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Nawang Gombu, 79; was first to scale Everest twice

NAWANG GOMBU NAWANG GOMBU (Associated Press/File 2006)
Associated Press / April 25, 2011

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CALCUTTA — Sherpa mountaineer Nawang Gombu, the youngest member of Sir Edmund Hillary’s climbing team that first scaled Mount Everest in 1953, died yesterday at his Indian home at the foot of the Himalayas. He was 79.

Friends and family were at Mr. Gombu’s bedside when he died after a brief illness in Darjeeling, about 400 miles north of Calcutta, said his son, Kursung Phinjo Gombu.

The first person to summit Everest twice, Mr. Gombu was considered one of the last of the Tigers of the Snow, a small group of Sherpa mountaineers who scaled the Himalayas to bring fame and prestige to their ethnic community, which comes from the mountains of eastern Tibet and Nepal. Known for their hardiness, expert regional knowledge, and unwillingness to leave any climber behind, the Sherpa mountaineers formed the backbone of India’s Himalayan Mountaineering Institute and the trekking industry based in Darjeeling. Among the Sherpas, many of the highest mountains were worshipped as gods.

Mr. Gombu was about 21 when he joined his uncle Tenzing Norgay and Hillary on the famous 1953 expedition, but he did not reach the top of the world’s highest mountain until 10 years later, when he guided the first American expedition led by mountaineer Jim Whittaker to the summit. The 1963 expedition members were then invited to the White House, where Mr. Gombu placed a traditional white katha-style scarf around the neck of President John F. Kennedy. Mr. Gombu achieved fame two years later as the first to summit Everest twice.

Born and raised in Tibet, Mr. Gombu migrated with his family in his youth to neighboring Nepal, before settling in Darjeeling.