From Chapter One, “Early Childhood”
I was born in the Everest region of northeast Nepal, not far from the small village of Sengma. I do not know the exact date of my birth, although I believe it was sometime in October of 1971. Like many Sherpa families, we were farmers and herders, grazing our livestock in the nearby mountains. On one such occasion, while my father was away, my pregnant mother led the animals to the jungle pastures high above the village. When she went into labor, she walked into the bamboo shelter where she slept at night, and delivered me alone. When it came time to cut the umbilical cord, she couldn’t find her knife and prepared to sever the cord with two stones. Thankfully, she found the knife in time. She remained alone with me for three days until my father arrived at the camp.
I lived with my parents and eleven siblings in a stone house without electricity, plumbing, or running water. Our village of Sengma consisted of ten houses perched on a hillside high above the Dudh Koshi (“Milk River”) in the Khumbu region, about twenty-three miles from the summit of Everest as the crow flies. Khumbu is a spectacular place of snow-covered peaks and deep gorges, glacial valleys and forested hills, waterfalls and cascading streams. To this day, there are no roads in Khumbu. Because of the high elevation and cold climate, farming has never been easy. For food, we grew potatoes (the main staple), barley, buckwheat, corn, beans and a variety of greens. We also owned a dozen or so zoms—a cross between a yak and a cow.
In late spring, we would drive our livestock to pasture in Lumding. At 14,000 feet elevation, Lumding is a sacred valley rarely visited by Westerners. Surrounded by snow-covered peaks 8,000 meters high, the valley comes alive in summer with blooming trees and wildflowers—crimson rhododendron, the creamy white flowers of magnolia, blue Himalayan poppies, purple primulas, and bunches of white orchids. Most of the time I went around barefoot with minimal clothing. I remember it raining a lot and being cold, sitting beside a pine and pitch fire to get warm. My mother and sister would be there, too. After a couple of weeks of grazing the livestock in one meadow, we’d move the herd to a different location. At night, we slept inside a canvas shelter, which could be packed up when it came time to relocate to a different pasture. We cooked our meals inside this shelter. We made milk, butter, and cheese, which we would sell every week at the market in Namche Bazaar. At the market, we’d buy different foods to take back with us to the summer camp or to our house. At the end of summer, we’d bring the naks (female yaks or zoms) back down to Sengma.
Pemba Sherpa was born in the remote Khumbu region of Nepal, where he distinguished himself as a mountain guide. At 19, he migrated to Boulder and founded Ascent International. He is the owner of Sherpa Chai Tea Company and Sherpa’s Adventurer Restaurant in Boulder. Pemba has been able to devote his life to helping his native people of Nepal, where he has built a bridge, hydroelectric plant, and is planning a medical clinic. He has led more than 20 trips to Nepal for the Colorado Mountain Club. In 2015, with the help of the CMC, Pemba raised $110,000 in earthquake relief funds for those villages.
James McVey is a former professor at the University of Colorado and the author of four books, including “The Way Home: Essays on the Outside West” and “The Wild Upriver and Other Stories.” His novel, “Loon Rangers,” will be published later this year.
One of my favorite activities as a boy was watching birds. I’d look for them in the forests of rhododendron and blue pine, or in stands of juniper and dwarf birch: finches and warblers, laughing thrushes, and a whole host of colorful pheasants. My favorite was the danphe, the national bird of Nepal. Danphes typically live at 11,000 feet elevation or higher. The males have long green crests and beautiful iridescent feathers of copper, teal, and purple. Among the big animals I encountered were the red panda, black bear, and snow leopard. I’ve only seen a snow leopard a few times in my life, always at a distance, usually among the rocks along the side of a mountain. Red pandas, on the other hand, were quite common. I remember always trying to touch one, only to have it run away.
