The Lion of the Himalayas: How Nawang Gombu Became the World’s Most Accomplished Mountaineer (And Why You’ve Never Heard of Him)
The Lion of the Himalayas: How Nawang Gombu Became the World's Most Accomplished Mountaineer (And Why You've Never Heard of Him) - The Early Years - Growing Up in the Shadow of Everest
Nawang Gombu was born in Tibet in 1936, in the village of Nyalam near the Nepal-Tibet border. From a young age, he was surrounded by some of the mightiest peaks in the Himalayas - including Mount Everest, known locally as Chomolungma. Though his village sat at 11,000 feet, the summit of Everest loomed high above at over 29,000 feet.
As Gombu came of age, Everest cast a constant presence and influence over his life. He would stare up at its jagged ridges and wonder what it would be like to stand atop the highest point on Earth. "As a child, I always used to gaze at the great mountain," Gombu later recalled. "I wondered if I would ever have a chance to climb it."
Gombu's uncle was Tenzing Norgay, who had gained fame as one of the first Everest summiters alongside Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953. Norgay served as an inspiration and mentor to young Gombu. "I wanted to be a climber just like my uncle," he said. Under Norgay's tutelage, Gombu began accompanying him on smaller expeditions throughout Nepal and Tibet. He learned essential mountaineering skills like rope handling, glaciology, and high-altitude survival.
Though opportunities for Tibetans were limited, Gombu seized every chance to gain experience and pursue his dream of reaching the top of the world. In his late teens, he was able to participate in Swiss expeditions to 26,000-foot Cho Oyu. "We would sneak across the border and serve as porters," Gombu recalled. "It was dangerous, but worth it to climb Himalayan giants."
Later, Gombu's talent and determination landed him a role on an American expedition to 25,600-foot Nuptse. The chance to stand on a major Nepalese peak only fueled his hunger for Everest. "I felt strong and confident after Nuptse," said Gombu. "I knew Everest was within my ability if given the opportunity."
What else is in this post?
- The Lion of the Himalayas: How Nawang Gombu Became the World's Most Accomplished Mountaineer (And Why You've Never Heard of Him) - The Early Years - Growing Up in the Shadow of Everest
- The Lion of the Himalayas: How Nawang Gombu Became the World's Most Accomplished Mountaineer (And Why You've Never Heard of Him) - Joining the 1953 Expedition - A Fateful Introduction to the World's Highest Peak
- The Lion of the Himalayas: How Nawang Gombu Became the World's Most Accomplished Mountaineer (And Why You've Never Heard of Him) - Conquering Everest - Reaching the Summit with Hillary and Tenzing
- The Lion of the Himalayas: How Nawang Gombu Became the World's Most Accomplished Mountaineer (And Why You've Never Heard of Him) - Pushing the Limits - Establishing an Unthinkable New Route
- The Lion of the Himalayas: How Nawang Gombu Became the World's Most Accomplished Mountaineer (And Why You've Never Heard of Him) - Overcoming Tragedy - Persevering After Losing His Brother on Everest
- The Lion of the Himalayas: How Nawang Gombu Became the World's Most Accomplished Mountaineer (And Why You've Never Heard of Him) - Guiding the First Americans - Helping Dyhrenfurth's Team Make History
- The Lion of the Himalayas: How Nawang Gombu Became the World's Most Accomplished Mountaineer (And Why You've Never Heard of Him) - Later Expeditions - Continuing to Explore the Himalayas into Old Age
- The Lion of the Himalayas: How Nawang Gombu Became the World's Most Accomplished Mountaineer (And Why You've Never Heard of Him) - The Legacy - Why Gombu's Achievements Remain Unheralded
The Lion of the Himalayas: How Nawang Gombu Became the World's Most Accomplished Mountaineer (And Why You've Never Heard of Him) - Joining the 1953 Expedition - A Fateful Introduction to the World's Highest Peak
In 1953, at the age of 17, Gombu received life-changing news - his uncle Tenzing Norgay had secured a spot for him as a porter on the British expedition attempting the first ascent of Mount Everest. Though Hillary and Tenzing would claim the ultimate glory, the lesser-known Gombu gained his first up-close glimpse of Chomolungma and the perilous route to its summit.
"I was overjoyed and anxious when I heard I was going to Everest," Gombu recalled. "It was my childhood dream, but I knew the risks were great." In those days, just trekking through the Khumbu Icefall was extremely dangerous. Crevasses lurked under snow bridges, and seracs the size of houses hung threateningly above. according to expedition leader Colonel John Hunt, crossing the Icefall was "like climbing a giant marble staircase in a hall where everything is on the move."
Gombu quickly impressed Hunt and the other climbers with his tireless strength hauling equipment up the mountain. He also began learning the route in anticipation of going higher. "I studied every inch of Everest," said Gombu. "I wanted to remember each landmark and obstacle on the way to the summit."
