From the Himalayas to Harrow it’s a long way down. But that’s just the way Lhakpa Sherpa, one of the campus security guards, has come. He tells Helen Groom his incredible story.
Lhakpa Sherpa (l) on the summit of Everest
“When I reached the top of Everest I was filled with the most incredible feeling. I have never been more scared and more exhilarated in my life. It is so desolate, so isolated up there, but so beautiful. I knew the mountain could kill me at any time and that I couldn’t relax until everyone else was safe in Base Camp. But it was so spiritual being up in the Himalayas. The mountains are my home, where I belong, and I don’t think I will ever experience anything that compares to being at the summit of Everest.
I was born in a small village in the Himalayas, in the shadow of Mt Everest. The mountains are in the blood of my family. My uncle was Tenzing Norgay who, along with Sir Edmund Hillary, became the first man to reach the summit of Everest. His achievement inspired us all and many of my cousins and brothers became sherpas and followed in his footsteps to the top of Everest.
I’ve climbed Everest five times, working as a sherpa with expeditions between 1985 and 1998. For people born as Sherpas it is a good way to make money. Everest has changed our lives. It has brought tourists and money into our lives. It means we have built schools and a hospital. But there is a price to pay as well. So many people die on the mountain, I have lost many of my friends. I send most of the money I make at Harrow home to support children who have lost their fathers on the mountain.
Everest is such a confusion. It is the most wonderful and the most awful place at the same time. The night is the most dangerous time. You can’t sleep properly because of the incredible cold all around you. I remember one night when I was trying to sleep on the ice. We had secured our tent and were ready for the night. Suddenly we heard the mountain make a cracking sound. Crevasses were opening up all around us. We knew that at the next moment we could fall and die. Somehow we managed to make it to safety, but that sound remains with me.
Sometimes when you’re climbing the snow and the wind comes down around you. You can’t see anything at all. That is when you really believe that you could die there. At times like that all you can do is pray that you won’t die on the mountain. When I was in situations like that I could always see my friends and my family around me, looking after me and telling me to carry on. The mountains are a very spiritual place for the Sherpa people. I suppose they are like gods to me. That is why it is a place where you feel so close to death but more alive than anywhere else on earth.
I was involved in a terrible accident in 1986 when climbing in the Himalayas. I was with a Spanish expedition including three other Sherpas. We were behind the rest of the group because we had stopped for a rest. I heard a roaring noise coming from further up the mountain and I turned and saw a wall of snow rushing towards me. That is the last thing I can remember. I must have managed to cut the ropes holding us all together because when the rescuers found me I was alone. My leg was crushed and I was left lying in the snow for 16 hours. I was airlifted back to Kathmandu and spent 41 days in hospital. The Spanish members of the group managed to escape the avalanche but my three friends and fellow Sherpas were never found.
But the accidents and the deaths of my friends have never discouraged me. I’ve been climbing and going on expeditions for 18 years. It is part of my life. Two years ago by best friend Babu Chiri Sherpa was killed on Everest. He had made the fastest ever ascent of Everest and had spent 21 hours at the summit of Everest without oxygen, a world record. He was an amazing climber but even the most experienced mountaineer can die on Everest. I’ve seen lots of bodies left frozen on the mountain when I’ve been climbing. But I still love climbing and I love the mountains.
The last time I reached the summit of Everest was in 1998. When you get to the top everyone hugs and laughs and has their pictures taken. But as a Sherpa you know how hard it has been to get to the top and you know how hard it will be to get back to the bottom. That is why we don’t celebrate until we are back in Base Camp. Then we know that we will see our families again and that we are safe. I’m almost happier when we return to Base Camp than when we reach the summit.
I wanted to return and climb Everest this year, the fiftieth anniversary of the first successful summit by my uncle and Sir Edmund Hillary. In our society you have to have the blessings of your parents before you can go on an expedition. My parents refused to give permission, they are scared that my luck would run out and I would die, like so many of my friends. I don’t think I will climb Everest again. I have too many responsibilities, too many people relying on me for support. Some Sherpas climb Everest 10 or more times. When I see them I tell them to stop. Sooner or later an accident will happen and another family will be left without a father.
I return to Nepal every year, often leading trekking expeditions thorough the foothills of the Himalayas. We go up to 18,500 feet to Mt Kalapather and we can see Everest in the distance. Everywhere you look is so beautiful and the wildlife is amazing. The scenery is changing all the time and the Tibetan and Nepalese culture draws people back to the area. I like England but Everest and Nepal will always draw me back. The beauty of the mountains is in my blood.”