The Life of a Sherpa Climber

There is a beautiful nugget of understanding that Sherpa climbers have. It’s one that few of the rest of us seem to acknowledge, but I think it is a window into their culture, so I’ll capture a bit of it here.

Last night (June 8th), I attended a fundraiser for the families of the victims of the Everest avalanche this spring. The avalanche killed sixteen Sherpas, leaving their families without husbands, uncles, fathers, brothers and sons. But it also left those same families each without their sole breadwinner. Sherpa climbers do what they do because they want better choices for their families than they had themselves. Last night’s speakers acknowledged that it is not the only work these people could choose, but it is the most lucrative and the work that they are naturally skilled at doing. It’s not a good choice, but it’s a choice. That’s what the Western climbers said when they spoke last night. It was also said by the President of Alpine Ascents (AAI), Todd Burleson, who flew in for the event at the last minute to say that piece. His company has now lost five guides on Everest, two on Rainier and four clients on Rainier, all in the beginning of the climbing season of 2014. It’s been a tough year for him already.

But the focus was not on pointing fingers or divisions last night. It was about a local Sherpa community coming together to help families recover from this tragedy. So we raised funds and those funds will be sent, 100% to the families of those sixteen deceased Sherpas who were carrying loads in the early hours of April 18. The hope is that the funds will facilitate the benefits that those families would have received from the income of the lost climbers, if they had not been lost. It’s an example of the strong Sherpa community creating a method of insurance for the families, since there isn’t a standard insurance structure that exists for Sherpa climbers in Nepal (I’ve written about that here). If you don’t think this sort of support network is pretty incredible, consider whether your neighbors from the town where you grew up would insure your family’s financial security if you died. It’s that.

As we arrived, I wondered if I would even see Lakpa Rita Sherpa before he was speaking on stage. But he greeted me warmly before I even reached the door, wrapping his arms around me with a smile. After he spoke to the attendees from the podium, I asked him about the rest of the season. “I was supposed to climb K2, but I have decided not to.” I echoed that it was probably enough for one year, what he’s already been through. Then he nonchalantly said that he was “just guiding Rainier” for now. Leaving in a couple days for the next one.

I try not to put myself in the position of the kids and wives of these climbers. It’s a strength, a resilience that they have, allowing their husband (and fathers) to do this sort of job. Before I could think it, he said, “my family is very happy. Just the small mountains around here.” And my thoughts were of the six who were just lost on Rainier last week, and how everything is relative, and driving your car has risk, when he asked about my family. “How are your boys?”

As the speakers sat solemnly at the front of the room, each took turns telling their story of the events this spring. Lakpa Rita spoke first. A veteran guide and climber, he has reached the summit of Everest 17 times, led a record 253 clients to the summit, and serves as sirdar (boss on the mountain) for AAI’s climbing teams. He seems to be everywhere. I even ran into him going up the Everest Highway last year on his way to his 17th Everest summit. He was the first Sherpa and first Nepali to climb The Seven Summits (the highest peak on each continent). He’s climbed on K2, Annapurna, Broad Peak, Cho Oyu and several of the other 8000 meter mountains. When he spoke last night, it was through tears, because he lost people from his teams, from his neighborhood. People who he had been climbing with for years. He was one of the first on the scene and began digging and pulling out bodies. People he was responsible for. That’s the way Mr. Burleson put it. They were people Lakpa had hired from his home village, and surrounding villages, to do this work, and if that wasn’t enough responsibility to bear, he is here now, in Seattle’s Sherpa and climbing community, drawing support for the families that now have gaping holes. But it’s not the first time he has lost friends to climbing, not the first time he has pulled bodies from mountains. And it won’t be the last.

And that takes me back the the nugget. They live with death so regularly in this line of work, in this culture, in this style of life, that they don’t take anything for granted. I know, lots of people “don’t take it for granted.” But the Sherpa people seem do it without fear, and without sacrificing the joy of their present moment. When they are there with you, they are completely present and joyful to be in their space, spending it with you. I asked Lakpa to come outside to talk with me last night after he addressed the room, and he smiled broadly, genuinely for the camera, happy to have me there beside him, as if we were on a summit, not at a solemn remembrance. And that’s the nugget. Genuine joy in every present moment, perhaps specifically because of the adversity.

You can still donate through Northwest Sherpa Association if you want to help the victims’ families.