We were back at our home in Point Grey after returning from the airport to see our daughter Lisa off on her flight back to Australia. It had been a rare occasion to have all the family together in Vancouver BC Canada for the wedding of our nephew Adam to Beth.
‘Did I mention to you that Dendi was coming to stay with us for a few days?’
Sharron commented to me as we both sat at our laptops around the Dining Room Table.
‘No, you certainly did not’ I replied ‘You have got to be joking right?’
‘No, I’m sorry, I thought I mentioned it’. He is just staying for a couple of days before flying back to Nepal’
I would normally be more than happy to see Dendi but I had had a really busy summer and was looking forward to some down time, or should I say catch up time!
After hiking in Switzerland, I had come to Canada for our nephew Adam’s wedding to Beth and then we had chartered a boat, before our three kids returned to the UK, USA and Australia. I desperately needed some time to catch up on emails and work before we headed to Vancouver Island for another family wedding and then the Vancouver Film Festival – wall to wall films for 16 days and the reason I was extending my stay in Canada.
I also knew that if Dendi was visiting I would not be able to help myself and I would want to show him around, because he has been very good to me when I have been travelling in Nepal with him as my guide – on four separate occasions in four different areas of Nepal.
Dendi and I go back a long way and it is now 12 years since I first met him. In many ways, his story is not unrepresentative of the hardworking Sherpa race or tribal group who are indeed the face of Nepal for many western visitors.
The Sherpas originally came from Tibet and moved south into Nepal hundreds of years ago to primarily settle in the Khumbu region, the area around and to the south of Everest.
Because they live at such high altitude, in the mountain villages and the in the foothills of the greatest mountain range in the world they have adapted particularly well to life at high altitude and have made wonderful high altitude porters and guides in the Himalaya. Indeed the word ‘Sherpa’ has become synonymous with the role of a high altitude guide or porter rather than its correct use which is to be a member of a specific ethnic group.
It was Sherpa Tenzing who was the first to ascend Everest in a joint effort with Edmund Hillary in 1953 and indeed, from the first British expeditions in 1921, 1922 and 1924 right up to the current day hardly any mountaineering expedition in the Nepalese Himalaya has been attempted without the help and assistance of the Sherpas.
The Sherpas are the face of the Nepalese mountaineering and are famed for their strength, endurance, good nature, friendship and loyalty and anyone who has climbed or trekked in the Himalaya will testify that it is almost impossible to hike or trek in the Himalaya without their assistance. Indeed for many it is the warm personalities and sunny smiles that are characteristic of the Sherpa races, which form the abiding memory of a visit to Nepal rather than the spectacular mountain vistas.
Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world and in addition has had to endure a corrupt government, a decade long civil war and just two years ago a devastating earthquake. It is a country where the average per capita income currently estimated at around $850pa so a Sherpa earning maybe $10-$15 a day after tips is doing well in comparison with most of Nepalese society.
I remember on one of my first treks in Nepal jokingly scolding the young Kitchen Porter, maybe fifteen years at most, and telling him
‘You should be at school’
only for the Nepalese Sirdar (Expedition Leader) to pull me over and say
‘He cannot go to school because his father abandoned the family and he is the elder child. His mother says he must work to support her and his three siblings’.
And that is a common story.
There are sadly many porters who are still poorly equipped for working in the mountains although reputable companies will ensure their staff have suitable clothing and footwear.
And there are also many high altitude porters who would rather have a safer occupation than carrying loads to high altitude but who have families and extended families to support so they really have little choice.
There have been several mountaineers who have founded and supported highly regarded and successful charities to give something back to those communities whose support made possible their own mountaineering successes. The most well-known is The Himalaya Trust (http://himalayantrust.co.uk/) founded by the late Edmund Hillary from New Zealand, who was the first to climb Everest. Another that has made a magnificent contribution for many decades to Education and Health Care in remote areas of Nepal is Community Action Nepal (https://www.canepal.org.uk/) founded by Doug Scott, the first Brit to climb Everest. To this day Doug, now well in his 70s, works full time fundraising and his team and trustees supervise many worthwhile projects in Nepal, one of the poorest nations on the planet.
Crucially, rather than just distributing handouts, both these organisations provide initial funding and infrastructure/expert assistance to enable communities to help themselves.
And many of the Sherpas who own successful trekking companies in Kathmandu like Ang Rita of High Country Trekking will support and fund schools in Kathmandu to provide education for young Sherpas from his village.
There is a fairly similar and hierarchical route by which a poor teenager in an impoverished Nepalese village evolves into a successful businessman based in Kathmandu and it usually starts with either having a relative or knowing someone in your village who is working for a trekking company and who can recommend you to start as a kitchen porter ie carrying food, fuel, cooking implements, kitchen tent etc. by day and helping prepare, serve and wash up after breakfast, lunch and dinner. In time you might expect to graduate to having some cooking responsibilities or it maybe you switch over or start as a regular porter, perhaps carrying up 40kg on your back.
