In October of 2015, I trekked in Nepal with nine American friends. Vinayak Jay Malla was the guide for our group of ten. Over the course of our 100-mile trek, all of us came to admire, respect, and genuinely like Vinayak. He and I have stayed in touch, and my friendship and admiration have only grown as I have followed his adventures and growth as a professional guide and mountain climber.
For his first time this past spring (2017), Vinayak stood on Mount Everest’s summit, the highest point on earth at 29,029 feet.
Also, this past fall (2017), Vinayak summited Manaslu, his second 8,000-meter peak as an assistant guide on a Chinese expedition … two down, twelve to go.
The following is an interview with Vinayak about his life, from youth to aspiring International Mountaineering Guide. The interview includes remarks about his summit climb, his chance discovery of the body of Ueli Steck (one of the most prominent mountaineers of today until his death) and his thoughts about the Yeti.
Cumberland Transit (CT): Vinayak, you were born in Nepal. Where exactly was your home in the mountains?
Vinayak (VJM): I was born in a small remote village named Mallaj, in mid-western Nepal. You can see in the distance the Dhaulagiri and Nilgiri mountain ranges. From my village, it is a 2-hour walk, then a 10-hour bus ride to Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital.
CT: What was your family life like in a small village in rural Nepal? Did your parents love the outdoors? Travel in or out of the country?
VJM: My parents are farmers, spending their days looking after the farm and animals. That is how they live. I have two younger sisters, the oldest is one year younger than I am and got married last year. My youngest sister is studying in college. My father is also a teacher at a local primary school. My parents are now around sixty years old and still working. It’s life of a different kind of outdoors, not really an occupation of their choosing, they just do what they know to make a living for our family. While growing up, we had to walk up and down the hills all the time for chores on the farm. Sometimes we traveled to nearby villages to visit relatives during festivals. We never left Nepal. It was a big deal just to travel to Kathmandu, in fact, I first went there when I was seventeen.
CT: What about your early life? Did you play any sports, or go rock-climbing outdoors or in a gym?
VJM: I spent my childhood helping my parents on the farm. The equivalent of a climbing gym was the outdoor natural environment around our farm and village. I would go into the forest, climb trees and collect firewood, walk up to the highlands looking for good grass to gather and carry home for the animals. We played soccer but not with actual soccer balls. We would make simple balls out of cloth for games. Things like soccer fields, climbing gyms, organized sports did not exist in our small village. Even today in the whole of Nepal, there are only four climbing gyms, all of them in Kathmandu, one of which you and some of your pals visited with me during your time in Nepal.
CT: How old were you when you realized your country of Nepal was home to the world’s tallest mountains?
VJM: When I was in class 5, we learned about Sagarmatha (Everest) and all the other tall mountains. It was in our textbooks at school.
CT: When did you begin to think about becoming a mountaineer?
VJM: Some people in our village used to tell me stories about traveling. They were in the army. And after hearing all those travel tales, I actually considered joining the army – for adventure. There aren’t many adventure options for a village boy in Nepal. When I was young, there was a civil war going on. Guerrillas would come through villages to ask for teenagers from every family to help with their revolution. My family immediately sent me to Kathmandu to continue my studies for fear I’d be taken away. That was probably a good thing.
When I was growing up in my village, I could see those mountain ranges from my home, and I used to think about what it was like up there. How could someone get up there? In the textbooks later at school, there were descriptions of Tenzing Norgay, Hillary, and Pasang Lhamhu Sherpa (the first Nepali woman to make an ascent of Everest). These books raised my curiosity further.
Then later when I was studying in college, I had to do a report on the impact of mountaineering on tourism in Nepal. I had to go into a lot of detailed research. It was at that time I got interested in mountaineering and heard about mountain guide courses. That idea stuck in my head.
During college in Kathmandu, I interned at a bank. If I had continued that job, I’d be sitting in a chair all day somewhere. I’m not the type of person to sit all day, wearing a suit. I knew I liked being outdoors, breathing mountain air.
CT: How did you go from college student and bank intern in Kathmandu to an assistant-guide on a trek? What was that journey like for you?
VMJ: Once, when I was in college I climbed in a gym with some friends. It was just fun climbing. None of us knew anything about ropes, knots, or climbing techniques.
After college, maybe 2010, Vinayak began to pursue outdoor climbing; road trips to Hampi, a bouldering area in southern India, rock-climbing and ice-climbing in the mountains, climbing competitions at rock-gyms.
Before the trip in 2015 with your group of ten, I was a guide for Khumbu Adventures on your trek to Everest basecamp [and] led other small trekking groups. I was really nervous on my first trek to Everest base camp. I saw big mountains up close in areas of Nepal. They were very different from my own village and culture.
