I first set my eyes on the spindly thin boy of nineteen way back in 1998. He was an oddity in that august gathering of mountaineers. Our international team had assembled at Leh, en route to a high and dangerous peak in one of the remotest corners of the East Karakoram that we intended to climb via a new route. We were a bunch of highly seasoned climbers drawn from four countries, including two super-stars from the European Alps. Our Sherpas were from Darjeeling, each one a veteran with at least a dozen peaks of 7000 m plus under his belt. Even our cook had climbed four peaks of notoriety. It was a dangerous expedition and we had assembled one of the best teams of that year in the Himalaya. As we, the climbers and the bosses, were introduced to our staff, I noticed this shy, diminutive (barely reaching 150 cm) boy with bright eyes crouched behind the senior Sherpas. The head Sherpa did not even bother to introduce him to us, merely waving at his direction, ‘he is a helper, from my village,’ was all that we learned about him on the first meeting. The next morning as our caravan of vehicles spiraled up towards Khardung La, I wondered about the boy with the bright eyes and one of the most radiant smiles I had ever seen in my life.
From the road head, we had a grueling march of more than 10 days across snow bound passes and torrential rivers before we reached our glacier. During these days, I noticed that Ang Tashi was always at the forefront of activities and somehow, his performance improved with altitude. Being the youngest in the team and apparently on his first expedition, he was everyone’s odd job man. I doubted if he slept at all during the night. He served tea first thing in the morning and would be seen cleaning and washing late into the night, well after everyone else had snored away to glory.
On any expedition, I preferred to spend more time with the staff, learning their details, antecedents, sharing their lives, jokes, food, etc since they were the foundation on which we would climb. I enjoyed helping in the kitchen, much to the astonishment of my fellow climbers and the cook. So I bumped often into Ang Tashi and would always wonder about his perpetual happiness and his bright smile. He opened up slowly to me. One evening, post dinner, while my friends were busy writing diaries or playing bridge, I wound up on a rock a little away from the tents to gaze up at the sky. Galaxies, stars and planets sparkled above. I was nearly lost in the planetary maze when I heard a voice, ‘Sir, why do you always look up at the sky after dinner?’ Ang Tashi had brought me the night tea. ‘Have you finished your work?’ I asked. ‘I can always do it later, when everyone is sleeping.’ He sat down at a distance from me. I called him nearer and over the next two hours we traveled in outer space, leaping across galaxies and supernovae. In my enthusiasm, I told him the origin of universe, forming of the heavenly bodies, gravitational pulls, etc little realizing that this illiterate Sherpa boy would not understand any of these, leave aside remembering them later. The next evening, he amazed me with his memory and understanding. That night he learnt about astro-navigation and finding directions using stars and sun and moon.
With his inhibitions now lowered considerably, at least with me, he visited my tent in the days too, inquiring about anything and everything in sight. By the time we pitched our Base Camp on the glacier, Ang Tashi knew every single piece of climbing equipment and all the knots that I could teach. His ability to understand, grasp and remember everything down to the minutest details impressed everyone, including his fellow Sherpas, and suddenly Ang Tashi was called more often for work outside the kitchen then inside, much to the chagrin of our cook.
As a community, Sherpas are among the happiest, simplest and hardiest bunch of people on Earth. Born and bred 10,000 ft above sea level they are naturally adept for high altitude, with flared nose, slit eyes, higher RBC count and short stature with lower CG. Essentially Hindus, they are god fearing, worship nature in any form, loyal to death, impeccably honest and strong as a yak. Sherpas are invaluable for any high altitude big size Himalayan expedition due to their ability to carry impossibly heavy loads with relative ease. Their naturally cheerful disposition and resourcefulness is an asset for such extreme expeditions. I have known Sherpas all my life, both famous and unknown and they stood among some of my best friends. But never before had I seen one who was inquisitive and intelligent as Ang Tashi. Normally a Sherpa does his job and at the end of the day retires to his corner to gossip with his fellow Sherpas. He doesn’t mix up with the climbers much and does not ask questions either.
