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SunLit

SunLit interview: Pemba Sherpa had a story to tell but little time to write it. Enter James McVey.

The author and former CU professor joined forces with Sherpa to produce "Bridging Worlds," a memoir of life in both the Himalaya and Colorado. For McVey, it was an education.

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.

The following is an interview with co-author James McVey.

Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?

I first met Pemba at his restaurant in 2014. After teaching a night class in Boulder, I often found myself with some time to wait before catching the last bus up the canyon to my home in the mountains. Not only was Sherpa’s Adventurer Restaurant conveniently located near a bus stop at the edge of town, but it afforded the relaxed atmosphere conducive to quiet reflection at the end of the day. 

At some point, he learned that I was an author and on one occasion he asked me about it. He was writing his life story, he said, showing me the callous on his right index finger as proof. While guiding a group of Westerners in Nepal years earlier, he’d watched Sherpa children playing in the street when it occurred to him he might have a story to tell. 

Pemba was well known in Boulder as an accomplished alpinist, athlete, and businessman. With his adventure travel business, restaurants, Sherpa Chai, and real estate holdings, he’d acquired the wherewithal to oversee a number of philanthropic projects in Nepal. All the while, he was raising a young daughter with his wife Mariko. But when he took on the enormous task in 2015 of raising money and transporting relief supplies to earthquake victims in Khumbu, the demands on his time became too much. 

It was then that he asked if I might be interested in writing his story. Given what I knew about his early life in Nepal and all that he had achieved in the U.S., it was an easy decision for me. His was a classic American success story. But there was more to it than that. His life had intersected with a number of historical events with which he had firsthand experience: the Nepalese Civil War, tragedies on Everest, a devastating earthquake, and the transformation of Sherpa culture. What impressed me most of all was his commitment to helping others, especially Sherpas in Khumbu.   

Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?

The excerpt actually consists of two different passages. The first is taken from the introductory chapter titled “Early Childhood.” I chose this passage because Pemba’s personal journey represents the heart of the story, and it’s important to understand where his journey begins: growing up in poverty under harsh conditions, living in a house without electricity or running water with 11 siblings, coming of age in the mythical Khumbu Valley. After leaving home at 14 to work in the trekking industry, he eventually migrated to the U.S. where he became a successful businessman and philanthropist. The book tells the story of how he got from there to here, and all the challenges he had to overcome.

The second passage appears in the chapter titled “To Colorado.” With virtually no formal education, Pemba arrived in the U.S. at age 19. On his way to learning English, he befriended American alpinists at the Colorado Mountain Club who asked him to lead a climbing trip to Nepal. This led him to launch an international adventure company, combining alpine excursions with traditional Sherpa culture. Pemba understood that by bringing Westerners to the Himalaya, he could create economic opportunities for Sherpas. At the same time, he saw how Westerners were deeply affected by their experiences in Nepal. He began to see that perhaps he was doing important cultural work by bridging worlds. In 2000, Pemba realized a lifelong dream of building a bridge across the treacherous Dudh Koshi River, providing easy access to schools and markets for people in his hometown of Sengma. This project would become a metaphor for his entire life’s work.

Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write the book? 

The biggest experience for me was the trip I made to Khumbu to meet Pemba’s friends and family members. I got to see where he grew up as a child, including the house he lived in. Family and community are important in Sherpa culture, and so I was fortunate to meet many Sherpas and experience the culture intimately. The grace and good cheer of Sherpas I’ve met, both in Nepal and in Colorado, have to be considered among the biggest influences in writing the book.   

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

I also brought a lot of my own experience to this project. My writing career revolves around themes of nature, backcountry adventure, and the environment. My third book, “The Way Home: Essays on the Outside West,” features wilderness experiences involving river running, backcountry skiing, backpacking, and fly fishing. The essays use backcountry experiences as occasions for reflection on such topics as nature and culture, conservation, and the human relation to the wild. “Bridging Worlds” addresses all these themes. The Khumbu region faces enormous environmental challenges of water quality, deforestation, and sanitation. This is something we address in the book.

Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?

