Months after Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa’s oldest brother died climbing in the Himalayas, Lhakpa Gelu determined that he would summit a Himalayan peak.
His mother protested.
“We just lost your brother a couple months ago, you shouldn’t go,’” she told him. “Don’t go there.”
But climbing was his passion – and would become his livelihood. So he went, and his mother prayed he would be all right. Two years later, in 1993, he summited Mount Everest, the world's tallest peak, on his first attempt.
A decade later, Lhakpa Gelu broke the world speed record for climbing Everest – 10 hours, 56 minutes and 46 seconds. (Round trip from base camp was 18 hours and 20 minutes.)
He has summited Everest 15 times in 18 attempts and is scheduled to try it again with a client next year.
Lhakpa Gelu now lives in the Seattle area, where he guides climbs internationally for Alpine Ascents International. He is also a member of the Northwest Sherpa Association; there are about 100 Sherpas living in the Seattle area.
Distance hasn’t kept him from the mountains that surround his village, however. Last year, he was caught in an avalanche that killed more than a dozen climbers, including Sherpas. This year, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake rocked Everest; a Seattle Sherpa guide there now reported back they have recovered 27 bodies on Everest.
After last year’s avalanche, Sherpas refused to climb for the rest of the season out of respect for the dead. Some in the climbing community wonder if Everest has become too dangerous.
But Lhakpa Gelu said that suggestion is a non-starter. Guiding climbs has become a way of life for many Sherpas, he said. Sherpas locally make about $5,000 during the two-month climbing season.
“If we stop just for just one or two years, it is very difficult for the incomes of the Nepalese people,” Lhakpa Gelu said.
Mingmar Sherpa, also of the Seattle area, said that if Sherpas won’t climb, others will.
“In the mountain region, tourism is a big part for Sherpa people who live there,” she said. “Since 10 years ago, we have seen more non-Sherpa people involved in climbing community."
That has created some tension between local people and foreign climbers.
“If we stop climbing Everest or put a hold on mountaineering or climbing, it’s going to definitely have a big impact on Nepal’s economy, which is already not in a good shape,” Mingmar Sherpa said.
For now, the Northwest Sherpa Association is focusing on raising money to send back to Nepal. People in some rural areas have reported they haven’t yet seen any international aid, so the association is raising money to send home directly.