Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Sonam Sherpa

Lhakpa Sonam Sherpa lives in Namche Bazaar, a small, horseshoe-shaped town perched on a mountain high up in Nepal's Khumbu Valley, where the air is thin. Crows caw-caw loudly, yaks stroll through the streets, and the chink-chink-chink of hammer on stone is a constant soundtrack.

Namche is a popular stop-off for trekkers to acclimatise before pushing up the valley to Everest Base Camp, and beyond. We spent three days there breathing the sharp air and eating apple pie.

Unfortunately, I didn't take a digital picture of Namche, but this is the view up the valley from a short, steep path above town. That's the peak of Everest (behind a cloud).

Sonam is a historian of Sherpa culture and an excellent photographer. He is slight, with expressive eyes and a high-pitched, schoolboy giggle. With his wife, he runs a lodge for trekkers with two rudimentary museums attached: one documenting Sherpa culture, the other a history of climbing Mt Everest.

This is him as a beautiful 16-year-old boy.

And this is his matinee idol-handsome father, Sonam Girmi Sherpa, who undertook 37 expeditions to Everest during his lifetime.

When he was 19, Sonam junior contracted meningitis while making his way on foot, and by truck, to Kathmandu to embark on an engineering course at university. He woke up in hospital, deaf. He was sent to the best ear specialists in the US and London, but no-one could do anything for him.

The event changed the course of his life. He decided he had to do something his disability would allow. And he felt a deep desire to document the fast-changing lifestyle of his people, the Sherpa (the name given to people who live in this region of Nepal).

Communicating with a profoundly deaf man whose first language isn't English – although it is very good – is a challenge. But we managed through lip-reading (him), hand gestures (me) and scribbling on a pad (both of us).

"Where did you take this photo?" I asked. "OFF TRACK. ALMOST NO TOURIST" was the written reply, delivered with a wide smile and a twinkle in his eye.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Hannah, I have read by chance your blog on Lhapka Sonam Sherpa. I knew his father as he was the sirdar in our 1981 expedition to Mt Everest, and his son Lhapka came to see us in Milan about 25 years ago. As I would like to trek those places again this summer, I wonder if you can provide me his address or (the progress is sometimes very fast) his email.
    Thank you in advance
    Michele Samaja - Milan Italy