Peak to peak: One family’s journey from Nepal to Steamboat Springs
October 13, 2013
Steamboat Springs — You get a certificate for climbing Mount Everest. Not at the top, of course. At the top you get a photo, and together, the certificate and the photo are the tangible evidence of an adventure that defines many of the climbers who seek it.
Chhiring Dorje Sherpa has a binder full of certificates.
Host countries give them out for summiting any of the world's 14 8,000-meter peaks — the crown jewels of the mountain climbing game — and Chhiring has summited seven of them.
He keeps them tucked away in the Steamboat Springs home he and his wife, Dawa Phuti Sherpa, share. The certificates are kept safely in the binder and in the kind of plastic sleeves used to protect an important presentation. He flips through them like a child showing off his baseball cards, his face lighting up at the mere prospect of displaying them. He points to important ones, like his first trip to Everest's summit in 1998. Others trigger memories, some happy, some not, like the 2008 summiting of K2 when 11 climbers died on a horrible day in August.
He's eager to show off the photos, too, grabbing a Canon Powershot point-and-shoot, which, beat up and with the paint scraped off, quite obviously has been around the world. He doesn't delete images off the four-gigabyte memory card, and it is brimming with photos that fill in some of the gaps in his stories: photos from his hometown in Nepal and a beach in California, from a train in Japan and the peak of Mount Everest, where he's seen clutching an American flag.
There are pictures of his family, too, his wife, Dawa, who sat by his side and told stories with him on an autumn Steamboat afternoon, and his daughters, Tshering Namdu Sherpa, 16, and Tensing Phuti Sherpa, 13, who still live in Nepal, safe with an uncle but painfully far away.
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Engagingly simple in his enthusiasm, Chhiring is a complex man, and he and his family have battled complex problems that neither a binder nor a memory card nor any of the breathtaking trips they represent begin to hint at.
One of the world's greatest mountain climbers settled last spring in Steamboat Springs, calling the Colorado mountain town his home, but like climbing a mountain, the journey was terribly difficult and fraught with unexpected dangers. Also like climbing a mountain, the journey was still far from finished once he reached the summit of obtaining his green card.
At home now in Steamboat, Chhiring, 38, greeted the remaining challenges the way he does almost everything, with a wide smile, bright eyes and a little bit of faith.
"I pray to God," he said.
Opportunity for opportunity
It's his daughters and his wife. That's what explains so much about Chhiring.
Not everything. He climbs into the death zone, the oxygen-deprived area on a mountain above 27,000 feet, both because of the women in his life and, at times, despite them.
His climbs and the necessary long lapses in communication scare Dawa, especially during the trips on mountains unfamiliar to her. She opposed his trip to K2.
Still, his wife and daughters are the reason he's chosen to move with his family 7,500 miles from a comfortable, prosperous life in their home country, filled with family and friends, to the United States, where Chhiring and Dawa struggle just to speak the language. The climbing made it possible.
People eagerly pay Chhiring $60,000 to be guided up the tallest mountain in the world, but this summer, waiting for resolution on green card status for him and Dawa, he bussed tables at a downtown Steamboat Springs restaurant, filling water glasses and cleaning up after diners who couldn't possibly have known who was doing their dirty work.
He hasn't exactly given up everything. He started his own expedition company, Rolwaling Expeditions, nine years ago, and he guides those clients up Everest and other mountains in the region. He left earlier this month to lead several trekking trips in Nepal. One will go around 8,000-meter peak Annapurna with a cadre of Japanese clients. Another trip will head into Rolwaling Valley, where he grew up, to a 6,000-meter peak. Yet another trip will head to Everest base camp with a group of 13.
He also has two major trips planned next year, including a return to Everest in the spring.
But his commute now would make any groaning big city driver blush, pushing 18 hours in the air and two full days traveling just to get within a week's hike of the big peaks, many of which are less than 30 miles from his birthplace.
In Nepal, he has all the opportunity in the world, a superman on the mountain, where there may be no one better.
He's reached Everest's tip-top a dozen times, including three times in one year. He's made 25 total trips to the top of 8,000-meter peaks and more than 40 overall expeditions. He does it all without the aid of bottled oxygen that makes the trip safer for so many others, saying he respects the history of the mountains too much to go that route.
Chhiring has provided for his father and his family. Brothers and relatives help run his business, and he has lent a hand to many in his village. He's a hero there, spreading his prosperity and helping to build a school.
"There's always a little downtime, usually around the cook tent," said Matt Tredway, a Steamboat Springs friend of Chhiring's who traveled with him to Nepal in June. "Everyone shows up, and they circle their chairs or rocks or whatever it may be, and the conversation starts, and it feels like Chhiring is holding court. Everyone shares and laughs, everyone talks, but Chhiring, he's the central figure, and it's a special thing to see."
He may be powerful in Nepal, but his wife and daughters aren't.
"It's very different here," Dawa said about Steamboat. "In Nepal, men are the boss."
So it's here they intend to settle.
"In Nepal, life is very difficult for women," Chhiring said. "I want this for my two daughters. I like the U.S., and the schools are nice. I want the education for my daughters."
