I first met Gombu when I was 12. He was guiding that summer - as he had for years - on Mount Rainier in Washington, climbing up and down the mountain with little effort. Six years later, I'd have the opportunity to work with Gombu when I began guiding at Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. Many a night, Gombu and I would share a simple but hearty dinner of dal bhat (rice & lentils, a Nepali staple) with his nephew, Phursumba, speaking in Nepali and sharing stories.
And, the next day, we'd all head back to the guide hut at Paradise for work. Gombu would climb the mountain, or work in the rental shop, and rarely talked to people about his background, his immense climbing history. To many, he was just a cute, quiet little man from some far away place helping fit their boots.
But, Gombu was far more than his modest demeanor let on.
The nephew of Tenzin Norgay - who reached the summit of Everest on May 30, 1953, with Hillary - Gombu spent his early years in Minzu, Tibet, and then studying as a monk at Rongbuk Monastery on the Tibetan side of Everest. He loved to share the story of sneaking out a window on Ronbuk at age 15, and sneaking away from the monastic life - which he didn't take to - and eventually making his way to Darjeeling, India.
The life in Darjeeling brought him into the climbing circle, and Gombu joined the 1953 Everest expedition at only 21, and carried loads to 26,000 feet - the youngest person at that time climb that high. Thirteen years later, Gombu walked into the history books when he reached the summit of Everest with Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit the mountain.
But, Gombu's climbing was far from finished. He would go on to climb Everest a second time in 1965, becoming the first person to reach the Top of the World twice - a record which he held for nearly 20 years. In addition to Everest, Gombu climbed - among many other peaks - Saser Kangri, Nanda Devi, and Cho Oyu. He also reached the summit of Rainier at least 100 times.
While largely unknown in the western world, Gombu was a legend in India. When I visited him first at his home in Darjeeling in 1995, the aura and respect for him amongst people at the Himalayan Mountaineering Insitute (HMI) was palpable. He was a legend in Indian mountaineering circles, and through his work at HMI, he helped shape a new generation of Indian climbers.
The last time I saw Gombu, sadly, was in 2003 when my wife, Wende, and I visited him once more in Darjeeling. We caught him just after he had a private audience with the Dalai Lama, and shared a brief meal and conversation. Wende had heard stories of Gombu before, and I asked him to share with her my favorite story, which to me encapsulates Gombu's humility and personality:
In 1963, after reaching the summit of Everest with Jim Whittaker, Gombu and the team were feted in Washington, D.C., and the subjects of many interviews. One reporter asked Jim and Gombu what their thoughts were when they finally reached the 29,035 foot summit of Everest. Jim eloquently replied that his thoughts were filled with the humbling nature of the mountains, and about reaching the summit for the glory of the USA. Gombu's reply? "How to get back down."
With that, Gombu's infectious smile stretched ear to ear.
He will be missed, and my thoughts go out to Gombu's family and friends.