A Champion Sherpa Died Guiding Foreigners. Is It Too Dangerous?

In July 2023, the mountaineer Tenjen Lama Sherpa guided a Norwegian climber to summit the world’s 14 highest peaks in record time. In a sport that demands an alchemy of sinewy resolve and high-altitude faith, Mr. Lama did everything his client did and more. But she received most of the money, fame and attention.

The kind of lucrative endorsements enjoyed by foreign athletes are not usually given to Nepal’s ethnic Sherpas. For them, the profession of Himalayan guide offers a path out of deep poverty, but also a possible route — strewed with avalanches and icefalls — to a premature death.

Mr. Lama could not afford to rest after guiding the Norwegian, he told The New York Times. Life in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, was expensive. He could not read or write, but he wanted his sons to get the best education, a costly endeavor.

So only three months after climbing the 14 peaks, Mr. Lama was back working as a Sherpa — his name, his ethnicity, his profession and, ultimately, his fate. Another foreigner chasing another record had hired him as a guide. This time, it was Gina Marie Rzucidlo, who was trying to become the first American woman to climb the world’s tallest mountains. Another American woman, also guided by a Sherpa, was climbing separately in pursuit of the same record.

Tenjen Lama Sherpa in Kathmandu, Nepal, in 2023.Credit…Niranjan Shrestha/Associated Press

But on Oct. 7, avalanches broke loose on Mount Shishapangma in Tibet. Both pairs of climbers were killed.

Mr. Lama’s death was the latest in a series of tragedies to shear his family tree of siblings. In 2021, Norbu Sherpa, the oldest of the four mountain-climbing brothers, ended his life after a love affair went wrong. And last May, Phurba Sherpa, the second oldest, died during a rescue mission on Mount Everest.

The last remaining brother, Pasdawa Sherpa, learned about Mr. Lama’s death after returning from an expedition to the world’s seventh- and eighth-highest mountains.

For three days, Mr. Pasdawa traveled by foot, bus and plane to Mr. Lama’s apartment in Kathmandu. He knelt before his brother’s Buddhist altar, eight candles flickering above. Marigolds and a ceremonial cloth surrounded a portrait of Mr. Lama, grinning in an orange snowsuit.

Mr. Pasdawa closed his eyes and prayed for his dead brothers. He said he prayed for himself, too. He would have to persevere in the only life he knew.

“I will keep climbing mountains,” Mr. Pasdawa said. “I have no other options.”

This is what a Sherpa does: He lugs heavy packs and oxygen cylinders for foreign clients. He cooks and sets up camp. He navigates through snowstorms and clears piles of trash. He wakes before dawn and spend hours driving metal pickets into the ice so a rope line can protect foreign climbers. He trudges past icefalls where bus-size slabs have buried other Sherpas in frozen graveyards. (On the mountain, he is usually a he; female Sherpas don’t tend to work as guides.)

Compared with the client, a Sherpa spends far more time in the so-called death zone: elevations above 26,000 feet, or 8,000 meters, where human cognition slows without supplemental oxygen and altitude sickness can quickly turn fatal.

Walung, the village in northeastern Nepal where Mr. Lama and his brothers grew up, has produced about 100 expedition guides over the past couple of decades.

Of those 100, 15 have died on the job, locals said.

The high mortality rate highlights the inequity of a life-or-death sport. Roughly one-third of the more than 335 people who have died on Everest are Sherpas. Yet their expertise earns them wages that, while high by local standards, are only a fraction of what most of their clients shell out for their expeditions.

“We help the foreigners,” said Makalu Lakpa, an experienced guide from Walung and a close friend of Mr. Lama’s. “It is very dangerous, but we do it.”

Nepal’s mountaineering industry, a crucial money earner for an impoverished country, caters to those willing to spend upward of $100,000 to summit a single Himalayan peak in luxurious style. Almost all are foreigners. In recent years, their numbers have surged, as have logjams at high-altitude choke points and icefalls, increasing the chance of accidents. Some expedition leaders also believe that climate change is leading to unpredictable weather patterns, increasing the risk of deadly avalanches.

During last year’s spring climbing season at Mount Everest, the Nepali government issued permits to 478 foreigners, the most ever. Eighteen people, including six Sherpas, died on the mountain, another record.

So far this spring, six people have been confirmed dead in their quests to summit Mount Everest, and three are missing.

The boom in expeditions has brought both inexperienced climbers, who are more likely to need rescuing from high elevations, and record-driven mountaineers, who push themselves and their teams to the limits. Each foreign trekker, whether beginner or expert, depends on at least one Sherpa, often several.

Beyond the economic imbalance, Sherpas are often relegated to the footnotes of mountaineering history. With the first ascent of Everest in 1953, Edmund Hillary comes first in the global consciousness, Tenzing Norgay second. One exception is the airport near Everest Base Camp, the Tenzing-Hillary Airport.

In the spring of 2023, Kristin Harila, a Norwegian mountaineer, began her race to beat the record for the fastest ascent of the world’s 14 highest peaks. At the time, the record stood at six months and six days. Before that, the record was eight years.

