Lhakpa Gyaltsen Sherpa: Life and survival on Everest

Lhakpa Gyaltsen Sherpa in front of his lodge in Thame

The village of Thame in the Khumbu region has already seen many Sherpas who achieved fame on Mount Everest. So first ascender Tenzing Norgay grew up there. The legendary Apa Sherpa, who reached the summit of Everest 21 times between 1990 and 2011, was also born in Thame. And Kami Rita Sherpa, with 24 ascents the current record holder, comes from there too. So it’s hardly surprising that the first lodge at the entrance to Thame is called “Third Pole Summiter Lodge”. But it is not named after one of the famous Sherpas mentioned above. In fact, the name indicates that the owner of the lodge also stood on the highest point on earth, the “Third Pole”. “Since 2010 I have tried ten times to reach the summit, eight times I was on the top, twice via the Tibetan north side”, Lhakpa Gyaltsen Sherpa tells me when we stay overnight in his lodge in November. He was a monk for six years before his older brother persuaded him to enter the Everest business too.

“For the money, not records.”

View to Thame, on the left the Monastery

Mountaineering on the highest of all mountains is almost a tradition in his family. Lhakpa’s father Ang Tshering lost his fingers due to frostbite he suffered during a South Korean winter expedition in 1986. Two of Lhakpa’s three brothers stood on the top of Everest like him. “I really only do it for the money, not to set any records,” says Lhakpa, who has also scaled the eight-thousanders Shishapangma and Manaslu, the latter twice: “I’m responsible for my family, after all.” The 36-year-old is married and has a nine-year-old daughter. She is blind and lives in a home for handicapped people in southern India. Lhakpa travels there regularly for two months a year to spend time with his daughter. For this he also needs the money from Everest.

Three times really scared

In the Khumbu Icefall

Lhakpa Gyaltsen says that he can earn more with climbing the highest mountain on earth than operating his lodge. The building is still quite new. The devastating earthquake on 25 April 2015 destroyed Lhakpa’s old lodge. The Sherpa had to take out a loan to rebuild it.

The fact that he survived the quake is a miracle, says Lhakpa, pointing to an amulet on his neck. An Indian Rinpoche, a high-ranking monk, had presented it to his wife. She had given it to a yak drover on his way to Everest Base Camp. When Lhakpa had just set out to walk towards the courier, the earth began to tremble.

“I ran for my life,” the Sherpa remembers. A gigantic avalanche was triggered from the seven-thousander Pumori, devastated Everest Base camp and killed 19 people. Lhakpa Gyaltsen says this was one of three situations in which he was really scared on Everest: First in 2014, when he survived with a lot of luck the ice avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall, which cost 16 Nepalese climbers their lives. And in 2016, Lhakpa saw a Sherpa friend’s fall from Lhotse to his death: “I was afraid then too.”

Sherpas have to bear the consequences

One option: making money in France

He also experienced last spring that death can be a companion on Everest. On 22 May – the day of the traffic jam on the summit ridge that made headlines worldwide – Lhakpa’s client died below the so-called “Balcony” at 8,400 meters. The 54-year-old Indian woman was suffering from high altitude sickness. “I advised her to descend, but she didn’t want to,” says the 36-year-old. “Indian clients cause us more trouble than European or American ones. They just don’t listen to their Sherpas.” Many come to Everest without the necessary experience and training, says Lhakpa adding that the Sherpas have to bear the consequences.

How long does Lhakpa Gyaltsen want to take the risk of climbing Mount Everest? “One option for me is to earn money in Europe in the summer, for example in France, where I have many friends,” replies the Sherpa from Thame. “Then I wouldn’t have to climb Everest anymore.”

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