A Sherpa on His Journey to Become a ‘Mountain Man’

A Nepali Sherpa on Becoming Mountain Man

It was Michel who, after seeing my work, inspired me to do a story on the life of Sherpas — a community well-known in the mountaineering world for their huge contributions and achievements. I met Thile for less than two hours at The Castle Resort in Pokhara a night before he would disappear in mountains — this time with Michel and his wife Marie Lyne.

Before he left, Thile and I agreed to meet again once they returned from their trek. I wanted to talk about his life as a mountain man, his struggles, his childhood, his family, and about his project focused on the well-being of people in his village.

A few days later, I was at the International Hotel in Kathmandu with Thile. We ordered coffee and cakes and sat down at a quiet place. He did not have much time on hand but he was willing to give me as much time as possible because we didn’t know when we would get this chance again.

Even though we were constantly being hammered by the construction work going on nearby and the rumbling aircrafts occasionally flying above us, we continued our conversation in which Thile opened up about his life — from a child growing up in a village, to how he became a ‘Sherpa.’

Sherpas: A Brief Introduction

The term ‘Sherpa’ derives from ‘Sharwa’ which is a combination of two words Shyar (East) and Pa (people) in Sherpa language — meaning Easterners or Eastern people. They are believed to have migrated from Kham region of Tibet and settled down mainly in Eastern Nepal. Communities of Sherpas are found in parts of Nepal, India, Tibet, Bhutan, and China, among other parts of the world.

People from Sherpa community were not always mountaineers, even though living in the mountains for hundreds of years. They saw mountains as homes of the gods, and considered it blasphemous to climb a sacred mountain.

Somewhere between the bottom of the climb and the summit is the answer to the mystery why we climb. – Greg Child

But today when we talk about mountaineering, we can not ignore the Sherpas, such is their contribution. The most notable Sherpa was Tenzing Norgay who, along with Edmund Hillary, became the first people known to have reached the summit of Mount Everest in 1953. There are numerous records held by people from the Sherpa community including the youngest Everest climber in the world (Temba Tsheri), the fastest climber from Everest Base Camp to the summit (Pemba Dorje), and the highest number of successful Everest ascents (Apa Sherpa).

I was eager to know about Sherpas and their life within and beyond mountains, and Thile provided me with the opportunity by willing to share his story. So When I had a chance to sit down with him — even for a short time — I gladly took it.

About Himself

Me: Thank you for taking time to join me today, Thile. In the beginning, I would like to thank Michel and Marie Lyne for introducing me to you and motivating me about my work. To begin with, can you please tell me something about yourself?

Thile: Thank you Parvez, for taking interest in my life and project. My name is Thile and I am from a village in Solukhumbu district which is about 280 KMs from Kathmandu. My village is beautiful but it’s hard to find work there. I am currently settled in Kathmandu with my family.

Me: Thile, your full name is ‘Thile Lama Sherpa.’ What does ‘Lama’ stand in your name?

Thile: Lama is one of the ‘thars’ (clans) of Sherpas. There are different thars including Chiawa, Khambache, Pinasa among others and Lama is one of them.

Me: Is ‘thar’ like a cast? Does it designate a difference in class, like upper or lower class or caste?

Thile: No, there’s no difference of class or caste among these clans but there’s an old tradition that a person from one clan can not marry the person of the same clan. For example, as a Lama, I can not marry a girl from Lama clan because she is considered as my sister.

About His Childhood, Family, and Life in Kathmandu

Me: Thile, I am interested in knowing about your childhood and how your life used to be in the village.

Thile: About forty years ago, my village was a remote place lacking basic facilities. We have struggled through this hard life to reach where we are now. In present time, the village has transportation, electricity, and other facilities but still there’s a lot of work to be done.

Me: Tell me something about your family — your father, mother, and siblings.

Thile: I… don’t have much memory about my father. In fact, I don’t even know how old I was when he passed away. All I know is that my father was an artist who used to paint monasteries etc. In his time, he was considered as ‘famous’ because of his art — something which not many people could do. I don’t remember his face, but I have blurred memories of him sitting at home and painting.

A Sherpa Kid in Nepal
Credit: Kiril Rusev on Flickr

When my father was alive, our condition used to be better because of the value of his work. After he passed away, my mother suddenly had a lot of responsibilities to deal with, including us four siblings — a sister and a brother elder than me, myself, and a sister younger than me. My mother later brought us to Kathmandu, hoping she could find work and make a living.

Me: How was your life after coming to Kathmandu? What difference did you see between the life in the village and in this big city?

