ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:
The deaths of 16 guides on Mount Everest last week has prompted an industry crisis in Nepal. Dozens of Sherpas packed up and left the mountain. Expedition companies have canceled planned trips, and government officials are desperately trying to salvage the climbing season. The largest community of Sherpas in America resides in Queens, N.Y. And reporter Arun Venugopal, of member station WNYC, spoke to some of them about how climbing defines them as a people, for better and worse.
ARUN VENUGOPAL SHERPA, BYLINE: Sherpas have a reputation as the world's best climbers. And you may have thought this word Sherpa is some sort of honorific or title. But they're actually an ethnic group - a tiny one, around 150,000 of them in Nepal, a couple thousand here in New York. And if you are a Sherpa, it's right there in your name, like Ang Galgen Sherpa of Woodside, Queens.
ANG GALGEN SHERPA: I drove yellow taxi for 12 years in New York City.
VENUGOPAL: He used to guide people through the Himalayas before moving here and becoming like a lot of Sherpas, a cab driver.
GALGEN: Every time a customer gets in, I think, they look at my name, if somebody happens to blink his eyes and look at my license, look Sherpa. So, you are you a Sherpa? Are you really a Sherpa? I say, yeah, I'm really a Sherpa, you know.
VENUGOPAL: And then what is their first question?
GALGEN: Have you climbed Everest?
VENUGOPAL: He has not, but the question makes him feel incredibly proud. Of course, the deaths of so many Sherpa climbers last week was felt pretty profoundly by people like Passang Sherpa, a guide who works for Tent and Trails in Manhattan. He's climbed Everest several times, and he's lost loved ones on expeditions.
PASSANG SHERPA: We feel like we lost one family members, and even this year is like...
VENUGOPAL: He choked up even as his customers were milling around us shopping for equipment. The Sherpa community is small, he said; and if it keeps going like that, he fears his people will simply disappear. A lot of Sherpas have grown up with this constant anxiety of losing their people to the mountain or of dying themselves.
Many Sherpas I spoke to said their families beg them to quit climbing. The first climb to the summit, they'll tell you, is thrilling. And then invariably it becomes a job, one that pays really well for Nepalis and brings in lots of wealthy tourists but is also among the most dangerous in the world. Serap Jongbun Sherpa is one of Passang's co-workers at Tent and Trails. He's also one of Nepal's greatest climbers. And yet he always prays at the beginning of a climb.
SERAP JONGBUN SHERPA: Normally, when we are climbing, we just pray, you know, om mani padme hum.
VENUGOPAL: Om mani padme hum.
JONGBUN: That mantra is very powerful mantra. And that protects you - you know, safety and a long life. If there's wrong time, then even the mantra cannot protect them.
VENUGOPAL: The Sherpa reputation cannot be divorced from this danger or, for that matter, from the sacred status of the mountains. Long before the British slapped their own name on it, the Sherpas called Everest Goddess Chomolangma, Mother of the World. But the Sherpas' international reputation is relatively recent.
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UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Everest conquered the New Zealand...
VENUGOPAL: And stems from that legendary climb to the summit of Everest in 1953, Edmund Hillary and a Sherpa named Tenzing Norgay.
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SIR EDMUND HILLARY: Tenzing and I have been climbing together a good deal, and I think we've become a fairly happy pair.
VENUGOPAL: Hillary spoke of Tenzing Norgay with a lot of respect as a climbing partner, a guide, someone who saved his life. But of course, Hillary was the English-speaking Westerner, and his is the name that many people associate with Everest.
Ed Viesturs is one of the world's foremost climbers. He's been to the summit of Everest seven times and says that Sherpas are invariably sidelined by Westerners in their accounts of expeditions.
ED VIESTURS: They'll show a list of climbers that might have reached the summit on a particular day. And it will list all the names of all the Westerners and then it will say after that, and six Sherpa. It's almost like an afterthought.
VENUGOPAL: There's also the vast cultural difference. What is a sacred space for many Sherpas is now increasingly a tourist destination for well-heeled foreigners. Viesturs says he resents how the Sherpas are doing more and more of the labor on these expeditions, and their foreign clients are doing less.
VIESTURS: You should earn your way to the top. You should carry some loads of equipment, you should help set up a camp. You shouldn't just sit around and wait for that red carpet to be rolled out.
VENUGOPAL: But Viesturs argues that the Nepali guide companies have actually perpetuated this problem, and that this shouldn't be seen as a simple issue of exploitation. He and the Sherpas I spoke to say the Sherpas have reaped great benefits from this system and are fully aware of the risks.
But he hopes something will change on the part of the climbers who travel all the way to Nepal to scale mountains like Everest - that they give full credit to the people who took them all the way to the top.
For NPR News, I'm Arun Venugopal in New York.