The kindness of strangers is helping a young Sherpa recover from frostbite

Earlier this week a fundraising appeal for Sange, a 19-year-old Sherpa who suffered severe frostbite on Everest this year, reached its ambitious target of $42,000. Thanks to the generosity of climbers, trekkers and friends of Nepal, a young man who would have been crippled for life, is now able to pay for advanced surgery to save his hands.

This is a story of good and bad, where mistakes were made that could easily have been avoided, but help was provided that prevented a bad situation becoming something much worse.

It’s traditional in the media, particularly where Everest is concerned, to focus on the bad things and ignore the good ones. For as long as I’ve been writing this blog, I have tried to redress this balance as much as I can. We shouldn’t ignore the bad things, because it’s important to learn from our mistakes. But I believe it’s more important to focus on the good things, because the world is getting better, and the more we understand this, the more likely we are to live happier lives.

Sange Sherpa on the road to recovery in Vail, Colorado (Photo: David Snow)
Sange Sherpa on the road to recovery in Vail, Colorado (Photo: David Snow)

There are many sides to every story, and my first encounter with this one was in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn. The article in question had the title Mountaineer abandons Everest summit to help injured compatriot. It was written from the perspective of a commercial client, Saad Mohamed, who was unable to make a summit attempt because his expedition operator needed to commit resources into a rescue rather than another summit attempt. His teammates Colonel Abdul Jabbar Bhatti and Sange Sherpa were stranded on the Balcony at 8,400m on Everest’s South-East Ridge after running out of oxygen, and the team needed to send Sherpas up to rescue them. The focus of this story was on Saad Mohamed’s disappointment that he had been unable to climb Everest. It left many unanswered questions about the rescue itself.

Some of these questions were answered in a Facebook post by Sange Sherpa. Sange has a good standard of written English, given that he is a 19-year-old Sherpa and it’s not his first language. His story is all too common, but it was a rare chance to hear it from the perspective of a Sherpa who has been paid to guide a western client.

From the very first sentence, it was clear that we were going to hear a different version of events.

I feel really lucky and blessed to be able to share my experience with you all.

Sange knew that he was lucky to be alive, and he wasn’t taking it for granted.

He left for the summit with his client from Pakistan (Colonel Abdul Jabbar Bhatti) on 21 May, and was feeling sufficiently strong during the ascent that he removed his oxygen bottle at the Balcony so that they could use it during the descent. This proved to be a mistake, as oxygen not only makes a climber stronger, but warms the body and guards against frostbite. Shortly afterwards the weather deteriorated; both his oxygen mask and goggles froze, and he could no longer see. He believed that the risk had become too great, and he asked his client if they could descend. Colonel Bhatti refused.

They continued to the summit, but they were so exhausted that both client and Sherpa collapsed during the descent. When he regained consciousness, Sange realised that both his hands were badly frostbitten and he was completely helpless. Many climbers passed by, believing he was dead, but eventually a group of Sherpas from Sherpa Khangri Expeditions stopped to help. They fed them with water, oxygen and chocolate until they were both strong enough to be helped down to a place from where they could be evacuated by helicopter.

In Sange’s account, the focus is on his client’s refusal to turn around, and on his gratitude for those who helped to save his life.

It’s probably fair to say that the majority of non-Sherpa deaths on Everest (certainly the most recent ones) have been due to inexperience. The climbers were pushing beyond their limits, and they didn’t have enough past experience to know when it was time to turn around. While Colonel Bhatti should have been able to recognise the danger he was in, it’s hardly surprising that a 19-year-old Sherpa on his second Everest expedition didn’t have the authority to talk a 50-something army colonel into descending. Sange’s expedition operator needs to bear some of the responsibility for this imbalance.

There is also a temptation to pass judgement on climbers who may have passed by without stopping to help. Without a clearer understanding of the facts we should avoid this. Carrying out a rescue above 8,000m is not straightforward, and climbers are concentrating on their own battle for survival. Some of these details emerged in later reports about the incident. In fact, two groups did stop to help on their way up. They initially found Sange and Colonel Bhatti sufficiently responsive to conclude that immediate rescue wasn’t necessary. They left oxygen, and radioed down to the South Col for teammates to come up and help.

