PART I: In which a Sherpa lad grows up in faraway Nepal, in the shadow of a great mountain known to him as Chomolungma, nurturing a dream; and of the life and people of his homeland, and the 'yeti,' or Abominable Snowman; and how he leaves his native village to pursue that dream, and prepares for the life of a mountain man
Many times I think of that morning at Camp Nine. We have spent the night there, Hillary and I, in our little tent at almost 28,000 feet, which is the highest that men have ever slept. It has been a cold night. Hillary's boots are frozen, and we are almost frozen too. But now in the gray light, when we creep from the tent, there is almost no wind. The sky is clear and still. And that is good.
We look up. For weeks, for months, that is all we have done. And there it is—the top of Everest. Only it is different now: so near, so close, only a little more than 1,000 feet above us. It is no longer just a high dream in the sky, but a real and solid thing, a thing of rock and snow, that men can climb. We make ready. We will climb it. This time, with God's help, we will climb on to the end.
Then I look down. All the rest of the world is under us. To the west, Nuptse; to the south, Lhotse; to the east, Makalu: all of them great mountaintops, and beyond them hundreds of others, all under us. Straight down the ridge, 2,000 feet down, is the South Col, where our nearest friends wait: Sahibs Lowe and Gregory and the young Sherpa Ang Nyima, who yesterday helped us up to Camp Nine. Below that is the white wall of Lhotse, 4,000 feet more, and at its bottom the Western Cwm, where the rest of our friends wait at the advance base camp. Below the cwm is the Icefall, below the Ice fall the Khumbu Glacier. I see that Hillary is looking too, and I point. Below the glacier, 16,000 feet down, you can just see in the gray light the old monastery of Thyangboche.
To Hillary perhaps it does not mean so much. To a man from the West it is only a far strange place in a far strange country. But for me it is home. Beyond Thyangboche are the valleys and villages of Solo Khumbu, and there I was born and grew up. On the tall hillsides above them I climbed as a boy, tending my father's yaks. Home is close now. I can almost stretch out my hand and touch it. But if it is close, it is also far. Much farther than 16,000 feet. As we strap on our oxygen tanks I think back to the boy, so close and so far, who had never heard of oxygen, but yet looked up at this mountain and dreamed.
Then we turn around, Hillary and I. We begin to climb.
It is many miles and many years that have brought me here.
It is strange about the name Sherpa. The world hears it only in connection with mountains and expeditions, and so many people think it is a word meaning porter or guide. But this is not so at all. The Sherpas are a people, a tribe. According to those who have studied such things, there are about 100,000 of us, dwellers in the high uplands of the eastern Himalayas.
Sherpa means "man from the east." But all that is known today about our past is that we are of Mongolian stock and that long ago our ancestors migrated from Tibet. In most things we are still more like Tibetans than any other larger group of people. Our language is similar (though we have no written form), and so are our clothing and food and many customs, especially among those who have not come into much contact with the outside world. One of the closest bonds is that of religion, for, like the Tibetans, we are Buddhists. Though there are no longer any Sherpa villages in Tibet, many of our people are attached to the Tibetan monastery of Rongbuk, on the far side of Everest, and there is much going back and forth between there and our own monastery of Thyangboche.
Also there are many caravans engaged in trade. And this I think is a remarkable thing for the present time; for Tibet is now Communist, while Nepal is not, yet here is one of the few places in the world where there is free trade and travel without passport. While everything else changes, life in the high Himalayan passes goes on the same as for thousands of years.