Despite the poverty and hardships of living in Khumbu, Sengma was a wonderful place to grow up. Very few foreigners visited the area, and it still had the feel of an isolated Sherpa kingdom. Strong family relations are important in Sherpa culture, and I was very close to my siblings and mother. Back then, people tended to remain in the village where they were born without the expectation of ever leaving. We were happy with what we had, perhaps because we knew no other way of life. Growing up in Sengma made me appreciate the simplicity of life and meeting the basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing. There were few complications beyond that.
But times change. Today, most Sherpas no longer live in Khumbu. I myself left home at fourteen for the capital city of Kathmandu, where I worked for an expedition company as a mountaineer and guide. Five years later, I migrated to the United States and started my own international adventure company. I operated the company for twenty years, traveling the world and meeting many interesting people. Along the way, I earned a pilot’s license and learned to fly my own plane. Today, I am a successful businessman living in Colorado where I own two restaurants and eight properties in Boulder. With my wife and young daughter, I enjoy a life of relative affluence. But this only begins to tell the story. Each year, I return to Khumbu, where I am reminded of where my journey began. I have never forgotten the poverty and hardships of my people. As much as I am proud of my personal accomplishments, my story is a people’s story. I am both Sherpa and American, walking in two worlds.
For centuries, Sherpas lived in relative isolation as farmers, herders, and traders. Because of its remoteness and inaccessibility, Khumbu remained virtually cut off from the outside world until the mid-1900s, when British climbers turned their attention to Nepal in their effort to summit Mount Everest. Ultimately, this spawned a climbing and trekking industry that would profoundly change the region and transform Sherpa culture. Roughly 3,000 Sherpas presently live in Khumbu, while another 30,000 inhabit small villages scattered throughout the mountains of eastern Nepal. Sherpa communities also exist in India in places like Sikkim and Darjeeling. Today, Sherpa people can be found in all parts of the world including Europe, Australia, and the U.S. More than 5,000 Sherpas live abroad, half of whom reside in New York City. Still, the heart of Sherpa country and culture remains the Solokhumbu—a relatively small region of valleys along the southern slopes of Mount Everest.
Contrary to the assumption of many, a Sherpa is not a porter or mountain guide. Unfortunately, the word “sherpa” has been distorted by Westerners to mean a particular occupation in the climbing industry. But this is not accurate. To be a Sherpa is to be a member of an ethnic tribe that settled the Everest region of Nepal roughly 500 years ago, the first people to inhabit this part of the Himalaya. Beginning sometime in the early 1400s, a small group of Sherpa families began a migration from eastern Tibet that would eventually land them in the uninhabited Solokhumbu region of Nepal. The name “Sherpa” speaks to these origins, translated from Tibetan to mean “People from the East.” Four main clans, numbering perhaps fifty individuals in all, migrated from Kham in eastern Tibet, bringing with them the traditions and religion of Tibetan Buddhism. In subsequent years, they would be followed by other Sherpa clans coming from Tibet. Among the highest mountain dwellers on earth, Sherpa people are affectionately known throughout the world as the fabled inhabitants of the Himalaya.
As was the custom in Sherpa culture, my parents were brought together in an arranged marriage. My mother was originally from Hewa—a three-day hike from Sengma. She was hard-working, compassionate, and loving. As a boy, I remember the many rituals she observed in and around the house: putting out the seven bowls of water in the morning as an offering to the gods (yonchap), swinging a brazier filled with burning incense (sangbur), making regular visits to the monastery, and taking time for daily prayers. To this day she remains a devout Buddhist, living in Kathmandu where I see her regularly.
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
My father, who grew up in Sengma, was mayor of the area. He was often away from home, leaving my mother alone to care for the children and farm. As mayor, my father was respected throughout the area and people were eager to accommodate him. He was physically very strong. He often brought me with him as he went politicking from village to village. Of all the children, he chose me because he was proud to show me off, even though I was bored most of the time. Sometimes, we’d be stranded in a village for two or three days while people served him cups of chang—the local, home-brewed beer. There were times we’d end up in someone’s home for the night, and the man of the house would be gone. On one occasion, I remember my father telling me: “you sleep with the daughter, and I’ll sleep with the mother.”
