Seeing Everest from a Different Point of View

By Chris Mackay, Crooked Trails Co-founder

pema and chris at Cinerama“It’s Kathmandu!” Pema said excitedly, and more loudly than appropriate inside a movie theater. Pema has never seen an American movie, and so for his first time, I thought only the best: the Cinerama Theater in Seattle, with its outstanding sound system and enormous curved screen. We were there to watch Everest in 3-D. I motioned to Pema that we don’t talk in theaters with the universal signal of silence, the raised finger to lips. He settled back with big 3-D glasses comically perched on his round face, dressed in his grey suit, to watch this tragedy of the fated Everest climb unfold.

Pema Sherpa grew up poor and uneducated with 9 brothers and sisters in the small Himalayan village of Hill. He had no shoes, and ate only what the family could produce with limited land and yak milk. Pema is a short man, with the perfect milk chocolate skin typical of Nepali people. He sports a perma-grin and has a childlike joy about him.

He told me when he was 15 he had hiked a full day out of his village and encountered his first white people. He was amazed. They were tall, white, and clean and had many things. And they “kept putting this white stuff like butter on their bodies.” He saw that other Nepalis were portering for these tourists and he wanted to do it as well. His parents were sure he would be kidnapped and forbade it. But like teenagers around the world, he misled them a few weeks later, taking the family yaks out, and he didn’t return for a few days. He had procured a job carrying a load for a trekking group. He was barefoot with only a Sherpa robe tied at his waist. “I didn’t even have underwear,” he said, and he carried 132 pounds. It always amazes me when I look at these small people and think of the incredible loads they carry through the highest mountains in the world.  They would only let him carry the load for a few days because he didn’t have the gear for higher work.  When he returned home, his parents, having feared him dead, were shocked of his tales, and of the money he had. They had never seen cash before. Pema was determined to become a porter and returned to the Lukla area where all the trekkers were heading up to Everest. It didn’t take him long to start working his way up the ladder. He promised one tour agency that if they paid for his training to become a guide he would allow them to take half his wages until the fee was paid back. This went on as he took more training and eventually guided all the way to the top of Everest.

As I sat engrossed in the movie, watching the tragic drama of Scott Fischer and Rob Hall’s deaths, I couldn’t help but wonder what went through Pema’s mind as he watched. This story was about the people who paid on average $65,000 to climb the tallest mountain in the world and the people that helped them do it. The story does not touch on the lives of the Sherpas who live in these mountains, where they are from or about their dreams and challenges. It wasn’t until the disastrous avalanche of 2014, which took the lives of 16 Sherpa people, that most the world even noticed them.

Afterwards I talked with Pema and asked him about Everest. He said he was surprised that they only showed one ladder sequence and it was so short. As we walked down the Seattle street he pointed up to the tallest building next to us and noted that there would be 10 ladders latched together going to the top of that building and then another 10 down the other side. When asked how many times he climbed Everest, he replied, “Only once – my daughter and son asked me not to climb again.”  Then on a completely different note he added, “I love Americans, they have good good.”

I met Pema in May online days after the earthquake in Nepal, while he was desperately looking for money to get tarps to his village. I had been raising money for relief efforts and sent him $2000 which he quickly spent on tarps and porters. Three days later, the young men started the 9-hour jeep ride to the trailhead and then the 3-day trek to his village, loaded down with gear. Pema had planned to go with them, but a dream the night before of a huge python crossing the trail in front of him appeared a bad omen, so he sent the boys alone. On the trail in, the second earthquake struck and a huge landslide sent the boys scattering, injuring an army unit there on relief efforts. There were many serious injuries. The tarps eventually made their way to Hill.

Pema’s dream is to build a school in his village. A nice one. He had an engineer/architect draw up plans of a beautiful single-story three building design with a center courtyard where “the yaks no go, so it’s clean.” The cost is $45,000. Currently they have school to only 5th grade and that building was too damaged in the quake to use, so the kids are under tarps.

I told him it’s hard to raise funds but if we could run treks into his village and then onto Everest, people would pay a bit more and donate. Trekking with a purpose is what I am all about. Many people want to trek, so why not make it more meaningful and trek to a village no tourist has been to, spend a few days getting to know the local Sherpa people, and then continue onto Namche Bazzar or Tengboche, or all the way up to Everest Base Camp? It’s a win-win and I love those.

Interested in going to Hill with Pema? Contact or come to Wide World Books and Maps on Sept 29th to hear Chris Mackay talk and meet Pema while he is still in Seattle.


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