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ExWeb interview with Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa: "You never know what your fullest potentials are until you give it a try"

Posted: Apr 09, 2013 09:23 am EDT

(Correne Coetzer) "We as Sherpas are very hard working people who only settle for the best. This makes my very proud to be a Sherpa. Even without education and suitable wealth, we keep our heads held high and work up a bucketful of sweat." These are the words of Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa, who, on May 26, 2003, broke the speed record on Everest South side in a time of 10 hours, 56 minutes, 46 seconds.

Lhakpa has topped out Everest 14 times and this year he is back again, guiding a team on the South side for his own company, World Records Expeditions (and 2014 on the North side).

Now living near Seattle, Washington, ExplorersWeb caught up with Lhakpa, talking about his decision to move to the USA with his family, how he started climbing, and of cause, the speed record; having a ceremony before the attempt, visualizing himself speeding up the mountain and the incident at Base Camp afterwards.

ExplorersWeb: When and how did you start climbing?

Lhakpa Gelu: I started climbing when I was 16 years old. I didn’t climb big mountains, but I climbed small trekking peaks like Mera Peak, Island Peak, Chola Peak, etc. My first Everest summit was on 1993 when I was 25 years old.

Honestly, I started climbing to make money to support my family. Finding jobs in Nepal are very difficult. Therefore, to support my family and to make a good living, I thought, “why not try climbing?”

Plus, climbing is what Sherpas are known for. I suppose, that drive and rush for mountains was in my Sherpa blood.

ExplorersWeb: A few questions about your record in 2003. When did you decide to try to go up Everest in a record time? Why did you decide to do it?

Lhakpa Gelu: In around 2001, I thought of trying to go up Everest in a record time. But, my friends gave me advice and recommended that I pursue this goal in 2003. This 2003-year was the 50th anniversary of the first Everest summit made by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa.

Some people attempted this speed record. Looking at their thrill and excitement, I felt inspired and driven to try it out myself. You never know what your fullest potentials are until you give it a try.

ExplorersWeb: How did you acclimatize before you did the record attempt?

Lhakpa Gelu: Before my record, I worked in the fields, in village restaurants, and then I worked as a trekking and mountain guide in Nepal. Before my record in 2003, I had already climbed Everest 11 times.

ExplorersWeb: The time before you started, how did you spend it? Did you have a special ritual performed? What went through your mind? Did you want to be on your own, or were there lots of people gathering around you?

Lhakpa Gelu: Before Sherpas start anything (business, climbing mountain, going aboard, marriage, etc) we get blessings from Lamas (monks). This way the path we take for the future will be safe and sound. Sherpas will not climb mountains without the blessing given by the great Lama. In the base camp, and in the village monastery, special rituals are performed to ensure a safe trip.

Staring at the head of the giant Everest, I prayed that I would return safely to my family, and hoped for the best. Obviously, I was nervous, but also excited at the same time. I was scared, but I knew I had to trust and believe in myself in order to make the record happen.

Self-belief is the start to great achievements. I knew I would be alone on my long uphill road ahead. Therefore, in the base camp, I preferred to be around my friends and family for support.

ExplorersWeb: In your preparation, did you visualize yourself running up the mountain, running along every section, Icefall ... Top?

Lhakpa Gelu: Of course, I did visualize myself running up the mountain! But, I had to face reality. We can’t always get everything the way we want. That’s the whole point of thrills, adrenaline rush and adventure. If it was possible to run up the mountain, the adventure would be sucked out of the expedition. But, yes, I did have a nice image of me sprinting up Everest! Ha ha!

ExplorersWeb: What did you wear, because you were moving fast and surely didn't want to sweat, but also not want to be cold? What did you carry with you? Food? Water? Energy drink?

Lhakpa Gelu: I wore simple mountaineering gear up to Camp 2. Then, I changed into my double boot and down suit. I refilled my water bottle in Camp 2 where my staff was set up. I took couple packages of Nepali biscuit with me. We didn’t have energy drinks then.

In South Col, which is the last Camp, I started to use oxygen tank. I refilled my water bottle there. In my bag, I had a three feet tall national Nepali flag made of brass metal, and three piece of metal pole to place the flag on the summit. In total, my bag was about 25 pounds. For the whole expedition, I drank water, ate snicker bars, biscuits and chocolates. (No joke.)

ExplorersWeb: How busy was the mountain? Could a speed record been possible in a year like 2012 when there was a train of people queuing up the Mountain?

Lhakpa Gelu: Up to South Col, there was no one in the trial except me. Everyone was sleeping in their tents. (I left Base Camp at 5 PM. I climbed mostly at night.) After South Col, there were more than 60 people. That day 47 people made the summit. I overtook a lot of people by the south summit.

On the summit, I met my friend Apa Sherpa (known for most Everest ascents). There, we both set up the metal flag of Nepal. He took my picture and it became my witness for my Everest summit.

On my way back, near the Hillary Step, there was a big traffic jam. Lots of people were coming up. I can’t say anything for sure about speed record in 2012. There were many people, so I suppose it would be quite difficult to make a speed record with all the traffic going on.

ExplorersWeb: When the stopwatch was stopped at the end, how did you feel?

Lhakpa Gelu: The moment my stopwatch was stopped, I felt like an enormous weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I was extremely relieved. I was so very proud and happy. My friends in the Base Camp were very happy also. I thought of all the support I received from them and felt very thankful.