Ang Tashi literally became my shadow, following me all over the glacier, helping me ferry loads across crevasses and glacial streams with ease borne out of genes rather than training. This was his first mountain and glacier. Though I wanted to take him higher, it was decided that the mountain was far too dangerous and difficult for Ang Tashi’s inexperience and he would not climb above Camp 1. Seeing his downcast face, I promised him that he would be a part of all my expeditions from now on and we would climb his first peak together.
On a particularly difficult and bad weather day, as I staggered under a heavy pack, I found Ang Tashi resting by a big boulder, with his sack atop the rock. Ang Tashi and resting was a highly unusual sight, so I inquired if he was alright and he nodded smilingly. Later when he reached a little behind me at Camp 1 and returned, I tried to shift his sack to a different location and found that I could barely move it, leave aside actually lifting it to my back. We were at 21,500 ft and even a kg of weight seemed crushing. I got the weighing scale and discovered to my horror that Ang Tashi had pulled an unbelievable weight of 46 kg that day from the Base to Camp 1; a distance of 18 km, an ascent of 6000 ft with the route dotted with innumerable crevasses and glacial streams.
I met him several years later on another expedition and saw that none of his enthusiasm, super human strength, smiles or climbing abilities had diminished even an inch. This time too he missed the summit since he was still the youngest and least experienced in the team and I was not the leader. For a Sherpa, summit is very important as his wage rates increase proportionally to the number of peaks he has climbed. Later that year I sponsored him to undergo the Basic and Advance mountaineering course, both of which he topped. In the next expedition, he came within touching distance of the summit but sacrificed it for a member who had to be brought down. It was a glittering and prized summit and all the other Sherpas were reluctant to go down, but Ang Tashi volunteered without hesitation. I felt sad for him.
As he started down, literally carrying the injured member on his back, he smiled at me, ‘I am happy, I am going down as I would have climbed to the top without you if I continued. I want my first summit to be with you.’ As I watched him abseil off into the falling snow, I felt a knot around my throat.
Then came the year 2003 and Kamet. Punctuating the azure at 7756 meters, Kamet is the third highest peak in India and is really high by any standards. It has seen several ascents by its normal Meade’s Col SE route. This route, though not overtly difficult technically, was still a serious challenge, merely due to the altitude. The summit camp was placed at around 7100 meters and the climber had to spend at least a night at that height. I occupied the summit camp one noon along with two members and two Sherpas including Ang Tashi. It was a bad weather day, with hurricane winds lashing us brutally. We struggled to pitch our tents even as the snowflakes tore at our skin like cat-o-nine-tails.
The worsening weather persisted through the night and we had a brief period of calm in the morning. The reddening sky to the east did not look hospitable and I dispatched the two members and one Sherpa to the nearer and lower peak of Abi Gamin. They reached the summit in less than three hours and then descended further to the lower camps. This left Ang Tashi and I at the summit camp. The second night at that altitude seemed bitterer. The bad weather lulled to a still sky towards midnight. The temperature had plunged to a mortifying 30 deg below zero. We dressed in silence, only the metal from our hardware, clanging like bells into the silent night. Ang Tashi brought me tea and biscuit. Around two am when we stepped out of the tent, a gossamer moon danced across the black sky. The hard ice crunched beneath our boot. I could not feel my hand and fingers, they were stiff with cold. Few hours into the climb my body warmed up considerably, and with that an idea germinated.
No one had ever attempted Kamet by its unknown and unseen North West ridge route. We were laterally few hundred meters from this ridge and all we needed to do was to traverse to our right and step off on the other side. I knew it was a highly impulsive decision, something that I had not planned, not studied, and had no knowledge about and something that I would certainly forbid someone else to undertake. Simply put, it was insane.
Having planned for the normal route, we barely had any technical tool or protection. From my memory, I recalled that the NW ridge was rather steep and offered mixed pitches of bulging rock and ice rather than the straightforward ice pitches on our intended route. I checked our bags and discovered one 40 m 8 mm rope and two ice screws along with five carabiners. No extra slings, or quickdraws, no pitons, no snow stakes, no static rope. While I upturned our bags, rummaging and muttering through the meager contents, Ang Tashi observed me silently. I looked up, ‘I plan to go to that side,’ I pointed into the darkness, ‘I don’t know anything about that route, and I don’t think we have sufficient equipment to tackle it, but I want to go for it. Will you come with me?’ I said. Ang Tashi smiled, and nodded. ‘You are sure?’ I stressed. ‘It could get dangerous, could kill us.’ I emphasized. I was hesitant to endanger this young boy’s life. His smile only broadened, if anything. Re-shouldering our packs, we traversed gingerly over the hard ice face and stepped off into the unknown.
