Updated on February 12, 2012
He is known in India as “Tiger of the Snow”. We called him Gombu.
Gombu was the first man to summit Mt. Everest twice, but he was so much more than that.
I met Gombu in 2001 on a trek in Bhutan. His daughter, Yangdu, is the owner of Rimo Expeditions which organized the trip. Gombu could easily have been the “celebrity” guest, but he would never have any of that. In fact, one of my lingering memories of Gombu was how he was always getting the Sherpa’s up and moving in the morning. Other friends say he would often gather the dinner plates on these camping trips, then head to the workers tent to wash them.
His fame as a mountaineer won him audiences with President Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth and many others. But he was the same guy who would sit on a stump around the campfire laughing as he interpreted for me as I tried to teach the Sherpa’s how to play “Pass The Pig.” (At the end of the trip we left clothing and shoes for the workers. I also left the pig game which was a coveted item among the younger men.)
Gombu was small, only about five feet tall. Jim Whittaker, his American climbing partner on the 1963 summit, said he was 5’3” in his hiking boots and weighed about 120 lbs. Whittaker was 6’5” and slim. In photographs of the two of them together, Gombu looks like a little boy standing alongside “Big Jim”.
Gombu was quiet and always beaming as if you were the most wonderful person he’d ever met. And he was ALWAYS looking out for you. Good friends know that I have struggled with altitude problems for years. So why would the Bhutan trip be any different? We’d been hiking at a pretty fast pace for two days when we stopped and camped above 12 thousand feet. Whether it was fatigue, or food, or altitude, I got sick. I crawled into the tent I was sharing with my friend Mele and tried to sleep it off. Tried. A witness to some serious high altitutde illness, Gombu kept coming to the tent. He’d unzip the door a little and say, “Bef, Are you dreeenking? Are you peeeing?”
Over the next few months, I expect to learn a lot more about this gentle man who died last April. Depending on whose math you believe, he was either 75 or 79 years old. I’m going with 74. He was born in May of 1936. Whatever the age, he was wise beyond his years, large beyond his height and he had the ability to make you feel good, whoever you were, even when you didn’t.
“He had a kind of inner glow: just being in his presence, both in ’63 and more recently on a visit to his home in Darjeeling, was a bit like standing by a stove and warming your soul.” — Tom Hornbein who also summited on the 1963 Everest expedition.