Brothers in arms : Scaling heights together
It’s not uncommon for siblings to do things together and share an unconditional bond. But seldom do we hear of them making history together.
Meet Mingma Sherpa and Chhang Dawa Sherpa, the duo who have set the world record as the only brothers from the same family to climb 14 highest peaks above 8000 meters out of which five they scaled jointly.
But success didn’t come easy. The brothers had been through the lowest of the lows to reach this pinnacle. There have been constant upheavals that were as high as the mountains but determination played as the key role to their success.
“I think since we’ve seen both ends of the spectrum, that has helped us move forward in life,” says 34 years old Mingma.
The brothers were born and grew up in the rural village of Narbuchaur in Makalu Village of Sankhuwasabha District.
“I was born in a yak shed and that’s where we spent most of our childhood. We had to look after cows, goats and spent most of our times in the jungle as well,” says Mingma who has four other siblings besides Chhang, all of whom are mountain climbers. One brother, Tashi Lakpa Sherpa, has climbed Everest seven times.
Among the brothers, 30-year-old Chhang Dawa and the older Mingma were the closest. They had to walk an hour to go to school that had classes upto the fifth grade and which was open for only six months a year, forcing them to spend the rest of the year looking after livestock.
While Mingma is seen as the ‘outspoken’ brother, Chhang Dawa, who’s a bit shy, admits that his brother is the one who not only guided him but inspired him as well.
When he was 14, Mingma came to Kathmandu, all by himself.
“Coming to the capital was like heaven for a villager like me. I walked and traveled in a bus for days to get here,” he says. But being a stranger in a new city and finding everything unfamiliar were very difficult to cope with. “We weren’t financially strong and I came with the hope to earn some money,” he says.
So life away from home wasn’t a breeze. He worked as a laborer and it was during that difficult phase that his father passed away. “I couldn’t even save Rs 3,000 to go back to my village after I came to Kathmandu and couldn´t meet my family members for a long time.”
Mingma still recalls his childhood days spent in the villages when he used to listen to the radio every morning and evening along with his brothers.
“We heard news about foreigners scaling mountains in Nepal and I was always fascinated with that idea. I hoped that one day I could also climb a mountain,” he says.
Mingma explains that it was naive of him to believe that coming to Kathmandu would open climbing possibilities. “But Kathmandu was just the opposite of what I expected. It was hard to gain trust and get work from people,” he says.
But his rural experiences came in handy as he slowly got involved with trekking agencies as a porter. He could carry double the average load and reach the camp early due to his strength, and so he slowly gained the trust of his employers and fellow trekkers.
With four years as porter, he got the first opportunity to climb the Tent Peak which is also known as Tharpu Chuli. The peak lies in the heart of the Annapurna Range and falls just south of the Annapurna Base Camp.
“As I looked around, I saw Annapurna and Machhapuchhre, and the peak I was on was comparatively very small. But when I climbed for the first time, I felt like I had achieved so much,” shares Mingma.
In 2000, through the help of a foreigner who liked his climbing skills, he got the chance to climb Manaslu which was above 8,000 meters. After the expedition, his curiosity and interest knew no bounds.
The same year, Mingma brought Chhang Dawa to Kathmandu so that he could also get involved with him in climbing. Though Mingma was experienced, it wasn’t the same for his younger brother. When they attempted to climb Cho-Oyu together, which falls on the Tibet-Nepal border, only Mingma made it to the summit.
But Chhang Dawa didn’t lose hope and the brothers gave it another shot. The first ever mountain that the brothers climbed together was Makalu in 2001, the fifth highest mountain in the world.
By 2004, though they had no formal training, Mingma had already climbed nine mountains all above 8,000 meters and his brother had scaled four of them. Mingma even climbed Mount Everest in 2004, and till date, Chhang Dawa has climbed Everest thrice, out of which one was without carrying oxygen cylinders.
He credits his brother for teaching him how to climb. “I didn’t even have to work as a porter to start off like my brother had to. It’s through his help that I slowly developed a strong interest in and love for climbing,” he says.
“Among the mountains that are above 8,000 meters in height, I found Everest to be the easiest. It’s because if something happens, there’s a lot of manpower there for rescue missions. Even if the snow is seven feet deep, the paths are formed easily. Makalu was tougher than Everest since it was just the two of us, and as soon as we made a track, it would be covered by snow,” he says.
Difficulties and hurdles come as part of the package in climbing. But the Sherpa brothers are thankful that they never got hurt much.
“Due to frostbite, a little part of my finger had to be cut off. But that’s nothing,” says Chhang Dawa. Mingma adds, “Frostbites and fighting with the snow are common when you climb. The sad part is when some of our friends died on the way.”
But after climbing K2 in Pakistan, Mingma got ulcers and felt sick. He went to Japan for his treatment and ended up staying there for four years to work.
“I had put in a lot of effort in climbing. So I got sick and wasn’t in condition to climb again. After two years, I invited my brother as well,” he says.
Working in Japan was a lot easier as compared to the rigorous climbing. But the brothers yearned more than ever to go back to the mountains again. Mingma even climbed Japan’s tallest mountain Fujisan every year during his summer break to quench his thirst for climbing.
“Climbing is never easy since it requires a lot of money. Which is why we wanted to save some to continue our expeditions,” says Mingma. Till date, the brothers have climbed all the fourteen highest mountains through their personal expenses, without any fund from the government or any organizations.
“We haven’t got any support from the government nor do we expect anything. But what we all want is to be acknowledged,” the brothers say in agreement.
Mingma says that though he can easily go abroad, he wants to stay back in Nepal and has suggested the same to his brothers. They now manage Seven Summit Treks, an agency that coordinates and organizes expeditions for those who want to climb the 14 tallest mountains of the world. “Since we’ve been there, we know how the situation is out there. We even provide rescue facilities.”
Chhang Dawa recently climbed Shisha Pangma which is the shortest among the 14 peaks. The sad part that the brothers say is that in other countries climbing is taken as adventurous sports but many here just take Nepali climbers as porters. “This is one of the most adventurous and risky sports where you’re faced with do-or-die situations every time, unlike other sports,” they say.
Mingma says that one of his proudest moments was when he led the way carrying a flag at a ceremony in Everest before the Olympics started in Greece in 2004.
“I wish my father was alive to see all this. There’s no limit to your happiness when you scale the mountains. We’re proud. Though there may be many brothers who come after us, we’ll always be ones who set the first records,” he says.
Mingma has a 12 year-old-son and Chhang Dawa has two daughters. Though they have their own family responsibilities, they spend most of their time in promoting mountain climbing. They are also working on a project to build a mountaineering school back in their village to inspire young people to take up climbing.
Like all siblings, both Mingma and Chhang Dawa learnt to compromise and understand each other. But it’s their shared passion for climbing that helped to cement their bond. The last mountain that they climbed together was Kanchanjunga in 2001, and now Mingma and Chhang Dawa are looking forward to scaling Everest again. But this time, they plan to do it along with their four brothers to set yet another record which is something they are very good at doing.
Published in English daily Republica on 30th August 2013.
Updated : 03 September 2013