It was still dark and our headlamps did not illuminate much of the way up or down and we plodded up on our front points steadily with the rope shimmering like a live snake between the two. It was pre-decided that I would lead all the way to the top. Little later when the twilight broke the horizon to our east across Tibet and the first rays hit us, I looked up and gasped at my first sight of the NW ridge that swept up and fell away from us forever. It was less of a ridge and more of a face. The angle ranged anywhere between 60 – 75 degrees with massive ice chutes and flutings rushing down giddily over us, interspaced with bulging rocks all the way to the top and then some. The face fell far off far below us, into the west side in one giant wave of smooth ice. Any tumble or slip will see us hurtling endlessly into the void and disappear from the face of earth forever. My altimeter declared that we were only at about 7300 m with almost the entire climb and hardest pitches still above. We were perhaps at that moment on the only relatively gentle slope of the face. I dug in my crampons harder and carved a platform out of the hard ice and hunched down to recuperate and reconsider. Ang Tashi climbed up to my level and followed suit. He must have sensed something wrong seeing my face, but he seemed unconcerned and whistled his tunes as before.
I looked up and down and left and right. Our earlier SE route, the gentler slope laughed openly at us from the right. It was still reachable if I wanted to. We had not yet crossed that proverbial point of no return. There was no reason to be foolhardy or adventurous. We did not have adequate equipment to tackle the NW route and Tashi was not really the ideal companion for the same. With another climber of similar skill I would have taken the chance even with the lack of equipment. I knew about his family, his sister studying, his ill parents, his young wife, etc. I did not have any right to endanger him any more than necessary. Yet, I found myself reluctant to leave the NW route. It pulled me back to its glistening slopes, daring me to step up. Could I do it alone, I wondered, perhaps or perhaps not! I did not know; I will never know if I did not attempt and succeeded or fell in the attempt. It is impossible to describe the fatal charm of such situations. I have lived my life doing dangerous and reckless things and I lived by the probability theory of halves. On such occasions I had exactly 50 % chance of getting killed and 50 % chance of coming out of the ordeal alive. Being the perennially stubborn optimist, I always sidestepped the first half and grabbed onto the latter convincing myself that all will be well at the end. Though I had another fallback; I knew little palmistry and always marveled at the healthy and considerably long line in my right hand palm that I had been taught depicted ‘life’.
The sun was rolling up and the day was shortening. We had absolutely no time to waste. I looked at my companion, ‘Tashi, we are in a difficult situation, as you can see, the climb is dangerous and difficult above and we cannot fall. Are you willing to continue?’ ‘Sir,’ Tashi spoke, ‘I will follow you wherever you go, this will be my first summit, I know and you have to keep your promise. I know you will not fail.’ I wish I felt as confident. I stretched my cramped limbs and faced the icy slope. In the next hour we crossed the point of no return. With the rope dangling from my waist, I could not climb fast, the altitude further making progress laborious. The ice was in good condition but was highly unpredictable and the steepening gradient needed utmost caution. We climbed using dynamic belay. Two hours into the climb, the face became a maddening maze of ice flutings and crashing rock slabs. I willed my mind to freeze lest it panicked. We were on highly dangerous grounds and a mistake was not an option any more. Little later, as I stood clipped on to the ice screw and belayed Tashi up to me, I reached one of the most insane decisions of my life. I was almost sure that sooner or later one of us would peel off and fall to his death. That person being me seemed more probable simply because I was tiring out fast and my injured right leg was not working well. If one fell he would certainly take the other along with him and both would plunge to a horrible end. Unroped, at least Tashi had a fair chance of making it to the top or getting away alive. I asked him to unclip and stash the rope away into his sack. Tashi obeyed me unquestioningly. In retrospect I wonder if I had another companion that day, what would have happened!
