Ang Tharkay: The Greatest Sherpa Climber of All Times.
To be called the G.O.A.T, I believe, you have to achieve something that’s never been done before and can’t be replicated in near future. Your achievement could be the number of mountains you have climbed or the number of runs you have scored or scientific breakthrough(s) you have made or anything that made an impact on a particular school of thought or society as a whole. One can bring just two names to the deliberation table and still it won’t be possible to build a consensus on one name. Cue: Roger Federer vs Nadal. Messi vs Ronaldo. Sachin vs Bradman. Tesla vs Edison.
Nah, not that. Tesla wins hands down.
But that’s not the case with Ang Tharkay. He was unarguably the greatest Sherpa Climber who not only reached sky piercing Himalayan heights but also earned respect of all his sahib clients who sought his services for expeditions that not only needed courage but trust too.
To recount some of Ang Tharkay’s historic feats as a porter or cook or sirdar of the Sherpa climbers, here’s a brief list
- Kanchenjunga, 1931 (Bauer’s Kanchenjunga Challenge) – First Expedition as a Porter
- Nanda Devi Sanctuary, 1934 (Shipton’s Nanda Devi) – First Expedition as a Sirdar
- Annapurna , 1950 (Herzog’s Annapurna)
- French Legion De Honor Award for Annapurna Expedition
- Himalayan Club’s Tiger Medal Awardee
- Mt. Dhaulagiri Expedition, 1978 – Climbed upto South Buttress, 7500m at the age of 70
Sherpa – The Memoir was written in French originally in the year 1954 when an unassuming Tharkay walked upto one Basil P. Norton (true name or pseudonym, yet to be figured out) and asked him to write a book about his Himalayan experiences based on his memory. With the help of a kind interpreter, one Mr. Mohan Lal Mukerjee, this book was brought to life. 62 years after it was first published in French, Corinne McKay re-translated it in English in 2016.
As one flips through the first chapter, that details Tharkay’s childhood memories and his struggle to escape the misery of his Nepali village, Chris Gardner’s The Pusuit of Happiness comes alive. Even today, life in Nepali Villages that are partly devastated by gut wrenching poverty and partly by chest thumping naxal leaders, is perennially woebegone. Back in the day when young Tharkay was trying to make things work out for him, life wasn’t any better. His initial escapades to Darjeeling in search of work, to be a porter with the British Expedition, is a painful passage to read. Countless miles walked over treacherous terrain to achieve nothing but rejection. But Tharkay’s obsession with the mountains overpowered his woes every time, as he underwent extreme deprivation on numerous occasions just to associate himself with a Himalayan expedition.
Because [Tharkay was an unsophisticated mountain man], whose singular passion was to follow the Himalayan explorers in their attempts to [conquer] the world’s highest peaks
First four chapters detail Tharkay’s life in Nepal and his fascination with the mountains. His trade journeys to Tibet are interesting as Tharkay navigates through high passes with his elders in search of a better future. Though the future he sought elsewhere was right in his backyard, in the Khumbu Glacier where the majestic high-camps of Mt. Everest awaited him.
Though that didn’t happen until 1933.
The fifth chapter recounts his stories of eight Everest expeditions which he undertook over a span of 20 years. Tharkay makes it a point to mention his other Sherpa friends who accompanied him to Everest on various expeditions. To read about hardships and achievements of high altitude expeditions from a non-westerner point of view is certainly a refreshingly welcome change. Countless Sherpas and their contribution to the cause of Himalayan climbing fraternity comes to light through Tharkay’s memories. Anybody who has ever been to a Himalayan expedition will relate to the troubles of Sherpas. For instance, shortfall of coolies/porters in the middle of almost every expedition.
Beyond Everest: Tharkay goes into details that take the reader to the vast expanse of Himalayas that dwells outside Everest. For instance, details of that treacherous yet equally rewarding Annapurna expedition which saw humanity reaching atop a first ever 8 thousander peak for the first time. Or the details of his expedition to the land of Karakoram Himalaya.
And not to mention the telling account of their journey back from Annapurna. When Tharkay and his companions carried Herzog and his injured partners on their backs (literally) from high altitude camps to the road-head.
This memoir is a testimony to what mountains meant to Tharkay and how he never failed in his duty by serving them with all his courage, grace, and humility.
In the end, let me quote a passage from the book.
Circa 1950, Camp V (7500 m), Annapurna
“Excuse me, Bara Sahib”, I said to him pitifully, “But I am not worthy of this great task [turning down Maurice Herzog’s request to summit the peak]. I am profoundly grateful to you for the honor you have given me, and in all my life, I will never forget this moment. Allow me to return to Camp IV-A, and may God protect you, you and the valiant Lachenal Sahib.”
Said Ang Tharkay as he turned his back from the summit of Annapurna.
If that doesn’t make him the Greatest Sherpa Climber of All Times, then I don’t know what else will qualify.