After several years of becoming familiar with routes and trails a porter may become an assistant guide for a larger group or be given the responsibility for guiding a couple of trekkers around one of the popular routes like the Annapurna Sanctuary or the trail to Everest Base Camp and then perhaps as an assistant Guide for a large group.
A group of 10 trekkers could easily travel with 20 support staff, most but not all of whom would be Sherpas. This could comprise of a Sirdar (The Group Leader/Chief Guide), Assistant Guide, 8 Porters, a Cook, Assistant Cook and 4 or 5 kitchen porters.
And some but not all Sirdars will be keen to eventually start their own trekking companies or be encouraged to do so by appreciative clients.
Indeed Dendi followed this template almost to the letter as his first job was indeed as a kitchen porter, a position he secured upon the recommendation of his brother. This was back in 1992 when he was just 18 years old and for the next three years he was carrying kitchen equipment, tents and food for both trekking and climbing expeditions throughout the Nepalese Himalaya.
He also worked as a Porter for two years carrying up to 40kg on occasions and another two years as a cook which involved a challenging 1999 winter expedition to Everest from the Tibet side. He first started working as Guide in 2000 and two years later received his first appointment as a Sirdar.
So in a sense Dendi’s story is not an unfamiliar one but as I have seen him pass through several of these roles over the years I can confirm his success is a reflection of his own hard working efforts, resourcefulness and ambition and his commitment to always doing his best for his clients.
I first met Dendi in April 2003 when I took two of our children, Lisa then 16 and David 14 on an 11 day trek into the Annapurna Sanctuary.
The trip was organised by Suman Pandey of Explore Himalaya who provided Dendi with most of his work during the first part of his career and Suman asked us if his 14 year old nephew Anuj could join us on the trek as he wanted Anuj to get a taste of the mountains and of course we had no problems with that.
Fifteen years later as I write this Anuj is the CEO of Explore Himalaya after completing his education in Austria and has very positive memories of his first trekking experience – with us! I enjoy following his Instagram feed (pandey.anuj) with stunning images from many of the Expeditions he organises and joins.
When we flew to Pokhara from Kathmandu we were met by a young baby faced Dendi with a gap between his two top teeth and together with two porters the 7 of us set off. Little was I to know that our paths would cross many times on three continents over the following dozen years and result in this article! It was only several years later that I learnt Dendi, who was born in the Khumbu village of Harise in the Khotang District a two day walk south of Lukla, was 30 at the time, being born in 1974 and a twelve year old veteran of Everest Expeditions including two years as a Sirdar (Chief Guide). He was also too modest to tell us he was also an accomplished mountaineer as he had summited Island Peak (6,189m/20,305 ft) in 2000 and more impressively Ama Dablam (6,812m/22,349 ft) the following year, often described as the most beautiful mountain in the Himalaya and indeed a challenging climb.
I remember it was an uneventful trip and a good introduction to Himalayan Trekking for our kids as we hiked up through the foothills, through the narrow gorge below the sacred peak of Machapuchare (Affectionately known as the Fishtail), and then into the snow covered Sanctuary, an amphitheatre circled by innumerable towering peaks including Annapurna, the 8th highest mountain in the world and the first of the fourteen 8,000 metre peaks to be climbed in 1950.
I remember Dendi was a considerate and friendly leader and our kids both liked him and enjoyed his company. He would often join us for a game of cards in the evening in the many colourful tea houses (lodges) along the trail where we spent our nights.
I also remember our son David ate all the food put in front of him and never complained about anything yet when we got back to the road after 11 days walking he looked at me and said ‘I never thought I would be so pleased to see a car in my entire life’. When we landed at London Heathrow a few days later he followed up by looking at me with a smile and saying ’Well the agony is now officially over’.
Now a recently qualified 29 year old Management Accountant with two university degrees David has remained good to his word and never hiked with me since! Meanwhile Lisa who has just submitted a thesis for her PhD has undertaken several long distance hikes with me since including to Everest Base Camp, an ascent of Kilimanjaro and the Tour Mt Blanc.
A year later I was back in Nepal with our daughters Sarah then 19 and Lisa then 17.
We planned to hike to Everest Base Camp and flew to the famous (or should I say infamous) air strip at Lukla where most trekkers start their hike to Everest Base Camp which will take at least 8 days with the minimum sensible allowances for acclimatising to the altitude.
The airstrip at Lukla is a mayhem of activity as once there is an opening in the weather several small planes will arrive one after another from Kathmandu, each carrying maybe 20 trekkers, and whilst the weather allows the airport to remain open the planes will try and load up with departing trekkers, many of whom might have been waiting for days in inclement weather, as quickly as possible.
