Philip Ling's tale: A Sherpa and a Gentleman

Posted: Jul 01, 2008 06:36 pm EDT

( Real stories, real events, moral questions and life-and-death decisions - spanning the entire globe, often in real time. We could just as well be covering wars; with all their implications - good and bad - on the human nature.

Last year, Australian Philip Ling wrote a debrief from the day he almost reached Lhotse's summit without O2, and witnessed Sherpani Pemba Doma fall to her death. Philip also shared his memories from Pumori, the bitter-sweet daughter of Everest; another fatal climbing drama with a few more lessons to add.

Now Philip is back, with a third tale from his climbing life.

A Sherpa and a Gentleman
By Philip Ling

On the 24th of April 2007, I along with other members of the Summitclimb International Everest/Lhotse expedition departed Camp 2 at 6400m for an acclimatisation hike to Camp 3 at 7350m on the Lhotse Face. We never arrived in Camp 3 that day. Instead I witnessed the aftermath of an extraordinary accident and watched first hand as a very moving, poignant human drama unfold before my eyes.

April 24 was perfect weather. Along with expedition leader Dan Mazur, Bruce Manning, Daniel Kim, Bill Burke and two of our Sherpas, I set out from Camp 2 at around 8.30am. As I approached the Lhotse face I overheard some descending climbers talking about a Sherpa involved in an accident. I radioed this information through to Dan and continued up. When I arrived at the base of the Lhotse Face I saw Sergio Martini, Kenton Cool and a dead body.

The color of death

Sergio Martini and his teams Sherpa, Dawa Sherpa, had departed Camp 2 around 1 hour before us. Dawa had edged ahead and arrived at the Lhotse Face first. Almost as soon as he had clipped into the line he was struck in the head by a falling rock or block of ice. The impact left him almost decapitated.

What a terrible shock it must have been for Sergio, having seen Dawa alive only a few moments earlier, to top a small rise and instead of seeing Dawa heading up the Lhotse face, instead saw him hanging lifeless, upside down. Not long afterwards Kenton Cool arrived at the scene.

When I arrived, Sergio and Kenton had unclipped Dawas body from the rope, dragged it a short distance away and had partially covered it with snow. I helped them clean up the mess at the base of the rope. I can still see the blood in my mind today. Still fresh, packed with red blood cells and highly oxygenated, it was an incredibly bright red.

Sergio kept piling more and more snow onto the body

After we had cleaned up as best we could, Kenton respectfully asked Sergio if he would mind if he continued up the hill with his client. Sergio of course agreed. Sergio and I then finished covering Dawa's remains.

Sergio was totally distraught and did not want to leave, and kept piling more and more snow onto the body. I put my arm around him and it took me a long time to finally persuade him we had done all we could and to depart the scene. We descended together until we met Dan and the rest of my team who upon hearing what had happened had decided wait for us below.

As we sat there resting, Sergios climbing partners Fausto De Stefani and Roberto Manni, who had been climbing up some distance behind us, came over a small crest and into view, still unaware of what had happened to Dawa.

Upon seeing and recognising Dan (they had previously climbed together on Gasherbrum 2 in 1994), Fausto smiled broadly and gave us all a Namaste, the Nepalese greeting. He then walked towards Sergio. I believe he assumed Sergio was just taking a rest with us on the ascent.

Despite none of us watching speaking Italian we were able to understand exactly what was being said through the emotions on the faces and in the voices of each man. Sergio said simply Dawa is dead.

We just sat their silently and awkwardly

After a moment of uncertainty, confusion and disbelief upon hearing the news, Fausto dropped to his knees, sobbing uncontrollably and repeating Dawas name over and over. Roberto, though more controlled also broke down.

The rest of us just sat their silently and awkwardly, wanting to look away yet morbidly captivated by the real life drama playing out before us. Here were two of the greatest high altitude climbers of all time, tough men hardened by so much tragedy as well as triumph in over 20 years of climbing in the Himalaya, totally shattered.

We discussed our next move

After a long period of nobody saying anything, we gave our apologies and Fausto and Roberto decided to proceed up to the site of the accident to pay their last respects to Dawa while Sergio waited for them to return.

Our team discussed our next move. Out of respect to Dawa and the wishes of our own Sherpas, who like all Sherpas are somewhat superstitious when things like this happen, we decided not to proceed to Camp 3. Instead we returned to Camp 2 with the intention of going back up the next day. However the following morning it had started snowing and the winds had increased, so we decided to forgo our acclimatisation hike to Camp 3 and return instead to Basecamp.

The sound of rotor blades

On the 29th of April we heard the familiar sound of the helicopter arriving in Basecamp. It had come to take Dawas body back to Kathmandu. Sergio had waited in Camp 2 for the rescue team to climb up and had accompanied the body all the way down through the icefall and saw it loaded onto the helicopter.

I went out and met him after the helicopter departed and invited him to our BC for tea. Sergio told us Dawa Sherpa had a wife and 4 children. We also had a very interesting conversation with him about mountaineering in days gone by, mountaineering today, K2, 8000ers, Reinhold Messner, Jerzy Kukuczka and other famous climbers.

I could tell immediately from our conversation with Sergio that he was a true gentleman. Given the poor publicity on Everest in recent years, it was comforting to know that in Sergio Martini at least, The Brotherhood of the Rope was still very much alive and well.

Philip Ling.


The body of Dawa Sherpa lies partially buried at the base of the Lhotse Face. Photo Philip Ling
Approaching the Lhotse Face after climbing up from Camp 2. A short time later I learned Dawa Sherpa was dead. Photo Philip Ling
Two climbing legends. Fausto de Stefani, aiming to finally set the record straight on Lhotse, and Sergio Martini contemplating his objective, the summit of Everest, above Camp 3 at around 7350m on the Lhotse Face. Photo Philip Ling
Fausto De Stefani, Philip Ling and Sergio Martini in Camp 3 at around 7350m on the Lhotse Face. Photo Philip Ling. (Click all images to enlarge).