The slogan of Ms. Harila’s sponsored expedition, a 92-day sprint across the high Himalayas, was “She Moves Mountains.” To succeed, she needed the guidance of Sherpas, especially Mr. Lama.

The first mountain was Shishapangma, where Mr. Lama would die half a year later. Trouble struck early, in the form of paperwork. China refused visas to six of the 11 Sherpas on her team. Mr. Lama lugged and hammered and pulled and hefted, making up for the missing half-dozen men. He was fast and efficient, with no unneeded movements in the thin air, Ms. Harila said.

“Lama did all the jobs,” she said. “No one would have summited if Lama wasn’t there.”

Next was Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth-highest mountain, also climbed from Tibet. With weather threatening and the weight of their supplies too great, the pair decided to leave the others and charge from base camp to the summit, skipping acclimatization stops along the way. What can take other climbers 10 days, Mr. Lama and Ms. Harila accomplished in about 30 hours.

“A Sherpa’s fitness comes by birth,” Mr. Lama told The Times a few weeks before his death.

The pair scaled Nepal’s Annapurna 1, where 476 climbers have made successful ascents and 73 others died trying, according to the Himalayan Database. In Pakistan, they ascended Broad Peak, where Ms. Harila and two Sherpas had nearly been swept away by an avalanche the year before. They summited Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, Manaslu, Kangchenjunga, Dhaulagiri, Nanga Parbat, Gasherbrum I and II.

In late July, only one mountain remained: K2, the second-highest mountain in the world, where, just 1,300 feet below the summit, climbers must clamber at a 60-degree angle and squeeze past a gully menaced by huge columns of glacial ice. Nearly all the deaths at K2 have occurred around this bottleneck.

Mr. Lama and Ms. Harila, accompanied by a videographer, reached the choke point around 2 in the morning. Horror awaited them: They found a young Pakistani porter hanging at the end of a rope, upside down and barely alive. The young man, named Muhammad Hassan, was wearing neither gloves nor a snowsuit.

Ms. Harila, Mr. Lama and the videographer clipped themselves ahead of the rest of the team on the rope line and approached the man. Ms. Harila said she stayed there for more than an hour, trying to help. Eventually, Mr. Lama and Ms. Harila continued with their ascent. The videographer and others stayed to try to save Mr. Hassan, feeding him oxygen and attempting to keep him warm.

Mr. Hassan, who had been transporting spools of rope despite warnings that he was not equipped for such high altitude, died. Soon after came criticism that Ms. Harila had chased her record over saving a man’s life.

But a witness who was there that day said it wasn’t clear what Ms. Harila and Mr. Lama could have done. Too big a crowd in the narrow passage would have brought its own dire risks.

“We did, and other people did, everything we could to save him, and it was impossible,” Ms. Harila said. “Everyone tried. Many risked their lives to save him.”

Only when they were scaling the final incline of K2 did Mr. Lama’s faith waver, he told The Times afterward. The Pakistani porter’s plight made stark the dangers of K2. Avalanches tore down the mountain. Sheets of ice shivered and crackled above. Near the summit, Mr. Lama had to clear the snow by hand, each step a soft crunch into potential nothingness.

“It was one of the hardest moments of our climbing,” Mr. Lama said.

At the summit, the 14 peaks traversed in a world-record 92 days, Mr. Lama and Ms. Harila touched hands and cried, he said. They sent triumphant news down by walkie-talkie.

But the death of Mr. Hassan chilled their success. At base camp, someone had organized a celebratory cake.

“No one was in a mood for a party,” Ms. Harila said. “We took this cake and went to bed.”

Whenever he could, after his exploits — 37 summits of the world’s tallest mountains by the time he died — Mr. Lama would return home to Walung, an isolated hamlet in northeastern Nepal. Walung sits in a high-altitude valley below barley and millet fields, where shaggy yaks graze, hunched against the cold. Mr. Lama and his brothers grew up herding livestock. They played soccer with a knot of worn socks serving as a ball.

Three of Mr. Lama’s brothers died in infancy, a common arithmetic in these Himalayan foothills. As the second-youngest child, Mr. Lama was dispatched to the local monastery, which could be counted on to feed an extra mouth. There, he picked up the name Lama, given to monks of the Tibetan Buddhist faith.

At the time, Sherpas who became professional mountaineers mostly came from another part of northeastern Nepal. But in the early 2000s, a climber from Walung, Mingma Sherpa, became the first South Asian to summit the world’s 14 tallest mountains. (Most Sherpas use the surname Sherpa, but that does not mean they are related.)

Mr. Mingma and his three brothers eventually started Seven Summit Treks, which now organizes about a third of all Everest expeditions. Mr. Mingma hired most of his guides from Walung.

Mr. Lama’s oldest brother was too old when the climbing craze began in the village. But the four other brothers joined Seven Summit Treks, turning the company into a true Walung fraternity. Mr. Lama, who had given up the monkhood and married, joined the mountaineering industry about a decade ago. He started as a porter and rope fixer, then graduated to guide.

