Mount Everest is in the news, as is Everest, a movie based on a 1996 expedition that ended in tragedy and took a dozen lives.

The word’s highest peak has been partially reopened for climbers after the catastrophic earthquake in Nepal in April, which claimed 22 lives at the Everest basebamp. The first would-be conqueror is Japanese national Nobukazu Kuriki. Meanwhile, a Hollywood movie based on the 1996 disaster, which was caused by a thunderstorm, will open the Venice Film Festival on September 2. Everest, directed by Baltasar Kormakur (Contraband, Two Guns), explores the drama of death and survival that marked the 1996 misadventure. Everest, which has also been shot in the IMAX format, will be released in India on September 18.

Among the unfortunate climbers who were trapped on the treacherous slopes of Mount Everest in 1996 was Sherpa guide Ang Dorjee. He was working then, as he continues to, for Adventure Consultants, the reputed New Zealand company that organises guided mountaineering expeditions and treks. “Everything depends on the weather – when we left, it was nice and there were clear blue skies, and all of a sudden, the weather went bad,” Dorjee said in a telephone interview. The disaster did not deter the doughty Sherpa from repeatedly returning to the mountain. “I went back almost every spring after 1996, and I have summitted the Everest 17 times,” he said. “I am probably going back there next spring.”

Ang Dorjee.

Dorjee was the “sirdar”, or the chief, of the Sherpa guides accompanying the expedition led by Adventure Consultants co-founder Rob Hall, who perished on the mountain when a thunderstorm unexpectedly struck. Among the casualties was Scott Fischer, whose company, Mountain Madness, had organised another of the expeditions making its way up the peak.

In Jon Krakauer’s vivid 1997 account of the tragedy, Into Thin Air, the travel writer, who was a member of Hall’s expedition, describes Dorje’s reaction to his employer’s demise.
…I noticed Ang Dorje, standing alone in the appalling wind, sobbing inconsolably over the loss of Rob. After the expedition, when I told his Canadian friend Marion Boyd about his grief, she explained that ‘Ang Dorje sees his role on this earth as keeping people safe… Even though Rob was the expedition leader, Ang Dorje would see it as his responsibility to ensure the safety of Rob Hall and Doug Hansen [a member of Hall’s expedition who also died] and the others. So when they died, he couldn’t help but blame himself’.

Dorjee, the son of a renowned Sherpa climber, had to leave school when his father went blind from cataracts, Krakauer writes. He began working as a cook for trekkers in 1984, and was financially supported by a pair of climbers who ensured that he studied upto the eight standard. Dorjee soon earned a reputation for being a “strong and resourceful climber”, and was hired by Hall in 1992. “With respect and obvious affection, Hall referred to him as ‘my main man’ and mentioned several times that he considered Ang Dorje’s role crucial to the success of our expedition,” Krakauer writes.

Dorjee met members of the Everest production crew when they were shooting a few sequences at the base camp in 2014. “I was leading the production crew, and I kind of know a little bit about the movie, but I am not sure I am in it,” Dorjee said. “I did see a character carrying a backpack with my name on it.” He hopes to be present at the Venice Film Festival for the movie’s premiere.

The 46 year-old Sherpa guide is not sure about his feelings towards Everest, which is sure to rekindle painful memories for the survivors, apart from sparking off controversy, as did the publication of Into Thin Air, on whether any of the expedition’s guides contributed to the death toll. Jake Gylenhaal (Nightcrawler, Zodiac) plays Scott Fischer, while Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty, Terminator Genisys) plays Hall. Michael Kelly plays Krakauer.

“I was very close to Hall, he was my boss and we were very close friends,” Dorjee said. “Sometimes I wonder why people want to make films about people who are still alive – I understand that these stories need to be told, but I feel wary. I feel bad that after 19 years, these people [the victims] are still being mentioned.”

Another tragedy, far worse than the 1996 incident, took place during last year’s shoot, when an avalanche buried alive 16 Sherpa guides. Dorjee, who divides his times between Nepal and the United States of America, also suffered a personal setback when his family home in the Kumbhu region was destroyed by the earthquake.

Dorjee has scaled several other mountains around the world, including in South America and Pakistan, but Mount Everest “is the best”, he said. “The Everest is the highest in the world, which is why so many people want to summit it,” he said. “People might don’t know where Nepal is, but everybody knows Everest.” He hopes to be back there in 2016, leading yet another group of glory seekers up the mighty mountain.