Home Features Sir Edmund Hillary’s Enduring Legacy: Transforming the Khumbu Region
July 18, 2023

Sir Edmund Hillary’s Enduring Legacy: Transforming the Khumbu Region

  • Ang Tshering Sherpa

At the outset of this article, I would like to briefly describe the Khumbu region’s conditions at that time. On May 29, 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa accomplished the first successful ascent of Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak. The present-day Khumbu region, a trekking and climbing hotspot, was not as it is today. The primary occupations of the local people were animal rearing and agriculture. Due to the proximity of Tibet, which is 40 kilometers north of the Nepal border, some people were also engaged in trade, importing salt, wool, oats, and Champa from Tibet and exporting rice, corn, millet, and other commodities from the south.

Ang Tshering Sherpa

However, significant changes occurred in the Khumbu region after the first ascent of Mount Everest. The main occupation of the people in the area transitioned to hospitality. Climbers from all over the world visit the region to scale Mount Everest and other peaks. Currently, Lukla’s airport is one of the busiest airports in the country during peak season, and businesses related to tourism have flourished.

There have been substantial improvements in education, health, drinking water, and the environment. Many people who have studied in the region have obtained higher education, become doctors and engineers, and hold positions in various sectors. Credit for all these positive changes goes to Sir Edmund Hillary. His return to the Khumbu region after successfully climbing Mount Everest and his contributions to education, health, the environment, and more are exemplary for the people of that region and the entire country. Even for myself, I believe that he has contributed to my success; if he had not opened a school in Khumjung, I would not have been able to study, and what would I have done without an education?

After Hillary had climbed Mount Everest, the search and study of the Yeti continued. There is still a mystery surrounding what it is. He made numerous expeditions in search of that secret. During one of the expeditions to the Khumbu area, a smallpox epidemic broke out, causing great distress in the region.

Hillary immediately thought of working on smallpox control. He prepared to land at Mingbo, where Amadablam mountain’s base camp is now located, for planes like the Pilatus and Cessnas to land. Kathmandu was Nepal’s first airport, followed by Pokhara as the second, and Mingbo Airport as the third, constructed in 1959. Hillary built this airport to transport health supplies and a team of doctors from Kathmandu to control the smallpox epidemic. The airport, situated at an altitude above 4,600 meters, is also the world’s highest airport. Although there are no flights at the airport now, Amadablam has become one of the most famous mountains globally.

Following the Yeti Expedition, Hillary decided to conduct further research on the Yeti. He borrowed the Yeti scalp from the Monastery in Khumjung and embarked on a world tour. My father Konchumbi Sherpa, Sir Edmund Hillary, and Desmond Doig traveled the world with the Yeti scalp. They first visited Europe, followed by America and Japan.

Urken Sherpa was also a Sirdar of Hillary’s team during the Yeti research expedition in 2060. Hillary asked him, “If there was anything I could do for the Sherpa people, what do you think that would be?” The members present, including Urken, requested, “Our children have eyes but they are blind and cannot see. We would like you to open their eyes by building a school in our village.” Keeping that in mind, he mentioned in many places that he should open a school in Khumjung while traveling the world, and he collected funds.

In the 1960s, Hillary founded the Himalayan Trust with the objective of contributing to the well-being of the region’s people. At the end of December 1960, my father and Sir Edmund Hillary arrived in Khumbu via helicopter. People of that time believed that only gods and goddesses could fly in the sky. Although I was young at that time, I still remember the events. After they came flying from the sky in a helicopter, the residents showed great respect. Upon reaching Khumjung, Hillary, and his team, including Khumbu Sherpas, built a school within three months and put it into operation. I remember very well how Hillary and his team members did the work by themselves, from chopping wood and carpentry to kneading mud and making walls. Thus, they brought the school into operation within three months, and finally, in March 1961, the school opened. I was one of the first batch of students at the school. At the time, I was 8-9 years old, and some boys who enrolled with us were 16-17. In this way, education gained a foothold in the Khumbu region. The establishment of that school was the first step in the development of that area in that region. Education gradually provided the people there with an opportunity to understand and learn about the outside world. I attribute Hillary’s contribution to my current position. I wouldn’t have received an education if he hadn’t opened that school.

Then Hillary built Lukla airport in 1964. At that time, Hillary was preparing to build a hospital in Khunde through the Himalayan Trust. Numerous supplies were needed for the hospital, which would have been impossible to transport by porters. So he initiated the construction of an airport in Lukla to bring the materials needed to build the hospital. The real development of the Khumbu region began after Lukla Airport was built. Lukla and Namche are known as gateways to Mount Everest. After the airport was built, visitors gained access to the region, and the two weeks trek from Kathmandu to Lukla was shortened to a 40-minute flight. This made the Everest region accessible even to regular visitors. Foreigners started coming for mountain climbing and trekking in the region. With the arrival of foreigners, tourism-related businesses began in that area, bringing positive change not only in the Khumbu region but also on a national level.

In 1966, a hospital began operating in Khunde, providing quality health services to the area. For Khunde’s hospital, a doctor was brought from New Zealand, and my sister Nima Yangin Sherpa served as the first nurse. My older sister, who worked as a nurse in Santa Bhawan Hospital, Kathmandu, was asked to come there because it would be better if she were local.

Hillary made significant contributions to the education and health sectors of Solukhumbu as a whole, not only in the Khumbu region. Initially, the school opened in Khumjung but later expanded its services to other areas of Solukhumbu. They fully or partially funded the construction of 62-63 schools in Solukhumbu. They operated the hospital in Phaplu and later handed it over to the Nepal government. They also established many health clinics in different locations.

Hillary contributed to the environmental protection of the Mount Everest region as well. He played a role in the establishment of Sagarmatha National Park and set up a nursery for tree seedlings. Additionally, he carried out significant work in the fields of roads, bridges, and drinking water through various projects. My family has had a long association with Hillary. My father was the talukdar (A person with government authority) of the area. When expedition teams arrived, they would first visit my father, who would manage local arrangements such as porters, guides, and other accommodations. My father had a good relationship with British citizen John Hunt, who was the team leader of Hillary’s Everest expedition. Later, my father accompanied him on a world tour.

Hillary often said he was blessed by Everest and the Sherpa people. He would say, “It is Mount Everest and the Sherpas here that brought me to this position, so I have to do something for the place and the people who brought me to this place.” He believed it was his responsibility to contribute to the development of the Everest region.

In 2003, when I was the president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, we celebrated the Golden Jubilee of the first ascent of Mount Everest. Hillary attended the event, along with about three hundred foreign journalists. Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay brought international attention to Nepal, opening the door to mountain tourism in the country. In particular, Hillary did a lot for the Sherpa and Khumbu regions and Nepal as a whole. He remained a friend and well-wisher of Nepal, the Nepali people, Khumbu, and Sherpas until he passed away on January 11, 2008. His contributions and legacy will always be remembered.

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Tourism and Aviation entrepreneur Ang Tshering Sherpa is the Chief Advisor and former president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA), an honorary member of the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA), Immediate Past President of the Asian Mountaineering and Climbing Federation (UAAA), Honorary Consul of Belgium to Nepal and former dean of Honorary Consular Corps Nepal (HCCN).

(This article was originally published in Nepal Parbat, an annual publication of the Nepal Mountaineering Association.)

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