In the summer of 2005 I was extremely saddened to hear of the untimely death of my friend Mingma Sherpa. The circumstances are that he was killed on a building site in Kathmandu rather than being involved in a climbing accident. The purpose of this trip report is to remind me of the man and to pay tribute to him as a friend and professional guide who kept us safe in pursuit of our dangerous sport. We first met him on a trip into the Langtang Region, our goal being to climb Naya Kanga after a warm-up on Yala. Ged, a climbing partner for almost 40 years and I were with him on this trip with Yala being successfully climbed but the snow conditions on Naya Kanga being too difficult for a summit bid. Since this trip Ged has used the photo of himself and Mingma on Yala summit as the screen saver on his laptop. "I see him every day" said Ged. On the return trek he was one of the team who introduced us to Mustang Coffee (lots of rakshi with a little coffee added to it) and danced and sang the louder as more and more cups were consumed. After this trip he led a charity trek to Everest Base camp and a charity climb on Island Peak. We were raising money for cancer research and the Nepal Trust as well as trying to break the world altitude record for Extreme Ironing. I think he understood the fundraising but not the carrying of an ironing board up a serious Himalayan Peak! In April 2005 he was on Island Peak again with me, and this trip report is of that climb.
The Trek and Donut Incident:
Earlier on this trip we had trekked as a group up to Namche Bazaar, including my wife and some of our Nepali family. My wife was really struggling, especially on the return journey down Namche Hill and typical Mingma, he literally held her hand all the way down and most of the way back to Phakding, this was his level of care for other people. One afternoon on a rest day during this family trek Mingma Sherpa, Bhakta Tamang and I decided to have a bit of an eating contest in the German Bakery at Namche Bazaar. The plan was to pick batches of three different cakes, eat them, and then vote on which one was the best for future reference! First round, Bhakta picked a thick slab of chocolate cake, I picked a sticky apple strudel,and Mingma picked.......... a donut!! Bhakta was disgusted with him as I tried to coax him to pick something bigger. “No sir, donut please”. So a donut he picked! Then I carefully cut each choice into three pieces so we could all taste each one and start the judging. The look of horror on his face was incredible, it was HIS donut and he didn’t want to share it with anyone, no matter who was paying. From that day onwards, and forever, he has been known to me as Mingma Donut. Goodness only knows what name he had for me.
We continued our trek up to Dingboche then Chukkung without incident, hiring most of our equipment and tents at Chukkung. On our rest day we clambered up Chukkung Ri and had fantastic views of the Lhotse Face and Island Peak itself. We then continued on to our base camp, which was only a couple of hours from Chukkung, to find it fairly quiet. In fact it was relatively deserted this being the end of the Spring season. The weather was encouraging and we spent a restful day just eating and generally messing around. At this stage there was just four of us, my two friends Mingma and Bhakta, and one porter Ramesh we had hired at Lukla. The next morning we set off for Island Peak high camp which is at about 5500m and once again only a couple of hours from Base Camp. This is situated on some rock ledges below a gully, the only problem being a lack of water depending on where the snow line is situated. This year it was well above us so we were really short of water for 24 hours, not ideal at this sort of altitude. Everywhere was clear, no clouds and great views which was a good omen for the next day. Earlier a Japanese group had left for the summit at 2am, yet didn’t return till around 5pm! It seems they were painfully slow but extremely determined to succeed. As the sun went down that evening I sat outside for a while watching the sunset and listening to ACDC on my mp3 player. Over an evening meal of the usual dhal-bhaat we made our plans, checked equipment and agreed on a 2am wake-up. I lay in my tent that night with lots of adrenaline pumping, struggling to get to sleep, completely unknowing that this was to be my last summit with Mingma Sherpa.
As agreed we were up at 2am, tea already brewed by Ramesh and supplemented with a couple of chocolate bars. We set off up the rock gully, transferring to the ridge to the right which was quite icy. We had decided to wear trekking shoes up this first part carrying our plastic boots to the top of the ridge where we stopped after about 45min of ascending. We sat down in the snow by torchlight, probably unnecessary in a good bright moon and started to boot up. What shocked me after a few minutes was that Bhakta was struggling! He was panting, said he felt weak and had a headache. His day on Island Peak was over, and he woefully began to return to our tents as we moved on. This just goes to show that these fantastic Nepalis are just as likely to be struck by altitude related illnesses as the rest of us. I later suspected that he hadn’t been drinking enough and had probably given his share to me.
The next part of the climb involved a small glacier crossing before reaching a snow wall on the left which takes you up to the peak’s main ridge. The sun was now up with a perfect blue sky and not another person in sight as we sorted out rope and snow stakes to ascend this wall. The first step was to cross the bergschrund which we negotiated easily with the snow being frozen solid. Mingma had decided to fix a rope while I had a hot drink from my thermos. Twenty minutes later I began to jumar up the rope, reaching Mingma he moved on again to the top of the ridge fixing a doubled rope in a way that we could retrieve it and re-use it to ascend the final ridge and small pyramids. I reached him after a ten minute effort and was surprised on looking down behind me to see another group of six had reached our rope and were starting to climb on it. This really pissed us off as we now couldn’t pull the rope up to continue our climb and had no option but to sit down and wait for them to reach us. Needless to say there was an “exchange” of verbals when they arrived and we really couldn’t believe the arrogance of the Portuguese group who seemed to think using our rope was fair game. We decided to wait ten minutes or so to cool off and let them get out of our way, which on reflection was a wise move.
Roped together we completed the ridge and used two axes each to ascend the splendid final two pyramids to the summit, now deserted with the Portuguese group having descended immediately.
The views in all directions were truly amazing as we put up a few prayer flags and took the obligatory picture, me with a photo of my late son and Mingma with one of his wife.
(It was only a year later after his death that I discovered that Mingma had TWO wives and a bucketful of kids! You old dog Mingma!)
We were back at High Camp by 11am to find Bhakta fully recovered from his malaise after a few hours extra sleep and some cups of tea. Less than a week later we are back in Kathmandu sharing pizzas in Fire & Ice, still laughing about the donut incident and plotting our next trip.
So, in true Buddhist principle, have a good next life Mingma, and everybody be very careful next time you think to swat a fly in Nepal, it might be Mingma Donut!
How will I ever climb Tharpu Chuli, Singhu Chuli and Cho Oyu without you?