Sherpas in Sonoma
East Meets West (From the 2011 Fall issue of SONOMA)
Chhiring Sherpa serves guests a meal inside A Taste of the Himalayas.
At an altitude of 18,000 feet, heart and lungs labor. The brain swells and the stomach churns. Extremities tire, heavy as stone. Vertiginous nausea accompanies every turn of the head. Blood thick as sludge labors to pass through a circulatory system in revolt. Just sitting stock-still is tiring because the lungs gather only half the oxygen at sea level. And at the very top of the world, at 29,035 feet, where the earth’s atmosphere is the pulmonary equivalent of weak broth, you breathe and you breathe and nothing happens because the motor isn’t getting enough fuel. For every breath of salt air drawn at the coast, three are needed to maintain consciousness in the frozen swales of the world’s tallest mountain. At its peak, nearly five-and-a-half miles up in the everlastingly frozen sky, where climbers commonly suck in air at the rate of 90 breaths per minute, Everest is a deadly dangerous place to be.
Unless you’re a Sherpa.
If you’re a Sherpa, your physiology has acclimatized to Everest’s daunting geography. Over hundreds of years, Sherpa biology has evolved with spectacular success. The Sherpa heart is evolutionarily unique: genetically capable of utilizing glucose, able to produce twice the nitric oxide of your heart or mine, endowed with hemoglobin-binding enzymes that support oxygen transport. The very organ itself, that wondrous, many-chambered beast that beats life’s percussion, is quantifiably different nestled inside the Sherpa chest.
And so day after day and for centuries in time, Sherpas have flourished and thrived on the edge of the inhabitable. There, in the Khumbu Icefall, seracs big as houses crash down unannounced. Crevasses endlessly deep open like devouring mouths, swallowing everything that dares stand still. It’s stark and it’s cold at the very top of the world, but for 500 years, Sherpas have called it home.
Sherpa translates from Tibetan as “East people,” and was first used to describe the handful of ancestral families who migrated to Nepal from Eastern Tibet over Himalayan passes far higher than the tallest
Sierra peak. On a quest for Shangri-La, they settled for Everest’s southeastern face. Those first hardy migrants set up camp on every reasonably flat south-facing surface of the Nepalese Himalaya and planted sustenance crops in its rock-strewn soils. They learned how to breed and herd yaks. They developed a clan system founded on strict cultural standards, and embraced Buddhism as both religion and way of life. In the glacial troughs of Khunde and Khumjung, in the bowl-like valley of Namche Bazaar, the Sherpa thrived and multiplied, laying claim to what is arguably the least hospitable terrain in the world. Today, all told, there are 35,000 Sherpas worldwide, most of them still rooted in the dusty shoals of the big mountain. But 60 of them live in Sonoma.
How to explain a journey of 6,000 miles? What happens to a heart evolutionarily prepared to beat at 18,000 feet when its host boards a plane and disembarks at sea level? Can mountain sickness strike in reverse? Or is it plain homesickness, dressed up as real pain?
Chhiring Sherpa knows. Arriving in Sonoma from the village of Mangkhim, he’d spent his whole life in the company of nine families: his own and eight others. His three brothers, his sister, his folks and their neighbors; they were, in sum, the village. The community farmed together, ate together, slaughtered their livestock on a communal rotation. And when he was grown, Chhiring found his place in the Sherpa tradition: helping rich tourists climb Everest and trek through the Khumbu. From Europe, the Americas, from obscure and far-flung corners of the world, pilgrims came to the Himalaya. By the planeload they came, to turn their faces skyward and behold the world’s mightiest mountain. Some came just to see it, many came to climb it, some thinking to conquer what could only be survived.
So Chhiring Sherpa did what Sherpas have done for decades when confronting these wanderers with the very deep-pockets: He portered their possessions and guided their paths. He learned English, rose steadily, and in the summer of 1990, he met an American woman named Lee.
Lee hired Chhiring for a cross-country trek: three months of hard walking, from west to east along the edge of the Himalayan spine. The days were long and the travel hard. Do you blame them, Reader, for seeking soft comfort in the night? The language of solace is universally spoken; it is, after all, a wordless etymology. At the end of her Nepalese trek Lee came down from the mountains with two unplanned souvenirs: the sprouted zygote who would become Babu, and a Nepalese husband named Chhiring.
Those first weeks far from home were horribly hard. Chhiring was heartsick and soul-nervous like a wild thing forcibly tamed. The American cars moved far too fast. Their air was like pudding, impossible to draw deeply; Chhiring was laid flat by the transition. Physically and spiritually, he was paralyzed. So he tackled his new life in the one way Sherpa men know how: one step at a time, one inhale, one exhale, each after the other.
He was the first of his kind in Sonoma, but not the last, because this is America. Land of incalculable riches, where electricity runs twenty-four hours a day, where rubbish is neatly gathered and carried away, where children are schooled by order of law, and clean water rushes freely from indoor taps.
In a land where peaches can be had in the middle of February, the reward for great effort is great wealth. America, to the immigrant imagination, is the ultimate city on a hill, a vast and distant Oz, its golden streets winding ever upward in apocryphal triumph. So they come as they have for hundreds of years, trading the random circumstance of birth for something self-determined. The come, they learn English, they put their children in public schools; they start businesses, they buy houses, they strive.
There is Ngima Sherpa, an Everest guide with a dozen climbs who manages the front house at Meritage restaurant and has been awarded a wine label on an exquisite cuvée of Hirsch pinot noir, in tribute to his work ethic.
And there is Mingmar Dorjee Sherpa, who delivers room service to patrons of The Lodge at Sonoma with style and flourish.
And Kaljung Sherpa, too, smiling through his daily grind at two separate restaurants.
Hard work seems to define them, these quiet, courtly men: Pasang Temba Sherpa and Pasang Nuru Sherpa, Tenji Sherpa and Lhakpu Sherpa. To a man, they can’t comprehend why one would do a job poorly, why one would play the angles to garner the most from the least. What’s the point, when hard work is its own reward? For the Sherpa, it’s all in, all the way, every time.
These husbands and fathers and long-ago sons made this journey across oceans for the people they love. Not for themselves did they seek greater fortune, but for their parents and siblings and spouses. The heart is a thing both concrete and abstract, scientifically finite and spiritually immutable, it is the great wonder of the human experience. Inside the body it does yeoman’s work, percussive and steady as time’s march. But the ethereal heart, portal to the divine, gateway to spirit and home of the soul, is a thing hard to measure or graph.
If you listen, really listen, and turn down the noise, if you dial down your American cravings and unplug, if you put your ear to the wine-soaked ground and let yourself hear it, the Sherpa heart can be heard doing its work: steadfast, benevolent, and outsized.
(From the 2011 Fall issue of SONOMA)