Lakpa Rita and Phurba Sherpa were both born and raised in the mountain village of Thame, Nepal. The remote mountain village has approximately 100 Sherpa families. Thame is the birthplace of Tenzig Norgay, the first man to summit Mt. Everest with Edmund Hillary. Lakpa has been to the top of Mt. Everest 17 times and holds the record for guiding the most individuals (254) to the summit. He is also the first Sherpa to climb the Seven Summits.
I met & interviewed them in the summer of 2012. Here are some highlights from our first conversation. I would encourage you to watch the videos, their words are more powerful & inspiring than my written recollections.
One interesting and unique feature of the Sherpa ethnic community is their birth names; the day of the week a baby is born determines their name. Lakpa is Wednesday and Phurba is Thursday. They have three children, Mingma (born on Tuesday), Pemba (born on Saturday) and Mingma.
Access to education during their youth: Lakpa & Phurba both attended Thame’s small “primary” school through the age of 10 or 11. At that age, most children could not continue on because the school for older children was a four hour walk.
Phurba, along with all her childhood girlfriends, then stayed home to learn the responsibilities of homemaking.
At the age of 12, Lakpa began walking 8 hours per day to receive his education. He would leave home at 6:00am returning at 8:00pm. This schooling lasted four years. His parents made a large financial sacrifice, sending him to Kathmandu for his final year of high school.
Aware of the gift they were giving him, Lakpa prioritized his English studies to improve his opportunities for employment in the trekking/mountaineering industry.
What led to decision to immigrate to the United States? While working on Mt. Everest, Lakpa impressed the owner of Seattle-based Alpine Ascents with his climbing & organizational skills, but most importantly his English. He was offered an opportunity to receive climbing training stateside with the potential of employment with Alpine Ascents. The relationship began in the early 1990’s and Lakpa has risen to be one of Alpine Ascents most esteemed and experienced mountaineering guides.
Over an eight year period with Lakpa climbing throughout the world, Phurba working in childcare in Seattle and both traveling between Seattle and Nepal, they worked to attain legal status for their 3 children to join them in Seattle. It was a very lonely time. Lakpa would be traveling on expeditions for upto 3 months at a time, leaving Phurba alone in Seattle. Phurba worked six or seven days per week to keep herself busy. “When I would come home it was hard. It was quiet. I just tried to keep busy so I wouldn’t thinking about how lonely I was. It was pretty hard.”
The separation from their children was heart wrenching but they persevered with the knowledge of providing more opportunity for their children’s education and livelihood. In 2004, their children were able to join them in Seattle. Two have graduated from the University of Washington and where their youngest daughter is currently attending.
Did the children become Americanized? “The first couple years, they didn’t change or ask for much. But then after two years, they wanted fancy cell phones or Xbox…like all their friends at school. Sometimes I [Phurba] would tell them little stories like ‘We are from not here, we are come from away…’ but, understandably, they have their own expectations based on what is around them."
Favorite things about Seattle: The environment is very similar to their home. Clean air, mountains, very similar climate…”It reminds us where we come from. It feels like we are still in Nepal because we can see the mountains. If we were living in NYC, we would not do well there. It is very humid and hot there and we are not good at hot. And we don’t do very well in flat places. There is a lot of uphill and downhill here, so it reminds us of home.”
“It [the environment] is much better than Kathmandu, everyone was getting sick [because of the pollution.” “Everything is easy here in physical ways. Access to things…you go to one grocery store and you can buy everything there or you go to a Home Depot type store and they have everything there. We don’t have that in my home village. We have to go to Namche [3-4 hour walk] and you have to go to different places for everything, it cannot be found at one location.”
What do you think would be different if you were born here? Lakpa, “If I was born here, I think I would have a lot more opportunity. But I come from a 3rd world country, I do have opportunity here, but I don’t have experience. Basically, what I think is that I am stuck in one type of work. If I grew up here, maybe I would give up what I am doing and try to do something new, but for me, because I moved here at an older age and it is more difficult to learn new things and change.
Our dream…”is to bring our parents here to show them how we live, so they can know a little bit about us and our lives. We want to show them this country, they have never seen this type of big country before. Our dream is to bring Phurba’s mother first to visit and then Lakpa’s parents.” Since the interview in 2012, it was realized Phurba’s mother was unable to travel from the mountain village due to her age and physical ability to walk the vast distance to access transport.
Most difficult time in life: Lakpa, “My most difficult part of life was in 1990, we moved from our home town to Kathmandu. I don’t have a great job during that time. We had 3 kids to support. That was tough…it was hard, no job… sometimes my wife does a lot of knitting to sell at the market. I go to trekking office every day, just waiting to get a job and some days I don’t. And we have to educate the kids because we didn’t have that opportunity, I mean I did get that opportunity from my parents but not all my siblings did, so our goal is to education our kids. Once in a while I would get work, but it was not regular work. Every day, all day, I would sit in front of the trekking office, hoping for work. I thought maybe it would be better if I stay home and help her. I just had to keep showing up, sometimes I would just play cards all day in front of the office…if I don’t show up there is no work for sure. And during those times, we could not afford to buy new clothes for our children. We would go to second hand stores to buy clothing for them. We feel, ourselves, bad parents… In my life that is the toughest part. But I convinced myself, you work hard right now, maybe someday it will pay off.”
Phurba, “The hardest time in my life was when I was young, my daddy passed away…it was so hard. It was just my sister and my mom…”