Given that the airstrip is quite literally carved out of the side of a high Himalayan Valley and surrounded by high peaks, often hidden in the clouds, and you will understand why flying into Lukla is either a hazardous or exciting experience depending on one’s perspective.
For the 19 passengers and crew of the Yeti Airlines flight who all died when their Twin Otter snagged on the perimeter fence when landing in restricted visibility in October 2018 it was tragic rather than exciting!
Given that all the baggage is loaded and unloaded manually with no apparent logic or sense of order and there are maybe 100 Porters and potential guides all touting their services at the airport most operators move their clients to a nearby hotel for a leisurely lunch whilst their guide retrieves the baggage and employs some porters.
No sooner had we arrived at our Lukla Hotel but who should we find in the Lounge but Dendi who had his finished an Everest Base Camp Trek and who was waiting for his next clients.
After a pleasant chat and reminiscing about the trek Lisa and I had done with Dendi twelve months earlier the three of us set off with our guides and porters but unfortunately Sarah had a problem adjusting to the altitude when we got to Namche Bazaar. So sadly we cancelled the trip descended and made our way back along the trek to Lukla and promptly ran into Dendi coming towards us with his next clients!
We flew to Bangkok for a sun and sand holiday in Thailand…or so we thought but it was out of the frying pan and into the fire for poor Sarah who herniated a disc in her back which led to hospitalisation and problems that have resulted in multiple surgeries and which sadly, still bedevil her to this day. After Sarah and Lisa returned to the UK I returned to Kathmandu to collect all the hiking gear not taken to Thailand. I decided there was still time to hike to Everest Base Camp on my own.
The agency that I was using (Explore Himalaya) thought it might be nice for me to have Dendi as my Guide so together with Dendi and a young novice Porter we set off on from Lukla after another uneventful (i.e. we survived!) flight to Lukla.
My memories of this two week trek to Everest Base Camp and back are that it was a pleasant and enjoyable trek and that Dendi was a congenial companion. I remember we kept meeting another Nepali friend Prasant on the trail. Prasant had guided me on my first ever Himalayan Trek around the Annapurna Circuit 6 years earlier and stayed with our family in the UK. We had not met since until this trek with Dendi. Prasant was now working as a Guide for an Australian Trekking company and we met twice on the trail between Lukla and Everest Base Camp as Prasant brought a group out as we went in and then we crossed again 10 days later as Prasant headed towards Everest with another group as we walked out! I introduced Prasant to Dendi and they became friends and several years later before retiring as a Guide Prasant led some treks for Dendi’s company!
It was only when I revisited the images I had taken in 2004 when writing this article that I was realised it was this trek that I made my first visit to the village of Thame (on a long acclimatisation day hike from Namche) before we hiked to Pheriche via Phortse, bypassing the famous monastery at Thyangboche which we visited on the way out.
I do remember climbing (walking!) up to Nangkartshang Peak (5083m) on an acclimatisation hike above Pheriche and meeting the CEO of the American Trekking Company (Mountain Travel Sobek) on the trail. We laughed when I told him I knew his company well because a few months earlier when I had been involved in designing the most recent brochure for Great Walks of the World I had ‘borrowed’ some design features I had admired in the impressive Sobek brochure! Great Walks of the World was a division of Casterbridge Tours which I established in 1979 until selling it to an American group in 2011.
And it was when looking at the pictures of this trek that I remembered it was on this trek with Dendi that there was some snowfall as we approached Everest as it was late April and pre Monsoon. The scenery was truly magnificent with a light coating of snow and it was probably on this trek that I took the most impressive of the thousands of images I have taken in my five visits to the Everest region.
At Gorak Shep, the closest accommodation to Everest, we caught up with a Great Walks group who were being led by Chiring who had been one of the Sherpas who accompanied a small group I had taken to Everest two years earlier. Trekking in Nepal is a small world and one often meets familiar faces along the trail!
The following day Dendi and I continued to Everest Base Camp passing the remains of a crashed Russian helicopter, and the Irish Expedition leader Pat Falvey kindly allowed us to stay overnight in a spare tent amidst the small tent city formed by about 20 expeditions preparing to climb Everest. The Sirdar for Pat’s Irish Expedition that was attempting to put the first Irish woman on the summit of Everest, was another Nepalese friend, Pemba Geljen In 2002 Pemba had led myself and a friend Colin north of Gokyo towards Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth highest peak before we crossed the challenging Cho La (Pass) which was a far more demanding approach to Everest Base Camp and one which I was to somehow repeat with our daughter Lisa four years later in 2008.
In fact it was also four years later when modest and thoughtful Pemba was to become known worldwide on another Pat Falvey Expedition during the terrible tragedy on K2 in Pakistan which claimed the lives of 11 climbers. Pemba climbed back towards the summit and single handed rescued 3 climbers trapped above a broken rope and unable to descend without assistance. For this Pemba received the National Geographer Adventurer of the Year Award and numerous other citations and tributes but he refused all requests for interviews as he was deeply upset at the loss of his close Irish friend and fellow climber Gerard McDonnell and did not want to be seen as gaining fame or notoriety as a result of just trying to help his fellow climbers.