Thile: When we came to Kathmandu for the first time, we were very happy because we had heard a lot about the city. It was a huge difference between the life in our village and in Kathmandu. There were many people from our village already settled here. We stayed with them in the beginning, my mother worked here and there, and slowly she rented a room for us.

My elder sister was married by then and had settled in West Bengal, India, living in a better condition. So my mother decided to move there with the rest of us. We started a small business there and began making a living.

Some small houses in a village in Solukhumbu Nepal
A small house in a village in Solukhumbu (Credit: Thile Lama Sherpa)

As days passed, my brother became a painter like my father. I on the other hand, always thought of working in the mountains. So after my mother and siblings settled down, I came back to Kathmandu. For people from Sherpa community, it was easier to find work in the field of trekking. Some of my uncles were guides and I thought I would find work here because of their links and contacts.

On His Journey Towards Becoming A ‘Mountain Man’

Me: So, how did you become a trekking guide?

Thile: My life after coming back to Kathmandu, was not as easy as I had thought. I had no idea about trekking, I had never done it — which was a drawback for me in finding work. Still, one of my uncles guided me and helped me enter the world of trekking. You generally start as porter in order to become a trekking guide. But my uncle made me meet his friends and in the beginning, I started as an assistant to guides. I was neither a porter nor a guide, which was easier. But I wasn’t going to find work as easily forever. Not everyone was going to hire a stranger as an assistant. If I wanted to become a guide, I had to work as a porter and so I did.

I don’t want to portray the guides in a negative way, but the work as a porter used to be very difficult at that time — it still is, but not as bad as before. Some of these guides used to show requirements of 10 porters and would take only 6 with them — making themselves a lot of money. That means 6 porters would carry the weight supposed to be carried by 10 porters.

For in my heart, I needed to go. The pull of Everest was stronger for me than any force on earth. – Tenzing Norgay

There was no system in place and no one talked about our rights. If they said we had to carry 40 KGs or even 50 KGs weight, we had to do it. No one could complaint. Some porters had to abruptly return from the trek because they could not continue in such situations. I also returned this way 2-3 times because I could not handle it.

Thile with a Family in Solukhumbu Nepal
Thile with a Family in His Village (Credit: Thile Lama Sherpa)

During those days, if you were fit and knew the way, you would be hired as a guide. These guides, not all, but some of them, used to treat the porters badly. They wouldn’t care if a porter was able to carry on, if he fell down, if he was injured. All they cared about was to reach the destination with their guests. I worked as a porter in such situations for some time and made friends. I asked them if they had work for me and slowly learned the work.

Staying and dining in lodges while trekking was not much popular during those days. Trekkers preferred camping and there used to be a good demand for cooks. I decided that I would not work as a porter but as an assistant to these cooks. This wasn’t any easier, though. These assistants had to carry a lot of weight, wake up before everyone else, cook for the whole group, clean up after everyone, and would be the last one to go to sleep. We were the last ones to start walking but had to be the first one to reach the next stop and start preparing the meals again.

Human life is far more important than just getting to the top of a mountain. – Edmund Hillary

I was determined to learn this work and that’s what I did. This way I got familiar with trekking routes, found work as a cook, and got more experienced. Slowly I started leading small groups or solo trekkers and received good feedback. When they would come back for trekking, they would prefer to do it with me and this way I built good relations.

This made me focused on being a guide but then language was a hurdle. I haven’t been to school and could not speak English. There were plenty of places to learn English in Kathmandu and I began learning the language bits by bits. Then came the time of emails and my guests started staying in touch with me through that. The agencies I worked with were satisfied with me and so were my guests.

About His Life: Then and Now

Me: From an assistant to a porter, a cook, and now trekking guide — you have came a long way, Thile. What is the difference between your life in the beginning and now?

Thile: Before, I used to work for others. Now, I work for myself (he runs a tour agency – E.B.C. Treks and Expedition in Kathmandu). I have met plenty of people and made a lot of friends from around the world. Our situation is way better than it used to be after the death of my father. I am happy and satisfied with what I have achieved so far but I feel there’s still a lot to do and I am working towards that.

If I want to stay in Kathmandu forever, I have to work a lot as living cost is high here. There are many people I know who have stopped working in this field and have started doing something else or went back to their villages. It’s a seasonal job and it can be hard to find work, especially once you reach a certain age. I do not want to end up in that situation so I want to work as much as possible.

About Mountain Women: Mothers, Sisters, Wives of Mountain Men

Me: When we talk about Sherpas, we often talk about mountain ‘men.’ What about the women? What is their role in making a man a ‘mountain man?’

Thile: Our success can not be imagined without the huge contribution of women. When their son or husband is trekking in the mountains, there’s a lot of stress in their mind about the man’s well-being. They constantly have to deal with the thoughts about when and if at all, they will return. Moreover, we men make money but that’s not everything. Women are the ones who manage the households — both in our presence and absence. So yes, women play a big role in making us who we are.

