Amid the early-morning mists of a Buddhist monastery -- far above Kathmandu, far below Everest -- The Times found one of the last Sherpas from the 1953 Everest team. And, also, a problem.
Back in Britain as we prepare to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest on Wednesday it has come with the sad knowledge that, after the death in March of George Lowe, none of the original team is alive to celebrate it with us.
No one bothered, however, to tell that to Kanza Sherpa, a thin and wiry man who spends his days praying amid the fluttering flags of his mountainside monastery and who was hired as a Sherpa on the 1953 expedition.
Like many of the Sherpas, employed in a barely post-colonial subcontinent, his name was hardly even recorded for posterity -- Western journalists concentrating on Western team members. But today, with those more famous team members dead, and Kanza very much alive, he is a vital link to the expedition. Which leads to the problem. “We can meet him,” says Nima, my Sherpa translator. “But he does not speak.”
Kanza Sherpa and Jan Morris, the reporter who covered the expedition for The Times, are possibly the only people alive who can give a first-hand account of Hillary and Tenzing’s ascent. And it seems that Kanza has -- during an extended retreat to the monastery -- taken a vow of silence. More than that, Nima explains, he is abstaining from food -- to the extent that he will not even swallow his own saliva.
Now in his ’80s, although his face does not look it, Kanza was one of the vast team of local porters employed by John Hunt, the 1953 expedition leader, to transport tonnes of equipment between camps. Forging a road across the treacherous shifting glacier, Kanza and his fellow Sherpas carried 40lb packs up to the base of the great Lhotse face -- and further.
It would be good to know what Kanza thought of this. With only gestures and smiles available, we adapt the journalistic maxim that eschews yes-no questions. Did he enjoy it? Nima translates, Kanza responds: two thumbs up.
Among the Sherpas there is, occasionally, a note of bitterness about their lack of recognition. One present-day Sherpa, who did not wish to be named, said: “Whenever you see films of people on Everest, they never show the Sherpas. They never show the people who got them there.”
It was ever thus. In The Conquest of Everest, the film of the ascent, Sherpas barely appear by name -- only Tenzing. What about Kanza, though? Did he feel that he was treated well by the British?
He pauses to think -- or maybe to avoid swallowing saliva. Then, two thumbs up. Perhaps a more nuanced questioning technique is required. Did his mountaineering career continue? How many other times did he work on Everest? He raises five fingers of one hand, then two fingers of another.
On the way to Tenzing’s village, half a day’s walk from Kanza’s monastery, you pass the home of a Sherpa known as “Snow Leopard”. He climbed Everest 10 times, without oxygen -- and once in winter. His neighbour climbed it 14 times, but did not get a special name.
Is Kanza sad about this, sad that other than Tenzing the Sherpas are not remembered as a part of the original team in the way that the others were? One thumbs-up, less emphatic.
Conscious that he needs to spit, we realise that it is time to go. We say goodbye. And standing in the doorway of the monastery, Kanza Sherpa, gives two thumbs up. Behind him, the prayer flags flutter in the mist.
The Times / The Interview People