Back in 2004 after climbing to the famous Everest viewpoint at Kala Patthar (5644m) above Gorak Shep, Dendi and I walked as far as Dughla with Victor Saunders, the well-known British climber and award winning writer who has summited Everest on several occasions. I was to meet Victor again in Nepal four years later when trekking with our daughter Lisa and in 2009 Victor also guided us on a 5 day glacier hike in the Bernese Alps in Switzerland. This culminated in his leading Lisa and my friend Steve Sage to the summit of the Monch (4107m) – which together with the Eiger and Jungfrau are synonymous with the Bernese Oberland.
The other clear recollection that I have from my 2004 trek with Dendi was at Dingboche, just to the north of the beautiful mountain of Ama Dablam, where he asked if I minded if he could go ahead to Lukla as he wanted to get a haircut! Lukla was two full days walking away but Dendi managed it in 5 or 6 hours. He knew that I was very familiar with the route and had walked between Namche and Lukla five times previously and that our Porter would keep an eye on me.
That day it there was torrential pre monsoon rain in the afternoon and Dendi had already arrived in Lukla whilst I was still making my way between the monastery at Thyangboche and Namche Bazaar which was only half way back to Lukla! I had sent the Porter on ahead as even with a 20kg load he could walk quicker than me and when I arrived at Namche my Porter was standing in the rain above the village in his flip flops and with a flask of hot coffee!
The following day when I arrived in Lukla it was Dendi’s turn to greet me replete with a new haircut – perhaps to impress some young Sherpani?
And meanwhile although I could not match Dendi’s pace I did manage to get from Everest Base Camp to Yeovil in the UK in four days so I could watch my favourite football team attempt to secure promotion to League One at the first time of asking. My journey attracted a lot of attention in the UK national press and I parlayed it into a book which is still available for purchase here.
The next time I saw Dendi was two years later when I organised an ambitious trek to the Eastern flanks of Everest which our adventure travel company ‘Great Walks of the World’ which we marketed as ‘The Chairmans Trek’.
Perhaps about 20,000 Trekkers a year make it to Everest Base Camp in Nepal and a similar number probably make it to the Base Camp in Tibet which one can actually drive to with a 4 wheel drive vehicle. However Everest is a pyramid and my plan was to trek towards the rarely visited (and even more rarely climbed!) Kangshung Face of Everest which because of its isolation and difficult access is only visited by maybe a couple of groups of hikers each year.
Our plan was to start at the village of Kharta in Tibet and after flying into Lhasa and a couple of days sightseeing we made the two day dive to Kharta, visited by the famous and iconic climber George Mallory in 1921 during the initial British Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition. Mallory was searching for the best approach to Everest and three years later his obsession with Everest led to his disappearance on the Upper slopes and even after his body was discovered in 1999 there remains conjecture about whether he may have been able to summit with his climbing partner Sandy Irvine.
So although now, as in 1921, Kharta is an isolated impoverished and somewhat nondescript Tibetan village, it is well established in Everest folklore because of its connection with Mallory and the very first Everest expedition and we met our group of Nepalese Guides and Sherpas who had driven from Kathmandu I was delighted to see my old friend Dendi was one of the senior Sherpas allocated to our group.
After 8 days we had hiked up the Kharta Valley, crossed the Sho La and then followed the Kama Valley and glacier to find ourselves within a day’s walk of Everest’s infamous and rarely visited Kangshung Face. At this point the stronger hikers were going to try and access the Kharta glacier (we eventually found the correct valley approach!) and follow George Mallory’s 1921 route by walking up the glacier, crossing the Lhakpa La at 7,000 metres before descending to Everest Advance Base Camp which I had hiked to two years earlier in 2004. This group would then walk out and descend to the Everest Base Camp at Rongbuk.
We thought this would take 4 days (Ha Ha) and meanwhile I would lead the rest of the group back to Kharta on an alternative route by crossing the 5400 metre Langma La (Pass). The plan was that we would then drive around to Everest Base Camp and get there at the same time as the stronger hikers/climbers arrived after walking out from ABC.
It turned out it took the others a day to reach the Kharta glacier and two additional days to ascend the heavily crevassed Kharta Glacier to the Lhakpa La let alone cross it (!)and as they were travelling light did not have so much food. They had a satellite phone so were able to let our UK office know they were behind schedule.
