Steamboat Springs When Chhiring Dorje Sherpa walks the halls of the Steamboat Springs Middle School, he gets pretty excited upon seeing the sixth-graders projects. Matt Tredway explains how his students have been working on a geography lesson based on the planet's great mountains in anticipation of the renowned Sherpa's arrival. They've tacked up a series of posters, sized according to represent the peaks' altitudes along the walls.
Chhiring (pronounced sear-ring) walks straight to the end of line, to the two largest posters that nearly reach the ceiling and represent K2 and Mount Everest.
"K2," Chhiring points at the poster. "I go next spring."
You'd never know that this broad-shouldered but small man, at just over five feet tall, with a constant smile and a laugh with ever word would have such giant accomplishments under his belt.
Chhiring has spent the past 19 years working on guided expeditions in his native Himalayan mountains, reaching the summit of 29,029-foot Mount Everest nine times (twice without oxygen) and 26,906-foot Cho Oyu, the world's sixth-highest peak, five times.
In those years, he has also climbed the ranks of Sherpa mountaineering guides, from porter to camp cook to climbing guide to earn the prestigious title of Sherpa Sardar - one of less than 25 living Sherpa people that lead expeditions.
His guiding business, Rolwaling Excursion, is named after the Rolwaling Valley a "two-day walk" west of the Mount Everest base camp in Nepal, where he grew up in a rural village, described as, "only 350 people, no electric, no phones, no hospital and only five classes in school."
Yet Chhiring, a 33-year-old father of two who speaks his native Sherpa tongue, Nepali, English, a little German and some Japanese, has risen to the top of the mountaineering world and could very well be the one to rewrite the history of the most famous summit on Earth.
Chhiring believes he has the answer to solve the contentious historical record of which two-man team first reached the summit.
The first confirmed ascent currently belongs to Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's 1953 expedition.
But a strange corpse that Chhiring spotted in 1995, beneath the Mount Everest summit, high on the northeast ridge, casts doubt on all that.
At 5 a.m. May 1, Chhiring was carrying a tent and oxygen from Camp VI (27,000 feet), when he said he spotted a corpse. This normally wouldn't be cause for alarm - Chhiring counted 15 corpses on this approach during a 2005 expedition - but he said this one had antiquated wool clothing.
He decided to keep the find a secret.
"Sherpa don't like looking at dead body - we see and are not happy," Chhiring said. "And it very danger route."
The 1999 Mallory and Irvine Research Expedition, and specifically Conrad Anker, is now credited with uncovering this same corpse - which proved to be that of George Mallory. Due to the proximity to summit and a host of other clues, the floodgates of speculation opened regarding whether Mallory and Andrew "Sandy" Irvine's 1924 trip had in fact been the first.
Chhiring knows in his gut that Mallory and Irvine must have. His theory is based on the hard-learned lesson he had on his first Everest summit, as a 19-year-old in 1993, during one of his few approaches from the popular southern route from the Nepali base camp.
"My uncle came back and fell down, because climbing back you loose from the energy, then you oxygen is finished, then in the mountains people are thinking like they drunken, you know?" Chhiring tried to explain. "You finish the oxygen and five minutes after, die very easily at 8,000 meters. They go like they going to sleep (resting his head on his shoulder) and are finished. I saw many dead body like this."
Chhiring thinks that the evidence (especially the fact Mallory's goggles were found in his pocket) only bolsters his first hand-hand knowledge of how fast things can go wrong on a descent in the dark.
"They finish the oxygen maybe in the dark, stayed together here, after Irvine died," Chhiring said, pointing to a spot on the Tibetan approach between the famed Northeast Ridge and the Hornbein Couloir near where he saw Mallory's body.
He's searched this location briefly in 2004 and 2005, but his expeditions often number up to 45 climbers, so he rarely has time to leave the party. Now Chhiring says he dreams about finding Irvine's body, and with it the camera (and crucial photographic evidence) he was confirmed to have been carrying.
Along with seeing friends in Steamboat - the local connection is through a mutual Sherpa friend that accompanied Steamboat's Eric Meyer in his 2004 summit - the hope of Chhiring's trip is to secure sponsorship funding to find the Irvine corpse he believes is out there.
Before he heads home in December to continue his quest, among many other ambitious global climbing goals, the bubbly climber eager to share his tales hopes to bag a couple of peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park.
That is, if he can stand the wind.
"Mountains here - too much wind," Chhiring said with a giggle.