A life in the clouds
The Sherpa man is short, and he's stout. He's muscular in the worked-his-whole-life kind of way, not the went-to-a-gym kind of way. His hands, shoulders, neck and legs are strong and bristling, byproducts of a career he chose as a young man in a tight spot at age 14.
"Buried in the Sky," a bestselling book by Peter Zukerman and Amanda Padoan featuring Chhiring, explains that his name — pronounced "sear-ring" — means "long life" and often is given by Sherpa parents to sickly children to fool evil spirits.
His parents could take no chances in his youth as life came and went startlingly quickly in the Rolwaling Valley, where Chhiring's family and ancestors have lived for centuries.
His mother died — "passed life," as he says — giving birth to a sibling when he was 12. The baby girl died, too, one of two sisters and three siblings lost as Chhiring grew up. The tragedy nudged his father into a deep depression, and before Chhiring hit puberty, he was tasked with caring for the family.
Mountaineering wasn't exactly a viable option at the time — looked down upon by village elders, according to "Buried in the Sky" — but an uncle had summited Everest five times, and eventually Chhiring was left no other choice but to join him. He began as many Sherpas do, hauling supplies to Everest base camp and earning about $2 per day.
"First job, I carry," Chhiring said. "My uncle, in 1991, he started guiding, and then I get the job and make it to 8,000 meters at age 16."
Only weather kept him from becoming the youngest to reach the summit at that time.
For Chhiring and Dawa, mountain climbing — Mount Everest in particular — has defined the entirety of their lives together.
It was while serving as a porter for a Western expedition that Chhiring first set eyes on Dawa, who was driving yaks for another group.
Dawa grew up in Namche Bazaar, a village on the route to Everest that's enjoyed the economic infusion brought on by climbers. Chhiring's village is one valley removed from that route.
"I saw her first in 1991, and every year, I saw her while trekking, then we met together in Katmandu," Chhiring said. "We each knew we in love from 1991."
Chhiring hauled supplies for several seasons, then reached his first notable summit in 1993 on Makalu II and his first 8,000-meter summit in October 1995 on Shishapangma.
He and Dawa also were married in 1995, just as Chhiring's career was taking off. He finally reached the top of Everest in 1998 at age 24, then was back at the mountain again in 2004.
That season he was climbing for an American mountain climbing news outlet to try to find the body of Andrew Irvine, an early Everest explorer whose final days have been shrouded in mystery. Chhiring might have inadvertently stumbled across the body high on the mountain on a trip a decade earlier.
He couldn't find the body again. He did, however, find a friend, Steamboat's Eric Meyer, who was climbing to his first Everest summit.
The pair laid the foundation for a strong friendship that nine years later would bring Chhiring to Steamboat Springs.
Bright smiles, bad days
Enthusiasm is a permanent condition for Chhiring.
A nimble and contagious laugh, an ever-present smile and bright, optimistic eyes that look out from underneath a head of straight, black hair define Chhiring in the flesh more than anything else.
That attitude, the smiles and the laughs, are there no matter where or what he's confronting, from mountain climbing obstacles to the tremendous headaches that popped up as the green card process dragged on slowly.
It's the kind of attitude that can make the impossible possible, and on Aug. 1, 2008, it just may have.
That was the day on K2 — the Pakistani mountain that ranks second tallest in the world but is far more dangerous than Everest — when Chhiring joined with Meyer and an American team to climb the mountain.
They hadn't done much of anything for several long weeks, but finally a weather window opened, and on Aug. 1, nearly 30 climbers assembled before dawn to surge for the summit.
Meyer and the rest of the U.S. team grew nervous about a slow pace and the potential for avalanche and eventually turned around, but Chhiring was moving more quickly and stayed on the route, eventually reaching the summit. The slow progress meant the climbers didn't make the top until dangerously late in the day, however, and that made their trip back down even more treacherous.
Warmed all day by the sun, the snow and ice began to give way. Avalanches crashed down in front of them as they descended, sweeping some climbers away to their deaths and destroying the fixed ropes the caravan had used to climb up, stranding the survivors above one of the most difficult sections on the mountain.
Chhiring came upon the disaster in the dark, hiking on the edge of hallucination. He saw visions of Dawa and their daughters, his father and even his mother as he struggled through the snow, his family urging him on. Finally, he discovered a fellow Sherpa, Pasang Lama, essentially helpless without an ice ax in the most dangerous section of the climb.
Pasang told Chhiring to keep moving, to save himself, but Chhiring refused, confident they both could make it.
"We will go together," Chhiring said. "We have two choices. Maybe we arrive together, or we die together. Don't worry. I will not leave you."
And dodging falling ice boulders, they climbed down together, Chhiring clinging to an icy cliff with his ax as Pasang dangled below him, tied on a line.
"I can just imagine how you might be able to pull it off," America's leading mountaineer Ed Viesturs wrote in "K2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous Mountain."
He admitted many mountaineers wouldn't have made the same choice as Chhiring.
"It's a Sherpa thing," he wrote. "They're loyal. It's their ethos, instilled in them on Everest. They just feel it's the right thing to do."
