The great feats of 20th-century Himalayan mountaineering rested on the shoulders of unknown Sherpa and Bhotia youths. Deepa Balsavar and Nandini Purandare piece together the story of one such unsung hero
Darjeeling, 2013: At 73, Dawa Tsering has sleepy eyes and a gentle face deeply etched with laugh lines. For over 50 years he has worked at the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre in Darjeeling. His father Wangdi Norbu was a porter on early Himalayan expeditions. Dawa Tsering proudly shows us a TIGER badge, a porter book and a solitary photograph. They are all he has to remember his father by. His mother burnt everything else, including photographs, when his father died. That is the Tibetan custom, he informs us. His sister, much older than him, died when he was eight and his mother burned everything that belonged to her too. I don’t even have her picture, he says sadly.
We turn the pages of the porter book.
Wangdi Nurbu accompanied the 1931 Kamet expedition. On this he did excellent work and carried to the highest camp at 23200 ft. He is a tremendous worker and thoroughly trustworthy in every way. He sets a splendid example by his tenacity of purpose under the most adverse circumstances.
Everest 1933: A real “stilt”. Nearly died of pneumonia at the Base Camp, but turned up for work the moment he could. A hard case who will work splendidly for those who understand him, but he wants holding. Very strong.
Hugh Ruttledge, Leader
Dear Mr Wale,
This man Ongdi Nurbu has badgered me for a chit to you about work. I have told him you will give him work at the first opportunity. He is a first class man and able to take charge of a party.
See you next week.
There are more entries, many more: glowing testimonials and tributes from some of the biggest names in mountaineering of that time and personal letters from legendary mountaineers, André Roch, FS Smythe and Bill Tilman.
Does he remember meeting any of these people, we ask Dawa Tsering. No, he replies. He was 11 when his father died and before that pala (father) was always away on expeditions. Surely he remembers something, we prod. He remembers being taken to The Everest Hotel where the Swiss were staying and seeing a film that had been shot on the Kedarnath expedition of 1947. After the film André Roch gave his father a table clock and some chocolates. What else does he remember? I remember he sometimes brought home good boots and a sleeping bag and leftover fruit from the expeditions, he says. After a few days his father would sell the boots and sleeping bag because they needed the money. He remembers very little else. I was just 11, he repeats.
Frank Smythe, Wangdi to his left and other porters | Courtersy: The Tony Smith Collection
The porter book is the key. It helps us build the story of who Wangdi Norbu was. It tells us about his qualities and how he was perceived by the men he carried loads for. It also lists some of his bigger expeditions:
Kangchenjunga 1929 and 1930
Fluted Peak 1932
Everest 1933 and 1936
Nanga Parbat 1934
Wangdi was also with Smythe in Garhwal in 1937; on Everest again in 1938 and in Garhwal with the Austrians later the same year. He was with Tilman in Assam in 1939 and with André Roch and his team at Gangotri and Kedarnath in 1947.
The single photograph of Wangdi Norbu bears little resemblance to his son. At the time it was taken Norbu must have been in his 30s, worry lines already furrowing his brow. He wears a Tibetan-style coarse cotton tunic buttoned down one side and on his head is a woollen cap, rakishly covering one ear. He is not smiling. Wangdi Norbu was an Under Sirdar in the 1936 Everest expedition and a Sirdar from the next year onwards. It was his job to organise and deal with the porters and tread the fine line between appeasing them and keeping the sahibs happy. The pay was not much better than that of the coolies and the responsibilities were huge but he didn’t have to carry a load.
Witness to the golden years: mighty Kangchenjunga as seen from Darjeeling | Courtesy: The Sherpa Project
Although exploration in the Himalaya had started as early as the 1880s, it was in the 1920s that Himalayan climbing really came into its own. After many years of planning and waiting for permissions, the Everest reconnaissance expedition took place in 1921, followed by the expeditions of 1922 and 1924. There were also teams going to Kangchenjunga and the Karakoram and they all set out from Darjeeling. The value of Sherpa and Bhotia porters had already been introduced to the world by climbers like Dr Alexander Kellas, Carl W Rubenson and Monrad Aas as early as 1907 and, now, the sleepy hill station in the state of Bengal exploded with activity. Porters who had been on the first expeditions went home to their villages in Tibet and eastern Nepal in jackets and boots, exciting the aspirations of the young who lived there. In the high villages, there was nothing much to look forward to— just potato farming, yak herding and the trading of cloth and salt. Soon the young men and women came flocking to Darjeeling, to carry loads, ply rickshaws, heft sedan chairs on poles known as dandees or even chop wood, while they waited to be recruited for the next big expedition. And when recruiting time came, the sahibs sat on the veranda of the Planter’s Club, overlooking the snaking road below, and the hopefuls queued up clutching chits or letters of recommendation if they had any. There was plentiful work for hardy men and women used to high altitudes and heavy loads. Wangdi Norbu was one of those young men, a Bhotia from Tibet. We don’t know how many times he had to queue up, but he got his break with the German team led by Paul Bauer in 1929, in an attempt to climb Kangchenjunga.
