Conquering the self

For former drug abuser turned Everest summiteer, it has been a lifelong expedition against addiction

(Left to right) ‘Walk with Wangda’, is a campaign against substance abuse. “It’s the grueling climb of the mountain that showed me what I’m truly capable of,’’ says Wangda Sherpa, for whom climbing is both therapy and a profession.

In 2017, Wangda Sherpa was experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms. One day, he woke up in the dark with severe pain and thought he was really dying. But he lived, and eighteen months later, he summited Mt Everest

Wangda had been shooting up heroin, nitravet and all manner of pills on and off for over 20 years. He went to rehab five times. The journey of recovery began when he realised he could not afford the addiction anymore. 

“My brother couldn’t see me in so much pain and misery, he gave me some money to buy drugs. I went to the dealer and it was he who recommended a rehabilitation centre,” recalls Wangda. There were relapses, but he kept going back to seek treatment. 

Unlike many drug abusers, who are shunned by family, Wangda received support. It was mostly his mother. “As an addict, my perspectives were myopic. My mother helped me embrace a life of patience and great compassion. I see it now—but I did not see it then,” he says.  

Wangda was born in Bhutan, lost his father before he turned five, and was raised by his mother in Nepal. He was athletic as a child and grew up aspiring to join the British Army. But with his single-mother as the key earner, the family could not afford the expenses required to train for the British Army qualifiers. 

Wangda chose to follow in his elder brother’s footsteps and trained as a trek leader soon after his SLC exams. But there was a parallel journey to the one he was making physically. It was a psychological one in which he would relapse, come out clean and stay clean for several years and then repeat.

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It was after many years of overcoming physical and emotional challenges that he climbed Mt Everest, unfurling the ‘Say No to Drugs’ banner to the summit in May 2019. That was when Wangda shot into the limelight, and brought discussion about addiction out in the open. He was in demand as an inspirational figure on social media, with many idolising him as someone who had emerged winner in a difficult battle. 

Since Everest, Wangda has gone on to climb Mt Elbrus (5,642 m) the highest mountain in Europe, and he aims to do all the highest summits in seven continents. Now 38, he also wants to inspire other recovering addicts to participate in ‘Walk with Wangda’, his campaign against substance abuse. 

He will invite those who are recovering from addiction on climbing expeditions and treks to different places in Nepal, while counselling them with insights from his own personal journey. 

“I see young boys struggling with addiction, lost in their lives. I see myself,” says Wangda. “Through Walk with Wangda, I want to share the message that if I can recover, they can too.” 

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When he is not climbing mountains, Wangda goes to various rehabilitation centres to share his life story, hoping to inspire others. He says his vision is to help struggling addicts rehabilitate by talking about his own recovery process, using nature and mountaineering to become stronger, and more able to handle withdrawals.

Wangda uses climbing as both therapy and profession. He calls it a chance to turn off his conscious mind’s always-on, chitter chatter. “No judgements, no distractions—just the tunnel-vision focus that climbing requires,” he explains. The peace, meditative calm and effort of the physical activity, is also what he believes has helped him and can help many other addicts recover.

“Sober living after addiction does not present an appealing option for young people in recovery who might have criminal records or bad credit and cannot afford or manage to live alone,” says Wangda. For him, the willingness to do something and the support that he received from the mountaineering community provided him structure, and a group of peers that was crucial in his transition.

“When an individual is diagnosed with cancer, they are treated with kindness, compassion and understanding. Cancer patients are not cut off by their families or judged for being ill. This is how it should be for addicts trying to recover, as well,” he says. “Unfortunately, this is not the case.”

From a teenager who got into fights to a mountaineer who assists others with their struggles, Wangda hopes his story can be the light that other drug abusers see on the other side of the tunnel. “Through my seven summits expedition, I want to carry a message to different parts of the world. The message that I wish I had received for myself: Say no to drugs.”

When asked what it is about climbing mountains that helped him recover from two decades of  addiction, he quotes Edmund Hillary, “It is not the mountains that I conquer, it is myself.”

The mountain is the quintessential metaphor of Wangda’s journey. He says: “Flat, effortless terrain untarnished by rocks did not produce the sober version of me. It’s the grueling climb of the mountain that showed me what I’m truly capable of.’’  

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