ExplorersWeb: Back in BC was not the end of your journey; you had to go to Kathmandu by helicopter. Tell us about that incident please?

Lhakpa Gelu: On May 26, 2003 I made the summit. On the 27th I took a rest at Base Camp. I was supposed to be at Kathmandu to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Everest summit on the 29th of May. On the 28th I had a helicopter sent to me to pick me up at Base Camp.

Sadly, the helicopter, right before landing on Everest Base Camp, just crashed. There were about 6 people in the helicopter who came to support and congratulate me. Sadly, two of these people faced a very tragic death from this unfortunate crash.

Many people including myself witnessed this crash. When I saw this disastrous scene, my heart sank. I was in complete shock. My friend sent another helicopter for me, but I refused the ride. I decided to walk to Lukla instead. It took one and a half days to reach Lukla. I reached the 50th anniversary celebration in time, but my appetite was disturbed with the thoughts of the crash.

ExplorersWeb: Moving to the USA offered, in particular for your children, a better life, but was it easy to decide to go, and leave what you know behind? The two countries and the two cultures are so different. Tell us a bit about making that move and the adaption please?

Lhakpa Gelu: It was not easy to make that dramatic change, but I knew it was for the best. Adjusting to the US culture was very difficult for both my kids and me. The cultures and the values and the rules are very different here compared to Nepal. It took time to somewhat adjust to this culture. I still don’t feel that I have fully adapted to this new culture yet. Neither have my kids.

Growing up without education, it was truly difficult to get a job here, to communicate in a whole new language, and to settle in the US. It was definitely not a smooth road. Lots of bumps. But, when you do get settled in the US life is easier. There are many opportunities here, and the government here is better also. I am also happy to say that I am now a U.S. citizen, with a Sherpa heart.

ExplorersWeb: How do you maintain your culture and language with your children?

Lhakpa Gelu: There are many Sherpa and Nepali people in Washington. So, we have many get-together cultural events such as Losar (Sherpa New Year). There is a big Sherpa community here in Washington. We have a group called Northwest Sherpa Association, who organizes the cultural events. In these events, we have Sherpa and Nepali performances like dancing and singing.

At home, me and my wife communicate with our kids in Nepali. Two of my kids are not fluent in Sherpa language because they were in Boarding School at a young age for proper education. My oldest kid, 21, is fluent in Sherpa, Nepali and English. However, I am very happy that my kids have not forgotten how to speak Nepali. I hope to keep it this way.

With the big Sherpa community here, my kids are learning more Sherpa culture as well. To me, Cultures and Traditions are a part of us that should never be erased. It is a part of our history, our family and a major part of us. Without it I believe that we will not be ourselves, we will be another person.

ExplorersWeb: Your wife became a successful business woman. Tell us about her please?

Lhakpa Gelu: Although my wife also didn’t go to school, she is a very hard and diligent worker. She settles for nothing but the best. She was voted as the Team Member of the Year twice in Whole Foods.

We as Sherpas are very hard working people who only settle for the best. This makes my very proud to be a Sherpa. Even without education and suitable wealth, we keep our heads held high and work up a bucketful of sweat.

Giving children a chance to get educated, a privilege that most Nepal children don't have, plays a big role in Lhakpa Gelu's life. His dream was that his 3 children could get education and not grow up as climbing Sherpas.

He first visited the US in 2001 for five months. Despite his poor English then, he found a job at an Indian restaurant in California. In 2005, he returned to the US, this time with his wife, Fuli Sherpa, and in 2007 he moved his kids, Ang Dawa (now 21) and Ngima Nuru (16), and a daughter, Mingma Tashi (14) to Salt Lake City. There he delivered pizzas and worked in a coffee shop.

While in Utah, his son, Ang Dawa graduated from Alta High School, becoming the first high school graduate from Lhakpa’s ancestry. The family has since moved to Redmond, Washington, where Lhakpa Gelu enjoys working as a mountain guide for Alpine Ascents and World Records Expeditions.

Lhakpa Gelu's passion is in raising money for the The Lhakpa Gelu Foundation, a charitable organization he founded to help improve education for the people, particularly the children, in his hometown of Kharikola. The immediate need is for three English teachers. The goal of the organization is to provide them an education that they otherwise would not have. Lhakpa Gelu believes education is an essential part of life.

ExplorersWeb special: Mount Everest speed records

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Happiest dad with Ang Dawa (21) and Tashi (14) on Mount Rainier.
courtesy Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa
Snowing at Vinson Low Camp December 2012. ANI's two Mountain Rangers for the Vinson 3 rotation, Lhakpa (left) and Seth Timpano.
Image by Correne Erasmus-Coetzer courtesy ExplorersWeb, SOURCE
"Self-belief is the start to great achievements. I knew I would be alone on my long uphill road ahead. Therefore, in the base camp, I preferred to be around my friends and family for support."
Image by Correne Erasmus-Coetzer courtesy ExplorersWeb, SOURCE
"Of course, I did visualize myself running up the mountain! But, I had to face reality. We can’t always get everything the way we want. That’s the whole point of thrills, adrenaline rush and adventure." Image: Christmas, Antarctica, 2012.
Image by Correne Erasmus-Coetzer courtesy ExplorersWeb, SOURCE