I wouldn’t say this story veered in any unexpected directions to the point that it developed a mind of its own. Early in the process, Pemba and I sketched out a structure, which we followed for the most part. 

Having said that, there were moments when I asked Pemba to provide details from certain parts of his life. Some of these memories turned out to be quite compelling: the American client who suffered a climbing accident and was cared for by Pemba’s family in Sengma, his mother’s visit to the U.S., the tragic disappearance of his cousin during the Nepalese Civil War. In a book like this, a writer has to be on the lookout for any and all material that might contribute to the overall story. Anecdotal material certainly added color to our book, providing a nice balance with the historical and cultural information. 

…Sherpas have been recognized around the world as the fabled inhabitants of the Himalaya. Rarely, though, has their story been told in their own words. This book provided an opportunity to do that.

James McVey, co-author of “Bridging Worlds”

Ever since Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary became the first climbers to summit Mount Everest in 1953, Sherpas have been recognized around the world as the fabled inhabitants of the Himalaya. Rarely, though, has their story been told in their own words. This book provided an opportunity to do that. I encouraged Pemba to share his opinion on a range of topics, from the Everest expedition industry to corruption in the Nepalese government to life in America. Pemba occupies an exceptional place, walking in two completely different worlds. As such, he brings a unique perspective to both. I believe this is one of the defining characteristics of the book and one of its most enduring qualities.   

What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book? 

The biggest challenge for me was to get to a point where I felt comfortable writing about Sherpa culture and history. Because we wanted to supplement Pemba’s personal story with historical and cultural information, I knew I would have to do a lot of research on Tibetan Buddhism, the Nepalese Civil War, the 2014 avalanche on Everest that killed 13 Sherpas, the Everest expedition industry, et cetera. I especially wanted to avoid succumbing to a Western bias in how I approached the material. Consequently, the reader will notice the extent to which the book relies on quotes and outside references in some of its passages.

In addition to research, I did a lot of fact-checking and cross-referencing. I wanted to be sure we were informed, accurate, and balanced in how we treated some of the more challenging subject matter, such as the Everest expedition industry, the changing Sherpa culture, and the environmental problems in Khumbu. These are all complex issues that require careful thought and deliberation. On the other hand, as a Sherpa, Pemba has a clear opinion on many of these issues, and it was important that we conveyed his perspective in a persuasive manner.

UNDERWRITTEN BY

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.

Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?

I am not aware that the book has raised any objections or strong opinions. So far, the reception we’ve received has been positive and supportive. I do think it’s important to recognize what kind of book this is. While it contains historical and cultural material, it does not claim to be an authoritative text on Sherpa people. This is a personal memoir, the story of one man’s life, written for a Western audience. In the Foreword, I make a point of saying that Pemba’s views aren’t meant to represent the views of all Sherpas. Like any group of people, there are going to be differences of opinion. 

Having said that, I could see how our chapter on the Everest expedition industry might provoke some discussion. This is a complicated issue that has generated a lot of controversy in the past. Many different perspectives are brought to bear on the way the industry is conducted. What “Bridging Worlds” offers is the perspective of one man who is clearly sympathetic to a Sherpa’s position. After all, this is a Sherpa’s story. I believe we were diligent in our research, and the concerns we raise in the book are well supported. We were careful to identify the specific problems plaguing the industry and then respond to them from a Sherpa’s perspective.  

Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write? 

I think every writer has to find the process that works best for her/himself. For me, I write during the morning hours when my mind is clearest. I need my surroundings to be quiet, with no distractions. This is partly why I live high in the mountains, surrounded by nature and wildlife and weather.  

I write my field notes in longhand. The same is true of interviews I conduct. Then I’ll type these notes onto a computer. From that point on, I’ll write on the computer and edit on a hard copy. I tend to make a lot of revisions, always attentive to prose rhythm and precise wording. Throughout the entire process, I continue to look for any additional sources (articles, books, documentary films, etc.) that might add to the story.

Tell us about your next project.

As a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, I tend to alternate between the two. I have a novel that will be released this year, so I’m currently getting it ready for publication. Meanwhile, I’m working on a second collection of nature essays in the vein of “The Way Home.”


Read two excerpts from the book.


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