NAMCHE BAZAAR, Nepal -- By this time next month, Kancha Sherpa will, once again, become a busy man.
At 79, he is the last man living among the 103 guides who accompanied the famous mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary on the first successful 1953 expedition to Everest. Come peak tourist season in this ancient village of Internet cafes, Nepali crafts and gear shops that serves as the gateway to Mount Everest Base Camp, Kancha Sherpa will be besieged by journalists and climbers alike eager to hear his memories of the ascent.
For a token gift -- an energy drink that his great-niece, Kami Sherpa, says he enjoys -- Kancha Sherpa will oblige. But nowadays, part of his story is not about his adventures, but of the majestic mountain itself and how much its character has changed. In his climbing days, Kancha Sherpa recalls, the trek from Gorka Shep to Everest Base Camp was an uphill climb on the pristine ice. Now the ice has gone. In its place is a rough pathway of rocks and packed dirt.
Experts worry that climate change is at work here and could, eventually, reduce freshwater supplies for billions of people who use the Ganges, the Yangtze, the Indus and other rivers fed by the glaciers. Idly spinning a Buddhist prayer wheel in his family room as his wife serves sweet milk tea to guests, the veteran guide offers his own reasons for what he sees happening to his mountain.
"The reason the ice melts is that many people go up there, they throw the garbage and make the environment dirty," he says. He has seen the glaciers recede before his eyes.
Kancha Sherpa has heard of global warming. Most in this town have, thanks to workshops sponsored by the government and various nonprofit groups. But his Buddhist beliefs are strong, so he's skeptical of any emission-caused event that might create such a dramatic change. He explains that the melting is more likely caused by the gods angered at the large number of yaks killed for food in the mountains and the number of people trampling the sacred ground.
'God is not happy'
"People talk about the glaciers and the ice melting, but he doesn't think it's the climate change," Kami Sherpa translates. "It's the god," she says. "If we step on the god, god is not happy."
His great-niece takes a moment to explain her great-uncle's views, saying this way of thinking is common among the older generation. But then the 26-year-old English teacher explains that Everest is considered the god of all females, and says she, too, accepts that there is divine intervention in the changes her people have seen in the Himalayan Mountains.
"Even I believe," she says. "These lands are sacred lands."
The old guide seems more comfortable talking about the the past and the years when the ice was part of a life of scrounging for work in Namche that ultimately led him to the top of the world.
"At the time, there were no tourists in this area," Kancha Sherpa says. As his great-niece explains: "They only did cutting wood and carrying the wood, looking out for animals. There was nothing to earn."
But Kancha Sherpa saw people from other villages who said they found good work in Darjeeling, India. They had money and good clothes. Kancha Sherpa says he wanted the same. Before that time, he says, he never considered trekking the mountain. "Until then, I don't think [local] people didn't have any idea of Everest," he says. But off he went to India in search of a job.
For 8 rupees a day, Kancha Sherpa signed onto Hillary's expedition. From base camp, he carried 30 kilos on his back, taking over for the porters who traditionally do the heavy lifting on expeditions, as he scouted out the trail. It was big money at the time and, Kancha Sherpa says, better than getting paid 1,000 rupees a day today because money went further.
A price Namche must pay
They braved the ice and stiff winds as they climbed into unknown terrain. The poor-quality army boots he and other guides wore hurt their feet. The canned Western food they carried clashed so much with traditional Nepalese food that they could scarcely eat more than porridge and juice.
Still, Kancha Sherpa explains, he has fond memories of the trek and is grateful for what the experience brought him: "I got good work, I got good clothing. It was good for me."
He enjoyed the influx of money that later flocks of foreign adventure-seekers brought to this town.
"Tourists are good for Namche. It's good for everyone here," he says. "When tourists come in, everyone gets a job -- porters, farmers, the hotels."
Kancha Sherpa's wife stopped his climbing days after a deadly 1973 avalanche. Now he lives the comfortable life of most Sherpas in Namche Bazaar, with one son in Seattle and the other in Denmark. These days, the Sherpa people rarely serve as guides and instead own the scores of lodges that dot this village.
Though he is worried about the health of the Himalayas, Kancha Sherpa says he is more concerned about the continued livelihood of his community. Fifty years from now, he predicts, the snow will all but disappear from Everest. Yet that appears to be the price the town must pay.
"It's going to be no more snow, only rock," he says. But, Kancha Sherpa adds, "If we stop the tourists to save the mountains, we don't have anything to do. Just grow potatoes and eat and sit."