I went on a plane for the first time, from Kathmandu to Lukla. I learned and experienced many things about the trade of being a mountaineer and continued to improve my English. Those experiences were helpful in getting jobs as an assistant guide on larger mountaineering expeditions. Today, there are many foreign climbers, particularly Chinese, coming to climb in the Himalayas.
CT: On our 2015 trek, I admired your fluency in English. I imagine a proficiency in multiple languages would be a tremendous asset to a mountaineering guide.
VMJ: Yes, I studied English in school in my village as well as in college. If you speak English well, it is easier to get work here. Also the pay is better. I started speaking more as I began working as an assistant guide. Other languages also help, such as Chinese, Japanese, and French. Working on those early treks I realized my English was really bad. I’m still learning to speak better English.
CT: Tell me about your first expedition climbing the South Col route on Mount Everest. How did you get that job? What were some of your duties?
VMJ: When you are an aspiring mountain guide in Nepal looking to get hired on to an expedition, the first question everybody asks you is “Have you done Everest?” as if Everest were the only peak in Nepal, or the most difficult climb. This sort of thing can drive any guide, or perspective guide, crazy. So of course, I wanted to get on with an Everest trip. Then a friend of mine asked if I wanted to go as an assistant guide. Of course I said yes, and in a few days I was on my way. My job was to look after clients, go with them for acclimatization trips, and give them some training.
CT: Describe a little bit what that standard route on Everest was like and the use of bottled oxygen.
VMJ: After Camp 3, on the Lhotse face at 7,200 meters, we started using bottled oxygen, which is instant relief, but it’s still not the same as being down at a normal altitude. Camp 3 is not a safe place; it is between forty and fifty degree slope so we had to dig to make a flat area before pitching tents. A few years ago a small avalanche came and some climbers died. On the summit push, everyone used oxygen from Camp 3 [onward]. The guides did the same, even though I had been up to the South Col at Camp 4 without oxygen. On the day of the summit push, each client had a guide, and we had to observe their climbing, check their performance, and help them change their oxygen tanks.
If Everest were only a 6000-meter peak, it would be a relatively easy climb. It’s not that technical, but above 8000 meters it’s more physical.
Climbing above the South Col (Camp 4), after around two hours of walking in the triangular face, we saw dead bodies of climbers. That’s when it became a little scary. Also at that point the climbing became rather steep. I also had to be the cameraman, taking photos of the climb and at the summit.
When you reach the summit, you forget all about the difficult moments, being tired, etc. All the clients are happy, and photos are being taken. I was really happy.
However, your thoughts then turn toward the decent. Getting to the summit is only half the battle. If you look at the data, most accidents occur during the decent.
CT: What were some of your thoughts as you stood on top of the world? You were really an entire world away from being a young farm boy in the village of Mallaj, weren’t you? And how did your family find out about your summit?
VMJ: Aside from thoughts of being really happy, and thoughts of the decent, I remember thinking that neither my father nor my grandfather had ever done this sort of work. In fact, apparently I am the first person from my district to summit Everest.
About five years ago my village of Mallaj got network service, and my dad now has a cell phone. So I called my family from base camp. Everyone congratulated me and asked me all about the climb.
CT: I imagine that being a mountaineering guide would be a coveted and respected profession in Nepal for a young man or woman, is that right?
VMJ: I love this work that I do. But being a mountain guide, or porter, is work that Nepalese have to do to survive. However, it can be partly discouraging. For example, if you summit Everest as a guide, you don’t receive a certificate stating that you summited like a foreigner receives. When films are made and books are written, the climbers are highlighted, but not the guides or Sherpas. So there is not exactly lots of respect. But now there is a new generation of guides, who are guiding out of passion for being in the mountains.
As for myself, I love the outdoors and the mountains. If I can earn money with this passion, then I can use that money to continue my passion.
CT: Did the fact that you were born outside the Sherpa region make it more difficult for you to become a guide and find work, particularly on Everest expeditions? I would hope that ability and experience would matter more than having the last name of Sherpa.
VMJ: Yes, it is sometimes hard for me to get work because my last name is not Sherpa. That is true for all my non-Sherpa friends. Nowadays the concept is slowly changing, and companies are beginning to trust in ability and training. If you acclimatize well, you can work fine at altitude. Sherpas of course have it in their genes, so they acclimatize much more quickly – apparently that has been proven by research. However, anyone can fare well if they acclimatize well.
After having the experience of working on an Everest expedition and summiting this past spring, it was easier to get hired for an expedition to Manaslu (one of the fourteen 8000-meter peaks in the Himalayas) this fall which I also summited. Now that I have experience on big mountains, there are high chances of going to Everest again in spring of 2018.