They made it OK but not before our UK office had phoned a contact in Kathmandu who in turn radioed a contact at ABC who in turn asked a well known Everest climber and Guide Jamie McGuiness on his day off at ABC to go and meet our group! Unfortunately when our group saw Jamie they thought it was just a climber waving to say Hello and ignored his waves to follow him! Jamie was not pleased that he had given up his rest day, climbed up 500 metres and found our group just to be ignored when he signalled them to follow him! And as a result our group took several extra hours finding their own way down to ABC from the Lhakpa La and were thoroughly exhausted after 4 days on meagre rations and sharing just two small tents.
It turned out that we got to Everest Base Camp at Rongbuk before they did so I walked up the trail for an hour or so with the north west face of Everest staring me in the face fully visible from base to summit. It is impossible to get a view of the entire mountain in Nepal and this alone makes the visit to Rongbuk in Tibet well worthwhile.
Eventually my bedraggled group came down the valley formed by the East Rongbuk Glacier after a long walk out from ABC and they indeed looked as if they had completed an epic traverse! We now understood why after scouring the internet we had only found one other record of a group following our route and that was led by David Breashears, the famous mountaineer and filmmaker who was responsible for the 1996 Everest Imax film.
Our group looked totally spent and exhausted after their 5 day ordeal and it turned out that Dendi had been a star of the show, never complaining, always helpful, carrying extra loads and generally earning the respect of everybody. Everyone felt he was Sirdar (Leader) material and so it was to prove.
That evening we had a celebration meal at Rongbuk before starting our two day drive across the Himalaya into Nepal and back to Kathmandu and I took a picture of myself and my friend Ampai from Thailand. With similar features and skin colours they look like man and wife and I have teased them about it from that day to this!
Two years later in 2008 I was back in Nepal to trek to Everest Base Camp with our youngest daughter Lisa, aiming to accomplish what we had started five years earlier when Sarah was unable to continue due to altitude related problems.
And when Lisa and I landed at Kathmandu Airport who should we spot in the crowd waiting to greet arrivals but……………………………Dendi who was at the airport to greet some clients for Explore Himalaya. We had a brief word before meeting our friends Ang Rita and Sumba of High Country Trekking who were organising our trek.
Whilst I was in Kathmandu I met Jamie McGuiness as I wanted to take him out for lunch as an expression of my gratitude to him for his efforts two years earlier to help our group who were struggling to reach ABC from the Lhakpa La as recounted above.
He told me that Dendi had been appointed Sirdar (Leader) of a climbing group attempting to climb Everest and that he has successfully climbed Everest from the Northern (Tibetan) side the previous year. I was not aware of this and doubtless Dendi’s experience with our group crossing the Lhakpar La has stood him in good stead! Jamie clearly thought highly of Dendi but wondered if he needed more experience before leading a group on Everest. This was a promotion for him and a lot of responsibility but if things went wrong it might not be such a positive career step.
Anyway Lisa and I flew to Lukla (again!) and made our way to Namche and then up to the Gokyo Lakes before crossing the Cho La and making our way to Gorek Shep. People often ask me what it is like hiking with one of our daughters in the Himalaya and I always respond ‘I have no idea. She walks so much faster than me that after we set off in the morning I hardly see her except when she waits for lunch at the designated tea house. Our guide normally walks with or behind me to ensure that no one (ie me) gets lost or left behind’
I think there was one day when Lisa took pity on me or made a conscious decision to walk at a slower pace with me! But in truth it is not easy to walk in anything other than ones natural gait!
The walk was fine other than my continually complaining that as I was in my 60th year I was too old for these capers and this was definitely going to be my last Himalayan trip (that resolution did not last so long!) and we made it all the way to Everest Base Camp which was my 3rd visit and Lisa’s first. The day hike from Gorak Shep to Everest Base Camp and back the undulating rocky ridge of one of the lateral moraines of the Khumbu Glacier and is quite a demanding walk of approximately 6 hours in each direction and one has to be careful with foot placements. Indeed trekkers have gone missing from time to time on this final approach to Everest Base Camp, presumably stumbling on the rocky and icy terrain, hitting their head and falling down a slope which tells you why it is never advisable to hike alone in rugged areas.
After a full and demanding day’s walking we were both happy to have reached the flat alluvial plain formed by deposits from streams flowing down off Pumori which told us we only had a few hundred metres to go to reach our (relatively) warm lodge at Gorak Shep when Lisa said ‘Look theres Dendi’ as we saw a lone person walking towards us from Gorak Shep.
My initial reaction was to say ‘Don’t be Stupid, how can you tell’ and I suspect that’s what I did say but although the person walking towards us was at least 50 metres away it was a Sherpa and it was indeed Dendi who was heading towards Everest Base Camp to check that his team had erected all the tents prior to the clients arriving.
