Sherpas on Everest
East Meets West (From the 2011 Fall issue of SONOMA)
Sherpa monks line the steps of the famous Tengboche monastery, where each stone was chisled by hand.
It’s six a.m. and about 6 degrees outside when I feel a knock on my tent. “Namaste. Good morning, Sir,” says a high, polite but insistent voice. I zip open the door, a mantle of snow slides off the vestibule, and there in the frozen air are the smiling faces of Ongchu and Sona, two Sherpa kitchen boys with hot tea.
After nearly two months atop 1,500 feet of ice, on the ragged surface of the Khumbu glacier, at an altitude of 17,600 feet with half the oxygen of sea level, suffering through nightly bouts of an altitude-related condition called periodic breathing that wake me gasping for breath, enduring intestinal eruptions and the loss of almost 30 pounds, I don’t really want hot tea at six a.m. And, I’m uncomfortable being waited on.
But I can’t refuse because the service is offered with such generosity and joy. These Sherpas really want to please me, and therefore I want to please them. So I accept the tea with thanks, they go off to the next tent and I start another day on Mt. Everest.
I could do without the morning tea, and I’m suspicious that the practice has colonial roots reaching back to the British, who pioneered Everest expeditions and used to refer to Sherpas as “coolies.” But I could not do without them. Almost no Everest expeditions succeed without Sherpas, and the truth is, among the countless conjugations of the human genome I have encountered around the world, Sherpas are among my very favorite.
There are numerous anthropology and sociology texts on Sherpas. I haven’t read them. I don’t know if my experience is universal or unique. But I know this: If I were going to climb something, or build something, or manage something, or just hang out at altitude, I’d want to do it with Sherpas.
To understand why, you only have to look at their kids. Children are a measure of their parents, and you can learn a lot about Sherpas by the kids they raise.
In the tiny villages of the Khumbu, the harsh, alpine region surrounding Everest to which Sherpas emigrated from the Tibetan plateau some 500 years ago, the kids are generally dirty and snot-nosed and wearing ragged clothes. But their smiles are as wide open as the Himalayan sky, and their faces and clothes are dirty only because bathing is a luxury in the Khumbu. Showers are rare, washing machines are nonexistent and electricity is sparsely distributed.
Despite all that, Sherpa children exude the ineffable quality of being secure and deeply loved. On the trail to Everest one day I passed through a village where a small crowd had gathered on the stone terrace of a Sherpa home. A story was being told and the audience—adults and children alike—were listening with rapt attention. The storyteller’s face was a study in animation and oratorical skill, and although I couldn’t understand a word he said I was captured by the skill and confidence of his delivery, the rhythm and cadence of his voice. Clearly, this was a consummate storyteller. Finally, after a dramatic pause, and with exquisite timing, he reached the punch line of his tale and everyone roared with laughter. The storyteller was a ruddy-cheeked little boy of about 6.
Living in one of the world’s harshest human environments in the rarefied atmosphere near the roof of the world isn’t easy, but Sherpas make it work because they work very hard. At the famous Tengboche monastery—perched at nearly 13,000 feet on a ridge with a view of Everest—I watched Sherpa stonemasons chipping perfectly square building stones out of chunks of granite with hammer and chisel. The monastery was destroyed by an earthquake in 1937. They rebuilt it, stone by stone. It was destroyed again by a fire in 1989. They rebuilt it again. The staccato sound of hammers on rock is an almost permanent soundtrack outside the monastery, where the resident rinpoche, most holy lama in the Khumbu, blessed us and hung white kata scarves and knotted red strings around our necks.
You can go to Everest without the ritual, but not if you’re going with Sherpas, to whom Chomolungma (goddess mother of the world) is a sacred mountain, who consult lamas to determine the auspicious day to hold a puja ceremony, and who unveil a web of prayer flags radiating all over Base Camp. And if you stay there long enough the ritual becomes routine, a normal part of daily life, comforting and soothing and almost unobtrusive. Almost.
Outside my tent, around 2:30 in the crystalline darkness of many a Base Camp morning, the Sherpa who sleeps just below me on the glacier rises and begins to chant. It is a lovely sound at first, as it floats through the cold night air, enters my tent, enters my mind, wakes me up. I cannot follow the words but the sound is a pleasing hum, at least for the first 5 or 10 minutes. After that I struggle to go back to sleep while the chanting Sherpa practices his religion as if sitting inside my head.