One Memorable Experience or Person

Me: Thile, you have met plenty of people during your treks and must have had many memorable experiences. Share with me one such experience.

Thile: I will never forget an old client and friend I had done many treks with. We used to be very good friends and once he sent his friends to Nepal to trek with me. I personally could not go with them but made sure to organise everything for them. Their trek was a success and they left for their country with satisfaction.

I had no idea what happened after that, but since then, my good friend stopped being in touch with me. I used to write him during festivals etc. but I stopped receiving response from him. I didn’t know if he was angry with me because I could not go trekking with his friends or if it was something else. Whatever it was, we had lost touch.

Thile with New Stoves at a Factory
Thile with new stoves at a factory in Kathmandu (Credit: Thile Lama Sherpa)

For a long time, there was not a single word from him. When Nepal was hit by the earthquake in 2015, we all were horrified and trying to find out if everyone was safe. This is when I received a call from a foreign number. I could not immediately recognise who was on the other side of the phone. But when I did, I could not believe my ears. It was my friend Peter with whom I had lost touch for a long time! Peter sounded nervous and worried. He asked me if we were okay.

The unexpected call from this old friend in the time of distress gave me a lot of positive feeling. We are not in constant contact, but whenever I remember that call, I feel very good. Among all the experiences, this is one of the most memorable for me.

About His Project of Eco-friendly Stoves

Me: When we met in Pokhara, you and Michel told me abut a project of yours about eco-friendly stoves. Can you tell me more about it?

Thile: There are many people from my village who have made a name for themselves in Nepal and abroad. They have made good money and lead a prosperous life. But most of them have never looked back at their village and helped others who are still living a hard life.

I had been planning about this project for a long time — for almost 13 years — and have recently achieved success after saving whatever money I could save for it. This project is aimed at providing eco-friendly stoves to the households of my village.

Me: What was the inspiration behind this project?

Thile: When I go and meet people in the village for a cup of tea etc, I see how they cook using the traditional stove. Their faces, utensils, ceilings, and walls — all turns black from the use of these stoves. I feel uncomfortable after spending just five minutes there because of the smog these stoves create. And I thought, these people have to spend their whole life in this situation when I can’t deal with it for even five minutes.

A Traditional Wooden Stove in Solukhumbu
A Traditional Wooden Stove in a House (Credit: Thile Lama Sherpa)

During my treks in the Everest region, I used to see these different stoves which were more systematic, created less smog, and used less wood. But these stoves were also more expensive and could not be afforded by families in my village. This is when I decided that I would take this project seriously and would help providing these stoves to people with the lowest income.

Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory. – Ed Viesturs

This caused a kind of jealousy in other households. Even those who could afford these stoves were not willing to buy one and it made me come to a decision — I will provide these stoves to everyone — even to those who can buy for themselves — because I can’t see them in such situation. Even though they are suffering, they will not go ahead and make this change, so I will.

Just recently, I purchased 30 such stoves and distributed in the village. The benefit of these stoves is that they throw the smoke out, uses less wood, and overall improves the living condition of the household. I and the 30 households I have provided these stoves are satisfied with the results. I am not doing it for fame but I feel proud because people are happy with my project.

A Woman In Solukhumbu Nepal
A Woman After Receiving a New Stove (Credit: Thile Lama Sherpa)

The cost to make one such stove in Kathmandu, deliver it in the village, and to do the fittings etc. is about $350. It’s not possible for me as of now to distribute more stoves but I am trying to continue this project as much as I can by saving up whatever money possible. I have never asked for donations about this project but if there’s someone who would be willing to contribute, I will be very happy about that.

A Sherpa on His Life, Struggles and Becoming A Mountain Man: Summary

When I got a chance to meet Thile, I saw a great opportunity to understand more about the life and hardships of Sherpas. I took whatever time we had on hand to get to know about his life and I wish we had more time so I could cover everything I had hoped for. There are plenty of other topics I would love to touch when I have the next chance and possibly, document the life of Sherpas in the mountains.

This article is dedicated to Michel and Marie Lyne who saw something special in my work and persuaded me to achieve more. Thanks to their kind and genuine comments about my work, I had the courage to take it to a higher level where I would be doing more such stories and presenting the lives of people to the rest of the world.

Traditional Dance in Solukhumbu Nepal
Traditional Dance in Solukhumbu (Credit: Thile Lama Sherpa)

Note: The conversation has been translated from Hindi to English and the author has taken liberty to change some words/sentences where deemed appropriate.

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