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Santa Bir Lama: A Life of Adventure, Leadership, and Service

Santa Bir Lama, Immediate Past President of the Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA), has led an extraordinary life journey that epitomizes dedication, perseverance, and contributions to the fields of mountaineering, tourism, and social service. Born in 1958 in the village of Kattike Deurali, Kavre, Nepal, to farming parents, His path from humble beginnings to becoming the president of Nepal’s only Alpine Club is a testament to his unwavering determination and passion for adventure.

Early Years and the Journey to Kathmandu

Growing up in a rural village, Santa Bir Lama’s access to education was limited, with high school being the highest level of education available. However, his curiosity and adventurous spirit led him to make a life-altering decision at the age of 13 – to escape from his village and explore the bustling city of Kathmandu. With no formal education beyond high school, he sought opportunities in the emerging tourism industry. He resided in a Bhatti (local inn) near the Bishnumati River, along with other fellow villagers. After a brief stay in Kathmandu, he embarked on a truck journey to Pokhara with them.

Upon reaching Pokhara, his life took an unexpected turn. He found employment carrying heavy loads for trekkers heading to the Annapurna Base Camp, a strenuous trek that required strength and resilience. Despite his tender age, he was assigned a load of 30 kilograms. Determined to keep pace with the village team, he joined the trek.

As the journey progressed and the team reached Chomrong, the last village before the Annapurna Base Camp, Santa Bir faced another challenge – he had no proper footwear and his clothing was inadequate for the harsh conditions of the base camp. Concerned team members expressed doubts about the young boy’s survival in such conditions. Fortunately, an American team leader recognized his predicament and provided him with a warm jacket, and sustenance, and even entrusted him with carrying just a camera box. These acts of kindness left a lasting impression on Santa Bir Lama.

Attraction to the Tourism Sector and Learning English

Santa Bir Lama’s memories of the villages, people he encountered along the way, and the camaraderie in Chomrong remained etched in his mind. He was particularly struck by the English-speaking foreigners he encountered during the trek. This encounter sparked his desire to learn English.

Upon returning to his village, he found his worried parents, who had no means of communication to know of his whereabouts. However, despite returning home, his mind remained captivated by trekking. During the tourists seasons, he began venturing into trekking while living in the village. This decision led him to establish connections within the trekking industry.

Santa Bir’s journey into the tourism sector continued as he engaged with trekking companies. During that era, only a handful of trekking companies existed – the likes of Sherpa Society, Mountain Travel, and Robert Trek. Alongside his treks, he actively learned English and engaged with tourists in Basantpur, Kathmandu, taking advantage of every opportunity to enhance his language skills.

Introduction to Mountaineering

In 1983, Santa Bir’s association with the Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA) began when he applied for the NMA’s high altitude porter book (card). Despite lacking formal training in mountain climbing, he received permission to climb peaks using this card and gained practical knowledge through experience.

His inaugural climb took him to the Island Peak, alongside members of the German Alpine Club. He did not face altitude-related challenges during the expedition and the mission proved successful, marking the beginning of his mountaineering journey. Subsequently, he climbed numerous peaks, including those for which NMA granted permissions.

In 1994, Santa Bir Lama undertook the government-sponsored Guide Training program, which further solidified his connection with NMA. He began contributing to the mountaineering community and forging lasting relationships within the association.

Venturing into Business

Santa Bir Lama’s passion for adventure and travel extended beyond mountaineering. His frequent visits to Japan, where he established connections with members of the Japan Alpine Club, played a pivotal role in expanding his horizons. He explored the travel and trekking business, as well as the world of coffee culture in Japan.

These visits to Japan became increasingly frequent, totaling an impressive 74 trips by the time of this account. During his trips, he not only expanded his knowledge but also built strong relationships with the Japan Alpine Club, even counting former Prime Minister Ryotaro Hashimoto among its members. Hashimoto’s initiative led to the Nepal Mountaineering Association’s support in constructing the International Mountain Museum in Pokhara. Santa Bir Lama continues to be a member of the Japanese Alpine Club.

In 1992, upon returning from Japan, he founded Lama Adventure Treks and Expeditions. The following year, he launched Everest Coffee, diversifying his business endeavors. Through his company, he facilitated the travel and trekking experiences of numerous Japanese visitors to Nepal.

His extensive experience and relationships enabled him to not only provide tours but also support students and workers traveling to Japan while offering advice on investment opportunities in the country. Additionally, he fostered an interest in coffee cultivation among Nepali farmers, organizing expert visits from Japan to promote awareness and sustainability.

Contributions to NMA Leadership

Santa Bir Lama’s involvement with the Nepal Mountaineering Association deepened over the years. In 1983, it was his connection with the High Altitude Porter book of NMA that initially led him into the association. In 2002, he was elected to the NMA executive board, marking the beginning of his official contributions. Although he had previously aspired to join, he had initially been placed in the Museum Committee of Pokhara. However, his diligent work there eventually earned him a place on the executive board.

In 2005, he was re-elected to the executive board. After serving two terms as an executive board member, he successfully ran for the position of Second Vice President from 2010 to 2013 and subsequently assumed the role of First Vice President from 2013 to 2017. In 2017, Santa Bir Lama ran for and secured the presidency of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, a position he held for an extended five-year term due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

His tenure as president came during a challenging period for the mountaineering and tourism industry. The COVID-19 pandemic had brought tourism activities to a halt, impacting the livelihoods of countless individuals, from tourism professionals to laborers. Despite the complex crisis, he led the NMA in adapting to the changing circumstances and providing relief to those in need. During this trying period, he successfully distributed relief assistance to affected individuals with the support of generous donors.

Notably, the Nippon Foundation of Japan extended significant support, amounting to 26 million rupees, to assist laborers engaged in mountain tourism. This remarkable contribution, one of the largest NMA had ever received from a single organization, played a vital role in mitigating the economic impact of the pandemic on the mountaineering community. His longstanding relationship with Japanese mountaineers and his dedication to the NMA’s mission were key factors in securing this substantial support. The funds were allocated to provide essential supplies, including groceries, clothing, and oxygen, to climbers adversely affected by the pandemic.

Under his leadership, the construction of the central office of the Nepal Mountaineering Association was completed, and he was successful in renewing the 27 peaks, enabling the NMA to effectively collect royalties for mountaineering activities.

Commitment to Social Service

Santa Bir Lama’s contributions extend beyond the realms of mountaineering and tourism. His deep-rooted connection to the community where he was born and raised has led him to engage in meaningful social service endeavors.

He holds the distinction of being the founder and president of Prabha Multipurpose Campus in Kavre since 2005, demonstrating his commitment to education in his hometown. Additionally, he served as a ward president in 2043-44 BS, actively participating in local governance. Furthermore, he has provided support to the Nepal Education Support Project, contributing to the construction of several schools in Kavre, all initiated by non-governmental organizations and his friends.

His influence extends to the realm of coffee cultivation in Nepal. His efforts have raised awareness among Nepali farmers about coffee as a sustainable crop. He has facilitated expert visits from Japan to promote knowledge exchange and foster the growth of the coffee industry in Nepal.

The life of Santa Bir Lama is a remarkable tale of transformation, dedication, and service. From a humble upbringing in a remote village to becoming the president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, his journey is a testament to the power of passion and determination. His contributions to mountaineering, tourism, and social service have left an indelible mark on Nepal’s landscape, and his vision for the future continues to inspire positive change.

This article was primarily published in Nepal Parwat

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