It was the fall season of 2012.
I was working as an intern at the India branch of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in Ranikhet.
The evening before the Wilderness First Responder (WFR) program – a first aid course – was to begin, a very unassuming man from Nepal who had enrolled for it, walked up to me and asked if he could have the school’s wireless login password to use his laptop.
He was a medium sized person with a smiling face and the typical stocky build of high altitude dwellers from the Himalaya.
He spoke softly, calmly, in carefully articulated Hindi.
I told him that he would have to speak to the director or the programme supervisor for the password. As the conversation progressed, he said that he was interested in getting to know more about the mountaineering courses available at NOLS India. I replied that he should ideally have a talk with the school’s director, may be an evening after the day’s proceedings had wound up.
The next morning as the first aid course began the student from Nepal was soon lost in the activity on campus.
Quiet people have a tendency to disappear in today’s world.
I would see Namgya Sherpa during lunch or tea-break; that was it.
At breakfast one morning, all that changed.
One of the students at the course – in this case, an outdoor instructor renewing his first aid licence – was Shantanu Pundit, who I knew from Mumbai.
Shantanu asked me, “ did you know that Namgya Sherpa has climbed Everest?’’
I nevertheless took that in my stride partly because my ego didn’t want to seem shaken up by the discovery and partly because Everest has become so commercialized that it reminds me of how nothing happens without money.
As freelance journalist, I don’t make much money.
Without money or extraordinary luck, not even the outdoors open up to you these days.
When they do, and we get wherever we wanted to, we advertise our `achievement.’
We have transposed on to our hobbies that same livelihood fuelled rat race-imagination punctuated by this achievement and that.
The world is awash in that trend.
It is a whole gamut of depressing thought.
I didn’t want to go there.
So I said, “ wow,’’ and let it be.
Peace of mind demanded that Everest be digested as easily as breakfast.
Then as though to rub it in, Shantanu added, “ he has climbed Everest eleven times.’’
For a fleeting moment we looked at each other stunned.
Shantanu for what he had just said, I, for what I had just heard.
I kept the food I had scooped up with spoon, back in the plate.
I had that same feeling as when a person looks up at a stunning mountain face beyond his ability and sees people up there, leaving him wondering: what the hell am I doing in life?
Multiply that eleven times over and you have no option but to laugh, helplessly laugh.
We did exactly that.
Add more mountains to it – which Shantanu said, Namgya had to his credit – and you like to spread the laughter around because it is a world of riotous helplessness. So, we happily spread the news around in campus and watched jaws drop one after the other like salutes at a guard of honour.
By the time I caught up with Namgya, I suspect, people had already quizzed him for the quiet man seemed to be hurrying away from questions. I didn’t spare him and asked my share – so is it true that you did all those ascents?
He halted briefly in his tracks, that familiar smile appeared and the soft voice said reluctantly, “ yes, it is my profession.’’
As it turned out Namgya, in addition to his eleven times up Everest, had also successfully climbed Shishapangma, Cho-Oyu and Dhaulagiri. Plus, he had worked in Antarctica and was set to return to the frozen continent for another season there. He ran his own company called Kanchenjunga Adventure in Nepal and had been a mountain guide in Nepal and Tibet. Namgya hailed from a village called Ghunsa in Eastern Nepal, very close to the Kanchenjunga massif on the country’s border with India.
I know there are those who have climbed Everest more times than Namgya.
I know there are those who trek to Everest Base Camp and talk as though they climbed the mountain.
This article is not about records or personal ambition.
It evolved from what I felt was the man’s humility and that, in these days of identity forged by advertising achievements, seemed welcome relief.
If eleven times up Everest could remain so quiet and unassuming, my hope for quieter planet and life free of having to always measure up to others, felt that much supported.
Over the next few days I would see Namgya quietly going about his first aid course. He had his share of struggles with it; all of us do. By evening, he was usually parked in solitude on a step or a grassy slope, reading up on notes from the day’s classes or attending to his e-mails.
Then one day, as quietly as he had arrived for the course, he left, course completed.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article was first published in a slightly abridged form on the NOLS India Facebook Page.)