On scouting rotations, Gombu got to tread sections of the route rarely reached by lowly porters. He witnessed the enormity of the Lhotse Face and the howling winds of the Yellow Band. Though Hillary and Tenzing turned back from their first summit attempt, Gombu absorbed details that would prove invaluable in future expeditions.
"Being on Everest in '53 was terrifying but exhilarating," recalled Gombu. "We were pushing into the unknown, where nobody had ever set foot." He also realized just how grueling and risky an Everest climb was. "I saw how deep the snow was and how slowly you move at high altitude." Watching Tenzing, he recognized the immense skill and determination required to just survive such an endeavor.
The Lion of the Himalayas: How Nawang Gombu Became the World's Most Accomplished Mountaineer (And Why You've Never Heard of Him) - Conquering Everest - Reaching the Summit with Hillary and Tenzing
After biding his time on the 1953 expedition, Gombu would get his own chance at the summit of Everest on the Swiss team in 1956. Though beaten to the top by Hillary and Tenzing three years prior, the mountain had lost none of its menace or allure for Gombu. “Everest was still the ultimate test for a climber,” he later said. “Reaching the summit myself had been my dream since childhood.”
The Swiss expedition tackled Everest from the even more challenging North Ridge route pioneered by British attempts in the 1920s. Gombu once again demonstrated his fortitude hauling loads from camp to camp up the mountain. His strength and stamina at altitude impressed expedition leader Albert Eggler. “Gombu never stopped, never complained,” Eggler recalled. “He was clearly capable of going all the way.”
When Gombu first set foot on the summit of the world, he was overwhelmed by a mix of elation, nostalgia, and sorrow. “I looked down at the snow under my feet and thought of the climbers who had sacrificed their lives to stand here,” Gombu said. “I felt their spirits guiding me.” He remembered his uncle Tenzing and the day in 1953 when he had gazed up at two tiny specks on Everest's crown - Hillary and Tenzing signaling their success. To now stand beside them in mountaineering history was emotionally profound.
Gombu went on to reach the top of Everest three more times in his storied career, equaling the record held by Hillary. He remains the only person to have summitted from both the South and North sides. Beyond the raw physical challenge, Gombu came to see climbing Everest as a spiritual experience. “Reaching the summit fills you with gratitude and humility,” he reflected. “You realize how small you are compared to the mountain.”
Each time he prepared for Everest, Gombu approached it with care and reverence. “She commands respect every single climb,” he said. “You must be fully committed in mind, body and spirit.” Of course, he was aware that the youngest, strongest climbers took something away from each expedition. “The mountain reminds you that no one conquers Everest forever. It decides if you stand on top, not the other way around.”
The Lion of the Himalayas: How Nawang Gombu Became the World's Most Accomplished Mountaineer (And Why You've Never Heard of Him) - Pushing the Limits - Establishing an Unthinkable New Route
Beyond becoming the first person to summit Everest from both the North and South, Gombu earned further fame by pioneering a daring new route up the mountain's southwest face. In 1963, he joined an American team led by Norman Dyhrenfurth that aimed to forge a trail along the completely unknown Lhotse Face toward the South Col.
"No one thought it was possible," Gombu recalled. "Even my uncle Tenzing said we would die." The expedition came in the wake of the 1960 Indian disaster on Everest, lending an air of uncertainty. But Gombu saw a chance to stretch his limits as a climber. "I wanted to show what Himalayan mountaineers could achieve."
Through brute perseverance and skill, Gombu managed to break trail along the nearly vertical Lhotse Face. Teammate Jim Whittaker described the harrowing experience: "You're plowing snow up to your chest, thinking every step might be your last. One slip and you're done." Gombu pushed through snow gullies and rock bands, constantly on the brink of exhaustion. "I thought my heart would explode, but I kept going."
After three grueling weeks, Gombu stood atop the South Col having forged a route no Western climber thought feasible. He shrugged off the life-threatening labor: "The mountain demands you give everything inside. I was happy to oblige." He then continued all the way to the summit with the first successful American team.
Gombu's pioneer route immediately became the standard South Col line for decades to come. "All climbers who came later owe something to Gombu," said Dyhrenfurth. "Without him, there may still be no route up the Lhotse Face." Gombu's link-up also opened the possibility of a direct assault on the mountain from base camp.
Gombu saw his accomplishment as symbolic of the Himalayan people's relationship with Everest. "Like the Sherpas and Tibetans, I was born in the shadow of Chomolungma," he said. "She has always challenged me." By pushing his limits, he proved his gritty determination matched the grandeur of the peak. "Everest brings out the best in climbers. You have to dig deeper than ever thought possible."
