Ang Dorje Sherpa is one of the best climbers you never heard
CALGARY — Ang Dorje Sherpa is one of the best climbers you never heard of.
Ang Dorje, in Calgary recently to receive a recognition award from the Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation, has summited Mount Everest 11 times since 1992, and climbed three Himalayan peaks taller than 8,000 metres: G2 (1997), Broad Peak (1995) and Cho Oyu (seven times).
He’s a mere 36-years-old, an age when most Westerners are just contemplating the big mountain.
“He’s almost the Wayne Gretzky of climbing,” says Byron Smith of Vulcan, Alta., a climber who hired Ang Dorje to help him summit Everest in 2000.
That statement is complicated by the fact there are two other Sherpas who have reached the top of Everest even more times: Apa Sherpa (16 times) and Chowang Nima Sherpa (13 times). But little is known about their feats outside the mountainous country of Nepal.
A Google search on them reveals little. Ang Dorje fills in some holes: Apa is 43, and Chowang Nima is 37. All three men are still climbing, so they all have a shot at ending their climbing career with the record for the most ascents of the world’s highest peak.
If these Sherpas were Western-born, it’s almost certain they’d be in a summit-bagging race — all three last summited Everest within a few days of one another in mid-May. But Ang Dorje shrugs at the idea of climbing records.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” he says.
Competing for bragging rights is not the Sherpa way.
“In the West, people climb to build their own reputation,” he says. “They say, ‘I am the best, I am the best.’”
Sherpas, says Ang Dorje, work together toward a common goal. In Nepal, climbing is a revered profession Sherpas see as a blessing. In a few generations of guiding wealthy Westerners, it has transformed their mountain tribe from one of the poorest groups in the world’s fifth-poorest country to one of its most prosperous. Sherpas share most things, even using their tribe’s name as a shared surname.
There are no Sherpa climbing divas. Perhaps that’s why Ang Dorje is all business when it comes to climbing.
“I never climbed for fun until I came to the U.S.,” he says.
Ang Dorje grew up the son of a climbing Sherpa in the small alpine village of upper Pangboche, in the Solo-Khumbu region of Nepal made famous by Mt. Everest. His father Nima Tenzing Sherpa worked for 15 years on Himalayan expeditions with British climber Chris Bonington in the 1970s and ‘80s.
“I always wanted to climb when I was little,” Ang Dorje says.
Despite his small size as a boy, Ang Dorje took a job as a porter carrying heavy loads for climbing expeditions at the age of 12. But he was saved from this menial labour by a couple from Oliver, B.C.
Graham and Marian Nelson were so appalled during their Himalayan trek at the sight of Ang Dorje struggling to heave loads as heavy as him that they paid to put the young boy in a Nepalese school for the next two years. He still talks to the couple every few months, and spent Christmas with them in 2003.
When Ang Dorje returned to Everest at age 14 it was as a climber. He spent the next seven years building his mountain skills on trips to Everest before getting a chance at the summit. A faulty oxygen regulator stopped that bid, but he summited on his second attempt at age 22.
Even as a young climber, his strength and savvy organizational skills stood out, leading New Zealand-based climbing company Adventure Consultants to offer him a job as climbing sirdar (boss of the expedition’s climbing Sherpas). Founded by Rob Hall, the company is one of the most storied Everest guiding operations. Ang Dorje has returned to Everest every year since, usually with Adventure Consultants.
Guy Cotter, owner of Adventure Consultants, raves about Ang Dorje’s ability to read mountain conditions and to inspire the other Sherpas with his leadership skills.
“A natural leader. He was very young, but obviously very talented,” Cotter says from his office in New Zealand. “He’s the real star player for us when we’re on Everest.”
Since 2002, Ang Dorje has helped hundreds of Western clients achieve their summit dreams (or come back disappointed, but alive). He has only been turned back by foul weather.
“I never got altitude sickness,” Ang Dorje says without a hint of self satisfaction.
Strangely though, if it weren’t for his job, Ang Dorje wouldn’t climb much at all.
While he feels a need to be close to the mountains, he prefers to hike among them. He still has his nerve, it’s just that the equation has changed now that he has a wife, American Michelle Gregory (whom he met at Everest Base Camp in the spring of 2000), and their two children, Tashi Tenzing, 3, and Karma Doma, 10 months.
“If you’re going all that way from them, why would you have kids?” he asks rhetorically.
Ang Dorje has changed his dream of climbing the Seven Summits — the tallest peaks on each continent — to eventually guiding treks around the world out of the U.S.
“I don’t really want to climb,” he says. “I’m slowing down, but I can’t quit right away.”
Ang Dorje doesn’t want his children to climb either.
“It’s too risky,” he says.
This should raise no doubts about Ang Dorje’s courage or skill as a climber. He’s one of two Sherpas who heroically tried to save the life of his boss, climbing guide Rob Hall, during the deadly 1996 season on Everest that inspired the book, and later the made-for-TV movie, Into Thin Air.
Ang Dorje and Lhakpa Tshering Sherpa left the safety of their camp during a brutal late-season storm that killed eight people that day and climbed 900 vertical metres to just below the peak’s South Summit. They waited for 45 minutes in a total whiteout, about 100 metres below the now-frozen Hall, before being forced back by the storm.
“It was very sad. Very difficult,” he says.
Despite Ang Dorje’s accomplishments, he tells no self glorifying tales. His feats have to be dragged out of him during our interview.
Yet, his stories are as compelling as any Everest summiter on the motivational speaking circuit. Here’s just one: In 2003, he was the last person coming down the mountain when a bridge of three roped-together ladders he was using to cross a crevasse in the notoriously unstable Khumbu Icefall flipped.
His fall into the dark chasm was arrested by a rope fixed to nearby ice. But when he tried to drop his heavy pack to reduce the strain on the rope, a buckle snagged between his harness and his rib, breaking the rib. Barely able to talk, he radioed a few Sherpas in the camp below for help.
It took almost an hour for the Sherpas to get him out of the crevasse. The moment they did, he felt an overwhelming urge to rush down the mountain.
“I was feeling, ‘Let’s get down really fast,’” he says.
A few minutes later, a wide field of giant ice shards, known as seracs, crashed into the crevasse.
“We couldn’t see where I had fallen.”
Now, living just outside Spokane, Wash., Ang Dorje says he enjoys guiding on Mt. Rainier as well as Everest. This should put him at least on the edge of the world’s media spotlight, yet he remains a footnote in reports of his groups’ mountaineering triumphs.
One-on-one, fellow Everest summiters Smith and Peter Hillary, the son of Everest pioneer Sir Edmund Hillary, speak admiringly of Ang Dorje. During an interview before the Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation’s gala dinner and auction, the younger Hillary said Dorje deserves far more media attention.
“He’s just an incredibly great person,” Hillary says. “He doesn’t strut, but he’s accomplished remarkable things.”
So why isn’t Ang Dorje better known outside Nepal?
In nearly two decades of climbing, he’s noticed a trend among the Western clients he leads to Everest’s summit: While climbing, they can’t say enough about how much work Sherpas do, but when they return home to newspaper reporters and TV cameras, they forget about the men who ferry much of their gear up the mountain and set up high camps.
“They only talk like they did it themselves.”
Autor: Trent Edwards, The Calgary Herald
Further information at: http://www.canada.com/ottawacitizen/story.html?id=e3d30d97-d299-4186-9293-5cd03e02072c&k=11749