When I call out Chongba’s name a cheerful older man steps forward, radiating warmth, and we shake hands. I’m pleased. All the Sherpas are strong, but I prefer the older guys … who are wise as well as tough – an essential quality on big mountains.
These were the words I wrote in The Manaslu Adventure about my first meeting with Chongba Sherpa.
Little did I know, as I re-edited the book last month, that Chongba passed away last year after a short battle with cancer. He left behind a wife and five children, two of whom are still of school age.
As we shared a tent on Manaslu in 2011, he told me his climbing record: Everest twelve times, Dhaulagiri, Cho Oyu, Kangchenjunga, Baruntse, Pumori, and Annapurna IV. He was to climb Everest at least three more times.
Because many Sherpas share the same name, it’s not always easy to tell their achievements apart. It is complicated by the fact that spellings aren’t always consistent. Sherpas are often described by the village they are from, though many Sherpas from the same village share names too. Chongba was from the village of Tate (pronounced ta-tay), across the Dudh Khosi Valley from Lukla in the Khumbu region of Nepal. The Himalayan Database lists him 27 times as Changba Nurbu Sherpa or Chhongba Nuru Sherpa, born in 1964.
Here is a short summary of his climbing record. As you can see, his success rate was impressive. Interestingly, he undertook more expeditions to Everest than all the other mountains in Nepal put together.
|Ama Dablam (6,812m)||3||2|
|Annapurna IV (7,525m)||1||1|
|Cho Oyu (8,201m)||2||1|
Although this doesn’t quite tally with what Chongba told me, it’s pretty close, and I wouldn’t dare take issue with the facts of the legendary Elizabeth Hawley. The Himalayan Database lists two other Chhongbas of a similar age and from the same part of the Khumbu region.
Chongba’s first expedition was a successful ascent of Annapurna IV with an Indonesian team in 1990, when he was 26. His first 8,000m peak was Dhaulagiri with a Japanese team later the same year. His first Everest summit was in 1999 with a Canadian team.
According to the Himalayan Database, his three Everest expeditions where he didn’t reach the summit were with a US team in 2009 (8,700m due to fatigue), a US team in 2010 (no summit bid) and a Norwegian team in 2015 (no summit bid).
His last Everest summit was in 2016 with the UAE Armed Forces, and his final expedition was to Manaslu with a Chinese expedition in September 2016, when he reached the foresummit less than a year before his untimely death.
Chongba was my climbing Sherpa on both Manaslu in 2011 and Everest in 2012, when we reached both summits. I was also due to climb with him on Lhotse in 2014, but this expedition was cut short by a strike.
Chongba didn’t speak much English, but it was enough for us to communicate. I remember him as quiet and attentive, radiating warmth and wisdom. In common with many Sherpas of his generation, I believe he was also a devout Buddhist. He was proud of his climbing record. At the time I climbed with him, he had neither reached the summit of Manaslu, nor Everest from the Tibet side, and he was as keen to get to the top as I was.
On Manaslu I remember him fiddling with my oxygen apparatus when I was slow leaving from our high camp. I didn’t know that he had turned the flow rate up to 4 litres a minute. I went like the clappers for the next few minutes. Chongba was climbing without supplementary oxygen, and he struggled to keep up with me. At our next rest stop, he secretly turned it back down to 2 litres per minute. I struggled from then on, but he was now able to keep pace without difficulty.
Later in the day I descended slowly and had not reached camp when nightfall came. Chongba was safely back in Camp 2 by then, but he climbed back up with a bottle of orange juice to meet me and help me down again with my pack.
On Everest he never left my side for 18 hours as I completed my epic summit day. I was totally exhausted, and in danger of falling asleep at every stop. In those situations, many people have died on Everest by dropping into a sleep from which they never wake up. Although I eventually made it back to camp under my own steam, knowing that Chongba was there with me kept me going through those long hours. I knew that I needed to survive for his sake as much as my own.
Nowadays, the media is much more aware and supportive of Sherpa climbing achievements than they were a few years ago. Sherpa climbing fatalities are often as well publicised as those of western climbers. But we rarely hear about the Sherpas who pass away quietly.
I only learned of Chongba’s death last month when I was in Kathmandu, eight months after it happened. I might not have done so had not Phil Crampton of Altitude Junkies remembered our partnership and let me know as soon as he heard the news himself. Chongba had worked with Phil for a number of years, though not recently, and Phil had only found out about it by chance.
I don’t know how prevalent cancer is in the Sherpa community. I know of at least one other climbing Sherpa who passed away from cancer prematurely. Most Sherpa families still cook over open wood fires and their homes can be smoky. Given what world-class athletes they are, you would also be surprised how many climbing Sherpas smoke cigarettes.
Chongba’s death may not be attributable to either of these causes, but he was only 53 years old and has gone much too soon. His 14 Everest ascents (if, indeed it was 14) puts him in a high-altitude elite.
I will never forget him and what he did for me. If you too have been lucky enough to climb an 8,000m peak with Sherpa support, or are indebted to local staff for the trip of a lifetime, then you can share my memories by taking a moment to remember those who helped you achieve a dream.