Saturday, 28 January 2012

Ang Tharkay - the Father of all Sherpa guides and mountaineers

Ang Tharkay (right) with Bob McKerrow (left) taken at Ang Tharkay's farm at Simbhanjayang, South of Kathmandu in 1975. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Being woken up on a frosty morning at first light by Ang Tharkay with a mug of hot tea at his farm, south of Kathmandu, on 23 April 1975, is a memory that remains vivid in my mind. With a broad smile he handed me the tea, made in the Sherpa manner with sugar and milk boiled together. He greeted me in English and Tibetan.

I somehow had a flashback to photos of Eric Shipton in the 1930s and this is how he must have been woken up on his expeditions by the very same man. We had a breakfast of chapati and eggs from his farm. He had risen before day break and had milked cows and goats. Ang Tharkay was about 69 and I twenty seven.

We talked of the great climbers he went on expeditions with: Eric Shipton, Sir Edmund Hillary, Maurice Herzog, Gaston Rebuffat, Lionel Lachnel, Lionel Terray, Cmdr.Kohli and others. You could see he had a soft spot for Shiption and the French expeditions he had been on.

“ I left Kathmandu by car about 1230 for Ang Tharkay’s farm with his son Dawa who I had met in Kathmandu some weeks earlier. The first 10 km out of Kathmandu is over a good road then a short climb up to a pass, then the road plunges down into a very fertile valley. About two and a half hours up to Daman which is at about 8,000 feet, and then up to a pass some 200 feet higher, then the road descents to the Terai. It is a 15 minute walk from the road to his farm through beautiful bush. All the way you are kept under survelence of his trusty Tibetan dogs. His farm is surrounded by steep country on three sides, the lower side drops away steeply.

This distinquished mountain guide came out to greet me with a huge smile and gave me a shy hug. He showed me round the farm where potatoes are his main crop and a variety of vegetables and has many fruit trees. A herd of 30 cows graze on the hillsides. I noticed his English was quite broken and preferred to speak in Tibetan to his son Dawa who translated much of the time. He explained how he grows a special millet for making a favouritre Nepali drink, Rakshi and Chang. His house is sturdy and simple, very much in the Sherpa style.

After watching the cows being milked, I pitched my tent and I retired inside with Dawa and his famous Father.

We talked of the great climbers he went on expeditions with: Eric Shipton, Sir Edmund Hillary, Maurice Herzog, Gaston Rebuffat, Lionel Lachnel, Lionel Terray, Cmdr. Kohli and others. You could see he had a soft spot for Shipton and the French expeditions he had been on. He spoke with great pride of the 11 years he spent with Eric Shipton who he described as a very tough man, who ate little and was very strong, starting in 1931.

He spoke of his most famous expedition, the French Expedition in 1950 led by Maurice Herzog to Annapurna. Ang Tharkay spent much of his time carrying off Herzog who contracted severe frostbite. He said that in 1931 they were paid one quarter of an Indian Rupeee a day. They were paid five rupees per joint lost by frostbite and between 500 and 1000 rupees to your family if you lost your life. Then in 1975, he said “ now the family gets paid 100,000 Indian Rupees if a Sherpa loses his life.”

We drank his quality chang late into the nnight talking of all the great climbers, expeditions and significant people he met.

Born and raised in Khumbu, later migrating to Darjeeling, Ang Tharkay’s first expedition was to Kangchenjunga in 1931. He was on Everest in 1933, 1935, and 1938, when he was cook and Sirdar, having been formally made Sirdar for the first time on Nanda Devi in 1934. He was exceptional as both climber and sirdar, and his character won high praise from all who knew him.

I spent the morning with Ang Tharkay helping him with chores around the farm and I left about midday for Biratnagar, where I had work to do.

Photo left: Ang Tharkay at the age of 20 in Darjeeling. Photo. RGSS

Ang Tharkay, who died in Kathmandu on July 28th 1981, belonged to the first generation of elite climbing Sherpas. Born in 1908 in Khunde in the Year of the Monkey (according to the Tibetan calendar) Ang Tharkay went to Darjeeling at the age of twelve in search of work with expeditions

He accompanied Eric Shipton on eight of his pre-war expeditions in the Himalaya, including four on the northern route to Everest. Ang Tharkay had seen the days when high altitude porters were paid six annas compensation for each finger they lost by frost bite. And if the injury was really bad, and a porter could not walk back to Darjeeling, he was entitled by contract to receive a pony and one rupee compensation. Sherpas received blankets for high altitude camps, and sleeping bags were issued only during emergencies.

Mt. Everest and the west ridge, taken from Kallar Pattar 1975. Photo: Bob McKerrow

When Nepal was opened to expeditions, and the first reconnaissance groups traveled up the Dudh Kosi to Solu Khumbu, Ang Tharkay was with them. He had shed his traditional Sherpa pigtail, and dressed in smart woolen breeches, "but had same, shy reticence and quite humour", that Shipton remembered. He joined Eric Shipton, and Edmund Hillary on their 1951 expedition in which they tackled the treacherous Khumbu ice fall, the gateway to the southern route to Everest, and paved the way for the first successful ascent two years later. The expedition then went on to explore the upper reaches of the Imja Valley, the Hongu Basin, and then crossed the Tesi Tapcha into Rolwa Jing. Shipton was impressed by Ang Tharkay, and was moved to remark that he regarded his chief Sherpa as "a man of outstanding character and ability".

Ang Tharkay also took part in another epoch making Himalaya climb, the French Expedition to Annapurna in 1950, lead by Maurice Herzog. He reached the top camp above the "Sickle" on the north face of the first eight-thousander to be climbed.