The commercialisation of climbing Everest is a debate for elsewhere with pros and cons on both sides of the argument but it turned out that Dendi had two clients on his team who had never seen snow before – one from the Oman and the other from Saudi Arabia. I personally have no problem in individuals paying for a place of a commercial guided expedition to the summit of Everest providing they have sufficient experience as most individuals cannot afford to fund an expedition or licence fee which would cost $20,000 before the costs of local support team, oxygen, insurance etc
However I do think that the Expedition Organiser has a moral responsibility to their staff and other expedition members to ensure the clients they agree to take to Everest have a proven track record and sufficient skills and expertise to give themselves a good chance of coping with the challenge and elements. Otherwise they are not being fair to their own staff or indeed protecting the client from themselves when their ambition might be greater than their ability.
To be fair most western Everest Expedition organisers do require their clients to provide proof of their competency and previous experience in the higher altitudes and Greater Ranges but Nepal is an impoverished country and some Nepalese Operators are less choosy taking anyone who will pay without ensuring they have sufficient experience and ability.
Dendi did get to the summit of Everest on his expedition which put him in that elite group of climbers who had summited Everest from both the North (Tibetan) and South (Nepalese) sides but he is still well behind one of his two elder brothers Jangbu who has climbed Everest 7 times!
However it was far an from uneventful expedition because as he was descending he saw one of his Sherpas ascending with one of his Middle Eastern clients who was clearly agitated and feeling the effects of the altitude to the point that temporarily crazed, he tore of his gloves and threw them away and started to unzip his insulated clothing. He was in fact writing his own death warrant at an altitude of around 8,500 metres.
Dendi and his assistant calmed the Omani down and sat him down near the south summit of Everest and Dendi radioed down to the south col for some of his staff to bring up additional oxygen and gloves. Meanwhile the three huddled together for several hours and Dendi kept the Omanis hands as warm as he could by unzipping his own clothing and stuffing the Omani’s clothes inside to keep them warm from Dendi’s body heat.
Eventually help arrived and they got the client down to the South Col and were able eventually to descend to Base Camp and then a helicopter evacuation to Kathmandu still accompanied by Dendi.
Indeed Dendi had saved his clients life but not his fingers.
Years later I asked Dendi if the client had ever thanked him or sent him a gift or tip for saving his life and Dendi laughed and said ‘No Sir, when I took him to the airport, he said he would see me again when he came back to Nepal with his family for a holiday.
This shows the cruel reality of many Sherpas lives.
The rewards for climbing Everest are great in that it will be easy to find work on Everest Expeditions in the future with a successful ascent on your cv but some western clients think they are buying ticket to the summit of Everest and that if necessary the Sherpa will drag them to the summit. A Nepali is paid for every load he carries up the mountain and if they are a climbing Sherpa will receive bonuses if they are part of a successful expedition, and/or if the client they are assigned to makes the summit and also if they do so themselves. With rewards and bonuses ranging from $1,500 to $10,000 many Sherpas will continue to climb and work on Everest against their better judgement to provide income for their families and an education for their children and they are always loyal, friendly and courteous to a fault with all their clients irrespective of how disdainfully some are treated.
The following year in 2009 despite my protestations that the previous year’s trek was going to be my last I was back in Nepal with my friend Ampai from Thailand (who had met Dendi on our 2006 trek) and we planned to trek around two thirds of the famous Annapurna Circuit, my first Himalayan Trek when I had done it in its entirety 11 years earlier. And now this was to be my tenth (and final?) trek!
I had organised the trek through High Country Trekking who we used for many of the treks we organised for clients but I asked them if we could use Dendi as a guide because although the bulk of his work had been for Explore Himalaya I understood he had also been working as a freelance guide and had recently joined with his friend Ngima to set up a trekking agency of their own called Happy Feet Trekking.
Dendi had met Ngima back in 2002 when he was a student on a Nepalese Mountaineering Association Course taught by Ngima in the Langtang Valley, a course also taught by my friend Pemba who I had met again when trekking in the Langtang Valley in 2006 prior to our trek to the Kangshung Face of Everest described earlier. Sadly the Langtang Valley was decimated with a high loss of life in the 2015 Earthquake.
Our 2009 Annapurna Trek went well although given Dendi and Ampai were almost 30 years younger than me it was not surprising. I was the slowest but it was not a race and the others pretty much walked at my pace. The crux of the walk was crossing the Thorong La (Pass) (5416m/17,769ft) and the day before which was the 9th day of our hike we were making our way up a narrow dry and dusty valley heading towards the last tea houses before the Pass at Thorong Phedi where we planned to spend the night.
The trail was well marked and clearly followed the south side of the valley and I just followed Dendi and Ampai who in turn were following another two small groups of trekkers who we could see making their way up the well marked trail along the side of the dry valley side. I stopped to have my photo taken next to the sign that announced ‘Landslide Area’ and did not give a great deal of thought to how the dead Yak at the bottom of the slope got there. Nor why the group up ahead seemed to have stopped for a while before continuing.
