In my 20 or so years on this Earth, by far the most challenging and rewarding thing I’ve done was a two-week trek to Everest Base Camp in 2010. But it wasn’t the immense physical and mental toll that stuck with me the most.
Rather, it was the trio of Sherpa guides – Dawa, Krishna, and Lakpa – assigned to take me and my group of fellow trekkers to the base camp of the world’s highest mountain.
In the course of two weeks, seemingly endless exhausted steps, and a visit to a rocky camp located about 5,200m above sea level, a quick and close bond quickly formed between Dawa, Lakpa, Krishna and I – one that I still occasionally dwell on today.
When that big avalanche struck Mount Everest on 18 April, 2014, causing the death of 16 Sherpas, shock and worry immediately gripped me. The accident resulted in a push for better working conditions, as documented in Sherpa: Trouble on Everest this Sunday at 8:30pm on SBS.
I’m glad they took a stand. Sherpas are among the most kind-hearted people I’ve ever met. They’re simply trying to make a living, by taking on a job that happens to be one of the most dangerous in the world.
Sherpas are the definition of resilient and helpful
Years of living in high-altitude conditions have instilled Sherpas with greater strength and resilience than most, but seeing a tiny, old Sherpa grandma carry a massive basket filled to the brim with logs was something else altogether.
After a quick chat, I attempted to lift her log basket, only to fail miserably. It ultimately took myself and two of my friends to even lift the thing. This quickly gave me a glimpse into just how tough Sherpas are, but beyond their physical strength, Sherpas are also some of the most helpful people I’ve ever met.
Altitude sickness is a very real thing on Everest. It affects people in different ways, particularly at the 3,000-4,000 metre mark. While all I had was a mild headache that wouldn’t go away, my friend, Issy, was hit with crippling waves of nausea, fatigue, and dizziness. She could barely continue the trek.
In the midst of deciding what our options were, Krishna kindly offered a solution: while the rest of the group continued on, he would stay behind and escort Issy, essentially taking on the role of guide, medical aid, moral support, and caretaker.
Issy wasn’t the only one of our group to be affected. Later, two others were laid low by the altitude and it was Krishna who once again offered to keep an eye on them. In fact, he took it one step further by taking them on an alternate route from the main group, one that is less strenuous and gave the two trekkers the chance to acclimatise to the altitude a bit better.
In an environment where death is a possibility and support of any kind comes at a premium, having friends is a big positive. But having a Sherpa by your side is perhaps the most reassuring thing in the world.
Trekking is a dirty, dangerous, yet lucrative business
The closer you get to Everest, the more dangerous the terrain becomes. Plunges of several hundred metres into a rocky abyss become a very real possibility. After nearly slipping and tumbling down a steep, rocky slope (one of many during the trek), I casually remarked to Lakpa that “what we’re doing is crazy”, to which he replied with a laugh and an even more casual “yep!”.
Huddled around the tea house fire that night, Dawa candidly spoke about the time he tried to reach the peak of Everest. He got achingly close, but a combination of severe altitude sickness, injury, and a frighteningly close brush with death meant that Dawa never reached Everest’s peak.
Given my earlier brush with injury, I asked Dawa why he still continued trekking after his near visit with the Grim Reaper. He said there were two reasons. Firstly, it is a money-making business, albeit one where death is a distinct possibility. With a family to feed, the amount of money earned from a few months of trekking can help put food on the table for a year. A Sherpa can earn anywhere between $3,000 to $5,000 in a single season, far more than the average annual income of $700-$1000 in Nepal, so it’s understandable why Sherpas choose to risk their lives this way every year.
While he does have some issues over the rubbish and the increasing number of trekkers each year, Dawa’s familial priorities meant he was forced to push those grievances aside. There was definitely a touch of distant coldness in him when those issues were brought up, as if he was forced to callous himself over, in order to continue working as a Sherpa guide.
As for the second reason why Dawa continues trekking…
Ultimately, trekking is a way of life for most Sherpas
Given the economic situation Sherpas find themselves in, you wouldn’t blame some of them for only putting in a half-hearted effort as guides. Thus it was a bit of a surprise to see how much Dawa, Krishna, and Lakpa revelled in what they do.
In chatting to all three over the course of our two-week trek, something in common emerged: trekking in the mountains is ultimately a way of life for them.
Buddhism is the second-most followed religion in Nepal. One could say that climbing Mount Everest is akin to an expression of their beliefs, a sentiment reinforced by the abundance of colourful Tibetan prayer flags along the trekking routes.
Beyond a physical representation of the path to enlightenment, trekking is something Sherpas do from when they are old enough to walk. It is not uncommon to hear stories of kids trekking up to four hours a day, just to attend school. This is usually the start of the competitive fire that drives Sherpas to pursue trekking and climbing further.
But perhaps the most revealing moment of a Sherpa’s competitive fire and passion for trekking came on the last day of our Everest Base Camp trek. Everyone was weary and there were only a few hundred metres left to go. As a joke, my friends and I suggested to Lakpa that we have a race to the finish line to see who the toughest trekker was.
Rather than laugh it off, Lakpa’s eyes immediately lit up. We knew right there that we were in for a painful sprint. Tired as we all were, Lakpa’s competitive drive pushed us to keep up with him during that run towards the finish. The smile he had on his face when he narrowly beat us was far more telling than any story told by a tea house fire.
From what I know, Dawa, Lakpa, and Krishna all escaped the 2014 Mount Everest avalanche unscathed. Following all that has happened in the last couple of years regarding working conditions and the threat of more avalanches, it would be easy to assume that Dawa, Lakpa, and Krishna may have given up on the trekking business.
But after spending those two weeks with the three Sherpa guides – not to mention the occasional follow-up email from Dawa asking whether we’re keen for another trip someday – to me it’s more likely that they’re all still trekking those Himalayan mountains today.
Sherpa: Trouble on Everest is on SBS this Sunday, April 15, at 8:30pm. It will be available afterwards at SBS On Demand.