After this, he was sent for training in technical climbing in Switzerland by the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling. Although he was invited by Herzog to bring his wife along to France, it is indication of Ang Tharkey's forthrightness that he refused to take his wife to save his "Bara Sahib" extra expense.

Ama Dablam, taken on the march in to Everest base camp. 1975. Photo: Bob McKerrow

In 1954, Ang Tharkay resigned from the HMI and set up his own business taking trekkers up to Kangchenjunga. In 1962, he became the oldest man to have climbed up to eight thousand meters, when he made it to the South Col with the Indian Everest Expedition. Although he then retired from active mountaineering,

The year I first met him. 1975, Ang Tharkay took a party up to the Annapurna Sanctuary , and sirdared the French Expedition to Dhaulagiri in 1978, at the age of 70.

I remember how active he was,  virtually running round his farm to do his daily work, always with a smile on his face.As a young mountaineer sitting at the foot of a Guru in every sense of the word, I learnt so much from him. Simplicity, mental toughness, simple diet, hard work, humour, family, friendship, and above all, humility.

At seventy three years young, Ang was still extremely fit, and many remember the cheerful waves he gave from his bicycle on Durbar Marg. (He never rode in cars if he could help it). Ang Tharkay was looking forward to a quiet retirement in his orchard and farm in Simbhanjayang, when he was suddenly hospitalized and died of cancer.

In Eric Shipton's classice, A Blank On the Map Shipton describes his exploration of the Karakoram's Shaksgam and  N side area of K2 in 1937. This was a very small expedition that consisted only of Shipton, H. W. Tilman, M. A. Spender, J. B. Auden, seven Sherpas (under Sirdar Ang Tharkay), and four Balti porters. This five-month expedition mapped 1,800 square miles of rugged, glaciated, uninhabited country containing many of the world's most spectacular mountains

Ang Tharkay and a young brother. Tilman commented that his stews and curries were masterpieces, but that cooking was only one of his abilities, as he was responsible for porters, gave advice and invariably carried the biggest loads highest. RGS , 1938.

In a 1954 autobiography of Ang Thrace, Mémoires d'un Sherpa , it says that Ang Tharkay was Tenzing’s landlord in Darjeeling and also his mentor. Ang Tharkay accompanied Shipton on eight expeditions and was also a sirdar [leader] on the 1950 French expedition to Annapurna, led

He went to Annapurna with the French in 1950, to Everest in 1951, to Cho Oyu in 1952, to both Dhaulagiri and Nun in 1953, to Makalu in 1954, and finally to Everest with the Indians in 1962.

In 1955:he joined an  an Indian expedition from the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling makes the second ascent of Kamet on July 6. Major Narendra D. Jayal led the party; Jayal, Ang Tharkay, Da Namgyal, Ang Temba, and Hlakpa Dorje comprised the summit team. Their route followed the ridge linking Abi Gamin and Kamet.

Crossing the Lumding La  (4520 m) with Neema Sherpa. This was a journey I did with Murray Jones and a Sherpani called Domalay in 1975, when we had an unsuccessful attempt on Kwangde. Photo: Bob McKerrow

I was first drawn to Ang Tharkay in my early teens when I saw a photo of diminutive Ang Tharkay, carrying a large, frost bitten French climber, Gaston Rebuffat, on his back down the mountainside from a high camp on Mt. Annapurna.

When I lived in Kathmandu for nine months in 1975, I visited Ang Tharkay on his farm a number of times, and it was always a joy to meet this modest mountain man.

Having been born in the barren Solo Khumbu, (photo below) the lush green grass and trees of his farm in Simbhanjayang, south of Kathmandu, was an oasis. He was close enough to meet old climbing friends from abroad,  fellow Sherpa's from earlier climbs, yet being able to go to his farm when he wanted peace, quiet and self sufficviency.

The first time I visited Ang Tharkay was with his son Pemba who I had met in Kathmandu.

Later that year before I returned to Switzerland, Ang Tharkay was very distraught. The wife and daughter of his old climbing partner Ed Hillary, had died in a terrible plane crash in Kathmandu. He had made a special and swift visit into Kathmandu to comfort Sir Ed, Peter and Sarah. I remember that tragic day well as I was in Kathmandu and heard the plane crash and got the news an hour later. I joined a group of friends to give what support we could to a grieving Hillary family.

As a young man I had the privilige of meeting the two greatest early-era Sherpas,  Ang Tharkay and Tenzing Norgay. I met Tenzing in 1972 in The Mall in Darjeeling and we sat on a wall talking about his climbing career. Tenzing seemed a much more complex man than Ang Tharkay. At the risk of sounding disrespectful, I felt Tenzing had problems handling fame and status, whereas Ang Tharkay seemed totally unaffected by it, and found simple things like farming, cycling and being with family, more than satisfied his small needs. In my youthful mind, Ang Tharkay was the Father of the modern day climbing Sherpa

Two of my favourite Sherpa guides. Domalay (l) and Neema (r) who accompanied Murray Jones and I on a trip in 1975. They both worked for the Ed Hillary hospital in Kunde. Photo: Bob McKerrow


Unknown said...

Hey Bob,

Nice write-up, lots of leads to look further, I will get my hands on that Shipton book you refer to.

Ang Tharkay sounds like a hugely inspirational character who never lost perspective on the important things.



Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Thanks for the feedback Jamie. Definitely a character who inspired many peoiple in the mountaineering and adventure world and lived by simple truths and habits.

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Anonymous said...

Greetings Bob,

Thank you for writing such a beautiful article about my Grandfather. I did not have the opportunity to be with him as he was long gone when I was born. My father Dawa whom you have mentioned in this article is also very happy to read this and sends his thanks. We wish you lots of happiness and success with your work and family.

- Thanks,
Sangye Sherpa