Around the same time, ideas to start a mountaineers’ club (which had been talked about for years), began to gather momentum and, suddenly, two such clubs were founded almost simultaneously to encourage people to visit the mountain regions on India’s northern borders. They were the Mountain Club of India, started in Calcutta, and the Himalayan Club in Simla. At the inaugural meeting of the Himalayan Club on February 17, 1928 a proposal was made to join the two clubs together. The idea was accepted and the unified Himalayan Club was born.
One of the first things it did was appoint “Local Secretaries” at Darjeeling, Chamba, Kashmir, Kumaon and Simla who would be able to help people setting out on expeditions. Darjeeling soon became the busiest chapter. Ninety porters, including Wangdi Norbu, were hired for Paul Bauer’s expedition. When GO Dyhrenfurth made the same attempt a year later, 350 coolie loads were assembled and, for the baggage of the third Everest expedition, 70 porters and 350 animals carrying 770 coolie loads were required. Wangdi Norbu was on both those expeditions.
In 1934 a German team led by Willy Merkl made an attempt on Nanga Parbat and arranged with the Himalayan Club for the supply of 35 Sherpas. A terrible storm struck the mountain on July 8, causing the deaths of four climbers including Merkl and six porters. Sherpa Gaylay could have saved himself but chose to stay and perish with Merkl. Referring to this sacrifice, Fritz Bechtold wrote: “As we looked once more to Nanga Parbat, to the glittering crest above us, all sense of bitterness against fate was loosed within us, in the presence of deeper understanding. Splendid as it must be to return home with the prize of this mighty mountain, it is yet nobler that a man lay down his life for such a goal, to be a way and a light for the young hearts of those who come after.”(From John Martyn, “The Story of The Himalayan Club, 1928-1978”, HJ 35.) Wangdi Norbu was one of the survivors of this expedition.
In the same year, 1934, Joan Townend became Honorary Secretary of the Himalayan Club’s Eastern Section. She was deeply distressed by what had happened on Nanga Parbat. Keen that individual Sherpas should be suitably compensated, she found that details of their careers were lacking. To facilitate the collection of information, it was decided that each Sherpa should be issued a “chit book” containing his photograph and wrapped up in a mackintosh case. Leaders of expeditions were expected to fill in details at the end of each expedition and remark on the services of the porters. General Bruce arrived in Darjeeling in December of the same year to give a feast to all his old friends and distribute this prized possession. Wangdi Norbu’s porter book number was 25.
Dawa Tsering, Wangdi Norbu’s son | Courtesy: The Sherpa Project
Soon the club had also laid down rules for the employment of porters, and made an advisory list of porters’ kit for high altitudes and sample scales of rations for porters and others.
A few years later, in 1939, the Himalayan Club instituted the TIGER badge for select Sherpas who could claim exceptional feats of climbing and bravery at high altitude. The very first badges were given out to 10 handpicked Sherpas on May 30, 1939. This decision was announced in the Himalayan Journal, Volume 11, 1939:
The Grading of Sherpa and Bhotia Porters
At a Committee meeting of the Eastern Section of the Himalayan Club on the 6th of February 1939 it was decided to create a superior grade for experienced climbing porters, and to give them 8 annas a day extra pay beyond the rate paid to others, for work above the snow-line. It was first suggested to give them a smaller increase at any time, until it was realized that this might prevent travellers from engaging them for ordinary treks, where climbing skill and experience are not so valuable; and since they count on employment on these journeys to keep them between the high climbing expeditions, it was decided to give them a larger increase when their greater skill is being used. It was suggested that these men should be given the name of ‘Tigers’, together with a badge representing a tiger’s head. There were a number of criticisms of this name, but none of the alternatives appeared suitable. ‘Climbers’ is a term already used for Europeans of the party; ‘guides’ would give a false impression, for it is most undesirable that the porters should be looked upon as guides in the Swiss sense; and since the name ‘Tiger’ has been fairly constantly used since the Mount Everest expedition of 1924 for the picked porters who have gone high, it has been adopted as the best name put forward.
It is no surprise that Wangdi Norbu was among those first 10 chosen to receive the honour.
Organisations come into existence to fulfil a need. The Himalayan Club was formed “to encourage and assist Himalayan travel and exploration, and to extend the knowledge of the Himalaya and adjoining ranges through science, art, literature and sport.”(From GL Corbett, “The Founding of The Himalayan Club”, HJ 1.) In Darjeeling, however, a special bond was also born between the club and the brave, unlettered men whose strength, stoicism and tenacity have gone down in history. It is because of the meticulous records kept, the information from surviving porter books, the lists of TIGER badges published, and the articles and notices in the Himalayan Journal that we know a little more about those early generations of Sherpas and Bhotias. This bond once forged grew stronger and stronger over the years.
