Jim Klobuchar - A Sherpa's Last Day in His Mountains
By Ecumen contributor Jim Klobuchar
The news told of an unseemly traffic jam of climbers on the snow cliffs below the summit of Mt. Everest in the Himalayas of Nepal. High winds threatened to launch avalanches at more than 28,000 feet and stopped the advances of hundreds of climbers strung out for miles on the mountain’s snow ridges.
The news was that never in documented history of Everest climbing had so many climbers been packed together, so high, to the point of burlesque; a way that seemed to make a caricature of the ideal of mountain climbing.
There was no mention in the international press a few weeks earlier of the death of a Sherpa guide and porter named Dawa. This was no particular dereliction by the news industry. Hundreds of Sherpas earn their livelihood, often at risk as guides or load carriers on climbing expeditions; or as trail aids on trekking or hiking expeditions, where they are charged with insuring that less experienced hikers will not interrupt their Himalayan ideal by walking off a cliff.
Dawa died of a stroke while fixing rope protection for a climbing team not from the summit. I’d met him in the years when I organized treks in the Himalaya, but the tears that came with the news for me were for his father, who once told me in his struggling English that we would be forever brothers.
We have trekked together for more than 20 years, in the Solu Khumbu of the Everest district and in the great Annapurna Range It is impossible to do that without bonding, in ways that seem immune to time and distance, with those with whom you share the trail or with the faces of the villagers, their struggles and their smiles. I met Lhakpa in Pokhara beneath the Annapurnas. That part of Nepal, primarily Hindu, is not native land for the Buddhist Sherpas, who live in shadow of Everest miles away. But he was the sirdar or trail leader of the guiding group assigned to our trek. He was old school, not nearly well acquainted with English as the younger guides, but his bronze smile erased all of the linguistic differences. We became friends. He told about his family, one of the sons already a Buddhist monk, about his son Dorje, who would one day make his 15th ascent of Everest, first as a Sherpa load carrier and later as a trusted leader to the summit, first on the rope.
You can’t walk in his mountains, the Himalayas, without being lit not by their immensity but by the history and mystery of them and sometimes the heartbreak. On that hike in the Annapurnas, we found ourselves on an odyssey of sights and sensations, through the shifting cultures of the villages, where life is harsh but not so harsh that it denies the traveler the traditional greeting of “Namaste (nah-ma-stay) which in its most lyrical translation means “I praise the god that lives within you.” Within you, within me. And on the trail you were aware of the caravans of mules whose presence was announced by the sonorous music of their bells filling the mountainscape; and then around the bend in the trail came the lead mule wearing a stately plume of crimson and white. Unreal? No. This is the Himalaya.
And so Lhakpa was leading us now through darkening forests of Himalayan oaks and sycamores, threaded by hanging moss and secret moans. The atmospherics might have been threatening to some in our group; they reminded you of the scenes in the old Snow White film fantasy. But there was no danger here for the romanticists among us. There was no wicked queen in this forest. Annapurna ruled here, the goddess of the harvest in the villagers lore. Ahead the scenes were startling. Waterfalls laced their way hundreds of feet down the forested ravines. Much of this time Lhakpa was quietly threading his prayer beads as he walked, unobtrusively reciting “ Ohm mani padme hum” with each turn of the beads, a prayer to his deities.
And that is how we got acquainted. In the years ahead I sometimes joined him, a little mischievously, in the recital of the beads. He smiled broadly at all of this, understanding that there was no mockery here but rather a light-hearted bonding-–his prayers and mine. I met his family, his wife, the monk, and Dorje and other family members. Dawa, who died on Everest, had to be alike. They built a small tourist lodge in their mountain village of Phortse at 13,000 feet, with a grand view of the of the mountainscape that seemed to stretch forever.
I have been to the Himalayas some 20 times now, almost all of them traveling with friends to elevations at 18,000 feet and beyond. There is no scene like it on earth. I can’t honestly say whether I will travel there again. But if so, Lhakpa will be my first destination, because I owe him one more gift.
On my last visit to our overnight in the trading village of Namche Bazaar, Lhakpa got wind from my trekking bunch that it was my birthday. His friend, the cook Yeltsen, agitated for a birthday cake. I wasn’t supposed to know about it. But Lhakpa was in a fix.
“Jeem,” he said, “how do we get 83 candles on a cake.
I was terrified at the prospect. “Lhakpa,” I said, “I know you are very smart and will figure out a way.”
Three hours later at our dinner in the dining tent he brought a cake with one giant numeral 1 in the middle.
The choral singers in my group weren’t so kind.
About Jim Klobuchar:
In 45 years of daily journalism, Jim Klobuchar’s coverage ranged from presidential campaigns to a trash collector’s ball. He has written from the floor of a tent in the middle of Alaska, from helicopters, from the Alps and from the edge of a sand trap. He was invited to lunch by royalty and to a fist fight by the late Minnesota Viking football coach, Norm Van Brocklin. He wrote a popular column for the Minneapolis Star Tribune for 30 years and has authored 23 books. Retiring as a columnist in 1996, he contributes to Ecumen’s “Changing Aging” blog, MinnPost.com and the Christian Science Monitor. He also leads trips around the world and an annual bike trip across Northern Minnesota. He’s climbed the Matterhorn in the Alps 8 times and has ridden his bike around Lake Superior. He’s also the proud father of two daughters, including Minnesota's senior U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar.