The old man and the mountain

The 85-year-old Nepalese adventurer who died on Everest earlier this month climbed because he had "to do something, and this is what I can do".

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Among the 371 climbers granted permits by Nepal’s government to attempt Mount Everest this year, two stood out. The first was Ueli Steck, the 40-year-old carpenter known as the “Swiss Machine”, famed for his fast and daring ascents of some of the world’s most imposing mountains. Steck’s plan was to scale Everest by a rarely used route without supplemental oxygen and then to traverse peaks to Lhotse, the world’s fourth-highest mountain. He never got to try. On 30 April, during a solo acclimatisation exercise on Nuptse, a smaller peak near Everest, Steck fell a kilometre to his death.

The second climber of note was Min Bahadur Sherchan, a modest, 85-year-old great-grandfather who served in a Gurkha regiment in the British army in the 1950s. Sherchan was hoping to regain his record as the oldest man to reach the summit of the world’s tallest peak. When I met him in Aldershot, Hampshire, in late February for a story about “super-agers” that ran in our spring double issue (7 April), he was confident of success but also aware of the mortal danger. For most of us, the risk of dying stops our dreams, of climbing into thin air, or on to thin ice, or of sailing wild seas, from becoming a reality. For Sherchan – and for Steck, too, I imagine – the possibility of death made him feel more alive.

“My family members oppose me but I overpower them,” Sherchan told me. “They say I will not return alive. Even my wife . . . But I am not scared of death. I don’t mind!”

Though he grew up in the shadow of the Himalayas in central Nepal, Sherchan was not from the Sherpa ethnic group, famous for its mountain-climbing skills. His family was poor and he had only a few months of education before being recruited into the Gurkhas in his late teens. His introduction to alpinism came by chance a decade later when he was assigned as a liaison officer to a Swiss-led expedition in 1960 to climb Dhaulagiri, then the highest unclimbed peak in the world.

Sherchan was not officially part of the climbing team but greatly impressed the leaders with his strength and courage. After being sent to locate the expedition’s supply plane, which had crashed, he and a porter marched back up a treacherous section of the mountain, with no map or equipment, to rejoin their colleagues at 5,700 metres.

It was not until he was retired and in his seventies that Sherchan decided to climb another peak. He set his sights on Everest and when people told him he was crazy he walked alone across Nepal from east to west and from north to south to prove his strength. Finally, in 2008, when he was 76, his climbing permit was approved. He scaled the peak without incident, becoming the oldest person ever to do so.

After an 80-year-old Japanese adventurer beat his record in 2013, Sherchan announced that he wanted another crack at Everest. He prepared well for this year’s attempt, keeping a strict diet and training hard in the hills near his home. A visit to a GP in Aldershot in February identified no obvious health problems, other than a partial loss of hearing in one ear. In the supermarket storeroom where we met, he showed me his daily exercise regime, doing a set of push-ups and laughing. We took a few photographs and then Sherchan shook my hand firmly. I wished him luck and said I hoped to see pictures of him atop the mountain. He laughed again. I’m not sure I’ve met a happier octogenarian.

On 1 April, Sherchan left Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, to head to Everest. He reached base camp, at 5,380 metres, with few problems and appeared in good shape for his summit attempt later this month. On the afternoon of Saturday 6 May, he told his expedition organiser by phone that he felt fine. “No problem,” he said. But he had water in his lungs, and shortly after 5pm Sherchan died of altitude sickness. Everest had claimed its 288th victim. His body, still inside a yellow down sleeping bag, was flown by helicopter to Kathmandu, where it was received by his grieving wife and other relatives. Buddhist funeral rites were performed before he was cremated.

When we met, I asked Sherchan to explain just why he wanted to climb Everest again. He talked about promoting peace, raising awareness about the environment and inspiring older people. But he was most convincing when he alluded to the sense of purpose that mountaineering gave him.

“Being a man, I have to do something, and this [climbing] is what I can do,” he told me. “I cannot write a book. This is my gift.”

Steck was also often asked what motivated him to risk his life in the highest mountains. In a post on his website on 3 April, he tried to explain. “I want to live my experience, feel my cold fingers and fall dead tired into my sleeping bag after a long day. I am looking forward to the cold air burning my lungs; the hot coffee warming my body; the sun blinding my eyes and the freezing nights causing me cold feet . . .

“And now, I’ll just go; and only worry about the events that lie ahead of me. Day by day, one by one. It is the here and now that counts. What comes next is uncertain in any case.” 

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 11 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why the Tories keep winning

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