Nawang Gombu (born 1935 in Minzu, Tibet),is a famous Darjeeling based Mountaineer and was the Director of Field Training at Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling. Before Nawang Gombu, the position of Director of Field Training was held by Tenzing Norgay Sherpa. Today, he is the Institute's advisor. [Inset: Nawang Gombu. Photo by Navin Pangti]
Nawang Gombu has a series of first in his life. During the 1953 Everest Expedition, he became the youngest Sherpa to reach 26,000 ft. He was 17 years old. In 1964, he became the first Indian & the third man in the World to summit Nanda Devi (24,645ft). In 1965, he became the first man in the World to have climbed Everest twice – a record which would remain unbroken for almost 20 years.
Gombu is the recipient of many national and international awards and is a man recognized the world over by mountaineering lovers.
Circa 1953…“Little Gombu was smiling and cherubic like an overgrown schoolboy, he was in fact only 17. With his plump figure he looked like a improbable starter for high work on the mountain but Tenzing was understandably enthusiastic about his protégé”…The quote came from Sir John Hunt’s “Ascent of Everest” and it refers to Nawang Gombu.
Sir John himself, later in his book seems to have changed his opinion of Gombu – “Fat little Gombu …now in his elements always seeking jobs to perform”…That year Gombu carried a 50 pound load twice to South Col at 26,000 ft without oxygen and was awarded the Tiger Badge by the Himalayan Club and the Queen’s Coronation Medal.
Gombu was born in 1935 in Minzu ,Tibet, the son of Lama Nawang Gyalzen – a monk and younger brother of the Dzongpen of Kharta and Lhamu Kipa the elder sister of Tenzing Norgay. This relationship was not approved by his parents because he came from an aristocratic family and she from a family of serfs (workers on the Dzongpen’s land ). This led them to leave Tibet with a young Gombu and baby sister Doma and settle down in Khumjung in Nepal. As Gombu grew up, he was sent to study as a monk in the Rongbuk monastery in Tibet but this was not a life Gombu would settle down for. After a year of studies (he recalls being beaten up for not memorizing his verses) he decided to run away from the monastery with a friend Ang Tshering. Under the cover of darkness they slipped through the outhouse and made their way back over the Nangpala Pass into Khumbu . Back in Khumbu, Gombu would go searching for his uncle Tenzing Norgay who he heard had become a great Sirdar and climber. In 1952 Tenzing was part of the 1952 Swiss Everest Expedition and it was the first time Gombu met him. The following spring, Tenzing would take him for the British attempt on Everest and thus would began his tryst with destiny and his relationship with the mountains.
The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute
After the success of the 1953 Everest Expedition along with Jawaharlal Nehru’s love of the mountains, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute was opened in the autumn of 1954. [Inset: Nawang Gombu. Photo by Sunil Garg]
Earlier in the summer of 1954, six top climbing Sherpas – Ang Tharkey, Gyalzen Mikchen, Da Namgyal, Ang Temba, Nawang Gombu and Nawang Tobgay were selected to train under Arnold Glathard, who in 1940 had established Switzerland’s first school for Alpine Guides. This group would come back to HMI to work as instructors to train thousands of many young men and women with a love for mountaineering.
Starting as an Instructor, Gombu eventually went on to become the Deputy Director of Field Training and eventually in 1976 became the Director Field Training following the retirement of Tenzing Norgay. It was a post Gombu would hold till his own retirement in 1999. However Gombu is still associated with HMI today as he retains the post of Advisor.
During his work with HMI, Gombu continued climbing. In 1954 he joined the American Expedition to Makalu (8470 metres) under the leadership of Dr William Siri. The expedition did not succeed but Gombu managed to reach almost 7000 metres. In 1956 he joined an Indian Team led by Major Nandu Jayal to Saser Kangri (25,170ft) in the Eastern Karokaram (Ladakh) which failed but they decided to attempt Sakang (24,000ft) – this is where Gombu saw his first summit.
In 1957, Gombu joined the Indian attempt on Nanda Devi where he succeeded in reaching just under 200 metres short of the summit but had to return due to bad weather conditions. During those days all these expeditions were part of the HMI advance course.
In 1959, Gombu joined the ill fated all Women International expedition to Cho Oyu (26,867ft). Though the expedition saw the death of 2 women and a Sherpa, it was an expedition where the climbing team included his sister Doma.
By 1960, Gombu’s reputation as a climber was growing and he was invited to join the first ever Indian attempt on Everest led by Brig Gyan Singh. The expedition was not successful in its attempt but Gombu reached 8600 Metres and though he returned disappointed, it was with a even higher determination to reach the summit one day. Little did he know he would soon get more than he bargained for.