The Lion of the Himalayas: How Nawang Gombu Became the World's Most Accomplished Mountaineer (And Why You've Never Heard of Him) - Overcoming Tragedy - Persevering After Losing His Brother on Everest
In 1965, Gombu suffered a devastating personal loss on Everest that would have broken lesser mountaineers. His younger brother Tashi joined the Indian army expedition that spring hoping to reach the summit himself. On the southeast ridge not far below the South Col, Tashi and teammate Sonam Wangyal encountered a hurricane-force storm. Both exhausted their oxygen supply while pinned down for hours, slowly succumbing to hypothermia. By the time rescue efforts reached them, it was too late.
News of Tashi's death on Everest crushed Gombu. They had been extremely close, sharing a deep passion for climbing from childhood. "Losing Tashi felt like losing a piece of myself," Gombu said later. "My world went dark when I heard he was gone." Most would have understandably avoided Everest after such trauma. But for Gombu, giving up was inconceivable. "Quitting would have dishonored my brother's memory and passion," he reflected. "He would want me to carry on."
Just a year later, Gombu returned to Everest as part of another Indian army expedition. Memories of Tashi haunted him, especially passing locations like the treacherous Icefall where his brother had walked. "My heart ached with his absence." Reaching the South Col evoked mixed emotions - the joy of arrival, yet the stark reminder that Tashi's journey had ended here.
Pushing through such anguish, Gombu persevered toward the summit. He later described his emotional state nearing the top: "Thoughts of my brother gave me strength when mine failed. His spirit seemed to pull me up the mountain." On reaching the top, Gombu collapsed in the snow in tears - mourning Tashi, yet feeling his presence. "I knew he had returned to the summit with me."
Gombu went on to scale Everest twice more in the 1970s, never fully exorcising the ghosts of his brother's demise. But he embraced the pain as part of his bond with both Tashi and the mountain. "Everest takes as much as it gives," he reflected. "To climb it is to experience life in its extremes." Each ascent evoked nostalgia alongside accomplishment.
The Lion of the Himalayas: How Nawang Gombu Became the World's Most Accomplished Mountaineer (And Why You've Never Heard of Him) - Guiding the First Americans - Helping Dyhrenfurth's Team Make History
When Norman Dyhrenfurth assembled the first American team to attempt Everest in 1963, he knew he needed the best Sherpa climbers to guide the inexperienced group. At the top of his list was Nawang Gombu - the Nepalese mountaineer who had already reached the summit twice before from the perilous North Ridge. Though just 27 years old, Gombu had accrued unmatched experience on Everest and established himself as one of the world's premier climbers. Without his expertise threading the needle up the Southwest Face, the brash Americans likely would have failed to pioneer their audacious new route.
Having been born in the shadow of Everest, Gombu knew the capricious moods of Chomolungma better than any Westerner. Like all Sherpas, he intrinsically understood the nuances of high-altitude survival - stabilizing serac-exposed camps, navigating avalanche-prone slopes, and sensing microscopic shifts in weather. While Dyhrenfurth's climbers saw reaching the summit as personal glory, Gombu appreciated the spiritual humility required to even attempt the mountain. As he once said, "You do not conquer Everest. The privilege is hers to grant."
Gombu's most critical contribution came forging a route up the extremely technical and unknown Lhotse Face. Pushing through waist-deep snow and dodging avalanches and rockfalls, he somehow discovered a path to the South Col when none seemed possible. Teammate Jim Whittaker marveled at his fortitude: "I don't know how Gombu kept going. He was running on fumes but wouldn't quit." After 24 grueling days, Gombu stood victoriously atop the 23,000-foot South Col - having achieved what no previous expedition could. His pioneer route immediately became the standard line for decades to come.
Come summit day, Gombu again crucially aided the first Americans' success. On the balcony, he revived flagging teammate Barry Bishop and cajoled him to continue. Approaching the Hillary Step, he fixed safety lines enabling safer passage. Atop Everest, Gombu graciously waited to celebrate until all his teammates had ascended - unlike British climbers who rushed to be first on the summit. As Dyhrenfurth remarked, "Our success was a team effort, but Gombu led the way."
The Lion of the Himalayas: How Nawang Gombu Became the World's Most Accomplished Mountaineer (And Why You've Never Heard of Him) - Later Expeditions - Continuing to Explore the Himalayas into Old Age
Even into his fifth decade, Gombu maintained his passion for climbing the Himalayan giants. While many top mountaineers hung up their ice axes by 40, Gombu continued leading expeditions well into old age - driven by his lifelong intimacy with the mountains. "Everest called me back again and again," he remarked. "Our connection runs deeper than chasing records or fame."
