Sherpas going to the top
Posted: 3:34 PM- "Nobody knows."
Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa uttered the two words half-jokingly, as an answer to a question last month from a well-wisher who wondered why he and fellow Nepali Apa Sherpa were preparing to climb the world's tallest mountain. Again.
Lhakpa explained he and Apa - both of whom hold world records for climbing - are frequently asked why they are heading back to Everest, known to the Sherpa people as Cholumunga and Sagarmatha.
His response, although half-joking and delivered with characteristic modesty and a shrug, carried more meaning than it first may have seemed.
"Nobody knows" is exactly the reason the two men who now live in Utah helped form the SuperSherpas Expedition, which today is en route to Everest base camp for a summit attempt in May.
Sherpas have been a part of every expedition on Everest, but seldom receive credit. "We want to tell our story," Apa said, before leaving his Draper home to break his record of 16 Everest summits. "We will make history with just Sherpas making it to the top."
An ethnic group native to the Himalayas, Sherpas have been helping foreigners attempt to reach the top of Everest since the first efforts were undertaken in the early 1920s.
Tenzing Norgay Sherpa and Sir Edmund Hillary made the first confirmed trip to the top of Everest on May 29, 1953. Tenzing enjoyed some notoriety, mostly in Nepal, for being part of the duo, but most of the world recognizes Hillary as the one to first conquer the mountain.
"This is the first time in history that two record holders will be on an expedition at the same time and they are both Sherpas," said Lhakpa, who set a world record for the fastest climb from base camp to the summit in 2003, with a time of 10 hours, 56 minutes. "We will make history and tell the history of our people at the same time."
Both men hope the tale of the SuperSherpas Expedition will help those who do not know the full story of climbing Everest - the part about who does all the work - understand the vital role of Sherpas.
They want to raise awareness about what they perceive as unfair pay compared with what Western guides get for their work. They also want to draw attention to the plight of the Sherpa children when it comes to their education.
"Education is so important for a better living," Apa said. "I climb because it was the only way to make money for my family. I have nothing against climbing to live, but I want people to have choices, and education gives them choices."
Illustrating their intent, Apa and Lhakpa will each present $2,500 to schools in their home villages. The money, which is more than six times the average annual individual income in Nepal, came from the Snowbird Renaissance Center, after the men made a presentation in Utah.
There could be more cash on the way. At least 25 percent of any money left over from the expedition from sponsorships and donations will be given to Nepali charities.
To help tell the story of the climb and the Sherpa people, SuperSherpas Expedition base-camp manager Roger Kehr will direct and produce a one-hour documentary using three all-Sherpa crews. Clips of that documentary and daily updates from the expedition will be available at The Salt Lake Tribune's Web site, http://sherpas.sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">sherpas.sltrib.com, through the team's return to Utah.
The film not only will focus on the climb; it also will explore the history of the Sherpa people and their unique conditioning for extreme sports.
Apa and Lhakpa underwent extensive medical testing at the Athletic Performance Laboratory at The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital in Murray and at a higher elevation in Park City as part of a study that hopes better explain why Sherpas fare so well at extreme altitudes.
Scott McIntosh, director of the Wilderness Medicine and Emergency Medical Services Program at the University of Utah, will be on Everest during the expedition to collect blood samples and test heart rate and lung capacity, among other things, from Apa and Lhakpa during the expedition.
Staci Nix, a registered dietitian at the University of Utah's College of Health, will also be at base camp to develop an understanding of the nutritional characteristics of Sherpas.
Apa and Lhakpa have led more people than they can remember to the top of Everest. In reality, they will only be climbing with each other this May, but ultimately, they will be representing the entire Sherpa population.
Apa said he feels less pressure representing his people than working to get Westerners to the top.
"I have to worry so much about clients. All I do is worry, worry, worry until they are on the plane home. It is much more risky with clients," he said. "This time I don't have to worry. Lhakpa and I can talk and walk and walk and talk. I feel more confidence than before."