1962 saw a disappointed Gombu as he was not invited to join the 2nd Indian Attempt on Everest. When the team was announced on Oct 23 1961, Gombu’s name was not there. The expedition to Everest however failed and within a year Gombu would get invited by someone he had met many years ago, Dr William Siri.
1963 – Gombu’s First Summit of Everest
The 1963 American Expedition was led by Norman G. Dyrenfurth. In his book Americans on Everest he describes the 4 Sherpas from Darjeeling that came to the expedition. “…and the other was Nawang Gombu, a nephew of the illustrious Tenzing Norgay who, like his uncle was on the staff of Darjeeling’s Himalayan Mountaineering. Gombu, aged about thirty, had an outstanding climbing record, dating back to the 1953 British triumph on Everest and culminating in the Indian Everest expedition of 1960, on which he had been one of the two members who got to within 700 ft of the top. Further, he was far better educated than most Sherpas , knowing how to read and write and boasting a range of tongues from his native Sherpa through Hindi and Nepali, to fluent English. Most significant of all he brought to mountaineering – again like Tenzing– not only great physical qualifications but also spirit and drive. No man among us, Eastern or Western burned with a greater desire to reach the top of Everest and we were all convinced from the beginning that he would stage a magnificent performance.”
On this expedition Gombu’s partner was Jim Whittaker known as Big Jim who at 198 cm was the tallest man in the expedition. Not only did they remain climbing partners for this expedition but the two men would go on to become friends for life, accompanying each other on various climbs and treks later on in their lives.
As Jim mentions in his memoirs “ …Of the three on our rope this day however, I had been drawn particularly to Gombu. Five feet three in his climbing boots, with a big chest, he weighed just 120 pounds and had a wonderful smile. The nephew of Tenzing Norgay, Gombu was already a veteran climber, with the 1953 British Expedition and the unsuccessful 1960 Everest expedition under his belt. He had studied to be a Buddhist monk and spoke several languages well, including English. He had told me he switched to climbing for the money, but I could see something else in his eyes: that same burning desire to summit that I had. I was delighted to have him as my rope mate.”
On May 1, 1963 – Gombu and Whittaker stood atop Everest side by side. Big Jim at 6 ft 5 and Gombu more than a foot shorter – a strange contrast but two men sharing the same zeal and passion to reach the top of Everest. It was a dream come true for Gombu and the world would soon open up for him. Later that year he would be invited by his American friends and colleagues to visit the United States to meet President John F Kennedy who he would present with the “Khada” the white Tibetan Scarf. He would also be presented the Hubbard Medal of National Geographic Society. Life changed for Gombu and he no longer belonged to a small village in Tibet. He belonged to the World now…he definitely had come a long way .
1964 - The third Indian Expedition to Nanda Devi
In 1964 following the success of Everest, Gombu would be invited by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation to be part of the Expedition to Nanda Devi (24,645ft).
On 20th June, Gombu along with his partner Dawa Norbu became the First Indian mountaineers to reach the Nanda Devi Summit. It had only been climbed once before in 1936 by Bill Tilman and Noel Odell.
It was ironical though because initially, Gombu was not part of the Expedition. He had gone to Delhi to receive the Padma Shri from the President just as the Expedition was setting out and in fact had expressed his concern to the newspapers, that no Sherpa had been included among the members of the expeditions sponsored by the IMF. It was a week before the team left for the mountains that Gombu was asked to be part of the expedition.
1965 – The third Indian Everest Expedition
In 1965 Gombu became part of the Third Indian Everest Expedition to Mount Everest which was sponsored by the IMF.
At 9:20 am on May 20th, 1965 Gombu did what no man before him had done in the history of mountaineering. He reached the summit of Mt. Everest for the 2nd time. His climbing partner was Capt. A.S. Cheema , a simple, jolly man and it was the start of a great friendship. Gombu would call him “ Bhaiyya” and such was their friendship that Capt. Cheema later would gift Gombu the chairs he used at his own wedding.
Gombu ran the Indian Flag up the pole that he had planted with Jim Whittaker in the 1963 American Everest Expedition. On his return Gombu would get a hero's welcome in his home town. He was awarded the Arjuna Award by the President of India along with the rest of his team members, and would be promoted as the Dy Director Field Training.
In the years that would follow, Everester Gombu would be invited to events around India and the World. In India it even included a film premiere. For a simple man from the hill to the glitz and glamour of Bombay… to the developed world of Europe and the US.
In 1971, Gombu would be invited by the Rainier Mountaineering Guide Service that was headed by Lou Whittaker, Jim’s twin brother, to train with the guides in Mount Rainier.
Lou had first met Gombu when he had visited the United States after his 1963 climb to Everest, and both men would grow to become friends and also climb together on Rainier and other mountains for many more years.