CT: Back in 2015 there were two back-to-back earthquakes in Nepal, many people were killed across the country, including at Everest basecamp, several Sherpa, guides and porters, closing the climbing season for the year. Have things like pay and benefits improved for the Nepali workers on climbing expeditions – the Sherpa, guides, assistant-guides, and porters?
VMJ: The pay is still the same. However tourists have at least started to come in good numbers again, and guides are getting work.
CT: Another question, during the Everest expedition back in the spring of this year (2017), you were with some of your group climbing from Camp 1 up to Camp 2.
A series of circumstances you observed on that morning of April 30th, lead you to the discovery of the body of Ueli Steck. He was one of the most renowned mountaineers of the day. Would you like to comment on the events of that day?
VMJ: I apologize for not answering this question because it does bring unhappy memories. If your readers are interested, please share with them the link to my interview with WiCis-Sports, scroll down to the post on June 21, 2017:
(CT: Click on this link below, give it a few seconds. You may have to copy and paste it.) wicis-sports.blogspot.com/2017/06/what-really-happened-on-day-that-ueli.html
CT: Who are some of your favorite mountaineers, past and present? Are there any you follow on social media?
VMJ: Tenzing Norgay Sherpa and Reinhold Messner. I also follow Alex Honnold, David Lama, Conrad Anker, Kilian Jornet.
CT: Speaking of the Italian climber Reinhold Messner, to call him one of the greatest Himalayan mountaineers might be an understatement. He was the first to summit all fourteen of the 8000-meter peaks; the first to summit Everest without the use of supplemental oxygen once thought impossible; the first to summit Everest solo. He has published over 80 books about his adventures.
I picked up one of his books in a Kathmandu bookstore, My Quest for the Yeti, in which he tells a convincing story about his encounter with a Yeti, or Abominable Snowman. What are your thoughts about the Yeti and Messner’s claim?
VMJ: It’s not only Messner who claims to have seen the Yeti. Many Nepali also have claimed to see it. In Nepali history books, one can find reference to the Yeti, called in Nepal “Him manb” (Himalayan man). The Himalayas are a holy place for both Hindus and Buddhists. A High Lama once said, “If westerners don’t believe in the Yeti, I don’t believe in kangaroos.” Not only Messner but also other western climbers have found its footprints and have had sighting. Do you remember that we saw the Yeti skull in Khumjung and Pangboche monastery? The Japanese also have researched the Yeti and claim to have seen footprints. I personally have never seen a Yeti, however I do not doubt its existence if so many have claimed to see it. I will let you know if I do see one.
CT: Lastly, what’s next for you?
VMJ: In Nepal now (CT: November, when Vinayak and I were still trading emails back and forth for this interview), winter is starting. The trekking and climbing season is all but over for the year. In December, I am planning to go to southern India (Hampi) for climbing. Then I will go ice climbing and more rock climbing. I will be preparing for the IFMGA course all winter. If I have any time, I would love to learn skiing. I have already passed my Aspirant Guide training. This is my job now. I’ll do whichever peak I get hired to do. But my personal interest is to open new peaks and climb hard routes. I am also in the process of developing new rock climbing routes in Nepal.
In March of 2018, I am enrolled in the IFMGA course (International Federation of Mountain Guide Association) to be taught in Nepal in the Himalayas.
The IFMGA was established in 1965 in Zermatt (Switzerland) and is the only organization in the world to standardize and monitor professional mountain guide education. After successful completion of this course, I will be awarded an International Mountain Guide certificate. This is the highest level of education in the mountain guide profession.
For more information about this course, go to: www.ivbv.info/en/ifmga/instruction-and-training.html
CT/Allen Doty: I know there are many, many worthy choices of people, places, and causes to donate your money… most all of them non-profits and tax deductible (which Vinayak is neither). Along with my other choices of causes to donate to, I am trying to raise some money to send to Vinayak (by Feb 15th), for a portion of the cost of his IFMGA course and related expenses. If any of you readers would like to contribute, I know Vinayak would be so grateful for any dollar support, thoughts, prayers, and well wishes. Any amount would be amazing, no matter how small or large… $4 (a cup of coffee), $20 (cost of a dinner out), $50 (2 movie tickets and popcorn), $100, $500… I’ll pass on to him any donation or simply any and all written comments and thoughts.
Thanks for considering any amount you might wish to send.
c/o Cumberland Transit
2807 West End Ave.
Nashville, TN 37203
Work Phone (615-321-4069)
Venmo: @Allen-Doty-1 [Please designate “Vinayak”]