Buddhist beliefs are woven through the fabric of Sherpa culture. The Buddha, Gautama, was born in Nepal, after all, and you can’t spend time in the Khumbu without being deeply aware of the pervasive presence of Buddhism. It’s not simply a religion, it’s an integral part of life and its evidence is everywhere. Along every trail there are mani stones and prayer wheels carved or painted with the familiar mantra, “Om mani padme hum.” No Western translation of the six-syllable Sanskrit message can adequately encompass its full meaning (literally translated it means “the jewel in the heart of the lotus”), but it is ascribed to the Bodhisattva of compassion, known in Tibet as Chenrezig. It is the influence of that mandate—to demonstrate compassion, to care first for others, to be generous to strangers—that permeates Sherpa society.
All over Everest Base Camp, and all over the Khumbu, prayer flags flutter in the breeze: blue, white, red, yellow, green. The colors of sky, clouds, rocks, earth and water—the primary elements of the Khumbu. Winds scatter the prayers to the corners of the earth and as the flags fade in the rain and sun they begin to resemble the ancient parchment of Tibetan prayer books.
Accept an invitation to a meal in a Khumbu Sherpa’s home and the generosity almost assaults you. The houses are built of stone, the first floor reserved for livestock and food storage, the second floor used for cooking, eating and sleeping. Smoke from cooking stoves filters through slate rooftops, the floors are lined with thick carpets.
Meals with a Sherpa family invoke an odd and ancient tradition. Guests never ask for food or drink and hosts always insist on providing it. Typically the host offers, the guest declines, the host offers again, saying “shey-shey.” Again the guest declines. On the third “shey-shey” it is polite to accept. That can present a challenge to Western guests when the “shey-shey” involves offers of Tibetan tea which is flavored with yak butter and salt. Take one painful sip and your cup is instantly refilled. Or you may be offered chang, a Sherpa beer made from cold fermented rice. If you don’t drink it, the shey-shey resumes.
Sherpas seem largely immune to the altitude sickness that kills more people than summit attempts. Westerners ascending through the Khumbu routinely suffer from HACE (high altitude cerebral edema), HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema) and even the harmless HAFE (high altitude flatulence expulsion. Really. You can look it up).
Where Sherpas shine, of course, is working high on the mountain, setting routes, ropes and ladders through the Khumbu Icefall, establishing the higher camps, roping the route up the Lhotse Face to Camps III and IV.
All climbers wear crampons and climbing harnesses to navigate the Icefall, which resembles a 2,000-foot frozen waterfall, a chaos of precarious ice blocks and intermittent crevasses, that has killed more climbers than any other part of Everest. But I once encountered a Sherpa named Gyaljen, then called the “Icefall Doctor,” who—in his late 50s—scampered through the Icefall like a goat, without crampons. I watched speechless as he literally dashed across one of the ladders he had set over a gaping crevasse, without roping into a harness, because he wasn’t wearing one.
But among the amazing and legendary Sherpas who have made their names on Everest, I can’t think of anyone alive who comes close to Apa Sherpa, the sirdar (Sherpa leader) of our expedition, who collected his 11th summit that year, which was then a remarkable record. But he wasn’t close to being finished with Everest. This year, a decade later, Apa finally retired after summiting the big mountain 21 times, a record that could stand forever.
Apa might be 5 feet, 7 inches tall. He might weigh 140 pounds soaking wet. His strength and stamina are astounding. But records and physical feats are emphatically not what Apa is about. “I don’t climb for records,” he once told me, releasing the shy grin that lights up his face. “I climb for the clients. If they don’t go to the top, I don’t go to the top. It is for them. They pay a lot of money.”
While all that is manifestly true, there is another, higher reason Apa Sherpa went up the mountain so many times. “I climb,” he also told me, “so my children don’t have to.”
At the end of the climb I had to leave Everest in a hurry to make a U.S. commitment. Apa had to leave quickly to attend a celebration in his honor in Katmandu. So we left together. I had two porters carrying two months’ worth of camping, climbing, cameras and communications gear. I also carried a 40-to-50 pound pack. Apa, carrying a bigger pack, danced ahead of me, skipping down the glacier with feline grace. I couldn’t keep up. Finally he said, “David, give me your pack.” I refused. He insisted. I refused again. He insisted some more. I surrendered the pack. But I still couldn’t keep up with him.
Years passed before I discovered a cluster of Sherpas living in Sonoma right under my nose. More years passed and then, just weeks ago, Chhiring Sherpa, who owns Taste of the Himalayas, called to tell me there was a gathering at the restaurant, including someone who asked about me.
When I got there Apa was sitting at the table with the familiar shy smile. When he told me about the 21 summits he almost seemed embarrassed. My mind spun with the incongruity of time and distance spanned by his presence at a summer luncheon in my hometown. It is a very small world and it’s a good thing there are Sherpas to share it with.
(From the 2011 Fall issue of SONOMA)