The pair made it down and back to the high camp where Meyer and other climbers waited.
The day was an unparalleled tragedy for the climbing community on K2, but Chhiring's heroics earned him great acclaim. He was featured in multiple books, and it all helped further cement his status among the elite of the elite.
Finding a place
Chhiring and Dawa first came to Steamboat in 2007, taking Meyer up on an offer made three years prior after that Everest base camp meeting. They visited during the summer, and Chhiring spent time in town working construction, pouring concrete with Tredway, then the Everything Outdoor Steamboat coordinator and a middle school teacher. Chhiring spoke at the school and began a long series of interactions with the EOS group all the while doing something else at which he's pretty good: making fast friends.
"I don't even know how many EOS trips he's been on with us," Tredway said. "He does winter igloo trips with the kids. He's done a bunch of 14ers and rock and ice climbing."
Tredway also helped get Chhiring involved with Western State Colorado University, and he led a university trip to the Rolwaling Valley in Nepal last summer.
Steamboat's Rob Powers met the couple, too, and four years later incorporated Chhiring into his America 300 Foundation, which takes people with inspiring stories to speak with American troops deployed around the globe. On July 4, 2011, Chhiring and Meyer summited Japan's Mount Fuji with men and women from several military units, captivating the soldiers with their stories that, despite several major differences, they found relatable to their own lives in the armed forces.
"The thing about Chhiring, he just has a personality, this aura, that creates instant friendships with people," Powers said. "His infectious laughter and his aura of goodwill break down language barriers, and that's something we've found with the troops."
They found Chhiring to be the kind of friend you'd want on an icy mountain, a man willing to drop almost anything to offer a hand.
That's not a stretch. When Powers called to invite Chhiring to Japan, Chhiring paused to answer his phone midway between Camps 2 and 3 on Everest.
He "said 'yes' right there on his satellite phone," Powers said. "He found out what I was doing and that Eric was coming and said, 'I'm in.'"
Given the chance to return the favor, Chhiring and Dawa's Steamboat friends did so eagerly last spring as trouble flared in the couple's efforts to follow through on their dream to move to the U.S.
To get a green card, Chhiring had to prove he had "exceptional ability," not much of a stretch for all the obvious reasons. Yet the couple was denied on their initial attempt — a blow few applicants overcome.
With Meyer out of the country preparing for Everest, Powers dropped everything and took up Chhiring and Dawa's cause. He wrote letters mentioning Chhiring's work with the military while Tredway wrote about Chhiring's help in local schools and at Western State. Friends from across the nation lent a hand whenever possible, even setting Chhiring up with a quick meeting with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.
The ace in the hole came from the prestigious Explorers Club in New York City. Chhiring was selected to win the Tenzing Norgay Award for his actions on K2. The award is only given out once every four years and is awarded to a mountaineer who best demonstrates the spirit of Norgay, one of the first two men to summit Everest.
The initial denial came at the very worst time, preventing Chhiring from leaving the U.S. with Meyer for the spring climbing season on Everest. Instead, Meyer and other friends helped guide Chhiring's clients successfully to the summit. Chhiring may have shaved years off his life worrying about events on the other side of the globe — one of the most powerful men in the Himalayas rendered nearly helpless — but the patience paid off.
Six days after Rolwaling Expedition's clients reached Everest's summit, good news came. Chhiring and Dawa got their green cards. They could stay.
"Without friends, this is very difficult," Chhiring said. "With friends, not so much."
A higher power
Life hasn't been easy in Steamboat Springs, a place Chhiring and Dawa say they love, but the two still admit they at times miss Nepal. They miss their daughters, whom they can Skype with only once per week. The girls are living in Katmandu and attending private school, but the plan is for them to join their parents in the U.S. as soon as possible.
"It's hard," Dawa said in English, perhaps unwilling or unable to delve deeper, but still summing it all up in two quick words and a stoic stare.
"Maybe soon, I pray to God, they come here," Chhiring said. "They are so very excited."
She and Chhiring spend two nights per week taking English as a second language classes at Colorado Mountain College, sorting their way through verbs, tenses and the other complex details, doing what they can to fit in and give their daughters — more fluent in English already — better lives.
"They are sacrificing a lot to have their kids over here," Tredway said. "Namely, they're sacrificing being with them now, but they've said, 'We're going to do this.' They're trying to set up a life for their children."
They have big plans after they're reunited with their children, eager for the quality education that awaits.
Chhiring wants to expand his guide business in Colorado, too. He's convinced the Rocky Mountains could become a prime destination for Japanese trekkers.
"Japanese 65-year-old men, they are retired, and they like to go climbing," Chhiring said. "I say, 'OK!'"
It would give him something to mix in with his trips back to the Himalayas, where he hopes to finish climbing all 14 8,000-meter peaks, perhaps becoming the first Sherpa to do so without bottled oxygen.
No word on whether he plans to issue certificates for summiting Steamboat Springs' Mount Werner, but on a fall day, as the leaves were turning in Steamboat, Chhiring, a Buddhist, looked forward to that future, laughed a little and smiled, as he always seems to.
"I pray to God," he said.
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