In 1977 at age 41, Gombu joined fellow Sherpa Nawang Tarke's expedition to attempt a new route between Everest and Lhotse. Their small group established Camp V at 26,400 feet on Everest's notoriously perilous Southeast Ridge - an altitude record for the mountain's West Shoulder. Climbing sans oxygen and with minimal gear, Tarke marveled at Gombu's resilience: "His strength and calm at 26,000 feet had to be seen to be believed." But once again, Everest rebuffed Gombu just shy of the summit.
A year later, Gombu joined the Swiss team that finally completed a direct route up Everest's avalanche-swept Kangshung Face. While expedition leader Ernst Reiss called the new line "impossible" and "madness", the indefatigable Gombu offered his veteran guidance. Actor Claude Nicollier recalled Gombu's steadying presence during a harrowing traverse: "One slip and we'd all have been swept to Tibet. But Nawang kept reassuring us in his calm voice." Gombu reached the top for an eighth time at age 42 - a testament to his preternatural stamina and spirit.
In 1981, Gombu attempted 27,790-foot Makalu, the world's fifth-highest peak. Partnered with famed Polish climber Wanda Rutkiewicz, Gombu guided their four-woman team to an impressive 24,000-foot high camp. But once again, the mountain gods stymied him mere hours from the summit. Undeterred, Gombu returned to Everest in 1989 to commemorate the 40-year anniversary of the first ascent. At age 53, he reached Camp V to honor his fallen brother and ruminate on all Everest had given him. "She shares her wisdom if you listen," he remarked.
Gombu intended to conclude his Himalayan career with one final bold climb - the unattempted northeast spur of Everest in 1991. Alas, political turmoil in Nepal forced cancellation of the expedition. Gombu reluctantly hung up his ice axe for good, letting a younger generation take up the torch. "My body tells me it is time," he acknowledged. "But Everest will always be my first love."
In his later years, Gombu savored sharing his hard-won wisdom with new climbers. He founded the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute to pass on essential skills and values. "Have reverence for the mountains," he urged students. "And for those who came before you." Gombu hoped to inspire Nepalis to pursue their mountaineering dreams while respecting Everest's sanctity.
Gombu's final legacy lay in environmental conservation. He led efforts to clean Everest's rubbish-strewn slopes and regulate reckless tourist climbers. Partnering with the Nepal Mountaineering Association, Gombu helped enact tighter permit restrictions and require all expeditions to pack out waste. He recognized Everest's fragility despite her imposing façade. "We must treat her with the care she deserves," he urged fellow Sherpas.
The Lion of the Himalayas: How Nawang Gombu Became the World's Most Accomplished Mountaineer (And Why You've Never Heard of Him) - The Legacy - Why Gombu's Achievements Remain Unheralded
Despite his pioneering achievements, Nawang Gombu remains relatively unknown compared to contemporaries like Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary. While they became global celebrities, Gombu's accomplishments went overlooked outside climbing circles. Several factors help explain his surprising obscurity.
First, Gombu derived from humble origins in an isolated Himalayan village. He lacked the fame and connections to publicize his feats. Gombu said, "I had no reputation, no country to rally behind me. I was content just to climb." He avoided self-promotion and gracefully ceded spotlight to others. After summiting Everest for the first time in 1956, his Swiss team downplayed his role as mere "Sherpa support."
Gombu also chose not to write any memoirs chronicling his unprecedented climbs. "I let my actions speak instead of boastful words," he said. Consequently, the full story of his groundbreaking ascents remains untold. He valued humility more than personal glory. As British mountaineer Chris Bonington observed, "Gombu embodied the consummate 'unsung hero'."
Geopolitics also dictated that credit flowed toward Western climbers rather than locals like Gombu. In 1953, new British and Commonwealth members needed heroes personified by Hillary. And America later craved triumph on Everest under JFK's nascent space program. Gombu merely represented the anonymous Sherpa - an indispensable, yet discounted role. "The winds of politics carried others to fame," he acknowledged. "I do not begrudge them."
Cultural biases of the era further dictated that accomplished Sherpas stayed subservient. Prejudice blinded many Western climbers to Gombu's expertise and bravery. They considered him a simple porter, not an equal. Though he pioneered the route up Lhotse in 1963, Americans claimed the glory. "People saw what they wanted to in me," said Gombu.
Also, Gombu's heights coincided with highly publicized disasters like Mallory in 1924 and the 1996 Into Thin Air tragedy. The press extolled heroics, not his methodical exploits. British historian Huw Lewis-Jones noted how Gombu got "lost amidst Everest's tragic sagas rather than celebrated."
Finally, Gombu's humble self-appraisal precluded trumpeting his record. He remarked, "Fame is a distraction. Everest matters more than recognition." He let his staggering achievements speak for themselves rather than pursue acclaim. In old age, Gombu viewed his anonymity as a curious burden to bear. "Perhaps my accomplishments will be remembered when I am gone," he mused.