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The Sherpas of Darjeeling hope for a day when their children don’t have to climb mountains

Darjeeling's stagnant economy imperils the lives of its tribe.

Outsiders are often flummoxed by the erratic weather of the hills of Darjeeling in West Bengal. Within minutes, or a few kilometres, the facade of the sky changes from a clear blue to an ominous grey.

In some ways, the life of a Sherpa in Darjeeling is erratic like hill weather: given the dangers of their profession, a sustainable, happy life can become overshadowed with grief and loss within the span of just a few treacherous steps.

The Sherpas have been inseparable from the Himalayas in popular imagination, ever since the 1920s, when European mountaineers began to first scale the mountains. On climbing missions, Sherpas frequently suffer the loss of physical and mental faculties. Some lose their feet to frostbite, thus losing the means to continue their profession. Others lose their mental balance due to traumas suffered during climbs, and retire early.

Paralysed physically and mentally, Sherpas who can no longer climb get no financial support.

Mani Sherpa lost his feet to frostbite on Mount Chomolhari, a mountain straddling the border between Tibet and Bhutan, in 1971. He says he received no compensation from anyone.
Mani Sherpa lost his feet to frostbite on Mount Chomolhari, a mountain straddling the border between Tibet and Bhutan, in 1971. He says he received no compensation from anyone.

Pemba Lamu Sherpa’s husband Dawa Wangchuk Sherpa was accompanying West Bengal mountaineer Chhanda Gayen on an expedition to Mount Kanchenjunga, Nepal, in 2014, when they got caught in an avalanche. When their bodies could not be found, they were declared dead.

Her neighbours claim Pemba Lamu Sherpa was offered a compensation of Rs 50,000, which she says she never actually received. In contrast, according to some news reports following the tragedy, Gayen’s family was promised a sizeable compensation.

Pemba Lamu Sherpa, widow of Dawa Wangchuk Sherpa, at her residence. Dawa Wangchuk Sherpa was one of the guides for Chhanda Gayen during an expedition to Mount Kanchenjunga in Nepal. On May 20, 2014, Gayen went missing along with Dawa and another sherpa in an avalanche, while descending the western side of Mount Kanchenjunga. Pemba was married to Dawa on January 25, 2014, and he left for the expedition just three months later. Image: Rana Chakraborty
Pemba Lamu Sherpa, widow of Dawa Wangchuk Sherpa, at her residence. Dawa Wangchuk Sherpa was one of the guides for Chhanda Gayen during an expedition to Mount Kanchenjunga in Nepal. On May 20, 2014, Gayen went missing along with Dawa and another sherpa in an avalanche, while descending the western side of Mount Kanchenjunga. Pemba was married to Dawa on January 25, 2014, and he left for the expedition just three months later. Image: Rana Chakraborty

Most professional Sherpas today go for expeditions where there is a huge risk to their lives, only so they can earn enough to ensure that their children receive a good education, and do not have to venture into this line of work. Young Sherpas are increasingly turning to convent education as a tool to escape this high-risk profession and find other means of livelihood.

But there are few other opportunities in Darjeeling.

Darjeeling still subsists on its tea gardens and tourism.
Darjeeling still subsists on its tea gardens and tourism.

Till date, the economy of Darjeeling, also known as the Queen of the Hills, primarily subsists on its tea gardens and on tourism, which gained primacy during the colonial era, when various Himalayan tribal groups began to migrate here in search of better livelihood.

In 1980s, the Gorkhaland Movement, or the demand for a separate administrative unit in Darjeeling, reached in its peak under the Gorkha National Liberation Front. Sherpas, usually known to the world only as prolific mountaineering guides, too formed an ethnic tribal community demanding self-determination.

Nima Doma’s husband Angnima Sherpa died on an expedition to Changuch Peak in Uttarakhand in 2007.
Nima Doma’s husband Angnima Sherpa died on an expedition to Changuch Peak in Uttarakhand in 2007.

“There is not enough social and economic development in this area and among the community,” said Jamling Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, son of the legendary mountaineer Tenzing Norgay. “So, if you manage to come after 100 years, you will find someone of the community is still working as guide for mountaineers.”

 Jimling Tenzing, in his study. “Sher-pa stands for eastern people, not a porter or a helping hand for some other climber. Over 500 years of living in high-altitude areas, sherpas have accumulated a special natural ability to climb high altitudes and sense the weather. Especially in the Himalayas, they are irreplaceable.
Jimling Tenzing, in his study. “Sher-pa stands for eastern people, not a porter or a helping hand for some other climber. Over 500 years of living in high-altitude areas, sherpas have accumulated a special natural ability to climb high altitudes and sense the weather. Especially in the Himalayas, they are irreplaceable."
Within minutes, or a few kilometres, the sky in Darjeeling can change from a clear blue to an ominous grey.
Within minutes, or a few kilometres, the sky in Darjeeling can change from a clear blue to an ominous grey.
Kushang Sherpa, a trainer at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, holds a record for climbing Mount Everest from all five routes. Seated in his living room with his son, Kushang says he has lost several family members to mountaineering expeditions.
Kushang Sherpa, a trainer at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, holds a record for climbing Mount Everest from all five routes. Seated in his living room with his son, Kushang says he has lost several family members to mountaineering expeditions.
Some children return from their convent school in Darjeeling.
Some children return from their convent school in Darjeeling.
A child plays while her family builds their hut. Professional sherpas continue risking their lives so that their children can get good education.
A child plays while her family builds their hut. Professional sherpas continue risking their lives so that their children can get good education.

All photographs by Rana Chakraborty.

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