Text by Ujeena Rana
Ang Tshering Sherpa established Asian Trekking Pvt. Ltd. in 1982. He has served as the President of Nepal Mountaineering Association and Asian Mountaineering and Climbing Federation. He is the honorary member of UIAA- International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation. He is the Honorary Consul of Belgium to Nepal and has been decorated “The mark of honor of knight in the Order of Leopold” by His Majesty the King of Belgium. He is also the President of Climate Alliance of Himalayan Communities (CAHC). Besides, he is also honoured with Suprabal Gorkha Dakshin Bahu by the late King Birendra Shah.
Imagine a Sherpa who cannot climb a mountain. A Sherpa who at the base of a mountain prays to his patron gods before an expedition; not particularly for a successful summit but as a prayer for help as he has never climbed a mountain before. This is the story of Ang Tshering Sherpa, Founder of Asian Trekking and a pioneer of the mountaineering industry in the summer of 1977.
That summer, he was in Austria on invitation of his father’s friend, the President of the Alpine Club in Austria. “He frequented Nepal to climb summits and that is how he had struck a friendship with my father,” reminisces Ang Tshering.
At the Austrian Immigration Center, the officer excitedly approved his entry into the country calling out joyfully that the visitor is a Sherpa and after the stamp of approval, came out of his chamber and requested Ang Tshering for a picture together. Call it stereotyping but the name Sherpa is synonymous with climbing and that is what Ang Tshering experienced first-hand that day.
To mark his arrival, his host had invited 36 Austrians to meet a Sherpa that night. Little did Ang Tshering know that the next morning he was to join an expedition. Out of youthful vanity, Ang Tshering did not disclose an important aspect of his skills (rather the lack of it!) and convinced himself that climbing a mountain could not be an that onerous an affair after all. Besides, his village stood at 3,790 m whereas the peak they were to climb was short of 3,400 m. The next morning, 55 Austrian climbers gathered at the base of the summit. They were all on an expedition together. But Ang Tshering had never climbed before.
The early days of his life, he was in a monastery learning to be a lama, thereafter, he was in school and college. Moreover, his parents invariably encouraged him to bury his nose in books and not in snow.
That day, he somehow (read: with four limbs on the snow) climbed the peak, but had utterly embarrassed himself. To redeem his pride, he took mountaineering training in Switzerland and Italy where he had family friends. “It must be in the genes of Sherpas and also because of my youth, the next year, I was competent enough to climb mountains. Most summers, I would be in Europe and used to lead expeditions,” he shares.
Almost a Doctor
Another incident stands out which catapulted his life to its present state. “My father and uncles realised that mountaineering is an excruciating profession,” shares Ang Tshering. Understandably, his parents did not wish their son to pursue the formidable and physically daunting life of a climber, they rather wanted him to become a doctor.
As luck would have it, he became the recipient of the Colombo Plan Scholarship Program for MBBS trrough the Indian Embassy. He spent three years as a medical student at Darbhanga Medical College. However, in the fourth year, his health deteriorated. “I had to undergo multiple surgeries,” he shares. Subsequently, his professor suggested that he choose between his health or a career as an ailing doctor. There was a third option though – to be transferred to a medical college in the hill stations of India. He had no contacts in India except for Desmond Doig, writer, expeditioner and family friend, who at the time was working in Calcutta. He sought help from Doig to identify a medical college in the hills and to help secure adnmissions. Doig agreed. Ang Tshering returned to Kathmandu in the hope to hear from him.
He waited for three months which stretched into eight months. But he did not hear back. Communication was very difficult at that time. One day, he received a one line telex which arrived at Shangri-la Hotel. The telex asked him to expect a call from Doig at the Telecommunication Office. “At that time, it was the only place for communication and had seven booths. After a wait of an hour, at 3pm, there was a call. The operator asked me to go to booth No.3. To converse, one had to shout on top of their voice. The line was not clear and you just had to assume what the other person was saying. What I heard was that Doig had found a seat for me at the medical college in Mussoorie but I had to repeat the years, meaning starting all over ,” he explains. But he did not want to do this. However, his parents held firm that he continue his study in medicine and become a doctor. Ang Tshering chose otherwise and decided to pursue mountaineering tourism as a profession.
