I’ve been beyond fortunate over the years to take part in some very meaningful expeditions, climb with amazing partners, and interact with some special people who paved the way in the mountains. One of the tops on my personal list was a decade ago, Spring 2012, when I headed to Everest with good friends David Morton, Charley Mace, and Brent Bishop.
In that year, we were aiming for the West Ridge of Everest to attempt a repeat of the legendary route climbed by Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld back in 1963. Various circumstances conspired to make that route an impossibility, but I’ll share more of those stories at a later time.
For now, I was reminded today of being in Namche Bazaar on this say, April 4, 2012, with quite the cast of characters. We wandered the streets with Jim Whittaker - first American to reach the summit of Everest - and his equally-accomplished wife, Dianne Roberts, and their son Leif, aiming for his second summit of Everest. Along with them were Dave Hahn, old friend and legendary Everest guide and record holder, and Melissa Arnot, another record holder and setter. Add to that star-studded cast cameramen Kent Harvey and Ken Sauls, and it was a pretty accomplished crew.
But, the highlight for me was yet to come. As the day passed, we made our way up the narrow alleyways of Namche, Jim’s 83 year old knees powering him along as always. Eventually we can to the humble house of Kanchha Sherpa. At 79, Kanchha was - along with George Lowe - one of the last surviving members of the 1953 British Everest Expedition, which put Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on the summit on May 29 of that year.
In 1953, Kanchha was just 19, and snuck away from his family home in Namche Bazaar, making his way with a friend to Darjeeling, India. It was there he tracked down Tenzing Norgay, who agreed to hire him as a climbing porter on the ‘53 expedition. Proving himself that year by carrying 50-pound loads as high as the South Col (26,000 feet), Kanchha continued work on future Everest expeditions, including the 1963 American Mount Everest Expedition.
On that trip, Kanchha again proved himself, climbing and carrying high and strong, helping put Jim Whittaker and Ngawang Gombu on the summit on May 1, 1963, and helping set the stage for Brent Bishop’s father, Barry, to reach the summit 3 weeks later with Lute Jerstad, and for Tom and Willi to do the same via the unclimbed West Ridge hours later.
To complete the connectivity time warp, Brent brought with him a tattered old black-and-white photograph. In it, one can see Barry, his wife Lila, children Tara and Brent, and Kanchha, together with Barry’s research team in Humla in western Nepal as Barry worked on his dissertation on the Karnali zone.
We sat and laughed and reminisced with Kanchha for several hours, downing countless cups of butter tea, whiling away the time in the comfortable shadows of humble giants.