I don’t have good memories of my father. He was an abusive alcoholic, often beating my mother. It hurt me emotionally and psychologically to see him hit her. When I was five, I remember thinking to myself that I was not going to grow up to be like him. A year later, my father died after falling from a makeshift bridge into the river, leaving my mother to raise the eight children who remained alive at the time.
Of the twelve children born in our family, only six are alive today. The others died of illness and other causes related to living in poverty and harsh conditions. This rate of mortality was not uncommon among Sherpa children. Of the many dangers we faced on a daily basis, crossing the river was certainly among them. Every year, a new bridge had to be built by villagers after the monsoon runoff swept the existing bridge away in summer. The bridges, made of bamboo, were often dilapidated and unsafe. I myself witnessed a boy named Pasang fall into the river, only to be carried downriver to his death. I can still recall his parents running downstream, screaming, as other villagers tried to help. The boy’s body was never recovered. I am still haunted by the image of this tragedy, and for years I vowed that, if I ever had the chance, I would build a safe bridge over the river.
From Chapter Seven, “To Colorado”
I was completely illiterate when I first arrived in the U.S., unable to read or write in any language. Although I struggled to learn English and adjust to the new culture, I realized the U.S. offered better opportunities than Nepal. I was ambitious and eager to learn. On my way to becoming a U.S. citizen, I wanted to capitalize on the career opportunities here.
Just as much as I wanted to pursue my career ambitions, I wanted to explore the Rockies and the climbing opportunities it afforded. At the time, there were very few Sherpas living in the U.S., let alone Colorado, and I didn’t know anyone in the local climbing community. Wanting to meet other climbers, I joined the Colorado Mountain Club (CMC) in nearby Golden. As a Sherpa, it was not difficult for me to make friends. Some of the CMC members had been to Nepal, and others were eager to go. It didn’t take long before I was approached by a number of climbers asking me to lead a trip in the Himalaya. In 1993, at the age of twenty-two, I guided a group of fourteen Americans on a trek through Chola Pass in Khumbu.
After returning to Colorado, word got out about our adventure, and people from across the U.S. contacted me regarding future expeditions. At the time, there were very few outfitters in the U.S. offering trips to Nepal, not like the hundreds that exist today. And so, in partnership with CMC and International Mountain Explorers Connection (IMEC)—a nonprofit organization based in Boulder—I organized more expeditions. Before long, I was guiding two and sometimes three trips to Nepal per year, most of them through CMC but also some that were private.
It was at this time that I formed my own adventure travel company, Sherpa Ascent International (SAI). I found that I really enjoyed taking foreigners to the Himalaya and sharing what I knew about the culture and history. I liked meeting new people and, of course, I loved trekking and the mountains. I decided to concentrate on adventures that were relatively safe, where people could enjoy themselves and experience the beauty and culture of Nepal. The trips would feature climbs in excess of 20,000 feet in some of the more scenic, less-traveled places of the Himalaya. As a Sherpa, I could provide an insider’s look into Himalayan culture and people.
Over time, this role of bringing people together and bridging cultures became more than just a business strategy. Traveling back and forth between Khumbu and Colorado, I was fortunate to experience the best of both worlds. Immersed in these two different cultures, I gained a unique perspective on each. At some point, it occurred to me that the work I was doing might be important. With all its wealth and generosity and opportunities, the U.S. clearly had a great deal to offer the impoverished people of Nepal. At the same time, I discovered that the Himalayas and Sherpa culture had a lot to offer Westerners. Many of the Americans I took to Nepal came back with a different perspective on life. Most Sherpas there have so little, whereas my American and European clients generally had everything they needed. And yet, it was clear that Westerners found something spiritually rewarding about the people and culture of Khumbu.
Published by Sherpa Publications / A Division of Bristlecone Publishing, 2019