Read time – 6 minutes
It’s been 70 years since Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay made the 29,035-foot climb to the top of Everest on 29th May 1953, becoming the first mountaineers to reach the highest point on earth. The story of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s gruelling conquest has become the stuff of mountaineering legend. But for Nonagenarian, Kancha Sherpa, the last surviving member of the 1953 British Expedition’s Sherpa team, it was much more, it was a catalyst that would effectively change the course of his life. And on our Everest Basecamp – 70th Anniversary Trek, our group of travellers and expert trekking guide, Jangbu Sherpa, got the opportunity to meet Kancha Sherpa to hear a first-hand account of one of the most daring expeditions in history. Read on as Jangbu shares his group’s incredible experience.
“Even seven decades on, the beginning of any Everest Base camp trek could be filled with challenges – and this trip was no exception”, Jangbu explains. “On the first day, our flight to Lukla got cancelled due to bad weather, but our local operator managed to secure a helicopter for us to fly to Lukla. But when the weather didn’t clear, and helipads in Surkhey were fully occupied we ended up landing in Phakding for the night. It may have been a disappointing start, but if anything, it just added to the group’s anticipation of getting there and their appreciation that we were heading into a truly remote trekking region. ”
He continued, “The following day, we began climbing towards Namche Bazaar, the first acclimatisation point and one of the most iconic places on our Everest Base Camp journey. After reaching Namche, we went to our lodge to freshen up for the evening as I’d helped to organise a special meeting with Kancha Sherpa.”
“Our meeting with him was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and we instantly found ourselves immersed in his stories about the Hillary and Tenzing expedition.” Although Kancha had no mountaineering training, he climbed to South Col (around 7,900m) that day on Everest to support the two men and that expedition left such an indelible imprint on him that Kancha continued working as a high-altitude porter until 1973. Jangbu elaborated more on their meeting by explaining, “he told us that the group faced a lot of difficulties to find a feasible trail from base camp to camp 1. Kancha and his men took around 15 days to find the trail, as the treacherous weather caused huge ice crevasses to form. With no ladder or equipment to cross it, they returned to Namche and decided to build make-shift ladders from forest wood, just so they could continue with the expedition. Turning back was never an option.”
With everyone on the expedition under the military-style leadership of Sir John Hunt, he was the one who designated which pair of men would scramble to the Everest summit. And when he saw how everybody was performing, Hillary and Tenzing were the mountaineers chosen to make the final ascent. On their descent, they returned to Everest’s southeast ridge, at nearly 26,000 feet, to find the location stocked with food and critical supplies that were left by a group of Sherpas, which included Kancha. Jangbu rounded up the experience by saying, “Hearing stories like these really captured the imagination of the whole group and transported them back to that time. We also got the chance to take some photos with him too which was great.”
Understandably, being the last surviving member of Hillary and Tenzing’s 1953 expedition has made Kancha a national celebrity. But these days, he’s embracing a slower pace of life after opening a lodge with his wife in Namche Bazaar. Kancha also spearheaded a foundation that’s dedicated to providing educational opportunities for the locals and funding projects that help to preserve Sherpa culture. His grandson, Tenzing Chogyal Sherpa, however, is keen to follow in his footsteps. Earning a master’s degree in glaciology, Tenzing also served as basecamp manager in National Geographic’s two-month Everest Expedition back in 2019, which aimed to further research into the effects of climate change in the region.
“The rest of our special 70th Anniversary departure to the Everest Base Camp went very smoothly”, Jangbu said. “Everyone reached the Base Camp safely – which is the most important thing. I don’t think anyone ever forgets that feeling the first time they walk into the Everest Base Camp. It’s a monumental moment, where you’ll really get a sense of what Hillary and Tenzing must have felt when they reached this point in their journey 70 years ago.” He continued, “ The night before we were going to tackle Kala Patthar, located on the south ridge of Pumori, the weather took a turn and heavy snowfall hampered our chance to ascend. But it didn’t matter, as on May 29th we returned to Namche to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the first conquest of Mount Everest.”
Reflecting on the day, Jangbu explained that “the Namche Mt. Everest Platinum Jubilee committee welcomed many distinguished visitors. The event was also timed to coincide to kickstart the 23rd year of the Everest Marathon, so the group and I had the opportunity to cheer on the participants, who were about to take on the world’s highest marathon – the atmosphere was incredible.”
After the cultural processions, the group also got to see their sons, Peter Hillary and Jamling Norgay, cutting a red ribbon to inaugurate the opening of the new Sir Edmund Hillary Visitors Centre, housed in the original building, that opened back in 1961. “We even had the opportunity to meet the family of Hillary and Tenzing Norgay which was an amazing moment for us.” He continued, “It was my third time getting to chat with their family and honestly, each time has been equally special. Meeting people like this who are truly passionate about preserving Everest, its trekking heritage and the surrounding community gives me hope that we can protect this mountain for generations to come… I hope that my clients had one of the best moments of their life celebrating the 70th anniversary of the first Everest summit. ”
Rest assured, we hand-pick the most experienced and knowledgeable guides to take you to the Everest Base Camp, which is why Jangbu Sherpa, is a valuable member of our team. Working for over 10 years with Exodus, he knows the strength it takes to trek in this terrain – he’s even summitted Mount Everest himself six times!
On our Everest Base Camp Trek, Everest Base Camp Trek – Expedition Departures and the Everest & Gokyo Lakes Circuit, our groups stop in Namche Bazaar and stay in the Green Tara Lodge, a teahouse that’s owned by Kancha Sherpa’s family. This means that any group travelling with us could have the opportunity to meet him and his family. So, if you’re considering joining our guides on a rewarding climb to Everest Base Camp why not browse our collection of trekking trips in Nepal here?