Now we climbed almost like a pair, with Tashi barely a meter away and lower to my left side but we were independent of each other and if one fell the other would be untouched. Though my limbs shook with the strain and I had to call upon my entire life’s experience and last iota of strength to stay alive, Tashi looked unconcerned and simply aped my moves mechanically. Every time I stopped to catch a breath or to lower one arm to regenerate some circulation I would find Tashi, like magic, right by my side, gently handing over his water bottle or a biscuit to my hungry mouth. He would clip me to his ice axe and let me relax my legs while levitating miraculously on empty air. He never left my side, never preceded me or said a single word. Words were unnecessary; he understood my each move, my every need. In my selfish desire to do the face and to stay alive I did not notice then that all through that punishing day, Tashi had not partaken a single sip of water or any of the biscuits or chocolates or energy drinks, saving everything for me. Outnumbering him by a decade and half in experience, skills and survival instincts, I never realized when he had assumed the role of the protector and I the protected. But for him that would have remained my last climb or the last of anything that I did in this life.
The climb lasted for 14 hours and when we finally stepped on the summit dome, into the fading light of the moribund sun, I collapsed on the snow and thanked my lucky stars. The weather had again deteriorated and the blizzard lashed us from all sides. The roaring wind tore the words away from my mouth as I hugged Tashi to my chest and we did a jig to celebrate his first and my umpteenth summit. The sharp shooting pain, like million needles piercing my skin, that coursed through my hands brought me back to my senses. Both my hands were frozen stiff and it was the tell-tale sign of first degree frost bite. I beat my hands maddeningly on the ground, against my legs, against anything, to get back circulation. Tashi instantly took off his gloves and opened my gloves as well. His skin was still warm and he rubbed and kneaded my blanched palms into his. Intermittently he would insert my bare hands inside his jacket and again rub vigorously. He was simply using his instincts. After several minutes blood started rushing into the peripheral capillaries and I realized, as my hands started throbbing painfully that once again I had cheated frost bite. He put fresh down mittens on my hand and grinned from ear to ear. We paid our final obeisance to the mountain god and headed down into the pandemonium that now threatened to blow us apart. As our heads dropped below the summit crown, Tashi screamed at the top of his voice, ‘Sir, it is bit cold,’ and led the way down with his signature smile intact. It was the understatement of the decade; was all my frozen brain could think of at the moment.
We descended through the normal route and it took us six hours to reach the summit camp. By the time I collapsed outside the tent, our other members and Sherpas had already reached. I was so exhausted and wasted that someone had to take off my crampons and boots. Tashi brought my tea and then prepared dinner. That day I found superman in a new avatar.
Post Kamet, Tashi and I went on to climb many peaks together including our historic ascent of Mt Everest in the May of 2004. I have already described this ordeal in my Everest book. Tashi was euphoric on top of the world, as I was along with my friend and brother. His joy knew no bounds. Now he had catapulted into that elite band of Everest Sherpas. He could now command higher fees, send his child to school, look after his parents better and could get his sister married. On Everest I saved his life, yet what I owed to him can never be repaid and perhaps need not be repaid at all.
Ang Tashi’s friendship, loyalty, camaraderie, strength and generosity are beyond compare. I was and am fortunate to be his friend and he calls me his elder brother. I visit his home and family in Darjeeling often and we chat over the phone whenever possible. Despite becoming a well known Sherpa Sirdar all through the mountaineering fraternity, with chock-o-block expedition schedules, Ang Tashi remains humble and grounded. Speaks only when spoken to and his ever radiant smile has not faded even a bit.
We climbed together last in the pre-monsoon season of 2006. He came very close to death when he fell ill at high altitude on an expedition in 2007. I learnt of it much later as I was out on an expedition as well. I called him and asked about his health. His laughter sailed through the phone, ‘I will not die so soon, dada (elder brother), and if anyone has to bring my body down from the mountains it has to be you.’
Such is my friend and brother Ang Tashi. A simpler and humbler man I have not come across. People like Ang Tashi make the Himalaya and the mountains what they are and rekindle my belief that what I do has some purpose after all. As long as Ang Tashi’s of this world live, people will come to the mountains and legends would continue to be born.