returned to Nepal with big dreams, I was greeted by a city cloaked in darkness—load shedding. After spending a few days with my family, I realised that starting a business was not going to be easy. In fact, I was close to giving up. Of course, the thought of going back to mountaineering did occur, but since I had been away from it for so long, I thought that it’d be better if I started a venture of my own. I decided to use my experiences in the mountains to become a part of the tourism industry. I opened a travel agency called Dreamers Destination with a few of my fellow climbers. Recently, I have started my own venture—Sherpa Khangri Outdoor—too, which is a trekking and expedition agency that provides bed-and-breakfast facilities to adventure-seeking travellers in Kathmandu.
“Tourism in Nepal has just scratched the surface of what’s possible”
I’m amazed that despite the hardships you’ve faced, you retain an infectious and positive attitude. Do you ever have moments when you doubt life?
I always think that my life could have been worse—I might have died or gone blind. However, after the 2015 earthquakes, I was faced with a disaster of unprecedented order; we lost two houses, one in the village where I was born and a small guesthouse for trekkers that my parents were running. I also lost my business, my friends and clients at Everest Base Camp. That was a difficult time for me. However, I believe that people must learn to move on; just like in the mountains, you need to take it one step at a time before you can scale the summit.
So what is Temba’s current state of mind?
I like the way my life has turned out. I’m very satisfied with my new venture in Nepal’s tourism industry, and I would like to do something that’ll make a difference in my society and country.
What have mountains taught you?
Mountains have taught me everything. I’m sitting in front of you giving this interview because of the mountains. And I think that it’s important for Nepalis to realise that the mountains are not just a means of sustenance for the Sherpa community; it’s the identity of the whole nation. Tourism in Nepal has just scratched the surface of what’s possible; there’s so much that can be done.