In The Footsteps of Tenzing Norgay


This blog entry about the events of Monday, October 11, 2004 was originally posted on October 22, 2004.

DAY 359:  Edmund Hillary, the New Zealander mountaineer became Sir Edmund Hillary when in 1953, he became the first man to climb to the summit of Mount Everest, the highest point on the planet at 8848m ASL.  But he wasn’t alone.  It wasn’t until recent years that a lot of credit went to the Sherpa guide at his side, Tenzing Norgay.  Hillary might not have made it without Tenzing Norgay, as the conditions at the top of Mt. Everest are severe and life-threatening — in the Coen Brothers’ 2003 film Intolerable Cruelty, George Clooney’s character says something to the effect, “No man can make it without his Tenzing Norgay.”  (I saw the flick on a plane.)  Perhaps if the Sherpa people of the Himalayas got more press back in the day, Hillary might not have taken all the initial glory.  (To be fair, Hillary did fully respect the Sherpas and put a lot of money into their community when he got it; on the flipside, it’s not like Tenzing Norgay didn’t have the support of other Sherpas either.)

“YOU COULD COME HERE with nothing and book everything here,” I heard a man say in an American accent.

“I’d rather pay the money [for a package tour booked in the States,]” a woman answered.

This was one conversation I overheard as I stood on line at Kathmandu airport with my Tenzing Norgay at my side, a Nepali named Tilak who had been assigned to me by the Himalayan Glacier trekking agency.  He wasn’t a descendant of the more-East-Asian-looking Sherpa mountain people of the higher altitudes, but a more-Indian-looking Newari people of the lowlands, although he had been born in the western mountains and had six years of guiding experience under his belt. 

We had tickets for the 8:05 a.m. flight to Lukla, the airport town servicing the Everest region (about 40 km. south of Mt. Everest summit), where we’d land and proceed on foot.  We’d go “The Sherpa Way,” lugging all our own gear, in contrast to those two Americans I heard (in a group of eleven) who would go with a full support team of porters, guides and yaks. 

It was 7:40 and Yeti Airlines’ 8:05 flight to Lukla hadn’t called for boarding yet.  Same at 7:50 and 8:06.

“Did we miss it?” I asked Tilak. 

“They said eight, but it’s Nepal!” he said, chuckling.  “Don’t worry, we will go today.”  Today was a good thing; the previous weeks, people spent 4-5 days waiting at the airport for the sky to clear up. 

Eight thirty rolled around and they called for boarding — the eleven Americans all got on and I got my gear to go through to the security gate.  At 8:38, everything was in motion but, “We didn’t get it,” Tilak told me.  The next scheduled flight was 9:40.

The airport in Kathmandu was a madhouse of hundreds of people trying to get somewhere and the only way to get on a plane was to muscle your way through.  Tilak did most of that for me and before 9:40, we got to the boarding room.  Then we just waited some more.  The monitor displaying the departure schedule might as well have played a screensaver.

A CALL FOR THE “E” FLIGHT eventually came and we boarded a small twin-propeller plane with a French package tour group.  The flight attendant passed out cotton to soften the noise of the engines in flight and soon we were 20,000 ft. in the air. 

“Look at the mountains,” Tilak told me.  Sitting in the front row right behind the pilot and co-pilot I saw what they saw:  the snow-capped Himalayas were right in front of us (picture above) and it reminded me of a scene from Indiana Jones at the Temple of Doom.  I couldn’t exactly hear what the two pilots were saying to each other, but I hoped it wasn’t:

Co-Pilot:  You know how to fly, don’t you?
Pilot:  No, do you?  Uh, how hard can it be?

“Look,” Tilak pointed out to show me what was coming up ahead.

That’s the runway?  What is that, like a little rest area strip off the interstate?  It was a strip of asphalt in a tiny narrow valley in between some high mountains.  I’d seen more asphalt in a supermarket parking lot. 

The pilot did know how to fly and land after all, and brought the plane softly to the ground.  He was thanked with applause at touchdown.  The only problem with the landing though was that cotton got lodged in my ear and Tilak had to pick it out for me.

LUKLA, A SCENIC SHERPA TOWN at 2860m. ASL is a small community of houses, farms and shops, mostly catering to the trekkers coming from the airport — an airport that Sir Edmund Hillary had built to ship building materials for Sherpa houses and schools.  The hiking trail started as soon as you exited the baggage claim room, but we stopped at one place for lunch that proudly served “Everest Starbucks” coffeeWe had tea and dahl bhat, a staple Nepali rice and vegetable dish, instead.