As we headed up the valley there seemed to be quite a lot of dust in the air and then all of a sudden a shrieking whistle as a black shape flashed above our heads. I realised it was a small boulder about the size of a coconut just at the moment Dendi shouted ‘Down’ as we threw ourselves behind some large rocks at the side of the trail and sheltered.
However not only was I the slowest of the three of us on the trail but I was also the tallest and before I knew it I felt a sharp crack on my head and concentrated on getting lower. When the shower of stones and dust abated and I put my hands to my head I saw my hand was covered with blood and an embarrassed and apologetic Dendi was saying ‘I am sorry Sir, I am sorry’ (If I have told Dendi once to call me Michael not ‘Sir’ I have told him a thousand times but deference seems to be in built into the Nepali psyche as all male clients are inevitably addressed by Dendi as ‘Sir’).
Dendi was carrying First Aid kit and did a good job of bandaging my head wound up which was a deep gash caused by a small stone which had come down a long way and built up considerable velocity. I was just grateful not to have been hit by a larger stone or in the eye. When we looked up it appeared the rock fall might have been started by some goats high up the slope and we now realised why the first group had paused and how the dead Yak got to the valley floor!
We walked on for 30 minutes and got to the Tea House (lodge) at Thorong Phedi (4540metres) where we were going to work out what to do next when the next group after us arrived, which was a group of Australian Army Personnel that included two nurses! I could not have been in better hands and they were thrilled to have an excuse to practice their skills in the field, creating a sterile table, donning plastic gloves, thoroughly cleaning the deep gash on my forehead and binding it tight with butterfly plasters. They suggested getting it stitched when I reached the first town with a Medical Post which was likely to be Muktinath the following day after we descended from the Thorong La.
After being patched up by the doctors we decided to continue up another 300 metres to the new Tea House above Thorong Phedi which would reduce the climb the following day. By this point a combination of delayed shock, and a headache caused by the blow rather than the altitude sent me to bed for a fitful sleep but the following day I felt fine to continue and we crossed the Thorong La at 5416 metres and then made the long descent to Muktinath where one glance at the equipment on offer persuaded me that this was not the place to have the wound stitched. A Dutch doctor who looked at the wound advised me he could not stitch it then, as he had just smoked a couple of joints, but he could do so in the morning if I wanted but he thought the butterfly plasters had done a good job and it might be as well to let it heal naturally, which is indeed what I did.
The following day one eye was very swollen which is quite common after head injuries but we walked along the dry and windy Kali Gandaki Valley to Jomson and flew to Kathmandi the following day.
However, before Ampai flew back to Thailand and I flew to the UK, Dendi invited us to his home in the centre of Kathmandu to meet his wife Ang Doma, who he had met when on an expedition to Mera Pak. Ang Doma was cooking and managing lodge at Tagnag and they got married in 2005.
We met his two children Tshiring Sherpa (daughter now 10) and newly born Kunjang Sherpa (son now 9) before Dendi took us out for dinner. I think he still felt bad that I was his first client to get hurt on a trek! Interestingly enough when I read my notes of my 1998 trek I noticed with interest that I had kept to the trail on the northern side of the valley ‘because of the danger of rockfall’ !
What did I know in 1998 that Dendi did not know in 2009?
In fact that was not the last I was to see of Dendi in 2009 because little more than a month later he was in the UK to promote Happy Feet Trekking to a number of the Hiking and Adventure Travel Tour Operators in the UK and I had helped arrange a few introductions and appointments through my contacts in the UK Travel Industry.
I met Dendi at London’s Heathrow Airport and the following day took him to explore the delights of Roman and Georgian Bath and he took great pleasure in pushing my 94 year old mother around the Roman Baths in her wheelchair! The following day I arranged for us to walk from the mouth of Poole Harbour along Shell Bay and Studland Bay to Old Harry Rocks and Swanage and we were joined by Doctor Matt who had been one of the party that Dendi had accompanied on the epic 2006 traverse from the Kharta Glacier over the Lhakpa La and on to Everest Advance Base Camp.
The following day was a Sunday and I had organised a small informal buffet for friends to celebrate and show them the renovation of Langlands Farmhouse at Kingsdon that had taken our property company almost two years to complete. Dendi being Dendi could not resist helping us prepare and serve the food to guests although I did notice him on his phone at one point. After all the guests had left he helped us clean up and prepare to take everything back home when he said
‘Michael Sir – I had a phone call from home’
‘Oh?’ I replied
‘Yes Sir – my mother has died’ he said with a small sob.
I asked him what he would like to do and he said it his preference was to go home so he could pay his respects but his mother was likely to be cremated within 24 hours.
We were able to change his flight to the following day and I asked him how he was likely to get to his village which I understood was a two day walk south of Lukla. Dendi had always been there for us and all his clients when they needed him so I thought the least we could do was to give him the funds to charter a helicopter from Kathmandu to his village.