“Trekking, travelling, expeditions held my interest. My heart was set on it,” recalls Ang Tshering. More importantly, tourists used to bring great food, nice jackets, Levi’s pants, shoes and all the things that held the fascination for a young man in those days.
And that marked the course Ang Tshering would take his future into.
Khumjung and Family History
“My great-grandfather in 1921, 1922 and 1924 was involved in the Everest expedition. During that time, Everest was not open from the Nepal side, so they embarked on the expedition from the Tibet side,” informs Ang Tshering. His great grandfather was in George Mallory’s team during his attempts to conquer the world’s highest peak. Some speculate that the team may have reached the peak before Mallory. His fellow climber Andrew Irvine died during the expedition of 1924.
Nepal was opened for Everest expeditions only from 1950s. “In 1952, the Swiss Expedition had arrived in Nepal in which my father, neighbours and uncles were involved. Later in 1953, when Tenzing Norgay Sherpa (a fellow villager) and Sir Edmund Hillary registered their names as the conquerors of the invincible Everest, my father, neighbours and uncles were part of the same expedition,” he says and adds, “In that regard, my family had long been involved in the mountaineering business.”
“Since the time of my great-grandfather, my ancestors were the tribal chiefs of the Khumjung village and Thame valley at the base of Everest. There were two other tribal leaders (representing other villages) in the larger Khumbu region,” he narrates. The region was isolated from the rest of the country due to its remoteness. There was not much contact with the other parts. According to him, that is why the region functioned as an autonomous place. It operated as a tribe. The appointed tribal chiefs had the authority to rule the region.
He shares that during the reign of Jung Bahadur, the state army wanted to register victory over the place. But coming from the lowlands, they could not acclimatise to higher altitude weather. In the second attempt, the army was victorious and the land came under the Nepal government. He adds, “But the direct rule over the place was not feasible from afar (Kathmandu), so they appointed the same three tribal leaders as Talukdars, who had to go all the way to Kathmandu every three years to pay the land tax.”
Sir Edmund Hillary, Yeti Scalp and the World Tour
Ang Tshering takes great delight, especially narrating stories about his father’s time. His father, Konchok Chumbi Sherpa had befriended Sir Edmund Hillary on expeditions. And because he was the village leader, Sir Edmund picked him for an around-the-world tour. They were accompanied by Desmond Doig and Yeti scalp. The scalp belonged to the Khumjung Monastery. The objective of travelling with the scalp was to educate people about the Yeti, the mysterious Himalayan creature and also about Sherpas. “My father is possibly the first Sherpa to go on a world tour,” he informs.
“Before the world tour, Sir Edmund said to the people of the region, ‘What is it that you want me to do for you?’ To which my father and the others replied, ‘Our children have eyes but they are blind because they are uneducated. So we want a school here,’” narrates Ang Tshering. During the tour, Sir Edmund put across the Sherpas request to a global audience and thereby collected funds for the school.
On their way back from the world tour, the trio came directly to Khumjung by helicopter. When they had left the village, they travelled on foot. “People in my village had not seen a flying object before. The popular belief was that only gods travel by air. So the villagers worshipped my dad and also the helicopter.” He guffaws while narrating stories of days bygone.
After the trio’s return, construction of the school began in 1960. Hillary School (now called Khumjung Secondary School) opened to students in 1961 and Ang Tshering was a pupil there. The school had teachers from New Zealand, Canada, Darjeeling and Kalimpong. He was also the first batch to graduate from the school.
Foray into Mountaineering Tourism
Ang Tshering has successfully completed 43 years in tourism and mountaineering tourism. “I have worked in almost all sectors of tourism as a mountaineer, trekker, as a mountaineering and trekking operator, helicopter owner, airline owner. I have also been involved in travel and rafting. Currently, I am also running a chain of mountain lodges,” he says with a touch of pride.
