August 31, 2015
By Craig John
Twenty eight years ago I worked my first climb as a guide on Mt. Rainier. It was actually a week long seminar with five other guides, one of which was Nawang Gombu Sherpa.
We had done three days of training which included ice axe arrest, cramponing, rope travel for glaciers, snow anchors and crevasse rescue and were prepared for our summit attempt. Though Gombu had more experience than the rest of us guides put together, he remained in the background throughout the week and assisted as other guides taught the skills that the group had come to learn. Gombu was a modest man. In 1963 he climbed to the summit of Everest with Jim Whittaker and did it again in 1965. He was the nephew of Tenzing Norgay who, with Edmund Hillary, became the first two people to climb to the top of the world in 1953. Climbing was in his blood.
In 1987, the year I started guiding, most of us were wearing fleece and gortex. Not Gombu. On our summit attempt he wore wool pants and shirt and a thin nylon jacket along with a baseball hat. At the start of each break we would all be putting on our heavy layers to keep out the cold while Gombu ate a sandwich and tended to his tired and cold rope team. On the summit he still had only his wool and thin jacket. Apparently neither cold nor altitude bothered him.
The last day of the trip was started with ice climbing on seracs on the Cowlitz Glacier. Gombu moved up the steep terrain like it was second nature. Each participant took their turn swinging two ice axes and kicking in their crampons to make their way up the steep ice. But clients and guides alike couldn’t match Gombu’s swiftness or grace. As the day wound down and we were getting close to our departure from Camp Muir for the trip to Paradise a couple of the participants said they wanted to get some pictures of Gombu. They asked if he would rappel down Muir Peak as it would make for spectacular photos. He agreed and came over to me and asked to borrow my brand new gloves which were one of the two guide issue pieces of gear that new guides got. I was pretty proud of those gloves. I had never been given anything for free. I handed them over to Gombu and watched him make his way up Muir Peak. When he got to the top he didn’t bother to use a harness and rappel devise like most of us, he just wrapped the rope around his body and started walking down the steep backside of the peak. The rope he chose to use was an old piece of Goldline, something that you would see used in the 1930’s, 40’s, 50’s and 60’s…..but not the 80’s. It was a braded rope with an extremely rough feel to it. But that was indeed what he used. As he slid down the rope I could almost feel the rope burning and ripping to shreads the palms of my brand new gloves that were supposed to last a whole season. When he got to the bottom he walked over to our crowd that were watching him and everyone gave him a slap on the back and thanked him for the great performance. As people cleared away to get their packs ready for the descent to Paradise Gombu shook my hand and said thanks while handing me my gloves. As he walked to the bunkhouse, that is now named in his honor, I looked at my new gloves. They were indeed shredded. But they were worn by a man I greatly admired.
Gombu is gone now, but every time I walk into that bunkhouse and see his picture I am reminded of the humble man who did great deeds and blessed us all with his presence.