Newsletter 1326 April 2012
Dangerous tradition in the Sherpa culture
The tragic death of one of the climbing Sherpas at Mount Everest base camp last Wednesday gave us some food for thought here at the Himalayan Experience camp. For Russell, this event was particularly sad as he had known Karsang Namgyal Sherpa for many years. “He used to work for us and he was a good and strong guy, however, his drinking habit made employing him increasingly difficult.” During the almost ten years that Karsang Namgyal worked for Himalayan Experience, the company tried to help him on several occasions. “We sent him on three rehabilitations but it did not seem to work,” Russell explained.
On 18th April, the life of Karsang Namgyal Sherpa took a sad turn as he succumbed to his habit and died on the main Everest base camp trail, just outside the camps of mountaineering expeditions. “In hindsight we put together the pieces of this tragic event, and we found out that he had been to several camps having a drink with his friends before he collapsed on the trail,” our Sirdar Phurba Tashi said. The doctors of the Himalayan Rescue Association, who were nearby when the 40-year-old broke down, ran to his rescue but could only find him dead.
Karsang Namgyal was the son of Ang Rita Sherpa – who, before Apa Sherpa took over with his current 21 Everest summits, used to be Nepal’s ‘Super Sherpa’. Between 1983 and 1996, Ang Rita from Thame had climbed Mount Everest ten times before health problems forced him to retire. “Ang Rita was a national hero but unfortunately it did not help his drinking habit,” Russell said. In this way, Karsang, who was a strong and committed climber, might have stepped into his father’s footsteps with having scaled the highest mountain in the world nine times as well as dealing with his alcoholism. “The whole family is addicted to alcohol, and sadly Karsang’s mother died of it,” Phurba Tashi explained. “I am very shocked and sad but in a way I was not surprised – he was playing with his life,” he continued.
Rakshi in the Khumbu
Drinking is a common problem within the Sherpa community in the Khumbu valley, however, it is more down to tradition than to modern lifestyle. “My father still has his drink every single day, and whenever anyone leaves the village, even if it is as early as 9am, we have a drink of our local spirit, Rakshi,” Phurba Tashi explained the drinking tradition of the Sherpas. Before Phurba became a Sirdar taking on huge responsibilities on the earth’s highest peaks, he used to drink regularly. “But when I saw how dangerous it can be and how people destroy themselves, I quit drinking all together.” However, despite this positive development, Phurba Tashi thinks that the bigger selection of drinks, such as Kukri Rum and the ubiquitous Everest Beer, has the potential to increase the drinking habits. “But in the end, it is still our tradition of celebrating something or saying goodbye to people with alcohol.”
Many people may think that acquired fame and the pressure of working on expedition and taking responsibilities for western climbers exacerbates the drinking, however, Russell believes it is actually the complete opposite. “I think that expedition life has decreased the drinking among the Sherpa community. They see that they will not be able to keep their jobs when they are caught drinking too much – and that’s what is stopping them,” he explained.
Drinking is not completely banned at the Himalayan Experience camp. “Alcohol is a big part of the Puja and even though the Sherpas used to drink much more during the ceremony they still have the odd one, which is ok,” Phurba Tashi explained.
As for Karsang, the alcohol may have ended his life very prematurely and it will almost certainly ruin the lives of his wife and their two sons, aged eight and one year old. “We don’t know what will happen to the family but Himalayan Experience will provide them with some money as I feel very strongly for them. Karsang worked for me for many years and he was a good worker,” Russell explained.
Karsang’s relationship with Himalayan Experience ended in the autumn of 2009 during an expedition to Mount Manaslu. Since then he had worked for smaller companies. His body was flown back to Kathmandu, where he was cremated last Friday.
Billi Bierling at Everest Base Camp