Conquering Everest: The First, The Fastest, and the Fourteen-year-old
“On behalf of the British People, I wish you the best of luck”.
This seemed an inadequate greeting to the man who was about to attempt to climb from Everest Base Camp to the summit in a staggering new world record of sixteen hours.
Babu Chiri Sherpa is already a legend. Last year, he spent twenty-one hours on top of Everest at 8848m without oxygen; some people need oxygen just to get to Base Camp. Such a feat, in the oxygen depleted altitude, would allegedly kill millions of brain cells, but chatting to this modest compact Nepalese man, who is a 34 year old professional climber he was obviously very astute.
“Have you trained much?” I asked.
“Oh I get enough exercise” he laughed. Indeed. His business card lists two successful summits in 1999 and seven previous conquests in the last decade.
I had arrived at Base Camp (5360m) after a strenuous twelve-day trek from Jiri. The long walk in, involving 9000m of ascent, was a wonderful introduction to Nepalese and Sherpa life. For the first six days I headed east across many valleys, trekking up and down steep forest trails. I met many teams of tiny but very strong Sherpa men and women carrying supplies for the villages and lodges. Since there are no roads, porters and mules are the only form of transport in these foothills.
Many of the porters, often wearing only flip-flops, were carrying more than their bodyweight, the loads in bamboo baskets being held secure by a strap around their foreheads. The strongest, with their distinct “Sherpa shuffle”, could carry 90kg. I felt suitably humbled by my comfortable 20kg backpack. They were the toughest human beings I had ever seen, but very friendly; everyone greeted me with “Namaste” (hello) as they passed in either direction.
Once past Lukla, where most organised groups fly in to start their trekking, the altitude is high enough for convoys of woolly yaks to be used to transport everything needed for the villagers and trekkers alike. These docile beasts of burden with clanging bells around their necks created ‘Yak jams’ on the narrow trails and suspension bridges over the rivers. Their sharp horns made short work of anyone in the way and on numerous occasions I got a prod up my backside when I wasn’t paying attention.
A final two-hour walk from Gorak Shep across the bleak moraine of the Khumbu Glacier brought me to Everest Base Camp, initially hidden from view by voluminous ice. It was the start of the climbing season and half a dozen expeditions were preparing themselves. There will be over 30 groups attempting successful climbs to this summit this year and there is some concern about the numbers creating bottlenecks and bad weather producing potential disasters like that of 1996. Babu Chiri Sherpa’s climb would be the first of the year.
No one paid much attention as I walked past the tent enclosures to the stone altar at the bottom of the Khumbu Icefall where everyone traditionally gets a blessing before ascending. By complete coincidence, Babu was about to get his as I arrived. A small juniper brush fire had been lit, enveloping the altar in smoke. A shaven Buddhist monk dressed in scarlet robes, sat cross-legged and read, coughing, from a Tibetan holy book. As the only European present, I was given a hot mug of tea and invited to participate.
Huge baskets of chocolates and Nepalese sweets, a luxury at this altitude, were handed out and alcohol was flipped into my mouth with a spoon. At intervals, the entourage of support staff and well-wishers threw rice into the air as the monk continued to read. Huge black ravens swooped from the colourful fluttering prayer flags to dive-bomb us for the rice. Behind the altar, I could see a few climbers on the massive icefall practising their first climbs.
Babu was being sponsored by numerous Mexican companies and had to sit through a dozen photo calls with different company flags. When I asked his Mexican climber/organiser if he was going up with Babu, he smiled and said “I’ll try and keep him company for as long as possible”. Which, when I compared the two of them sitting together in the freezing winds, wouldn’t be long.
Some people are very disappointed with what they find at Base Camp but it was a real highlight for me to stumble upon Everest history in the making. It had taken me six days to reach the camp from the main town of Namche Bazaar, but it only took a gruelling one day twelve hour hike to return. The reason for such a punishment on the knees was the opportunity to meet the first man to successfully conquer Everest.
Sir Edmund Hillary, now eighty, was flying into Khumjung to visit the original Hillary school that his Himalayan Trust had established in 1961. This beautiful little alpine village just above Namache Bazaar also boasts the highest bakery in the world, at 3790m, and the remains of a yeti. When I visited the school the day before Hillary’s arrival, Canadian volunteers from the Trust were setting up email on the school computer. Since the 1960s’ the Trust, through Hillary’s humanitarian efforts, has built twenty-seven schools, two hospitals and twelve medical centres in Nepal.
As we waited for the buzz of the helicopter, the schoolchildren in their blue uniforms stood in formation. The news had reached other trekkers who stood around the dusty playground together with most of the village. Hillary, in a tweed suit, was supported by two policemen. He needed them because dozens of people came forward and draped white silk scarves around his neck in a Nepalese traditional welcome, amid a frenzy of camera activity from tourists and press. Once his face was completely covered with silk someone removed them, and then another wave of scarves started. In the background, Buddhist monks blew a slow doleful droning monotone with long horns as Hillary was helped to his seat.
The schoolchildren then launched into a welcome dance and headed for Hillary with more offerings of scarves and flowers. Once again, his head was swamped but he took it all in good humour. He was obviously much loved by the whole village. Before the presentation speeches, I managed to have a quick word. I’m not sure if he had heard of Babu Chiri Sherpa but when I told him about the attempt he said gracefully “Well, all I can do is wish him the best of luck.”
Back in Lukla some days later, as I waited for a flight back to Kathmandu, another potential hero arrived. Temba Tsheri Sherpa is only fourteen and still at school. In May he will attempt to become the youngest climber of Everest, beating the record currently held by a seventeen-year-old. As he sat for photo calls, I chatted to him and learnt that his only climbing experience had been Island Peak (6189m) and Kala Pattar (5545m), which I had climbed the previous week. He will be accompanied by five others in his endeavour, though. “I am not sure how the altitude will affect me, but I have faith in my team” he explained with a smile. He was later led off in front of a line of yaks carrying the expedition’s gear for the long walk up to Base Camp.
To the local people, he was already a celebrity just for trying. To the rest of us, he was one lucky person for having the opportunity. As my plane took its hair-raising leap off the short airstrip (also built by Hillary’s Himalayan Trust), I looked out at the awesome snow-capped mountains and thought that, along with the first, the fastest and the fourteen-year-old, there was always the fantasy of my forty-something years doing it.
On May 22nd 2000, Babu Cheri Sherpa reached the summit in 15 hours and 56 mins, beating the previous record by nearly 4 hours. He became only the 3rd person in history to have ascended Everest 10 times.
Temba Tsheri Sherpa failed in his attempt. I do not have details.