Sadly, although the cremation was initially delayed so he could return, there was too much cloud in Kathmandu to allow any flights and Dendi got to his village the day after his mother was cremated.
And that was the last that I saw of Dendi for a while, although my wife Sharron visited Nepal with her cousin Lindy and Dendi made the arrangements for their accommodation, some sightseeing and a trip to Chitwan Park.
In 2010 our (then) travel company Casterbridge Tours organised a very challenging Chairman’s Trek in the Rohwaling area of Nepal to Thame and on to Gokyo over the Renja La that several of my friends signed up for only to discover the Chairman (Yours Truly!) felt he was not fit enough to lead and so my colleague Andy deputised only to be struck down mid trek by an altitude related issue.
We had organised the trek through Dendi’s trekking agency ‘Happy Feet Trekking’ and Dendi personally accompanied the group as the Sirdar and it was left to him to carry the baton when Andy had to leave the group and descend to lower altitudes to recover.
The trip was a great success and many of the group continue to meet on a bi-annual basis to trek in various parts of the world albeit with a new Chairman – one who can be trusted to turn up! Indeed only last week they completed a trek to the isolated Mustang area of Northwestern Nepal with Dendi’s Happy Feet Trekking’
I was always happy to recommend friends wanting to trek in Nepal to Dendi and we kept in touch, every few months I would get a Skype call from Dendi just to check all was well.
In 2015 Nepal, already one of the most impoverished nations in the world, was hit by a devastating earthquake that causes monumental destruction over much of Nepal including Kathmandu where Dendi lives with his family. They were not directly affected but his family like most of the city’s population had to live in tents for 35 days until the chance of aftershocks had desisted and the safety of his building been confirmed.
As I had not been back to Nepal since 2009 somehow six years had passed since I had last seen Dendi until Sharron had asked
‘Did I mention to you that Dendi was coming to stay with us for a few days?’
And as it turned out it was great having Dendi with us in Vancouver for a couple of days.
Dendi had been staying in the BC Interior with a friend/client who had brought several groups to Nepal and Dendi had given a couple of presentations to hiking clubs in the area and now his friend had dropped him off with us and he was with us for 48 hours before going home.
Things were clearly going well for Happy Feet as that young Trekking guide from 12 years earlier now had a credit card and planned to go to the Apple Shop to buy an iPhone for his wife!
Happy Feet Trekking now had a very impressive all colour 48 page brochure and he had shipped about 200 copies from Kathmandu to Vancouver together with two sweaters for me and two Tibetan Rugs and a Down Coat for Sharron!
However, the name of the game was to distribute the brochures in places where they might be most effective and we had less than 48 hours before Dendi set off home. I was reminded of my own efforts distributing the first brochures of Casterbridge Tours in North America in 1980 and now 35 years later here I was doing the same again.
The Wheel has apparently come around full circle and indeed ‘What goes around, comes around’
I took Dendi to several of the biggest outdoor apparel stores in Vancouver (very much an outdoor person’s city) and we either asked if we could leave brochures on display or surreptitiously snuck them in. We also visited a couple of Adventure Tour Operators and I took Dendi to the monthly meeting of the BC Mountaineering Club and introduced him during the Announcements Section of the meeting and several club members talked to him about potential trips at the close of the meeting.
And we also had time to take him for dinner at the Jehrico Yacht Club with its wonderful terrace with an unsurpassed view of English Bay and the North Shore Mountains and as my front tooth had fallen out we were now two gap toothed individuals!
I have been working on this article in fits and starts and somehow another three years have passed and Happy Feet trekking is well and truly established as one of the leading trekking and climbing operators in Nepal.
So at the present time things are looking very positive for Dendi as a result of his own hard work and efforts and it has been a privilege to observe and occasionally accompany Dendi on his journey from an impoverished Nepalese village in the Himalayan foothills to being a successful businessman operating a very highly regarded business.
And if you would ever like to visit Nepal for either trekking or a general vacation, either bringing a small group or individually you can have no better partner than Dendi and his team at Happy Feet Trekking.
And if you would like to make a donation that will benefit the Nepalese people you can do no better than support Community Action Nepal – an organisation founded by Doug Scott who was the first Britain to climb Everest and which provides funding and expertise to communities in Nepal who are willing and able to help themselves.
And finally if you would like to trek in the Himalaya and contribute to a good cause I am operating a trek to the famed Annapurna Sanctuary in the Nepal Himalaya with Dendi and Happy Feet Trekking to raise funds for the Take Care Kids Shelter in Thailand from November 23 to December 8 2018. You can find the full details by clicking on the link below.
© Michael Bromfield
Dendi Gallery 2003 Onwards
All images in Nepal unless stated otherwise.
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June 1, 2021 at 2:17 AM
Thank you so very much for sharing this story and so many great photos of my little brother Dendi. I will miss him much. Namaste to you brother. Stay safe.