He wore black boots, a knee-length gown and a hat, and seemed to care little when told how historic his feat was. By Sunday, Kanchha Sherpa, 81, the lone survivor of the 1953 Everest team, had become a major attraction at Khumjung in Solukhumbu district.
Sixty years ago on May 29, Kanchha was only 21 when New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa made the maiden conquest of the world’s tallest mountain. “The time was 11:30am,” he told journalists as a special guest at a function organised here to mark the Diamond Jubilee of the first ascent of Everest. Hillary built his first school in Khumjung in 1961.
Kanchha is the only veteran of the 1953 British expedition led by John Hunt who is still alive.
“I was excited when I found out that these foreigners were spending such a big amount just to climb a mountain,” recalled Kanchha, who reached “the death zone” above Camp 4 (7,926 metres) six times, but has never been on the top. “But, later I realised it was a victory over Everest.” The “death zone” is altitude higher than 8,000 metres, where climbers face significant challenges to survival.
In 1953, around 1,200 “coolies” were hired to carry climbing equipment, food and silver coins, all the way from Bhaktapur to Namche. Twenty-five potters were employed to carry the silver coins and five police personnel were sent with the expedition for security. Around 35 Sherpas were involved in the expedition, which had 16 British nationals.
After spending two weeks in Bhaktapur, the expedition team trekked along the Banepa-Dolalghat-Jiri-Lamjura Pass-Kahari Khola-Chaurikharka route, and reached Namchhe after 16 days. “We spent a week there,” said Kanchha. As the low-altitude “coolies” were unable to acclimatise to the high land, all of them were sent back and the mountain gear and goods were ferried by 100 yaks to the Everest base camp. After six days of walking, the team arrived at what is now known as the base camp. “After two days, Tenzing and Hillary headed upwards to check the way to Icefall. And we carried goods to Camp 1 [6,065 metres above the icefall].” The mission then headed to Camp 2 (6,600 metres) and, accordingly, Sherpas carried goods to Camp 2. Around two weeks were spent in Camp 2 and finally the mission advanced to Camp 3 (7,200 metres) and 4.
“Tenzing and Hillary then moved to South Col and we were told to descend,” recalled Kanchha. “We were not allowed to go up from Camp 4. It might be that the expedition would face a shortage of oxygen,” he laughed.
However, two other Sherpas from Darjeeling, India were allowed to go up to the last camp, now called Hillary Step. “I don’t know the exact reason why we were stopped, but after hours of waiting, we were informed that that mission was accomplished,” he said.
As the message was conveyed to Camp 2 via a walkie-talkie, the entire group gathered there. There were handshakes all around and Hillary hugged the entire team. “A helicopter landed at Camp 2 and both Tenzing and Hillary flew from there to Kathmandu,” Kanchha said. “We were paid 8 Nepalese rupees (US$0.08) a day and it was in silver coins. With tips, I made 1,200 Nepalese rupees, a dream for a 21-year-old Sherpa boy back then.”
Obviously, the 1953 ascent was to change the Khumbu region for good. “Now, there are hospitals, schools, hotels, and people who used to dream of eating rice are now eating it every day.”
Kanchha fled to Darjeeling in 1952 from Namche in search of a job, and reached there after four days. He and two other Sherpas had altogether 20 Nepalese rupees in their pockets. “As my father was a close friend of Tenzing’s, he hired me and I used to chop wood, cook food and wash his clothes,” he said.
Tenzing was involved in the trekking business in Darjeeling. After four months of stay, Tenzing promised he would take me to Everest in February 1953, and I was hired as a porter. “After the mission was accomplished, I settled in Namche and retired in 1972.”