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A Climber We Lost: Khudam Bir Tamang

Each January we post a farewell tribute to those members of our community lost in the year just past. Some of the people you may have heard of, some not. All are part of our community and contributed to climbing.

You can read the full tribute to Climbers We Lost in 2022 here.

Khudam Bir Tamang 33, May 8

For Nepali guide Khudam Bir Tamang, life in the alpine wasn’t just a calling. Mountains were in his blood. His father served as sirdar for a number of expeditions in the Himalaya, and his entire family was closely involved in the trekking industry. After Tamang dropped out of high school he immediately went to work with his father, guiding treks and climbs on 6,000-meter peaks. It was a blessing, because he wasn’t someone who took to being at a desk all day. His family recalled that with every trek, he always left wanting to explore more and more.

“Khudam was a really energetic kid,” said Alyssa Pizarro, his wife. “Really rambunctious. Rebellious. If someone said don’t do something, he’d do it. He was always pushing boundaries.”

Tamang worked for his father and freelanced in the trekking and guiding industry for many years until the catastrophic Gorkha earthquake in April 2015. Climbers and trekking guides were considered extremely valuable in search and rescue efforts, so Tamang stepped away from guiding work and began working for an NGO, World Vision, supporting its relief efforts.

It was a testament to his tenacity and drive that even though Tamang “didn’t have a full education, and started out at the bottom, within a year or two [he] had moved up through the ranks, and was quickly promoted to managerial-level roles” said Pizarro. Former colleague Zwelo Ndebele, who worked closely with Tamang during his tenure at World Vision, remembered Tamang as “an intelligent, passionate, and very sociable individual who was humble and willing to learn.”

In a World Vision blog post, “12 Humanitarian Heroes Who Inspire Us,” Tamang said he appreciated the opportunity as a way to serve his country while still being in the mountains. “I used to work as a trek[king] guide … and being here is one of the greatest experiences I could ever have. I still trek hills to reach the places but this [job] is more meaningful because I’m able to serve my people.”

Tamang was eminently respected in World Vision, Pizarro said, so much so that although he intended on only staying a few months post-earthquake to help with immediate relief efforts, he ended up staying on with the nonprofit for several years.

This was how he and Pizarro met, in fact. She also works for World Vision, and the pair were both working on earthquake recovery. “I was looking for someone to take me around for a trek, because it was my first time in Nepal,” she said. “Someone said Khudam was really experienced, so as colleagues we hiked Chandragiri. He invited others from the office but no one wanted to come, so it was just the two of us for about seven hours. During this time, I just noticed there was something special about him; his quiet and calm confidence, a seeming wisdom beyond his years. He also wasn’t short of any anecdotes that helped motivate me to finish that grueling day hike all the way to the top. That’s where our journey started.”

The pair, who married last December, stayed in touch long distance after Pizarro left Nepal, and traveled to many countries together, including Thailand, Japan, the Philippines, and Bangladesh. “We couldn’t have been more different,” Pizarro said. “I like the spa and my comforts and he loves being out in the wilderness, roughing it in the mountains.”

Khudam Bir Tamang with his wife Alyssa Pizarro.  (Photo: Alyssa Pizarro)

They might have been an unlikely couple, but this only further evinces Tamang’s authentic passion for not merely experiencing the mountains himself, but for sharing his love for them with others. When the pair trekked to Everest Base Camp, “[Tamang] teased me by saying ‘I used my entire career and experience on you,’” Pizarro joked. “He carried my bags, managed my altitude sickness… I didn’t have to carry anything, he had it all laid out for me to have the best time possible.”

After leaving World Vision in 2018, Tamang briefly worked for a United Nations organization, UNOPS, but he was still pulled to return to guiding. “He kept getting dragged into these NGO contracts which were good money, but not in line with his real passions,” said Pizarro.

So he co-founded his own guiding company, Bootprints.

Though the COVID pandemic made Bootprints’ early years somewhat hectic, Tamang networked with clients he’d had for many years in the past, nursing his fledgling outfitter through the pandemic. Bootprints had their first client summit Everest this year—a major milestone for the organization, Pizarro said.

Just a few months before Tamang passed, he had also opened his own café, and last year, he summited Everest, another of his longtime goals. He was also in the middle of completing his undergraduate education—another goal of his which fell behind due to immediate work obligations and other priorities.

“He was a go-getter,” Pizarro said. “Someone who always surrounded himself with really smart people… PhDs, scientists, scholars from all around the world. All his friends were really impressive people, who were equally impressed by him.” Childhood friend Ishwar Gurung recalled, “He was always a great person who had a strong passion for life, the mountain, and the country. Above all, he deeply cared for the people he came across.”

That was one of her favorite things about Tamang, she said. “He’s always been very humble and understated. You really have to know him well to know all aspects of him. He never liked to talk about his accomplishments, and didn’t feel like he had to prove anything to anyone.”

Pizarro said her husband often told her how adults would talk down to him as a kid, given his energetic—and often rebellious—nature. They’d say, “You’ll never amount to anything,” and so on. “And he always told me, ‘No child deserves to be talked to the way I was talked to, because no matter how bad you are as a kid, you’re still a kid.’”

While many might grow up after a childhood like that with a chip on their shoulder, Tamang grew up with nothing to prove. Pizarro spoke of “a particular event, a low season,” during her late husband’s adolescent years that completely transformed his demeanor; it was as if “he decided he would live life on his own terms, pursuing what mattered most to him, regardless of what other people thought. That’s when a calmer, more mature version of Khudam started to emerge,” she said.

Tamang, 33, died May 8 in an avalanche on Lhotse (8,516 m), while working to support Korean climber Hong Sung-Taek’s South Face bid under Seven Summits Treks. He and close friend Pasang Rinzee Sherpa were both working as videographers for the attempt, in addition to rope fixing and carrying loads.

On the day of the accident, the duo was returning to Base Camp (BC) from a higher camp, as neither was feeling well. “They were coughing all night, and BC was telling them to stay at Camp I due to bad weather, but they insisted on coming down,” said Pizarro. The pair was only a stone’s throw from the camp—BC was already preparing tea and food—when they were hit by a ‘silent’ avalanche. “Pasang was able to stay on top of the slide, but Khudam was two or three meters away and he was buried,” said Pizarro. Despite the close proximity to Base Camp and an extensive search effort, his body was never recovered.

In addition to his wife, Tamang is survived by his mother, Krishna Maya Tamang, father, Ram Krishna Tamang, as well as a younger sister and brother, Tshering and Purushottam Tamang. He loved his family dearly and was always supportive of his family and friends, said Pizarro.

“When he was in the mountains, Khudam was just a different person,” she said. “There was this glow about him. This pep in his step. This lightness. His face even looked different when we were in another place that didn’t have mountains.” She shared a photo Tamang had created as a young child, cutting out a picture of himself and overlaying it on an alpine background.

“He always dreamed of living his life in the mountains.”

—Owen Clarke

You can read the full tribute to Climbers We Lost in 2022 here.