Sherpa: The man, The people, The legend
Published on 02/21/2012
By Mallory Ayres
When we first met with Pemba Sherpa, long-time mountain climber and owner of the adventure guiding company Sherpa Ascent International, he was sweeping garbage off the stoop of a small, slightly run down house in Denver, Colorado. As we approached him he put up a hand to shade his eyes and waved us over. "Hi!" he said. "I'm sorry about the mess, we're cleaning up after the last renters." It turns out that he owns several rental properties in Denver which isn't in itself all that unusual, but considering that he also runs his own adventure travel company, owns Sherpa's Adventure Restaurant and has recently earned his commercial pilots license, we were pretty astounded.
Sherpa is from a small village in Nepal where he grew up without any roads, electricity, running water or plumbing. His village, Sewangma, is near the majestic (and in Sherpa tradition) holy Mount Everest. When we asked him what that was like he smiled and said, "It was a quiet life, very different from here." Climbing has always been a part of Sherpa's life. In fact, he did his first climb at the young age of 12 and led his first commercial trek at 16 in 1986. "I like leading climbs because I like to go into the mountains," Sherpa said. "It makes me feel good." He has been guiding ever since.
Eventually Sherpa became curious about the West and decided to travel to the United States in 1991. He fell in love with Boulder, Colorado because of the mountain lifestyle and decided to make it his home. In 1994 he started his own guiding company, Sherpa Ascent International, so that he could travel back to his home country and do what he loves: guide trips. The program's seven guides now lead adventure trips in countries all over the world including Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, Thailand, Switzerland and Africa. "I love meeting people from around the world. It inspires me," Sherpa explained.
As a guide Sherpa's goal is to keep his clients safe. However, he has been caught in the occasional sticky situation in his adventures. We asked him if there have ever been times that he thought his life was in danger. He replied, "Many, many times. I've been in avalanches and all five of my fingers were completely frostbitten on a climb. Luckily I was able to save them, but I almost had to amputate them." Pemba has climbed many peaks in Nepal and has been half way up Everest. Even more amazing, he does all his climbing without oxygen. This year he took his 42nd trip back to Nepal to guide.
Besides guiding, Pemba also runs Sherpa's Adventure Restaurant, a small Nepali and Indian eatery run out of a converted house west of the Pearl St. Mall in Boulder, Colorado. The restaurant has old climbing equipment and art from the Himalaya region spread across its walls and a study with books about Nepal and many of the other places where Sherpa guides. The restaurant's food is fresh and delicious, and the menu includes yak stew, hot naan, and many other recipes that come from his home village in Nepal. When we showed up for our second conversation there, he handed out steaming cups of creamy homemade chai.
Sherpa explained that he used to do a lot of the cooking at his restaurant, but his friend Jangbu Sherpa has mostly taken over now. "He was a big time mountain climber in Nepal," he said. "He's actually summited Everest ten times and climbed all the 8,000 meter peaks in Nepal, but now he's retired from climbing." As it turns out, Sherpa's restaurant hosts a lot of people like this. "Famous climbers from all over the world come here," he said.
As we were talking with Sherpa about the restaurant and his guiding company, we noticed that many of the people who work for him have the last name Sherpa. When we asked about it, we learned that the name "Sherpa" has a completely different meaning than we originally thought. "People get kind of confused in the Western world," he explained, "people think that Sherpa means 'guide' or 'mountain climber' but that's actually not true. Sherpas are a tribe of people." The Sherpa people migrated from Tibet to Nepal 500 years ago. Currently there are 36,000 Sherpas living in Nepal and they have their own separate history, traditions and dialect.
While living in the mountains of Nepal, the Sherpa people developed the skills necessary to become superb mountain climbers. "After centuries of living at a high altitude Sherpas have a better ability to take oxygen into their muscle and blood stream. They can climb to altitudes that would leave a lowlander gasping," Sherpa said. Because of this, they eventually started helping Westerners climb mountains in Nepal. "Sherpas have been popular with climbers since the first Mt. Everest expedition in 1921. As a result they have become some of the best mountain climbers in the world."
There are also other cultural reasons that Sherpas are excellent guides. "The Sherpa people's philosophy is pretty calm because Sherpas are Buddhists. It has changed a little bit in my generation, but Sherpas are traditionally very religious people, and Buddhist philosophy teaches you to be calm," said Sherpa. This sense of calm also helps them endure the harsh climate. "My people are very tough," he said.
Now many of the Sherpas lead trips up the mountain two-three times a year, and they make a pretty good living doing it. "The average Sherpa makes $2,000 - 5,000 a climb. It's quite a big income in Nepal," Sherpa said. This relatively new industry has had a huge impact on the Sherpa people. "I see the changes as both good and bad. I see the negative side because people are loosing their culture rapidly. They are not wearing their traditional clothes or speaking in their traditional language. People should be speaking in their own tribe's language," Sherpa said firmly. "At the same time I also see good because monetarily and economically the Sherpa people are better off because of tourism. People are living more comfortably."
Sherpa is a perfect example of someone who is benefitting from his people's guiding role, but lately he has decided to strike out on a new path. He used to guide four months out of the year, but now he is cutting back to just one or two trips annually. "I've backed off a little bit because I wanted to do my own thing. I went back to school to become an airline pilot," he said. He's not flying commercial planes right now, but he has the license and would eventually like to be a mountain pilot in Nepal. With his casual tone, you would think that he was thinking about taking a little vacation. But that's how Pemba operates; he is always going for the next big challenge with a calm countenance, unfailing work ethic and his eye on the summit.