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Sherpa tigers kick off Everest with a blessing

Tigers of the Snow: Rolwaling Sherpas Prepare for Everest

The Rolwaling chapter of the Everest Summiters Club meets in a lime-cream tenement that swells from the street like a 6-story wedding cake. Conversation zips from the culinary –Jim Williams built a gourmet kitchen! – to the conspiratorial – Did you find Irvine’s camera?

Rolwaling, the rugged valley west of the Khumbu, has a population of about 300 Sherpas. Fifty-one are Everest summiteers.

Kick-off with a blessing

Most of them are in attendance this morning, ready to kick off Everest season with a blessing. “Today is auspicious,” says lama Nawang Shyakya Sherpa, “even if our minibus is late.” The Sherpa astrological calendar, based on a 12-year animal cycle, designated 2010 as year of the tiger, so the head lama of Rolwaling selected Namo Buddha for the club’s pre-season puja.

At this holy site about 20 miles out of Katmandu, an incarnation of Buddha pressed a sushi knife to his thigh and sliced, serving filets to a tigress and her cubs. Whether the theme of self-sacrifice resonates with these men, some of whom may die on the job next month, isn’t too apparent. Shoving and joking in Sherpa dialect, they pile in the overdue minibus and reserve window seats for their mothers.

Panorama from mum’s window seat

Lama Nwang Shyakya moves down the aisle, doling out green bananas, as they jostle from Katmandu. “This city will never paint a white line down the middle of the road,” observes the woman next to me.

Billboards for Yum Yum instant noodles and Playboy Whiskey soon give way to a moonscape of brick factories as the minibus climbs higher, trying to pierce the haze. The engine labors beneath a canopy of rhododendron, sputtering up switchbacks and skidding into Namo Buddha’s parking lot.

Chhiring Dorje for Makalu+Everest

Summitters file out. To a man, they’ve decided to work another 8000m peak this season. Ten-time Everest summitter, Chhiring Dorje Sherpa is slated for two, a Makalu-Everest doubleheader.

Chhiring spins a prayer wheel decisively and trudges up to the path, teasing his kid brother, Ngwang Tashi, who lags behind. “My brother’s got a desk job,” Chhiring explains.

Beer and kneeling Everest veterans

From the ridge, Gauri Shankar, Rolwaling’s sacred mountain, floats above the eastern smog. As the wind picks up, the mothers yank diaphanous katas from their sons’ packs along with bottles of lukewarm Tuborg, San Miguel and Mountain Dew. They set the beer and soda in formation, like bowling pins, and smear dollops of butter on the caps. The three presiding lamas place a Thermarest before the altar and sit. Behind them, kneeling in the dust, the Summitters listen as though their lives depended on it.

Chanting above the rest, lama Nawang Shyakya seems intent to bless them all. He lost his only son on Everest.

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