Recap: Tribute to Nawang Gombu Sherpa
On Sunday, June 3, the historic Paradise Inn at Mt. Rainier National Park hosted a Tribute to Nawang Gombu. The much-anticipated event promised to be a memorable gathering and, despite the fickle weather, it definitely lived up to expectations!
By 4:00PM the grand lobby was overflowing with family and friends gathered to honor the memory of the man who, all agreed, was a remarkable individual in terms of physical strength, mental determination, and above everything else, humility. Several family members even journeyed from India to attend. Gombu’s daughter, Yangdu, received a plaque from Mt. Rainier National Park Superintendent Randy King, recognizing her father’s years of service at Mt. Rainier.
Needless to say, the climbing community was well represented, with Lou & Jim Whittaker (along with their families) topping the bill. Jim recounted a story when he and Gombu were on the summit of Mt Everest in 1963: He asked the soon-to-become-famous Sherpa what he was thinking; what was going through his mind in that historic moment; and received the succinct reply, “Getting down!”
In the crowd were numerous professional mountain guides who worked with Gombu on Mt Rainier, as well as past clients of RMI fortunate enough to rope up with him during their summit climbs. Phinjo Gombu, Gombu’s son and also a former RMI guide, accepted a special plaque from RMI’s Lou Whittaker, Peter Whittaker, and myself. Phinjo then delivered a moving account of his father’s life, from boyhood to becoming a mountaineering icon. Through it all, Phinjo recalled, Gombu remained humble and unassuming. As he put it, “He [Gombu] simply loved the mountains.” Everyone in the building related to that sentiment.
2012 marks the 30th anniversary of the 1982 American Everest Expedition, led by Lou Whittaker, of which Gombu was a member. Several former RMI guides and participants on the expedition were in attendance, including Larry Nielson, the first American to climb Everest without supplemental oxygen (1983). Gombu used to refer to Larry as “the Animal” and with good reason!
Near the great fireplace at the west end of the lobby easels displayed photos from numerous expeditions on which Gombu participated: Everest, Kanchenjunga, Makalu, and Nanda Devi. He also guided an RMI Mt. McKinley Expedition in the late 1970’s, with his friend Phil Ershler. A silent auction was ongoing throughout the evening, bidding on famous photos and mountaineering books autographed by Lou Whittaker, Jim Whittaker, and Dee Molenaar among others.
Of course, nothing elicits memories more effectively than film and the medium was presented in abundance: Gombu as a young man on early expeditions; the electrifying final steps to the top of Everest on May 1, 1963 with Big Jim; the ’82 China-Everest North Wall and ’89 Kanchenjunga expeditions. These clips represented but a few snippets of a lifetime spent in the high mountains.
Then suddenly, shortly after 9:00PM, someone burst into Paradise Inn proclaiming, “The Mountain’s out! The Mountain’s out!” Talk about your mass exodus. The lobby all but emptied in a matter of moments as everyone grabbed cameras and cell phones or simply went outside to look for themselves. The summit of Rainier, hidden behind clouds throughout the day, was there in all its glory. The Tatoosh Range was bathed in shades of evening’s glow, while Rainier’s distant summit loomed stark and foreboding. It fit the occasion. Mt Rainier’s upper reaches are the realm of the mountaineer, of which Nawang Gombu represented the highest ideal. As guide and climber, husband and father and very special friend, his memory will be kept alive in the high mountains.
Special thanks to Ingrid & Lou Whittaker for all their efforts in organizing and promoting this truly memorable event.
June 18, 2012
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