Guiding light

Last updated 12:00 26/10/2013
Phurenje Sherpa

SIGNS OF CHANGE: Lake Tasman is now 6km long, and growing every year. The glacier retreats around 200m a year, but last February 500m calved in one day, producing the massive icebergs in the lake. Most will melt by summer.

Phurenje Sherpa
GRABBING THE OPPORTUNITY: Phurenje Sherpa was the first Sherpa to emigrate to New Zealand to live and work.

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The first Sherpa guide to make New Zealand his home, Phurenje Sherpa now works guiding Japanese tourists in Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park. He talks to Gerard Hindmarsh about his love of the mountains, his strong Nelson connection, and his role in the new movie Beyond the Edge.

Today, his climbing pack rarely makes his back, but Phurenje Sherpa still looks the part, even if his equipment is a little more sophisticated.

Phurenje turns up for work outside The Hermitage at Mt Cook Village in a new Land Rover towing a dual-axle trailer with an Argo 8WD all-terrain amphibious vehicle. "We are going to have a very good time today," he says confidently in excellent English, after introducing himself.

Two Japanese tourists join us, and he converses fluently with them in their language as well.

By the time we reach the car park up Tasman Valley Rd, our Sherpa guide has instructed us about everything from local history to a description of the rock flour in the Hooker River. Even his rap about the wild Irishman (matagouri) and wild Spaniard (taramea) scrub that peppers this till-barren glacial terrain hooks us in.

But the real adventure begins as we switch to the Argo, taking off up towards Husky Valley, where Sir Edmund Hillary trained his dogs for his Antarctic expedition.

Keen skiers once tramped up here with all their gear to the Tasman Skifield, but this, our country's first skifield, no longer exists. It has melted away, just like the glaciers are doing.

We stop along the way to take in some unmelted remnants of massive avalanches, before climbing the lateral moraine to Boulder Lookout, which overlooks Lake Tasman. "Be very, very careful," Phurenje tells us as we clamber to the edge of the rocky escarpment, with a 400-metre drop straight down into the lake.

The view from here of the growing six-kilometre lake is incredible; huge windblown icebergs congregate at the far end like tall ships in a harbour. Far below, an almighty wrenching crash followed by an echoing splash tells us of another block carving off the terminal face of the Tasman Glacier, but the sheer awe-inspiring scale of the terrain makes it hard to visually pinpoint.

On the way back down, Phurenje lights up when I tell him I am from Nelson. He tells me proudly that he was the first Sherpa guide to come to New Zealand to live, 16 years ago, when he was 23.

He had been working for Nelson ophthalmologist John McKinnon and his partner Diane, who ran a Nepal trekking company called Footprints Tours.

The couple's connection with Nepal goes back a long way, starting soon after John's graduation from medical school. After getting married, they went to live at Kunde hospital in eastern Nepal.

John became the first resident doctor in the region, the nearest other medical facilities being six days' walk away. It was here in the magnificent surroundings of the Himalayas that the couple met the Sherpa people, who they described as peasant farmers and traders living a natural life in magnificent surroundings.

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"But contrary to much populist opinion, it was also a life with a great deal of hardship and disease," John recalls. "Sherpa people dealt with these difficulties in a way that I found both humbling and inspiring. Almost without exception, they accepted and dealt with the adversities of disease and environment without rancour and with notable humour.

"It is these qualities which endeared them to generations of mountaineers and, nowadays, to modern-day trekkers."

It also led John to an interest in Buddhism, and he eventually became a practitioner of Zen.

After returning to New Zealand, he trained as an ophthalmologist, first here and then in England, before returning to live in Nelson.

"I was fortunate to continue my association with Nepal by returning every year or so to work with Sir Edmund Hillary on his various aid projects, and to assist with eye surgery and other medical matters at the Himalayan Trust hospitals."

Retiring from ophthalmic practice in 1996, the couple made time available for their other interests as well as continued medical work in Nepal. They still feel as comfortable there as they do in New Zealand.

"The country and its people gave me a lifetime of friendships and experiences, so when Diane set Footprints Tours in place, it was an ideal extension of both our interests and lifestyle," John says.

Phurenje tells it from his side: "My job with Footprints in Nepal involved guiding many Kiwi climbers. What they told me about this country and its mountains made me want to come out here."

Thanks mainly to Diane's sponsor support, he became the first Sherpa to emigrate to New Zealand, initially settling in Nelson, where he enrolled as an adult student at Nayland College. He improved his English, and learned Japanese as well.

Further courses at Nelson Polytechnic expanded his English and computer skills, before he went to Christchurch to attend a Japanese language school, along with further English study at Hagley Community College.

In October 1999, Phurenje's dream was answered when he landed his current job at The Hermitage, as the hotel's Japanese-speaking trekking guide, a job he says he has worked as "hard as rock" at ever since.

His wife and two children have now settled in Mt Cook Village as well - their eight-year-old son Edmund Tashi Sherpa (named after Sir Edmund) attends the 10-pupil school there, while their daughter Hannah Dikki Sherpa is two.

Phurenje's language skills have served him well. About 56 per cent of The Hermitage's clients are Japanese.

He's not the only Nepalese working at the village. His brother-in-law Sonam Sherpa joined him soon afterwards and is now assistant manager of the hotel's Alpine Restaurant.

Although not immediately related, all Sherpa people share the same surname, meaning "people of the east". Sher means east, while pa (more correctly wa) means people. The ethnic minority are thought to have migrated from the Kham region of Tibet to the high plateau and valleys of eastern Nepal around 1600.

Phurenje and Sonam scored parts in the new 3D movie Beyond the Edge, about Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's conquest of Mt Everest in 1953. Written and directed by Leanne Pooley, it began screening in Nelson this week.

Sonam was cast in the plum role of Tenzing, with Phurenje filling in as his climbing double for the technical climbing scenes.

Phurenje is well qualified for this, having climbed Everest twice, and Mt Cook as well.

"It was a fantastic thing to get involved in," he says. "We were just the right people in the right place at the right time to be cast in that movie.

"New Zealand has provided many new opportunities for us and our families, and for that we are truly thankful."

- © Fairfax NZ News


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