Ang Tshering bought Asian Trekking in 1982. He tells that during the Panchayat era, it was a laborious task to get the license to open an enterprise. Either a royal family member had to be involved, or you had to be a minister, or you had to be a secretary at a ministry. The company was owned by a member of the Rastra Panchayat at that time however he did not have much idea about running the company. Ang Tshering was in search of a company. Their paths crossed and he bought Asian Trekking from the gentleman.
At present, his second son, Dawa Steven Sherpa and brothers oversee the responsibilities of the company that he had acquired after much struggle. “But I am still the Chairperson,” he says.
Bringing in Russian Helicopters
Another story that is fresh in Ang Tshering’s memory is the time when Asian Airlines (the airlines that he founded) brought home two Russian helicopters. “It was the first helicopter company in Nepal. Nepal adopted a Liberal Sky Policy in 1992 and we brought Russian MI17 helicopters to the country in 1993,” he says. It is another story that Asian Airlines is now shut down. “That is a story for some other day,” he adds.
Bringing the Russian helicopters was a feat in itself because till then only American, Indian and European aircrafts flew in the Nepali sky. According to Ang Tshering, there was palpable fear among many contenders about the market share being usurped by Russians. “Russian aircrafts are cheap yet they are strongly built. Additionally, their high-altitude performance is outstanding,” states Ang Tshering. He reveals that the respective embassies visited the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to flex their muscles to stop the Russian helicopters from reaching Kathmandu. So the helicopters were stuck in Karachi airport for over a month because of the complexity back home invited by international intervention. To add to that, they had to pay parking fee for the entire period that the helicopters were kept in Pakistan before the Russian beauties finally came home.
The drama around the aircrafts did not end there. “One porter to Everest can carry 30 kg. Whereas, each of the helicopters could carry 4000 kg. Besides, the helicopter could navigate treacherous terrain. But then the helicopters became a domestic problem,” explains Ang Tshering. The aircrafts were hailed as demons devouring the employment of hundreds of porters. The atmosphere was very toxic as there was a lot of negative promotion about the aircrafts.
“In the west of the country, hydropower projects were ongoing. When the media ran stories our helicopters as giants and monsters that could carry the weight equal to 150 porters, the contractors of these projects approached us. We had hit the wall because of objections from all fronts. However, we got ample work to keep us busy with the hydropower projects,” he shares of his reverse in fortunes.
His many roles
In conjunction with being an old hand at mountaineering and mountaineering tourism, he is also the immediate past president of Asian Mountaineering and Climbing Federation as well as Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA). He is the honorary member of UIAA- the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation. “The federation is the governing body of mountain tourism and mountaineering as IOC is for sports. UIAA also does the monitoring task. It considers Nepal as one of its important components,” he states.
Ang Tshering also serves as the Dean of the Honorary Consuls. The body that he heads comprises of representatives of 45 countries. “In Nepal, embassies are being replaced and substituted by consulates. And the responsibilities are handed over to the honorary consuls. Honorary consuls are almost like acting ambassadors. Almost all of the consulates function as embassies,” briefs Ang Tshering. He is the Honorary Consul of Belgium to Nepal. He has been decorated with the ‘Mark of Honor of Knight in the Order of Leopold’ by His Majesty the King of Belgium.“Short term visa of up to three months for Belgium is provided by the German Embassy, whereas, the long term visa is processed from the Consulate office,” he informs. The consulate also deals with student visa, family reunification visa, residential visa. They also issue temporary passport and new passports. “Bilateral relations, trade and tourism promotion – almost all the jobs that an embassy does is performed by the consulate office. However, the tasks and duties of a Consulate varies from country to country,” he adds.
“A Sherpa hailing from a remote geography has managed to achieve things unprecedented; I reckon it is something to celebrate,” he reflects on his achievements.
To raise the voice on the plight of the Himalayan community, Ang Tshering and others felt the need of a singular organisation. All the people habituating the Himalayas share common problems irrespective of the countries that they belong to. “We have formed Climate Alliance of Himalayan Communities and I am its President. In the future it can be extended to Hindu Kush Himalayas covering Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan and China. Now we are only based in Nepal. We are in constant talk with other nations because our issues are similar,” he states.
