Local Hero: Khamsang Wangdi Sherpa

Posted on: September 10, 2020


[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 71, which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 71 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

Khamsang Wangdi Sherpa pictured (center of top photo) with two Ladakhi Instructors. [Bottom] Front row, left to right: Pasang Temba, Srikar Amladi, Khamsang Wangdi Sherpa. Back row: unknown. [Photo] Srikar Amladi collection; courtesy The Sherpa Project (both)Khamsang Wangdi Sherpa pictured (center of top photo) with two Ladakhi Instructors. [Bottom] Front row, left to right: Pasang Temba, Srikar Amladi, Khamsang Wangdi Sherpa. Back row: unknown. [Photo] Srikar Amladi collection; courtesy The Sherpa Project (both)

Sunlight dappled the grass on a daisy-strewn hillside. Above, bluish-white peaks carved a jagged line in the sky. Sardar Khamsang Wangdi Sherpa darted about with a net, trying to catch butterflies en route to basecamp on the 1959 international women's expedition to Cho Oyu (8188m), the sixth-highest mountain in the world. But when the team reached base camp, blue skies gave way to stormy weather.

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ON SEPTEMBER 29, Claudine van der Stratten, Ang Norbu Sherpa and expedition leader Claude Kogan left Camp III to establish Camp IV for the summit push. But an avalanche swept down the high slopes. Wangdi and Sherpa Chewang began their rescue attempt from Camp III when another avalanche hit. Wangdi managed to claw his way out from the snow and immediately began searching desperately for Chewang but was unable to find him. He finally staggered to base camp after dark with severely frostbitten hands. An exhaustive search on October 3 from Camp III to Camp IV found no signs of the other climbers. Challenges would continue to haunt Wangdi's career, but his determination and compassion would ultimately define the arc of his legacy.

Born in Nepal in 1932, Khamsang Wangdi wouldn't have begun his career as a climber. Like many other Sherpa mountaineers, he would've first worked in camp kitchens before he began carrying loads to lower camps. By 1954, he was a member of the high-altitude staff with Claude Kogan and Raymond Lambert's Cho Oyu expedition. Though a storm had forced the party to retreat from 500 meters below the summit, Wangdi had proved his mettle. In 1955 he was a member of the expedition that made the first ascent of Makalu (8485m), and in 1956 he joined the summit team for the first ascent of Trisul (7120m).

The frostbite after the disastrous 1959 Cho Oyu expedition rendered his hands permanently bent but didn't put him off climbing. In 1960 he became an instructor in Darjeeling's prestigious Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI), and he continued expedition work. Wangdi's students found him exceptional. Himalayan explorer Harish Kapadia, who trained under Wangdi in 1964, described him as simply "too good." While on an expedition with French alpinists on the first ascent of Jannu (Kumbhakarna) in 1962, Wangdi carried his heavy pack without oxygen and climbed with what the great Lionel Terray termed "positively disheartening ease." For his performance on Jannu, which Tenzing Norgay once described as "not a mountain, [but a] ferocious giant," Wangdi was awarded the coveted Himalayan Club Tiger Badge, which recognized extraordinary achievement based on various expedition leaders' recommendations.

But Wangdi parted ways with HMI in 1965. Some say he left because his proposal to Tenzing Norgay's daughter was rejected; others, because he was left out of the 1965 Indian Everest Expedition. "But the fact is," his contemporary Dorjee Lhatoo says, "he was ready to branch out on his own." Taking several Sherpas with him, Wangdi established the Sherpa Guide School in 1966 near Manali in Himachal Pradesh. There, he taught advanced climbing courses, and he also supplied equipment and staff and offered logistical advice to expeditions. The Sherpa Guide School was one of the earliest established trekking agencies and an idea ahead of its time.

Wangdi's school was initially successful, yet luck continued to elude him, like the butterflies he'd chased on the way to Cho Oyu. In October 1967, the Climbers Club Bombay employed Wangdi's services for an expedition to Muker Beh. The climb was plagued by bad weather. Two nights after storms chased the climbers back to Camp I, an avalanche buried leader Geoffrey Hill, his teammate Suresh Kumar and Pemba Sherpa in their tent. Wangdi's frantic rescue attempts went unaided, and it took a week to recover their bodies. A rival climbing school in Manali used the disaster to drive Wangdi out of business, claiming that his poor quality equipment and support staff led to the two clients' deaths. Wangdi's business, as well as his personal health, never recovered. Unable to afford treatment after contracting tuberculosis in 1975, he died in poverty at age forty-three.

Soli Mehta, editor of The Himalayan Journal at the time of Wangdi's death, wrote in his obituary that Wangdi "[helped] others without any sense of the consequence," and that Wangdi would be remembered for his "leadership and dedication to the spirit of mountaineering." A gentle and far-thinking man, Khamsang Wangdi Sherpa remains an unsung hero of mountaineering: a superb climber, teacher, leader and entrepreneur, and a compassionate soul. His story deserves to be told.

The authors Nandini Purandare and Deepa Balsavar have been collecting oral histories from Sherpa mountaineers of Darjeeling since 2012. They are currently at work on a book about the project. [Photo] Courtesy The Sherpa ProjectThe authors Nandini Purandare and Deepa Balsavar have been collecting oral histories from Sherpa mountaineers of Darjeeling since 2012. They are currently at work on a book about the project. [Photo] Courtesy The Sherpa Project

[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 71, which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 71 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

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