Return to the Scene of the Climb By James T. Lester

An extract from new book, Return to the Scene of the Climb: A story of the First American ascent of Everest and the Subsequent Search for the Sherpas who made it possible by James T. Lester, edited by Alison Jean Lester.

22nd May 2023 is the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Mount Everest via the West Ridge, “the most remarkable feat … in high-altitude mountaineering”. The West Ridge remains the least attempted and most deadly of recognized routes on Everest. New book Return to the Scene of the Climb offers readers never-before-published material from the first successful American Mount Everest Expedition (AMEE) in 1963. The final section of the book details Lester's return to the Himalayan region 35 years later. This was a voyage of discovery, to learn about how the lives of the AMEE Sherpa climbers had changed since 1963, as shown in this extract:

A reconnaissance arranged for me by Jimmy Roberts - First commercial trekking company in Asia-Mountain Travel Nepal before he died led me to believe there were some 16 Sherpas still around who had been with us. I found the first four here in Namche.

The first was Kancha, who was born in Namche around 1933. The story of his life that he gave me, sitting in the small trekker’s lodge that he now owns, made him sound almost a perfect illustration of the changes in Sherpa life. His father, also Namche-born, was a trader and small businessman, so Kancha’s early memories are of the trips to Tibet. There were of course no schools at this time to keep him off these trading treks. As he described those days, food was hard to come by and almost everything, including the wool for their clothes, had to be obtained by barter and brought back to the village. He recalled carrying loads of rice-paper from Nepal to Tibet, where the monasteries needed them for copying religious documents, and heavy loads of salt back to Nepal.
They also brought back wool, some of which his mother wove into rugs which they then sold to the farmers lower down. These trading expeditions were organized by the wealthier men in Khumbu, so Kancha’s father and family were not operating as entrepreneurs but as hired help, and Kancha recalled that for carrying one load from Namche to Tibet his father was paid five rupees. He particularly remembered continually being sent into the woods to bring back firewood, both at home and on the trail.

When he was 18 or 19, probably in 1952, he ran away to Darjeeling with two other young boys. Having stolen a little money and food from their parents, the boys left at night and hiked almost without stopping for three days, fearing all the while that someone would come after them to drag them home. But the escape was a success, and once in Darjeeling Kancha went to Tenzing.

I looking Tenzing, Tenzing’s house, and I find Tenzing’s house, and Tenzing: Who are you? Whose son? he asked me. Then my father name I give to him, Whoo! My good friend, your father my good friend! Come, come, my house! I worked four months his house, and some bring wood and washing things, I worked there. You stay there, my house, and I take you to Everest. I very happy!

So Kancha, through Tenzing, got his first job as sherpa on the 1953 British expedition, where he carried loads as high as the South Col (26,000 feet). He laughed, remembering that in 1953 there was no paper money, only coins, and the pay destined for porters and Sherpas had to be carried in five large boxes, with five Sherpas to guard them. At the end of the expedition, Kancha said, Hillary and Tenzing flew back to Kathmandu in a helicopter (rare in Nepal at that time), and after that, he said, “Tenzing like king. We never saw!”

Apparently Kancha’s next expedition was with us in 1963, where he worked largely as an assistant on the glaciology research project with Dr. Maynard Miller. It was ironic that Kancha should have probably his first contact with technology in this wild setting. Miller had a device that took seismographic readings, which required Kancha to hit a metal plate sitting on the ice with a hammer, and the results were printed on a piece of paper as a graph. Sherap paraphrased for me that “the more he hits harder and harder, the picture is better.” This made both Kancha and Sherap laugh loudly.

After AMEE, Kancha went back to trading with Tibet, but now dealing more in luxury items such as watches. He said the Chinese soldiers he dealt with loved the watches he brought over, but he was trading illegally and at some point Chinese government authorities confiscated his whole inventory, and he lost everything. In fact, when I asked him what was the worst thing he could recall in his life, this was it.

Having worked under Jimmy Roberts in 1963 Kancha then became one of Mountain Travel’s early guides Tailormade Treks in Nepal | Mountain Travel Nepal, and this was his salvation after the loss in Tibet. From that low point he worked his way back to a comfortable position in life, starting with Mountain Travel (13 years), then with Himalayan Journeys, and finally with Malla Trek. When I asked Kancha who had been the most important person in his life, he replied that Tenzing had been very important but that really it was Jimmy Roberts, since he first hired him and taught him the skills on which he built his career. Somewhere along the way he put together the money for a lodge as well, which together with his small pension is his living today. He retired from trekking two years ago, at 63.

Kancha had two sons and two daughters. At least three of these have been involved in the trekking business. As a guide one of the daughters attracted a Danish client, whom she married, and she now lives in Denmark. Kancha has never visited Denmark, which surprised me and I asked why? “No necessary (laughs). No lama, no monastery. We like the lama, monastery (laughs). They have two sons, bring two, three time here.” One of the sons now lives in Chicago, another place Kancha has never visited.

Kancha looked healthy and mellow. I had heard from another source that he had struggled for a while with an alcohol addiction but he has conquered that through a heavy investment in religious devotion. I asked him if he was happy in his retirement. “Very happy now. Because my son, everybody’s married, go away, my older son go [to Chicago], and then the second son, he stay this house. Everybody married, two daughter married.” The youngest son, in Sherpa tradition, is the one who inherits house and land, and Kancha is glad he has a son to pass it on to – and probably even more glad that he has something to pass on.

Return to the Scene of the Climb: A story of the First American ascent of Everest and the Subsequent Search for the Sherpas who made it possible by James T. Lester, edited by Alison Jean Lester, is available wherever you normally buy your books and from

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