It was only on their way back down that one of those groups, the Sherpas from Sherpa Khangri Outdoor, found the two climbers still there. By then, many hours must have passed. It took four of them, including Ang Tshering Lama, Nima Gyalzen Sherpa and Jangbu Ang Sherpa another 12 hours to help the pair back down to the South Col. They took it in turns to push and pull Sange. One of the team lowered him down the 500m slope on a rope, while the others guided him and cleared rocks out of the way. Colonel Bhatti, who had been taking oxygen during the ascent, was in better shape and more able to descend on his own. All of them were tired from their own ascents. The slope was steep, and at times they were lowering Sange down a narrow ridge with steep drops on either side. They were extremely difficult and dangerous conditions in which to be conducting a rescue.

I promised to focus on the positive aspects of this story, and there is another one that is just as important as the rescue.

An American trekker, the appropriately named David Snow, trekked to Everest Base Camp in April this year. Sange was his guide, both on the trek and on an ascent of Lobuche East with some of the group. He remembered the young Sherpa as “strong, healthy, happy, humble and quiet”. When he heard that Sange was likely to lose both of his hands to frostbite, he was determined to try and save as much of them as he could.

Sange shows the bandages on his frostbitten hands after his escape from Everest in May (Photo: Sange Sherpa)
Sange shows the bandages on his frostbitten hands after his escape from Everest in May (Photo: Sange Sherpa)

An American organisation called the Kees Brenninkmeyer Foundation, whose mission is to help alpine guides who need reconstructive surgery in order to continue their careers, has agreed to provide medical care for Sange. David has set up a page on the crowdfunding website GoFundMe to pay for the surgery. Initially Sange was denied a visa to enter the United States, but Ellen Gallant, a doctor from Wyoming who also climbed Everest this year, helped to have his visa request re-evaluated. She flew out to Kathmandu to personally escort Sange to Denver, where his surgery would be carried out.

Over 200 people have contributed to the appeal, and last week it reached its target of $42,000. Sange has now completed the first part of the surgery on his right hand, and the surgeons are now working on his left one. It will be a long road to recovery and Sange may never have the hands that he had before the accident, but thanks to the kindness and generosity of strangers, he has another chance in life.

The hardest events in life can sometimes turn out to have a silver lining. There are many examples of others who have experienced similar accidents in the mountains, and gone on to lead fulfilling lives. I’m sure Sange possesses the character to become another. His English is good, so while he recovers, he could do worse than read Life and Limb by Jamie Andrew, who lost both hands and both feet to frostbite, but refused to let it stop him living a normal life.

Last year I told a story of heroic rescue high on Everest, involving my old climbing buddy Robert Kay. Robert was fortunate to make a full recovery without injury. I said back then that stories like Robert’s happen every year on Everest, but we rarely get to hear about them because they have happy endings. The media believe (wrongly) that their readers don’t want to hear good news stories. Thanks to David Snow and the kindness of strangers, another such story has been brought to public attention.

It’s also not uncommon for tourists who have travelled to Nepal and fallen in love with the country and its people to fundraise when they get back home. I have written about these things before as well, both after the 2014 Everest avalanche and the 2015 earthquake.

These stories will continue. There will be more rescues on Everest next year, and there will be even more fundraising appeals for Nepal. I will continue to write about the more notable ones when I can.

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2 thoughts on “The kindness of strangers is helping a young Sherpa recover from frostbite

  • October 25, 2017 at 6:39 pm
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    Karsang Sherpa who lives in Denver Colorado is the unsung hero behind the scenes in getting Sange all the medical help and transportation and current care. https://www.facebook.com/karsang.

    David Snow as you did mention also had the vision to create the fundraiser and will help Sange establish his trekking business when he is back in Nepal. David has done this for another individual in Africa.

    Countelss other people int he small and large donations are fading his current care.

    Another individual, out of state, made a large contribution and will help Sange with all his dental care free of charge.

    Sange will never be 100% have claws now instead of hands but he is alive, has an amazing attitude and will go on to do great things Iife … but he will need help for a long time.

    The world is filled with generous people.

  • October 25, 2017 at 6:43 pm
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    A great story. Thanks for this.
    My friend and myself took the money we had planned for another trek in Nepal in 2015 and sent it to our trekking guide (we had become good friends with on several previous treks) who was then able to build a replacement home for his family.
    The guides, porters and sherpas that make our experiences in such places possible barely make enough to get by on. So when disasters or accidents occur it can be devastating.
    I think anyone who has ‘profited’ from these services should consider helping out whenever these situations arise.

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