My friend Nima Nuru Sherpa is one of thousands of Sherpa success stories. When he was born on a tiny Khumbu farm eight years before the first ascent of Everest, his family grew potatoes like everybody else. “You know, raising potatoes is hard work, such hard work, and you don’t make much money,” Nima says. But by the time he was a teenager in the late sixties, getting into the mountaineering business was every Sherpa boy’s dream. “I was a porter. I carried 45 pounds all the way to Camp II on Everest. That’s 22,000 feet, without oxygen! I was a hotel waiter. I was a cook. I did everything.” Tireless, bright, and quick to pick up languages, Nima became a trekking guide, working in English, German, and Japanese. He saved his earnings and rented a house about 200 yards from the airstrip at Lukla, which in 1993 he turned into Everest Lodge, now a successful hotel and restaurant business.
With a fairly reliable income from the lodge, Nima has taken the next step on the career path of the upwardly mobile Sherpa. Relying on his wife, Dawa Lhamu Sherpa, to manage the hotel, last fall he set up a trekking company of his own, Authentic Everest Trekking, Ltd., in Kathmandu, 125 miles from Khumbu. “I book the hotels and the planes and the Sherpa guides,” he explains. “I make a fee on each transaction.”
The course of modern events appears to have been good to the Sherpas, but a few storms loom on the horizon. When the average Sherpa family earned its living by herding yaks and planting potatoes on the steep hillsides, it was easy to ignore what was happening anywhere else. Now that the Sherpa economy is tied to tourism, developments far away have grave importance. The worldwide downturn in tourism following the attacks of September 11 had a heavy economic impact on the Sherpa community. The bloody Maoist insurrection that has ravaged Nepal for the past seven years is also taking its toll, although a cease-fire declared by the rebels in late January has raised hopes for an end to the violence.
Then there is the concern that as Sherpas leave Khumbu for even better opportunities, they will leave their culture behind as well. And there are mixed feelings about some of the modern conveniences made possible by the Sherpas’ success, as I learn when I make the trek to the handsome stone monastery at Tengboche to visit its well-known head lama, or rimpoche (a title that means “precious one”). The Sherpas’ revered venue sits at 12,700 feet, atop a ridge that offers perhaps the most breathtaking sunrise on Earth. As night gives way to morning, the pink glow of dawn glistens on the snowy peaks of eight surrounding mountains, with Everest (29,035 feet) and its close neighbor Lhotse (27,890 feet) as the jewels atop the jagged crown. Having seen that view, I am in a suitable state of awe as I remove my hat and shoes to enter the lama’s private apartments.