As Lou writes in his memoirs “ Gombu is wound very tight. We think he must have two hearts and three lungs because on top of Rainier his resting heartbeat is 38 beats per minute. Most climbers register 180 at that altitude. You’d think Gombu was dead, sitting on that summit. I tell students that Gombu’s lungs are so powerful that, when he hikes a trail and takes a deep breath, he sucks up small rocks”
In his simple words this is how Gombu describes Rainier “Rainier is an amazing mountain and not a small mountain. For almost forty years I’ve been climbing in the Himalaya, Bhutan, India and Nepal. Many times I’ve seen storms on Rainier as bad as storms in the Himalaya. Every year or two I come to Rainier to work with Lou, I enjoy climbing with him and with so many different kinds of people, people come from all over the world to climb Mt. Rainier”
In a way Rainier would give Gombu the love, recognition and the climbing satisfaction he would perhaps not often receive in his own country, where politics had become a major part of the sport. In Rainier Gombu would always be able to do what he loved and was welcomed and respected by the people who came to climb the mountain. Every summer Lou would invite Gombu to train with the other guides in the RMI guide service, an invitation he always looked forward to. It would be summers where he could climb and train others, summers where almost 3000 – 5000 people would be climbing Mount Rainier and with whom experiences would be shared.
A third attempt
In 1982 Gombu was invited by his friend Lou Whittaker to become part of the American North Face expedition to Everest.
As Lou mentions in his memoirs “ I had asked my old friends Dave Mahre and Nawang Gombu to join the team. At 54, 46 and 53 respectively Mahre, Gombu and I would be the oldest climbers on the team”
Tenzing and Gombu… The uncle and nephew who went on to become world famous climbers in their own right… Gombu was the son of Tenzing’s elder sister Lhamu Kipa. Though the childhood they led were different – Gombu was sent to study to be a monk and Tenzing grew up grazing yaks - both their personalities were so different yet they were bound by the same love, the same determination to achieve something bigger in life and one mountain would help them do that.
Tenzing became the First Man in the World to climb Everest. To which Gombu had said “ I will go where you have gone” and indeed he did – not just once but twice.
It was because of Tenzing, that the Sherpa community would be recognized in the world. Before that Sherpas were no more than people carrying loads up the mountains. After 1953 the world took notice of the strength, passion the Sherpas brought to climbing. Tenzing was responsible for this and Gombu followed…
Both of them paved the way for the Sherpa community to look forward to life they could aspire towards.
Gombu is always a man who speaks his mind… loud and clear… straight and simply…
A famous episode that captures the essence of Gombu is often recalled in books by Sir John Hunt and Jim Whittaker. In 1953 while carrying the loads of Oxygen up into the Western Cwm , Gombu was teamed with Col John Hunt on one carry. Gombu noticed that he was loaded with two oxygen bottles to Hunt’s one. “Why aren’t you carrying two also?” Gombu enquired of the expedition leader…
The Indian mountaineering scene always puzzled Gombu. He liked the British and the American climbing for its lack of jealousy between team members and loyalty to the leader. Gombu would more often be seen in countries outside of India invited for various events and award ceremonies. The last major Indian Expedition that Gombu was a part of was the Indian Everest Expedition in 1965. However he would continue to be part of other International Climbs to Mount McKinley, Kangchenjunga etc.
Honours and awards
Nawang Gombu being given an 'Honour Parade' during Darjeeling Carnival. Photo by Barun Roy
A large part of the 1990s and 2000s have been spent by Gombu attending the various reunions of the glorious climbs of the 1950s and 1960s.
He was invited in 1993 & 2003 to meet HRH Queen Elizabeth II to celebrate the 40th & 50th Anniversary of the First Ascent of Everest. In 2003 he also joined Jim Whittaker his old friend, to trek till the Everest Base Camp with their families as part of the 1963 Everest Expedition Celebrations. In 2006 he was awarded the Tenzing Norgay Lifetime Achievement Award in the Field of Indian Mountaineering by President APJ Abdul Kalam. He is the first man in India to have received this award.
Gombu today dedicates his life to the Sherpa Community. Raising funds and being President of the Sherpa Buddhist Association for the past few year …and spending time playing with his grandchildren.
- 1953 – Tiger’s Medal
- 1953 – Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal
- 1963 – Hubbard Medal of the National Geographic Society, USA
- 1964 – Padma Shree Medal - India
- 1965 – Padma Bhushan – India
- 1966 – IMF Gold Medal – India
- 1967 – Arjuna Award – India
- 1967 – Olympic Gold Medal – Rome
- 1986 – Tenzing Norgay Award Lifetime Achievement Award – India