“It was just like two minutes,” says Jangbu Sherpa, remembering that horrible spring morning on Mount Everest. “We were just able to cross the ladders by two minutes. … When I turned around there was nothing; the ice wall was totally covered in snow.”
Jangbu, originally from Nepal and of the Sherpa ethnic group (known for their mountaineering expertise) is one of three Seattle-based Sherpa guides who were on “The Mountain” on April 18 when an avalanche near the base camp killed 16 Nepalese guides — the deadliest day in Everest’s history. The tragedy hit home for many in our region when it was revealed that five of those killed were employees of a local adventure travel company, Alpine Ascents International.
In response, the Pacific Northwest’s Sherpa community (estimated at around 150 people) mobilized to raise money for the families of those who died. The goal is to hand-deliver those funds this coming fall when Seattle-based Sherpa guides return to Nepal for the climbing season.
“We know the people that [were climbing] Mount Everest and [we] know the families,” explains Nima Bhutti, of the Northwest Sherpa Association, which raised almost $18,000 to be distributed among the families in Nepal, “What is a better way to give?”
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Nima and Jangbu are drinking what they call “Sherpa Tea” (a salty, barley and butter drink they say is great for mountaineering in cold weather) at a picnic for the Seattle-area Sherpa community at Carkeek Park. Four months after the avalanche, the discussion quickly turns from fundraising to debates over equality in an industry that often employs poor Nepalese climbers to guide foreign adventurers to the world’s greatest heights.
“In the wake of the avalanche, the general dealings of the industry have become more transparent to the public,” says Dawa Jangmu Sherpa also of the Sherpa Association, sitting in front of a stone picnic shelter that almost looks as if it could be perched in the Himalayan foothills, “Everyone is talking and trying to find out a better way.”
The local Sherpas who witnessed the avalanche in person are struggling to make sense of their dangerous profession as debates rage over guide compensation and life-insurance rates (which are currently capped at a little over $15,000 in Nepal).
“My friends and family are saying ‘don’t climb anymore, you are in the U.S. now, you have opportunities, why are you still climbing mountains?’ ” explains Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa, who is famous for his record-breaking speed climbs of Everest and has summitted Mount Rainier over 70 times. “I have many years of experience in mountaineering, near 25 years, and I like to share my experience with people … I cannot quit; this is my job.”
But the avalanche has left its mark. Lhakpa Gelu’s hands shake as he recounts loading still-warm bodies onto rescue helicopters that day. When he predicts that the tradition of Sherpa climbing may die out in a generation, it’s unclear whether his voice is trembling with regret or with hope.
Lhakpa Rita Sherpa, another climber who “lost many friends that day” has been hearing the same pleas from family members in the wake of the avalanche, and he says he’s ready to listen.
“I decided it’s time for me to quit guiding big mountains [like Everest],” says Lhakpa Rita, a world-renowned climber who became the first Sherpa to summit the highest summits on all seven continents. “I may climb them but I won’t guide them.”
When I spoke to him by phone, he was in the midst of packing for Nepal (he leaves this week and was planning a trip to Costco and Trader Joe’s for food supplies), where he’ll begin the climbing season on Cho Oyu — a less-dangerous mountain west of Everest.
Returning to Nepal for the first time since the accident will be difficult for Lhakpa Rita, but he’s excited to hand off the donations raised in the Pacific Northwest to families that need the help — many of them people he knows personally.
“It’s going to be [emotional] but I’m happy to do it.”
If you’d like to donate to the Northwest Sherpa Association fund you can do so at: northwestsherpa.org/donation
Sarah Stuteville is a multimedia journalist and co-founder of The Seattle Globalist, www.seattleglobalist.com, a news site covering Seattle’s international connections. Sarah Stuteville: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter @SeaStute