The story of Wangdi Norbu does not have a very happy ending. His career was brought short by a horrific accident. This happened on June 25, 1947, on Kedarnath (22,770ft) during the Swiss Garhwal expedition. André Roch, one of the members, later wrote: “The mountain gods struck. We heard Wangdi [the Sirdar, roped with Sutter] cry ‘Sahib’ and what we then saw actually took place in a fraction of a second. Wangdi had become entangled with his crampons; he had fallen forward, and was slipping faster and faster down the icy slope of 50 degrees. Hearing his cry Sutter thrust the shaft of his ice-axe hard into the snow and belayed. The rope tautened and Wangdi swung like a pendulum across the ice… but the snow gave way and both men hurtled downwards at an ever increasing speed. We were terrified.” (From Mme. Lohner, MM. A Roch, A Sutter, Ernst Feuz, “The Swiss Garhwal Expedition of 1947”, HJ 15.)
The slope seems to have eased off around 800ft, saving the two men’s lives. Sutter stood up, evidently only slightly hurt—but Wangdi could not for he had a broken leg, a fractured skull and a knee severely damaged by the point of a crampon. The others got down to the two men, injected morphine and then Ang Dawa, Graven and Dittert harnessed themselves to Wangdi to pull him along: a dangerous and exhausting procedure.
A page from Wangdi Norbu’s porter book | Courtesy: The Sherpa Project
They finally bivouacked in a crevasse. The men left to go down to get help the next day, leaving Wangdi behind on a snow bridge over the crevasse. Utterly exhausted themselves, they sent three Sherpas to rescue Wangdi. The Sherpas returned that afternoon in the softened snow without having been able to locate the injured man who was thus left alone, “with a wounded skull, a broken leg and without food or drink for the second consecutive night”. He was convinced that he had been left alone to die. Finally, at 5am the next morning, Dittert, Tenzing Norgay and Ang Norbu led the others on three ropes like men possessed and in three hours they reached Wangdi.
They found him in a horrible state—Wangdi had cut his throat with his knife which, covered with blood, was stuck in the snow at his side. He told them later that he had seen three men coming to fetch him, but that, seeing them turn back, he had thought himself abandoned. He also heard his wife’s voice and thought he was dying of thirst. He decided to end his life as quickly as possible and tried to pierce his heart. Being unsuccessful he tried to cut his throat. His neck and chest were covered with blood when they found him, but fortunately he had missed the artery and had only succeeded in making a large gash like a “second gaping mouth in the middle of his throat”.
The team prepared Wangdi and slid him down, dragged him and finally the Sherpas carried him to base camp, “a really magnificent effort”. Wangdi recovered from this accident but was never able to climb again. He died in 1952. (From Aamir Ali, “Himalayan Journal: Vols. XIII-XVIII (1946-1954)”, HJ 52.)
The accident marked the end of a famous Sirdar. As the expedition continued he was replaced by Tenzing Norgay, who received much well-deserved praise for his heroic rescue.
At the end, this story has been as much about an extraordinary man as it has been about an organisation and the relationship that developed between the Himalayan Club and the climbing porters of Darjeeling. Almost one hundred years later, we are able to bring together disparate strands to piece together some remarkable lives and achievements. The records are not complete: many early porters are known to us only by name and very little else; undoubtedly a whole host of others have passed away unrecognised and unsung. But we are thankful, for all is not lost and we can salute some men, as we salute Wangdi Norbu today.
The Sherpa Project has been collecting the oral histories of the climbing Sherpas of Darjeeling to put together a book on this unique community. This article is based on some of the research.
This article was published in April-June 2017 issue on The Himalaya. The issue is guest edited by Stephen Alter.
Elsewhere in this issue, Bill Aitken is on the path to self-discovery, Mamang Dai gets nostalgic in her lyrical reminiscences about the mountains in Arunachal Pradesh, Martin Moran is equally wistful writing about the pleasures of pioneering in the smaller peaks of the Himalaya. Janaki Lenin explores the oscillating relationship between the villagers and shepherds of Kinnaur and Sankar Sridhar depicts the life of the Bakarwals of Kashmir in his photo essay. Margot Cohen recreates the past in the story of Jackie and Tania, two European Jews who moved to India to escape the Nazis: he brought popcorn to India and she danced her way into Bangalore’s heart. Gautam Bhatia’s sardonic drawings of the imagined ruins of Delhi make us laugh—and cry. While Anurag Banerjee’s unobtrusive camera captures stolen moments and intimacy in public spaces in Mumbai, Stuart Freedman’s photo essay on the Indian Coffee House evokes an era fast disappearing. Udaipur-based American artist Waswo X Waswo writes about Orientalist artists who depicted Udaipur.