The goal of the rest of the day was to hike to the village of Phakding, about 6 km. away on an undulating path through the Himalayas.  The trail went passed fields, from village to forest and back to village again along the way, without much strain on the body — a good preparation for the harder days ahead to Everest Base Camp.  I saw other trekkers on the way with yaks to carry their things — their Tenzing Norgay’s if you will — and I sort of felt proud to be doing it the Sherpa way, carrying my own gear like a mountain man.  (The load wasn’t at full capacity; I’d left most of my stuff in storage in Kathmandu.)  Perhaps carrying my bag instead of using a yak made me blend in with the other Sherpas porters carrying gear for clients; Western trekkers always greeted me with “Namaste” (“Hello”) on the presumption that I was Nepali.  In fact, every Nepali Tilak and I encountered thought we were brothers.

The trail followed the Dudh Kosi River and took us over bridges and through several small villages — passed little Sherpa kids, stupas, sacred mani rocks and Buddhist prayer wheels — each with many humble “teahouses” where people could crash, thus eliminating the need for bringing a tent.  We made it to our final destination of the day, Phakding, by mid-afternoon and checked into a guesthouse — coincidentally the one where all the Sherpas of that big eleven-person American group were staying.  The Sherpas weren’t without their own personalities; in one case, two of them got into a fight and one had to be restrained from stoning the other to death with big rocks.  (I think the other might have said something about his mother.) 

In contrast to me doing things “the Sherpa way,” the eleven Americans arrived soon and they shared the dining hall with me.  I met a couple of them and I learned they were all from Portland, Oregon and had been trekking buddies for years, although it seemed to me they did everything the easy way.  Two yaks a person?  C’mon.  They kept to themselves all night, leaving me to chill out with the Nepalis hanging around, including my guide Tilak.  And what do you talk about with such people?  Pro-wrestling and DHTML coding, of course.

At the end of a long day, it was finally good to be out there on the trail, in the footsteps of Tenzing Norgay — and that other guy.

Next entry: A Call For Tourists

Previous entry: Special Report

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Comments for “In The Footsteps of Tenzing Norgay”


    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/21  at  07:31 PM

  • glad you’re back

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/21  at  07:39 PM

  • I thought you were joking about Yeti airlines LOL Great name.  What is the meaning of the mani rocks?

    Posted by Liz  on  10/21  at  09:12 PM

  • pro-wrestling and DHTML coding!  yes!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/21  at  09:12 PM

  • my god! where isn’t there a starbucks left in this world???!!!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/21  at  09:56 PM

  • No longer am I a SBR. I love you! I started at the beginning and have read my way through your adventure. Glad you’re OK. Keep going!!!

    Posted by HeatherB  on  10/21  at  09:58 PM

  • What gorgeous scenery!  And Yeti airlines - hillarious.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/21  at  11:53 PM

  • I donno about Yeti Airlines… I’m no good in anything less than a 737!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/23  at  06:21 AM

  • LIZ:  “Om MANI Pedme Hum” is a sacred mantra in Tibetan Buddhism, painted on rocks and other objects for good kharma.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/23  at  01:23 PM

  • HEATHERB:  Aw, I’m blushing…  Thanks for breaking the silence—now you can be a regular—and thanks for the plug on your Blog!  What’s your first stop on your RTW?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/23  at  01:28 PM

  • Hey Erik,

    Really, you are awesome! I tell everyone about all your adventures and to check out your blog.
    Our first stop is Quito and we’ve given ourselves 5 1/2 month in S. A.  You think we can get our 6 year old to Everest base camp?

    Posted by HeatherB  on  10/23  at  10:06 PM

  • Something funny:

    Back in the late 70’s National Geographic did a article on the first all women’s team to summit K2, and they published a photo of all the women posing at the top, completely outfitted with all their high-tech gear (goggles, oxygen masks, etc.), and standing in the background was their Sherpa- wearing only a little jacket and smoking a cigarette. 

    I haven’t actually seen it myself, I heard the story from my dad, but I have to laugh at the mental picture=)

    I’m glad to see you’re doing better Erik!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/24  at  06:31 AM

  • HEATHERB:  Awesome.  Thanks for passing the word along! 

    Funny you should ask about your 6 yr old; on the way up I saw a baby in a back carriage with her mom; how high they went up I don’t know, but perhaps they made it all the way up—with plenty of rest days of course!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/24  at  08:51 AM

  • NICOLE:  See, isn’t that funny?  I hate how these mountaineer types pride themselves on reaching summits—but they are nothing without technology!  LOVEPENNY once pointed out to me how its unfair that Olympians beat old records these days; the technology that helps them excel is a different ball game.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/24  at  08:54 AM

  • Dude, look at the calves on that guy in the ‘Sherpas porters carrying gear for clients’ pic…

    Yeti Airlines reminds me of the flight I took from Managua to the Caribbean… man, it was odd… they were trying to get an outboard motor over to the Island and they had to take it off the plane, so the paying passengers could fit! The runway did look a bit bigger than the one you’ve just showed us… a week ago.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  10/25  at  08:15 AM

  • Man - simply breathtaking… great photos.

    Posted by Dan  on  10/25  at  07:19 PM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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A Call For Tourists

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Special Report


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