[Paleopsych] NYT: Why Does This Sherpa Climb Everest? Because It's a Job

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International > Asia Pacific > Why Does This
Sherpa Climb Everest? Because It's a Job
April 17, 2005


    THAME, Nepal - The dining room of Apa Sherpa's hotel, the Everest
    Summiteer Lodge, is a testament to his Himalayan triumphs.

    There is a photocopy of the page declaring him the record holder for
    successful ascents of Mount Everest, something he has done an
    astonishing 14 times. There are pictures of him with dignitaries like
    Justice Sandra Day O'Connor of the Supreme Court and Sir Edmund
    Hillary, who with the Nepalese climber Tenzing Norgay, first scaled
    Everest in 1953.

    But there is also an air of disappointment. His seven-bedroom lodge is
    rarely full. Though well off by the standards of this poor country, he
    remains a virtual pauper compared with the wealthy American clients he
    guides to the summit. For all the magnitude of his achievement, his
    fame is hardly that of Sir Edmund.

    "In other countries, someone who had climbed the highest mountain 14
    times, he would have received much more praise and acclaim," he said,
    standing here in his home village, a cluster of 45 stone houses
    perched on a picturesque plateau surrounded by breathtaking
    20,000-foot mountains.

    Now in his mid-40's, Apa Sherpa, a 5-foot-5, 120-pound block of muscle
    and sinew, continues to climb, both to hold on to his record and to
    live. [As of Saturday, Apa Sherpa had reached the Everest base camp
    with an expedition that was raising money for cancer research. He is
    preparing for a 15th ascent on May 11.]

    Though scaling Everest has become a lucrative adventure sport, Apa and
    other Sherpas, many of whom use their ethnic group as a last name, say
    they are not getting their fair share of it. Since commercial
    expeditions began in the early 1990's, wealthy clients have lined up
    to pay up to $65,000 to companies that organize expeditions.

    Sherpas can earn $2,000 to $3,000 in the two-month climbing season,
    securing ladders and ropes and carrying clients' loads. Elite Sherpa
    climbers like Apa do far more than that, carefully shepherding to the
    summit Westerners who often have scant mountaineering experience and
    whose lives may rest in the Sherpas' hands.

    Apa and other Sherpa climbers, though unfailingly polite and loyal,
    are gradually demanding a greater share of the profits and becoming
    more vocal about getting the recognition they say they deserve.

    In a 2003 article marking the 50th anniversary of the first Everest
    ascent, Tashi Tenzing explained that his grandfather, Tenzing Norgay,
    had made seven attempts over 18 years to reach the summit. (Sir
    Edmund, by comparison, made only three in three years.)

    He called on the mountaineering world to stop viewing Sherpas as "mere
    load-carriers and nameless catalysts to Western success."

    Since that first ascent, 1,584 people have climbed Everest, according
    to Elizabeth Hawley, a Katmandu-based American journalist who has
    chronicled mountaineering in the Himalayas. About 180 people have

    Ms. Hawley said that for most Sherpas, climbing remained the best way
    to make a living beyond subsistence high-altitude potato farming and
    yak herding. "It's just a job," she said. "Very, very few of them do
    it because they enjoy it."

    The 1998 publication of "Into Thin Air," Jon Krakauer's book
    recounting a failed 1996 expedition that left eight climbers dead,
    appears to have only increased the mountain's popularity. From 1996 to
    2002, the number of people reaching the summit fluctuated between 100
    and 180. By 2004, it was 323 people, according to Ms. Hawley.

    Since 1999, record after record has been set by climbers from wealthy
    countries. A 70-year-old man, a blind climber and an amputee with one
    arm all reached the summit. A husband and wife paraglided, and other
    climbers skied and snowboarded, from the summit to base camp.

    At the same time, Sherpas have begun competing with one another. Seven
    other active Sherpa climbers have ascended Everest 10 or more times.
    In 1999, a Sherpa became the first person to sleep on the summit,
    spending 21 hours on the peak without oxygen. In 2004, a Sherpa said
    he had set a new record by climbing from the base camp to the summit
    in 8 hours 10 minutes. The Sherpa who set the previous record the year
    before in 10 hours 56 minutes disputed the claim.

    That sense of competition is new to a culture where the idea of
    "conquering" mountains was previously unknown. Until the arrival of
    Western climbers, Sherpas believed the highest Himalayan peaks were
    the dwelling places of Buddhist spirits and should not be violated.

    Apa Sherpa, who has climbed the mountain nearly every year since 1990,
    plays down the competitiveness and says he has no qualms about the
    growing commercialism. If anything, he would like to see more people
    come, a more regulated climbing system and more wealth flowing to the
    Sherpa community.

    "There should be more people going to Everest," he said. "More people
    going to the top is welcome."

    Like several hundred other Sherpa climbers, becoming a guide for
    Westerners has transformed his life.

    Apa Sherpa, like many Sherpas, does not know exactly what year he was
    born. He remembers his father dying when he was "12 or 13" and
    quitting school to support his mother and four brothers.

    "That's why I couldn't go to school," he said in broken English. "I
    had to earn."

    As a teenager, he followed in the footsteps of many young men from
    high altitude villages around Everest and began working on
    expeditions. Mr. Norgay, the Sherpa who ascended Everest with Sir
    Edmund, lived in the same village when he was a child.

    Apa Sherpa rose from an expedition cook to become one of several dozen
    Sherpa climbers who reach Everest's peak each season. His younger
    brother has reached the summit four times. Once, the two brothers
    stood on top together.

    Apa Sherpa has had a remarkably successful run. He has failed to reach
    the summit only once in his last 15 attempts. More important, no
    expedition he has been involved in has suffered a death.

    Apa Sherpa said he first planned to participate in the doomed 1996
    expedition that was the subject of Mr. Krakauer's book. But he abided
    by his wife's wishes and spent the April-May climbing season building
    his lodge and visiting with his three children who attend boarding
    school in Katmandu.

    Despite 14 successful ascents, he speaks reverently of Everest, as if
    the experience has humbled him. Standing in Apa Sherpa's village it is
    easy to understand why. Here, a human being looks like a microbe. The
    mountains and ridges that surround his village soar up to 24,000 feet.
    The tallest summit, Everest, at 29,035 feet, is twice the height of
    any peak in the Rocky Mountains.

    Apa Sherpa said climbing Everest had not grown easier over time. Each
    ascent and descent is physically and psychologically grueling. On the
    way up, fears of a fall, or a suddenly approaching storm, build.
    Prayers and patience carry him up the mountain, he said.

    Standing on the summit was exquisite and made him feel "closer to
    God," he said, his face lighting up. "It's a sweet feeling."

    The way down is even more difficult, with exhaustion and a slippery
    descent fueling a creeping sense of anxiety, he said. He compared
    climbing the mountain to flying in a helicopter. "You feel safe when
    you are on the ground."

    He refuses to criticize Western guides by name, or the wealthy clients
    he guides to the summit each year.

    "I get an immense amount of pleasure to guide people who have come
    from all over the world to go to the top of the world," he said, then
    added, "They must have spent a considerable amount of money."


    1. http://query.nytimes.com/search/query?ppds=bylL&v1=DAVID%20ROHDE&fdq=19960101&td=sysdate&sort=newest&ac=DAVID%20ROHDE&inline=nyt-per

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