“We ate the same food, the same tea, but those brothers, they were extra strong,” said Mr. Lakpa, Mr. Lama’s friend from Walung. “Lama was the strongest.”

In 2019, Mr. Lama and his three brothers entered the Guinness World Records, when they climbed Kangchenjunga, the world’s third-highest mountain. In a photo taken at the summit, the siblings smiled, each in a bright suit, the air light with their exhilaration.

Breaking records, as Mr. Lama did, means substantially more earning power. An average summit earns a guide less than $4,000; an 8,000-meter mountain can bring about $7,500. Mr. Lama, because of his 14-peak achievement, was poised to make about $9,700 per climb, some of the highest fees a Sherpa can command. Still, it is far less than what a top foreign climber can raise through endorsements — and Sherpas’ jobs involve more danger.

In the days after his record-breaking summits, Mr. Lama said that Ms. Harila had not originally wanted to take him along for all 14 peaks.

“She wanted to change the climbing guide every time,” he told The Times. “Maybe she was thinking I would also set the record.”

But Mr. Mingma, the head of Seven Summit Treks, said he persuaded Ms. Harila that this way both a man and a woman, a Sherpa and a foreigner, could set the record together.

“Kristin accepted my idea very easily,” he said. “One Sherpa man and one Norwegian lady, it was good for us and good for her.”

Ms. Harila said that she wanted to share the achievement with a Sherpa from the start.

“They really deserve to be part of a record like that,” she said. “It’s their land and their mountains.”

Even as Walung natives rose to the top mountaineering ranks, the overall number of Sherpas in the business was declining. Some of the most successful have moved overseas, part of an exodus of Nepalis from a country plagued by corruption and poverty. Few guides want their own children to follow in their path.

Before he died, Mr. Lama told his friends that he hoped his boys, now 16 and 14, would stay away from mountain climbing. He had gotten them into a good school in Kathmandu. On the wall of the family bedroom, next to a row of medals, hung one son’s artwork: drawings of a Spinosaurus and a T-rex, a pterodactyl and a dragon, each carefully labeled in English.

In April, Mr. Lama’s older son, Lakpa Sange Sherpa, started a computer studies course. He has no interest in mountain climbing, he said.

He does not speak much Sherpa, the language of his parents who were born at the foot of Makalu, the world’s fifth-highest mountain.

“I like computers,” Lakpa said.

The family of a guide who dies is now entitled to an insurance payout of about $11,250, far more than the few hundred dollars on offer before. But Pema Yangji Sherpa, Mr. Lama’s widow, still worries that might not be enough to keep her boys from the same job that killed their father and uncle.

“I want my sons to leave Nepal, to study abroad in a country where they can have a better future,” she said. “I don’t like the mountains.”

At first there is white snow, blue ice and dark rock. In an instant, gravity, spurred by wind and the tiniest of disturbances, transforms frozen matter into a deadly force. Avalanches thunder, and then they smother.

Shishapangma, in Tibet, is considered the easiest of the 14 peaks. Still, nearly one in 10 climbers dies attempting its ascent. On Oct. 7, Mr. Lama was guiding Ms. Rzucidlo, one of two American climbers making their attempt. Ahead of them were Anna Gutu and her guide, Mingmar Sherpa. With uncertain weather ahead, other climbers retreated. The two Americans and two Sherpas persevered. The women had just this mountain left before a chance at the American 14-peak record.

Separate avalanches claimed each pair.

The rivalry between the two Americans was so intense that it may have spurred them to dangerous heights, other climbers said.

At the start of the 2024 climbing season, Seven Summit Treks ordered Mr. Pasdawa, Mr. Lama’s youngest sibling, to work as a guide on the same mountain where Mr. Lama had died.

“I had requested to them to send me to other mountains, but they have decided on Shishapangma,” Mr. Pasdawa said.

Mr. Pasdawa, along with five others from the Walung area, was being offered up as a high-altitude porter for a foreign client. He was to haul food, tents, ropes and oxygen tanks up the same mountain traversed last year by his brother.

“Everything is heavy,” Mr. Pasdawa said.

A Shishapangma excursion will earn him about $3,000, Mr. Pasdawa said. For the men of Walung, especially those like him who had to leave school after just a couple of years, there are only two jobs: farming and mountaineering.

There is another reason, though, for Mr. Pasdawa to travel to Shishapangma: to recover the body of his older brother, one of the world’s greatest mountaineers.

In Tibetan Buddhist tradition, to which the Sherpas adhere, the dead should be cremated at home. Only then, after the purification of flames, can their souls reincarnate.

In mid-May, a team led by a Nepali climber found the bodies of Ms. Gutu and Mr. Mingmar. Their remains were evacuated from Tibet to Kathmandu.

But as May drew to a close, Mr. Pasdawa was still waiting for his visa to Tibet. The spring climbing season will soon end. Along with Ms. Rzucidlo, his brother is still out there somewhere on the mountain, frozen in his orange snowsuit.

“It’s not certain that I can find his body,” Mr. Pasdawa said. “But I will do my best.”

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