Himalayas under threat
In the world of mountaineering and mountaineering tourism, Ang Tshering is recognised as an expert because of his practical and theoretical knowledge of the Himalayas. “The Himalayan region is susceptible to the threats of glacial lakes. There are hundreds of big and small glacial lakes that have formed across the Himalayas,” he says. Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM) has warned that six glacial lakes in the high Himalayas are at serious risk of an outburst. According to Ang Tshering, these lakes pose great danger and one of the biggest is Imja Glacial Lake. He is a witness to its formation. “I saw it develop in front of my own eyes. It was our playground. It was where my friends and I used to play while grazing our yaks during our childhood. In 1962, it appeared as a small pond,” he highlights the progression of its formation.
According to ICIMOD report, 2,135 glacial lakes were observed in Nepal in 2001. Though, by 2009, only 1,466 glacial lakes were noted. A decrease by 33 % in a decade was evident. “If these lakes burst, the impact will be worse; damage to lives and property is unfathomable. Whenever we get a platform, we educate our Himalaya community about climate change and global warming because they are one of the worst affected people. They are very vulnerable to the impact of climate change, global warming, even natural hazards. We advocate and raise our voices. Earlier, our government had turned a deaf ear to our voices as they had other priorities. Even the international community only considered the Arctic region polar bears, penguins and seals under threat and affected by the global warming and climate change,” underlines Ang Tshering.
“In December 2009, in Kala Patthar, a rocky plateau just above Everest base-camp at the altitude of 5300m, ahead of Copenhagen Summit, we hosted a cabinet meeting to underscore the threat of climate change to the Himalayas. The event was hosted when I was the President of the Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA). We wanted the Nepal government, media and the general public to be aware of global warming and climate change,” he says about the pressing issue.
He emphasises that almost all the Himalayas are sitting on unstable and seismically active ecological landscape where earthquakes are a regular phenomenon. “You can just imagine the danger under which many of the mountain communities in the Himalayas live, literally under thousands and millions of tons of water which can burst any moment even with a small earthquake or avalanche. The situation is actually much worse than the earthquake of 2015,” he says pensively.
The Rescue Racket
The “rescue racket” is proving to be one of the biggest evils that the tourism sector is facing now. Helicopter companies, private hospitals and trekking agencies have been reported to be ‘partners in crime’ in the insurance scam. Injecting fear for life into trekkers, guides ask their clients to call for helicopter rescue over petty health issues or at times, made the hikers sick on purpose. It was later revealed that the ‘fake rescue’ drama was created in unison with private hospitals and helicopter companies to extract handsome amounts from foreign insurance companies.
The situation has garnered national and international attention. In a June 2018 article of South China Morning Post, it was reported, “… over the past six years the skies of the Everest region have turned into a helicopter highway, with a six-fold increase in the number of choppers in the air, each logging over 1,000 flying hours per year.”
“It can bring adverse effects in the long term,” warns Ang Tshering. According to him, foreigners will complain either to the embassy, and in its absence, it is the honorary consuls that they will register their complaints with. “We receive scores of complaints. In a matter of few years, foreign insurance companies have lost millions of dollars. At the end of the day, they are also running a business.Of course, they won’t run despite heavy loss,” he stresses.
Nepal government appointed an investigation committee which presented a 700-page report to the government. According to him, the apprehension of the foreign insurance companies is that the 700-page report was submitted but has not been made public. If the government has taken action on the basis of the report presented, then who are the perpetrators, and if action is being taken, then where has the process reached. And if action has not been taken, why is it so and what is the government about to do to ensure that such incidents do not recur. Besides, the names of the culprits need to be published. Sadly, no visible action has been taken. The foreign insurance companies cannot always run on loss. Also, there is tangible fear amongst visitors about similar rescue racket in the coming days.
Clearly, the number of people coming to Nepal for trekking and expedition will substantially be affected by this. “They won’t be willing to come to Nepal despite heavy financial burden as it is not the only available destination. There are multiple choices. This can adversely impact the industry in the long term if the government fails to take strong action against it. We might lose many numbers of visitors. In addition, the government is planning “Visit Nepal 2020”, and the plan is to bring two million visitors?” he questions.