KOLKATA, India (AP) - Sherpa mountaineer Nawang Gombu, the youngest on Sir Edmund Hillary's climbing team that first scaled Mount Everest in 1953, died on Sunday at his Indian home at the foot of the Himalayas. He was 79.
Friends and family were at Gombu's bedside when he died after a brief illness in Darjeeling, about 400 miles (650 kilometers) north of Kolkata, his son Kursung Phinjo Gombu said.
The first person to summit Everest twice, Gombu was considered one of the last of the so-called "Tigers of the Snow" - a small group of Sherpa mountaineers who scaled the Himalayas to bring fame and prestige to their ethnic community that originates from the mountains of eastern Tibet and Nepal.
Known for their hardiness, expert regional knowledge and unwillingness to leave any man 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.
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 Gombu placed a traditional white katha-style scarf around the neck of President John F. Kennedy.
Gombu achieved fame two years later as the first to summit Everest twice, when he guided an Indian team to the top. He is also credited with pioneering dozens of new routes through the Himalayas and helping to open the region to tourists and trekkers seeking new and increasingly extreme climbing challenges.
"He was not only an outstanding climber, Gombu was fine person who guided Indian mountaineering to a greater height," said retired Navy Capt. Mohan Singh Kohli, who le ad the 1965 Indian Everest expedition. "Gombu's death left a big void in the adventure field of the country."
Born and raised in Tibet, the young Gombu migrated with his family to neighboring Nepal before finally settling in Darjeeling. He began working as a Mountaineering Institute instructor when the adventure school was set up in 1954 and later served as director of field training when his uncle retired. He and Norgay had been among the first Sherpas to complete a Swiss mountain guide course in 1954.
Gombu's career includes numerous Indian and international awards including a Coronation Medal from Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and a Hubbard Medal from the National Geographic Society for his climbing feats.
He is survived by his sister, his wife Sita, his son, four daughters and nine grandchildren. A funeral is planned on Thursday in Darjeeling.
Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press
Published in Chicago Sun-Times on Apr. 24, 2011.