In the years that followed our climb, I returned many times to the Everest region with my mountaineering friends and built up a close relationship with the Sherpas, spending a great deal of time in their homes and with their families. I admired their courage and strength, but I quickly realized that there were many things they lacked in their society that we just took for granted back in New Zealand such as schools or medical facilities.
One day in 1960 our group of climbers and Sherpas was camped on a glacier not far from Everest. Shivering in the cold, we huddled around a smoky scrub fire. For hours we had been talking about the fortunes of the Sherpa people in a mix of Nepali and English. The flames sank lower, and the cold crept in around us. A Sherpa by the name of Urkien tossed a handful of stunted azalea on the fire, making it flare with a crackle of sparks.
”Tell us, Urkien,” I said. “If there were one thing we could do for your village, what should it be?”
“We would like our children to go to school, sahib!” he said. “Of all the things you have, learning is the one we most desire for our children.”Urkien’s words hit home. The next year I persuaded a company in Calcutta to donate a prefabricated aluminum building. The Swiss Red Cross flew the building in parts from Kathmandu to a mountain airstrip at 15,500 feet in the Mingbo Valley. From there the Sherpas carried the building materials a day’s march to Khumjung, and we constructed the school.
We invited the head lama of Tengboche monastery to carry out the opening ceremony in June 1961. He arrived with a number of monks who brought trumpets, drums, and cymbals. There was much chanting of prayers, and finally the head lama circled the building twice with us all trailing along behind him. As he went, he cast handfuls of rice in every direction. Khumjung’s school was duly blessed.
As I got older, my wife, June, and I traveled around the world, raising funds for new projects for the Himalayan people. At the request of Sherpa residents, we helped establish 27 schools, two hospitals, and a dozen medical clinics—plus quite a few bridges over wild rivers. We constructed several airfields and rebuilt Buddhist monasteries and cultural centers. We planted a million seedlings in Sagarmatha National Park to replace the vast number of trees destroyed for firewood and used to build the small hotels that came with the growth of tourism.