Sherpas climb so world sees their vital role
One is the son of a U.S. Supreme Court justice. The other was born of a yak herder in the Himalayan highlands of Nepal.
Brian Day O'Connor and Apa Sherpa may seem like an improbable pair, but they became fast friends and helped each other accomplish their wildest dreams.
O'Connor's drive to summit Mount Everest brought the two together in 2003. Apa, who already held the world record for reaching the highest point on the planet 12 times, was hired to get members of the American Commemorative Climbing Expedition up the mountain.
During tedious hours of inactivity at base camp, O'Connor got to know the reserved and stoic Apa, and learned that he, like many other Sherpas, never climbed to set records or to pad his climbing resume.
"It became clear the most important thing was his family and creating a better life for them," O'Connor says. "He wanted his kids to get a good education and I told him I'd help him any way I could."
O'Connor made it to the top of the world, and with his friend's help, Apa in December moved his family to Utah, where his son Tenzing just completed his first semester at the University of Utah.
One dream realized, Apa now has another pressing goal.
With O'Connor among his staunchest supporters, the 47-year-old this month is back on the mountain, on his way to breaking his own record with a 17th trip to 29,035 feet above sea level.
This time, Apa is climbing for his people alone as leader of the SuperSherpas Expedition, which aims to educate the world about the vital role Sherpas play in helping everyone reach the summit of Everest.
"He has never climbed for himself and even though he has no clients this time, he is still not alone," Tenzing says. "He is climbing for all our people."
Genes for climbing
The term "Sherpa" often is associated with the porters famous for getting expeditions through the foothills of the Himalayas to the base of Everest. Sherpas are, in fact, an ethnic group native to the Himalayas whose members have been involved in every attempt to summit Everest since the first efforts in the early 1920s.
Apa, like most Sherpa people who end up spending time on Sagarmatha - the Nepali name for the world's tallest peak - started as a porter for expeditions to Everest at age 12 after his father, Lopsang, died. As the second of six children, he felt the need to help his family survive.
"I was a porter for a Danish group. They saw me and said I was too small to carry a heavy load," says Apa, who is 5 feet, 4 inches tall and weighs 122 pounds. "They lightened the load, but said it was still too much. The leader, he told me to go back to school and gave me money for it."
The school was in a village three hours away and accessible only by walking trail from Apa's home in the village of Thame. Apa's mother told him to take advantage of the education, but he missed his family and still felt the need to help provide for them. After two years and only a fourth-grade education, Apa dropped out and returned to carrying heavy loads for low pay.
He worked several years as a porter before moving to guiding tourist treks, which he did for about nine years.
Drawn by the "good climbing clothes" and higher pay, Apa asked a friend to help get him on an Everest expedition team.
Apa worked as a kitchen helper in 1985 and joined his first expedition as a climber in 1987, but was disappointed when the leaders of the Japanese expedition forbade Sherpas from attempting the summit of Annapurna - the 10th highest mountain in the world. His first expedition on Everest came in 1988, the year he also married Yangjin, but the team failed to reach the top.
While descending from another failed attempt with a different expedition in 1990, Apa was approached by Kiwi Expedition leader Rob Hall at Camp II and asked if he would help them make a bid for the summit.
Apa agreed, but only if he could travel to his village to see his family. Hall agreed, and Apa immediately left for Thame. The trip usually takes three or four days, but Apa made it the same day, spent the night and was back at base camp ready for duty the next afternoon.
On May 10, 1990, Apa, Hall and Peter Hillary - son of Everest legend Sir Edmund Hillary - made it to the top. Apa, then 30, had made his first trip up the mountain. No one could have guessed that "the old" Apa would go on to reach the top of the world more than anybody else.
Hall and Apa climbed together several times, and the Sherpa had been asked to come along on a trip in 1996, but declined because Yangjin asked her husband to take a break. With Apa home in Thame, Hall, on the mountain during the most famous day on Everest, died with seven others.
Supporting a family
When asked why he has climbed Everest so many times, Apa always responds "so my children don't have to."
"They understand now that I climbed because I have no education. I had to climb because it was the best way for me to make money for them to go to school," he says.
Apa is proud of the progress Nepal has made during his lifetime when it comes to education, yet he still wanted his son to be educated abroad.
"Everybody in Nepal wants to come here to go to school. It will help me a get a better job when I return," Tenzing says.
But getting his son in an American university, and his family to the United States, proved much more challenging for Apa than climbing Everest.
He had been trying since at least 2000, when a vast circle of friends, including O'Connor and Utahns Jerry Mika and Roger Kehr, helped make it happen late in 2006.
"I never could have done it by myself," Apa says. "They did so much for my family. I am greatly in debt to them."
Mika, Kehr and others spent more than three months making phone calls and securing letters of support for Apa's move. Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and O'Connor, among others, offered their support in writing.
Apa and his family arrived on Dec. 20 and moved into Mika's Draper home. Mika had already opened Karma Outdoor Clothing in East Millcreek in a partnership to provide Apa a source of income.
Tenzing enrolled at the U., with O'Connor fulfilling a promise to pay for his first year.
Apa's son Pemba attends Alta High School in Sandy, and his daughter Dawa is at Willow Springs Elementary in Draper. A fourth child, Nimi, died of meningitis in 2004.
Apa, who as a boy dreamed of becoming a doctor so he could help the Sherpa people, felt if he had been in the U.S., his daughter may have survived.
"I think of her often. I know she would have loved it in the USA," he says.
The family has found life in Utah to have unexpected benefits.
Apa and Yangjin have found they get to spend more time with their children than ever before.
In Nepal, many students attend private boarding schools. Some schools only allow the children to see their parents one weekend a month.
"We are very happy here. In Katmandu we don't see each other so much," Yangjin says. "Now I get to cook dinner for them every night. We know each other better now because we spend more time together."
It wasn't long after Apa's arrival in Utah that he, along with Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa, Mika and Kehr, decided to form the SuperSherpas Expedition.
Lhakpa, who set a world record for the fastest time from base camp to the summit of Everest in 2003, at 10 hours, 56 minutes, moved to Salt Lake City with his family from New York after learning that Apa was already in Utah.
Like Apa, Lhakpa wants to draw attention and support to the Sherpa people and their accomplishments.
A Utah medical team is there to do medical tests aimed at learning what makes Sherpas so uniquely conditioned for high-altitude climbing.
But most importantly, those who know Apa want the world to learn what they've learned from him.
O'Connor says the sense of achievement he felt after summiting Everest with Apa in 2003 eventually subsided and he realized that an unexpected aspect of the journey would come to mean more than the summit.
"For me, the best part of the entire experience on Everest was basically basking in the warmth and soaking up the spiritual goodness of the Sherpas," he says. "That's what came back with me. Climbing Everest was not as life-changing as was being with the Sherpas."
* BRETT PRETTYMAN can be contacted at email@example.com or 801-257-8902.